First of two parts
MANILA, Philippines – For Filipinos who grew up watching James Bond films, Russia is a land of mad scientists, twisted generals, alluring assassins and crafty counterintelligence agents.
But those who have been to this city would tell you that the largest country in the world is very different from the villain land of Hollywood.
Overshadowed by the pop culture stereotypes is the fact that this is the birthplace of remarkable revolutionaries, artists and thinkers, a country toughened by a history packed with lessons about the rise and fall of those in power, an ideal destination for culture, religion and nature enthusiasts.
Russia has a lot to offer, and even visitors who do not have much time for sightseeing – like members of the media who covered President Duterte’s shortened official visit here – would still be able to explore a good number of sites if they plan their itineraries carefully and are not shy to ask for directions.
Here are a few things a traveler in a hurry can do while in this cosmopolitan city.
• Take photos of St. Basil’s Cathedral
Do not leave this city without seeing St. Basil’s Cathedral, the most recognizable landmark of Russia. Known for its swirling, multicolored domes, the museum is located within the Red Square and is also known as the Cathedral of the Intercession.
It was named after Russian Orthodox Saint Basil, a clairvoyant known as the “holy fool for Christ” because of his unusual antics like throwing rocks at rich people’s houses and shoplifting food to give to the poor. He was buried in the northeast corner of the church in 1588.
But the cathedral is not dedicated to St. Basil alone, with chapels dedicated to St. Gregory of Armenia, Saints Kiprian and Ustinia, St. Alexander Svirsky, St. Nicholas Velikoretsky, the Three Patriarchs of Alexandria and the Holy Trinity. It also has chapels dedicated to Jesus’ triumphant entry to Jerusalem and protecting the veil of the Virgin Mary.
Czar Ivan the Terrible ordered the building of St. Basil’s Cathedral to commemorate the victory of Russian troops over the Kazan Khanate, a medieval Bulgarian-Tatar Turkic state. In front of the cathedral is a bronze monument in honor of Kuzma Minin and Dmitry Pozharsky, who defended Russia from invading Polish forces. Legend has it that Ivan the Terrible was so mezmerized by the cathedral that he had its architect Postnik Yakovlev blinded so he could never build anything more magnificent.
TIME magazine’s recent cover used the cathedral as a symbol of Russia’s alleged efforts to influence the US government and its elections.
While the temptation to keep taking photos is great, do take some time to set aside your gadgets and just admire the structure with your senses.
• Visit Russian Orthodox churches
If you find the exterior of the domed churches impressive, wait until you get inside. A typical Russian Orthodox chapel looks like an art gallery, with paintings of Jesus Christ, the Virgin Mary and the saints adorning practically every corner of the worship place.
Unlike Roman Catholic churches, Russian Orthodox chapels do not have statues but a lot of icons, which traces its beginnings to the early days of Christianity.
In the Philippines, the most popular icon is the Our Lady of Perpetual Help, a popular title of the Virgin Mary venerated in Baclaran every Wednesday.
One of the churches I visited was the Cathedral of Our Lady of Kazan at the northeast corner of Red Square. The icon of the patroness – the Virgin Mary with a standing child Jesus – can be found above the entrance of the church, built in 1963.
Inside, one can find icons depicting Jesus, Mary, the apostles, archangels and Russian Orthodox prelates glorified as saints. Glorification is the Orthodox equivalent of the Catholic canonization. One of the eye-catching art works in the church is the ceiling painting of the descent of the Holy Spirit upon Mary and the disciples.
Those interested in religion and art may also want to visit the Church of the Transfiguration of the Savior on the Sand in the Arbat district. The church was depicted in the well-known painting “Moscow Courtyard” by Vasiliy Dmitrevich Polenov.
All the churches seem to have stores where visitors can buy religious items like replicas of icons (Our Lady of Kazan Cathedral has three stores!). Some store attendants cannot speak English so foreigners just point to the items they want to buy. Be mindful of local sensibilities when visiting churches here. Taking of photos is not allowed inside churches and women should wear veils when entering them.
• Buy Russian dolls and other souvenirs
If you are looking for a souvenir that is distinctly Russian, then bring home a matryoshka or babushka doll, wooden dolls of diminishing sizes placed one inside the other. The prices of the dolls vary and are dependent on their size and quality. But if you want to buy a doll just for the sake of having one, there are dolls being sold for as low as 100 rubles (around P86).
The designs of the matryoshka, which literally means “little matron,” are not limited to women wearing peasant dresses. Some stores offer matryoshka dolls depicting Star Wars characters, Nativity characters, US President Donald Trump, the late Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein and Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Putin is very popular among souvenir manufacturers. His face can be seen on refrigerator magnets, t-shirts, plates, key chains, mugs, pillows, button pins and lighters.
Other souvenir items are wooden eggs with religious icons, books about Russia, dog tags, miniatures of Russia’s landmarks and various figurines.
Members of the media who covered Duterte’s visit bought their souvenirs at stores along Arbat Street, also the site of the apartment where Russian poet Alexander Pushkin and his wife Natalya Nikolaevna lived.
Portrait artists and vendors selling really cheap pre-owned books can also be found in the street; unfortunately, most of the reading materials are in Cyrillic.
Do not forget to ask for a discount when buying souvenirs as the items being sold in areas frequented by tourists tend to be overpriced. While you are not supposed to squander your pocket money on souvenirs, you should not be too stingy either. As a colleague said when consulted about buying a pricey Russian-style Nativity set: “When are you coming back to Moscow?” Photos by ALEXIS ROMERO
To be continued