Wednesday, 31 March 2010

Red Square

It was the beginning of November, 1988, and I had a temporary job as the personal assistant to a businessman, who was selling stuff and doing deals at a trade fair. In Moscow.

We worked hard and we worked late. Having finally finished for the day, my boss suggested we get some fresh air. So we left our hotel and walked the short distance to Red Square.

It was a cold evening and there had been a snow shower shortly before, but now the night was clear and wind-still. The wide expanse of the square was glistening white with fresh snow. We stood with our backs to the GUM department store, Saint Basil’s Cathedral floodlit to our left, beside it the star on the spire of the Spasskaya Tower glowing softly red in the night. Before us rose the ochre walls of the Kremlin. In front of them there was activity at Lenin’s Mausoleum. It was the changing of the guard. Young Soviet soldiers in grey-green winter coats with red and gold epaulettes goose-stepped in to relieve their comrades, the arc-lights reflecting from their polished high boots.

I remember being struck by a sense of history. There, in the Kremlin before me, Ivan the Terrible had lived, Napoleon had watched Moscow burn, Lenin (now lying embalmed in his tomb before us) had seized power, paranoid Stalin had brooded and ordered mass-murder. I seemed to hear Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture whisper ghostly across the square. Somewhere in there even now was Mikhail Gorbachev, perhaps working late at his desk, wondering where the twin genies of glasnost and perestroika he had let out of the bottle would lead his reluctant, increasingly unruly empire next.

And then I thought no more and simply stood, caught in the wonder of the moment. I had seen magnificent squares before; the majesty of the Grand Place in Brussels or the stupendous embrace of Bernini’s twin arms of columns edging St. Peter’s in Rome. Now I was sure Red Square was the most beautiful in the world. I looked up and saw the red flag above the copper dome fluttering bravely in the wind.

In the wind? There was no wind, yet the flag was unfurled and clear to see; the hammer, sickle and star visible in the upper left corner. My friend Sergei explained later to me that the flagstaff was hollow and that air was pumped up through it so that, even on a calm day, it would seem to blow proudly in the wind.

Though not for much longer, for the greater wind blowing was the wind of change. A year later the Berlin Wall would fall. Two years after that, on December 26th, 1991, the Supreme Soviet, the highest governmental body of the Soviet Union voted to dissolve itself, the red flag above the Kremlin was lowered and replaced with the white, blue and red one of the Russian Federation. Gorbachev was swept from the stage by Yeltsin, muttering (in my imagination) as he went Goethe’s famous words from The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, “Die ich rief, die Geister, Werd’ ich nun nicht los (I cannot now be rid of the spirits I conjured up).” The changing of the guard no longer takes place before Lenin’s tomb, having been moved to the Eternal Flame at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, and there are discussions going on in Russia on the subject of moving the remains of old Vladimir Ilyich somewhere else.

But on that evening in early November 1988, this was all still in the future. I returned to my hotel feeling peaceful and blessed, the memory of the beauty of the moment still resounding in my consciousness …

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