Wednesday, December 06, 2017

My No-Collusion Trip to Moscow

I grew up in the USA during the cold war era. As a kid back in the 1960s, my impression of "Russia" was that it was a scary place inhabited by something called "communists" who operated out of a fortress called "the Kremlin" in someplace identified as 'Moscow.' It was not a place any child of the Cold War ever imagined visiting. Russia terrified us: it was Lex Luthor, the Joker, Khruschev banging his shoe at the UN, Red submarines lurking around Cuba. It represented everything that Superman and Batman and all the other superheros stood against. My family tradition was not much help. My Grandfather had left Bessarabia (today's Republic of Moldova) after serving in the Tsar's army in World War One, and his story of emigrating to the USA began with a series of bloody pogroms in his youth and ended with him fleeing the Ukraine by soaking his overcoat in the freezing waters of the River Bug and using his frozen coat as a sled to skid across the ice into Romania. Whenever my Grandfather mentioned "Russia" it was generally accompanied by ritualistic spitting. My Mom was from Hungary - not much of am improvement in public relations from her or from the refugee 1956ers living in our basement apartment in the Bronx. No, I was not raised to imagine ever visiting Moscow. Which is why I was delighted to step off an Aeroflot plane last week and find myself in... Moscow!

No collusion... absolutely no collusion at all!
The Balassi Institute - which represents Hungarian culture worldwide - brought Di Naye Kapelye over to perform a concert as part of a series of Yiddish culture hosted by Moscow's Eshkolot Center, a major Jewish educational initiative in Moscow. Moscow has over 100,000 Jews living in it - not bad, considering that the city was outside the traditional Pale of Settlement where Jews were allowed to settle, and as such Jewish presence there is a 20th century phenomenon, reflecting roots in other parts of the empire and a gradual loosening of traditional life ways, such as musical traditions and Yiddish language. In response, Moscow (And St. Pete'sburg, to be fair) has a lot of enthusiastic young people learning Yiddish and taking a very active interest in the roots of Ashkenazic culture. Which is to say the concert went very well - the crowd knew what we were doing, and took me for my word when I told them that a DNK concert is not a music museum - they got up and danced. We had brought my small cimbalom as cabin baggage on the plane - there are actually no cimbaloms for rent or lending in all of Moscow. Which was interesting because there were about a dozen Hasids on our flight, and one of them had a fiddle, and we ended up talking in Yiddish at the end of the flight. they had been to Dej in Romania for a Hasidic pilgrimage gathering, and were off to Hashem-knows-where in Russia for another.

Di Naye Kapelye at full blast.
Moscow itself is overwhelming, even to a New Yorker like myself. It is huge - the scale of the city is mind boggling. It had twice the population of New York city, and since it is not confined to a series of islands, it gives a sense of infinite urban growth. Moscow doesn't fade off into suburbs - its all tall buildings. The downtown area seems endless, and the city was originally designed to impress visitor's with - serially - the Tsar's greatness, the Soviet's Greatness, and eventually, the Oligarchy's Greatness.

Window of GUM dept store.
I can now completely understand why Donald Trump would be so impressed by this city: it is built by, and for, supernaturally wealthy billionaires, full of shiny luxury shops, humongous ministry buildings, and eight lane boulevards. To use a New York frame of description, imagine Park Avenue mixed with Washington DC and maintained by the people who do the lights for Disneyland.

The GUM  department store and outdoor Christmas market in Red Square.
We didn't have much free time to sight-see - such is the gigging musicians' life - but on the way to our concert Sasha from the Balassi Institute had our van driver detour so we could experience Red Square. There it was: the Kremlin in all its red revolutionary glory, the Church of St. Basil, and best of all: Lenin's tomb. It was too late to get into see the century old pickled remains of the mastermind of the Communist Revolution. So I did what any self respecting left-leaning American-Hungarian Yiddishist would do one hundred years after the October Revolution: I took a selfie.
Do not wake up Lenin!
Moscow is also expensive: very very expensive. You need to visit an ATM machine merely to walk into a McDonald's. Sorry, but no food porn, no close ups of twenty varieties of dumplings or tips on where to get the best blinis. We stopped in a supermarket, I bought some Russian black bread and ate a salami I brought from home for the weekend. You gotta remember: we musicians do gigs to make money, not spend it in one of the world's most expensive cities. The Balassi people were good enough to take us to an upscale cafeteria on the night of the concert, so we did not go hungry...

The Workers demand blintzes! 
I put edin and edin together and got dva: blini is the equivalent to blintze. Man, this place was getting way to close to home. And almost as quickly as we had come, we were gone: back to Budapest! It is Karacsony time in Hungary: two days in Moscow, a three hour flight and bingo! And today in Hungary  is Santa Claus Day - Mikulas - for all of you waiting for a Jolly fellow with gifts. We went to the big Holiday market downtown and caught a set of fine gaida music from Bulgaria played by a young group from the village of Kalofer. Gaida is my joint.... nothing says Xmas like sheepskin bagpipes.

And within one week I will be gone yet again: flying to New York (OK... Newark) next week for a month and a half. Chances are the next post on the blog will have either Shake Shack or Japanese food waving in your faces. Check in on the Yiddish New York festival: there will be a lunchtime showing of the film "Soul Exodus" as part of the video program. And afterwards, maybe we can grab a slice of pizza... or a blintz!

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