Going abroad

September 26, 2019 by Fraser Beath McEwing
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J-Wire’s music reviewer Fraser Beath McEwing has added another string to his bow as he takes J-Wire readers on his travels…still abroad in Moscow.Our guide Oleg has a theory about why Russia appears to be a pumped-up version of Europe; why the buildings are grander and bigger, the roads wider and the people more deeply passionate. He believes that Russia has always wanted to be considered part of Europe but hasn’t quite made it. To prove its Europe-worthiness it has unconsciously magnified its appearance. Since Oleg is a philosophy lecturer, I take him seriously.

Today we got off lightly. Oleg only made us walk for five and a half hours, one less than yesterday and with the concession of a coffee stop. He took us to Russia’s leading art gallery, Tetyalov, concentrating on paintings by Russian artists from the 11thto early 20thcentury. I was blown away by Oleg’s knowledge of art. He seemed to know the history and significance of every painting in the vast gallery. Not only that, but the character depictions formed historical pathways of their own.

The gallery as it stands today was built in 1989. It provides the perfect light for viewing the paintings while its air conditioning system removes moisture as well as maintaining an even temperate of 23 degrees – certainly better than the brass monkey weather outside.

The biggest painting in the gallery is called The Appearance of Christ to the Peopleby A.A. Ivanov, 1806 – 1857. In clear realism, it depicts a group of people who have just been for a baptismal swim. Besides being huge, the painting comes with a story. It took poor Ivanov 20 years to complete it – but only a minor part of that was spent wielding his brush. First, he made some sketches to decide the painting’s layout and how many people it would show. Then came the time-consuming part. He had to find models for every one of the figures. To do this he went crowd mingling and, when he saw a face he fancied, had to convince its owner to sit for him. As you can see, quite a few of the people are putting their gear back on after the dip – posing an additional challenge: ‘excuse me sir, you have just the bum I need. Would you mind . . .’

Another painting I especially liked by I.Levitan shows a log bridge over a river. As you enter the gallery, the logs appear to be on an acute angle but as you walk past the painting they straighten and then go to the opposite angle. Oleg tells me that it is no accident. Great artists like Levitan can do that – like the eyes of a face that follow you around the room.


Near the art gallery is a stylish apartment block that was built in the 1930s as part of a government move to house artists together in condominiums, according to pursuit. This one specialised in writers, one of them being Boris Pasternak who wrote part of Dr Zhivago here. But the idea of artist residential-bundling didn’t take off and it was abandoned. I can see why. Imagine a building full of fashion designers. They’d be throwing one another out of windows after the first week.

Must-sees in Moscow are the metro train stations, mostly built after the end of the Second World War on Stalin’s orders. Each one is in a different but spectacular architectural style. There is lavish use of marble, stained glass, chandeliers, frescoes, ceiling mouldings and statues. The regular locals probably don’t notice them, but to the visitor they are breathtaking. The metro system itself is one of the best in Europe. Trains run every two minutes and go like the clappers. They allow only 15 seconds for passengers to get on and off. Oleg says it pays to be pushy – if you want to survive.

Next day…

With the prospect of even less walking than yesterday, we set off by car to Izmailovo Park – but not to be at one with nature. This was a kind of theme park, with Disney-like examples of traditional Russian buildings, a market and the famous (according to the brochure) Vodka Museum.

Tourist markets are the same around the world, with a tsunami of stuff repeated ad nauseum down long rows of stands. There you can buy gifts for people back home who will say they love them and then quietly store them in a cupboard to be given to somebody else who will do the same thing. That applied here, with the exception of chilblain saving hats, one of which Michelle bought after the usual price tussle with the storekeeper. Lately I’ve noticed the appearance in markets of remarkably low-priced cashmere scarves. They feel as soft and smooth as a baby’s bottom, but they are made from bamboo, not cashmere as stated on the label. They fit in well with the other scarf deception, printed silk which is actually polyester microfibre.

It was not hard to tear ourselves away from the market to keep our appointment with the vodka museum curator, a hugely tall man with a barrel belly and legs that seemed part of an independent machine. It was as though his legs decided where he would go, as he strode around tidying his museum’s exhibition of bygone vodkabilia. He set up three tasting stops as he delivered his lines in Russian which, sometimes after a loud argument, were translated by Oleg into heavy English. The history of vodka was therefore hard to follow, as was the exhibition which featured a very unlifelike waxwork of Catherine the Great (she could take on the blokes in vodka drinking, we were told) with a pageboy thrown in for good measure. There were early metal utensils for distilling and storing vodka, and hundreds of old bottles bearing vodka labels, some of them proudly claiming the contents to be 96% alcohol. These were not intended for drinking but for hardware tasks like cleaning or lighting fires. However, that didn’t stop people from drinking the stuff. It may have encouraged a period of prohibition in Russia from 1914 to 1924. From examples like Boris Yeltsin, I had the impression that Russia was a country of alcoholics, but that is far from the case. Today there is a zero-tolerance for driving and a growing disinterest in drinking among upcoming youth. They are going in for health, fitness and religion.

Back at the museum, our first sample drink was honey mead (5% alcohol), the forerunner of vodka, then raspberry vodka (25% alcohol) and finally, sitting down by this time, straight vodka (40% alcohol). Since Michelle doesn’t drink, I polished off her shot glasses and felt extremely partial to a lie down at the end. Speaking of which, there was a static display set up in a room to represent a 1930s special hospital for alcoholism recovery. The two drunks in the beds looked authentic enough but the exotic blonde nurse gave the impression that getting blotto could have a happy ending – as it were.

On religion again, Oleg told me that there were two divisions of Russian Orthodox – old and new. The old sticks to the biblical texts that have gone through multiple language translations and are now accepted as inaccurate, but not wanting to change them for reasons of tradition. The new has taken the original texts and translated them straight into modern Russian. The two divisions don’t get on, don’t mingle and many of their rituals are different. While congregations in both must stand for the two plus hours of a service (some much longer) the old have to get up and down for kneeling. Painful, yes, but the more pain you suffer the more respect you are showing to God. Only the patriarch is permitted to sit during a service

Stand up for what you believe in.


After visiting the Moscow State University, a magnificent, typically Russian building, and where Oleg did his post-graduate degree – he pointed out the window of his old room – it was time to part. I loved his intellect, staggering knowledge and good humour. Many of his ideas will stay with me. For instance, the fact that man’s technology has disrupted the course of nature, eventually with disastrous consequences. And that the realisation of nuclear fusion providing infinite, free energy will probably send civilisation out of control because it will circumvent natural process. And one of his lines: ‘each step is determined by the one before’.

Hotel toaster review

I hesitate to call this contraption a hotel toaster. It looks like a dual-slot domestic model, except the bread descends automatically into the depths with the speed of the Wurlitzer organist in an old picture theatre, and you are left with five buttons to contemplate as to function. Once toasting is completed (poorly) the slow ascension leaves the hot toast short of the top so that you have to toast your fingers as well to get it out.

I hope that my very good friend, Derek Breadchamber (hotel toaster reviewer for The New York Times), doesn’t see this. He will not be pleased that I’m wasting my time on pseudo domestic toasters.

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