Bolshoi Beauty

The Bolshoi Theatre represents the epitome of Russian ballet culture. When the chance arose to explore the Bolshoi on a behind-the-scenes tour, I eagerly gathered friends and signed up.

In Russian, bolshoi means big or grand – yet ‘grand’ cannot fully capture all that this building encompasses. Reminiscent of Versailles or the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, the Bolshoi Theatre features notes of rich red and gilded gold that I’ve come to equate with Russian elegance. Sanctioned by Catherine the Great in 1776, the Moscow Theatre Company was originally housed in a smaller building along the Neglinka River. After multiple theatres were lost to fire, the troupe relocated in 1856 to the expansive building that you see today.

As our group walked into the orchestra of the main theatre, we were lucky enough to happen upon a practice session of the ballet Giselle. The prima ballerina, dressed down in casual wear and toe shoes, floated across the stage to the sounds of the grand piano set front and center. Abstract set designs including the cosmos and other natural phenomena added to the spectacle.

When my parents visited in May of this year, we had the chance to see a ballet on the Bolshoi’s New Stage, just around the corner. Absolutely gorgeous itself, the New Stage was by far the better choice as the Historic Stage featured an opera that evening (good call, Dad).

Taking in the grandiosity of the venue from below, I was acutely aware of the history of this hollowed concert hall. Moscow itself has changed rapidly in the past 150 years. The one constant among historic drawings is always the Bolshoi Theatre, as seen below.

Swan Lake premiered here in 1877. Nazi bombs fell upon it in 1941. The creation of the USSR was declared from this very stage. For more of the fascinating history of this building – particularly of its usage by the Bolsheviks during the Russian Revolution – you can click here.

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With seemingly no bad seat in the house, wealthy Russian families used to purchase a box for the full theatre season. They would then redecorate the box to their liking with purchases of furniture and wallpaper. When the Bolshoi was redone in the rich golds and reds of today’s decor, it’s said that women did not appreciate being upstaged in their elegant theatre attire.

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The stage floor is famously sloped to provide the audience with the best view of the dancers. The floor is mechanically leveled when foreign ballet companies perform here.

After climbing to the boxes above, we were surprised to find the stage had been quickly reset to allow for a rehearsal of the current opera, The Maid of Pskov. We were treated to a performance by the show’s chorus as we watched from on high.

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The building itself is comprised of 13 levels – seven above ground and five below. An exact replica of the Bolshoi stage can be found in the attic above the Historic Stage. Our group snuck in silently and watched no less than 50 dancers practicing for an upcoming production. Many of the dancers were teenagers and children, members of the prestigious Bolshoi Ballet Academy.

Known for pushing the limits of contemporary performance, as well as maintaining the highest standards of historic Russian culture, the Bolshoi is a true Moscow delight. Someday I hope to see a ballet from its seats. For now, I’ll reminisce about my visit as notes of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake drift through my apartment.

A Night in the Petroff Palace

The majority of my posts on this blog serve to share unique and wonderful experiences from my life abroad as an ex-pat. But in sharing all the good, perhaps a perspective is formed that all is rosy, life is bliss, and these experiences grow on trees. I have to tell you, and I know my ex-pat friends will agree, this is not always the case. Life throws you just as many curveballs when living abroad – and some truly unique ones at that. This post is about stepping up and trusting instincts, in bad times and in good.

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This sign hangs by the copier in our s office.

On Thursday morning, I had only just caught a ride to work with two of my good friends when we were sideswiped by an SUV just outside our apartment complex. We were all fine. Sadly, minor car accidents are common here in Moscow. I don’t know if it’s the #norules mentality or poor driving conditions (it was raining when we were hit) but the majority of cars on the road bear the scars of past collisions.

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Tough start to the school day.

Anyways, the story gets interesting because you’re not allowed to move the cars involved until the police show up. Hence a whole lot of traffic jams. But the police came quickly that day. We called the embassy for a mobile unit to come out and translate but it turns out budget cuts (and *staffing issues*) have led to the cancellation of a mobile unit. Nonplussed, we Google Translated our way through the interaction with four very kind local policeman who made it clear we were not at fault and took great care to make sure we were taken care of. Signing documents in a foreign language you don’t speak = more common than you might think living this life. Thankfully, we were reassured by our own security staff and soon we were on our way.

The next morning I boarded a plane bound for Tallinn, Estonia with my dear friend Peter. Excited to get out of rainy, dreary Moscow and take a trip to cozy Tallinn, I settled into my seat expecting a quick 1.5 hour ride. Moments before we were to taxi away from the gate, I was jolted from my seat by the sounds of someone in distress.

Turning to look only a few rows behind, I was horrified to see my colleague (who was also journeying to Tallinn) in extreme distress. His wife’s stricken face turned to me as I called out to her. The situation was dire and we both knew it. The flight staff was incredible and did everything right – bringing him back to consciousness and helping him stabilize. It was quickly clear to me that my help was needed and I pushed into action, calling for an ambulance and insurance permission.

Once he was stable, we were quickly shuffled off to the airport medical clinic where we spent hours waiting for an ambulance to take him just 15km downtown. The whole ordeal offered a sobering insight into the medical system that we are a part of, full of wonderfully caring people and far too much red tape. Thankfully, he got top rate care at the ex-pat hospital downtown and is today resting comfortably at home. Your health is your wealth, they say, and they’re absolutely right.

Once the situation calmed down, and with my plans sidelined, I knew I would need a little peace to put things in perspective. After a little Korean 순두부 (still my comfort food) and a good night’s rest, Saturday greeted me with the desire to get out and explore. After searching for historic hotels in Moscow, I booked a room at the Petroff Palace for the evening.

Petroff Castle from the front gates, just after the rain.

A former transit stop for tsars traveling from St. Petersburg, the Palace (also known as Petrovsky Castle) is featured in the works of Pushkin. Napoleon himself even stayed there while Moscow was being burned. Destroyed by the French in their retreat from Moscow in 1812, the castle was rebuilt in the 1830s. Turns out that I pass the castle daily on my commute to school but have never noticed it. For more on rich history of the castle and grounds, click here.

 

The room was stunning and private. I definitely treated myself to room service! The dish in the middle, dumplings in broth is called pelmeni soup. Native to Siberia, this dish is simple, delicious, and served with a dollop of sour cream on top.

 

The view from my window

Stunning.

Conveniently, the property is nestled within a beautiful park with wooded trails and gorgeous birch trees in bloom – just what the doctor ordered. The sun broke through the clouds just as I arrived and I enjoyed multiple sunbaths in the park during my stay. There’s nothing like time spent in nature to set you right again.

 

The sun exploded through the trees while rain still fell.

 

Intrigued by this gorgeous tree, I happened upon this Orthodox church in the park.

I rounded out the weekend with a stop at the ArtPlay Moscow space to see a show on the works of Dutch artist Pieter Bruegel. Though I’m hesitant about the “multimedia-ing” of classic works of art history, this movie blew my mind. Telling the tale of the dawn of civilization (with subtitles in English), the Dutchman’s work came alive on the screens engulfing the entire room – from the Tower of Babel to scenes of the Middle Ages.

The ArtPlay Center features specialty boutique shops, from lighting to antiques to art supplies.

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The Tower of Babel, Pieter Bruegel, 1653

So, to conclude this story, I don’t have any great words of wisdom gleaned from this experience. I can only say that we do the best we can with what is presented us. That’s all we can do.

I’m very thankful to my friends and family who were there for me as I worked to put this experience into perspective. You were all so comforting. Take care, everyone. Be good to each other and to yourselves.

 

A night at the Metropol

One of the best parts of living in Europe is being surrounded by the centuries-old architecture. Moscow, for its part, is particularly fond of Art Nouveau, a style that peaked in the late 19th Century. Full of swirls and stained glass, Art Nouveau can be summed up by its calling card, the Tiffany lamp.

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Following Peter the Great‘s push towards French aristocratic ways in the 18th Century, Russia came to embrace European style, sending artisans and architects alike to study at schools such as Paris’ Ecole des Beaux-Arts.

It is at this point in art history where we find the Hotel Metropol, nestled in the heart of downtown Moscow. Dignified and imposing, the hotel sits directly outside the walls of Red Square.

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The hotel has certainly lived its fair share of history. Since it opening in 1905, the Metropol has housed writers and revolutionaries, from Bernard Shaw to Lenin. Today it stands as a monument to a time just prior to the Russian Revolution, an era of extravagance and artistic strides.

Conceived by Savva Mamontov, patron of the arts – a William Merritt Chase, if you will – the hotel was originally planned as an opera house, a palace to showcase the talents of Moscow and host those from abroad. Though Savva did not manage to hold onto the hotel itself, he is considered the father of this dream. And what a dream it was.

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For my part, I had only observed this beautiful building from outside. On an Art Nouveau Tour of Moscow this past spring, I was bitten by the idea to steal away a night at the Metropol. The iron gates beckoned and I couldn’t resist.

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This past weekend, my plan came to be. I felt like Eloise at the Plaza as I walked into the gorgeous foyer of the hotel, all gold-encrusted and marble-floored.

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As I approached the stunning elevator bank, I had to stop and marvel at the stained glass above and behind, decorating the huge bay windows encircling the Grand Ballroom.

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I’ve heard the Metropol described as a living museum, a Russian treasure. To do it justice, I had to spend a few hours wandering the halls, marveling at each new landing. From the stained glass to the rich carpets, the hotel did not disappoint.

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From my room I could see both the Bolshoi Theatre and the spires of the Kremlin. I wandered over to GUM Department Store, the former rubber and textile factory turned high-end shopping mall (think Gucci and Prada).

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I watched fireworks above Red Square from my window and marveled at the beautiful touches of Art Nouveau dotting my room – from the chandelier to the window latches. I also bathed in the basement pool, enjoying its privacy and quaint atmosphere.

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On Sunday morning, my friend Kelsey met me for brunch in the Grand Ballroom. We were both stunned as the hostess drew back the curtain, ushering us into a room which I can categorize as fit for the Titanic only (and built within 7 years of each other, no less).

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We feasted on an amazing buffet and tried to take in the real delight – the exquisite glass ceiling above. A harp played in the corner and the scene could not have been more elegant.

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Full to the brim and feeling a tad like Harriet the Spy, we explored new wings of the hotel, seeking treasures which appeared at every turn.

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At the top of a seemingly abandoned staircase, we turned a corner and nearly jumped out of our socks – a stuffed bear blocked our entrance to a room fit for a duomo.

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Bathed in shimmering red wallpaper, with an oculus adorned by a crystal chandelier, we had stumbled upon a room fit for the Tudors.

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The whole experience was overwhelming to the senses and I’m still digesting. I’d very much like to return and continue studying as the place surely has more stories to tell. For now, I would highly recommend the Metropol as a stop on anyone’s tour to Moscow – for brunch at the least. Moscow has many more gems to share, no doubt, but I’m left in true awe after 24 hours in this one.

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To read more about the extraordinary 110-year history of the Hotel Metropol, click here.

Russia Russia Russia


So clearly this has been quite a summer for Russia in the US news. If I’ve been lucky enough to see you this summer, I know we’ve discussed it. Thanks to those who listened to me proselytize about the differences between people and their government (more true day-by-day).


I’ve had a wonderful couple of weeks in the States filled with a lot of laughs. My time with these guys above was a particular highlight. I’m thankful to be headed back to Moscow to begin Year 2 shortly.

One thing that has me especially enjoying my time in Moscow is my newfound appreciation for Russian art. It is so rich – in color, in technique, and in history. I like it so much that after arriving back in Boston, I plotted a visit to the Museum of Russian Icons in Clinton, MA.


Just a quick 1-hour drive from Boston, the museum boasts the largest collection of these Russian art gems outside of, well, Russia.


I was drawn to visit not only by these gorgeous artifacts but also by the opportunity to hear the history behind them from an outsider’s point of view. Happily, the museum didn’t disappoint.


A few things I came to understand:

  • Icons are to be prayed with, not to
  • There is an M formation of perspective in a typical icon, which accounts for the distorted perspective seen in the buildings below

  • The word Iconoclast comes from “image breaker”, or the destructor of icons, which occurred during the Bolshevik Revolution
  • Orthodoxy was spread to Ethiopia, and some truly beautiful African-influenced icons resulted from this

For those of you interested in a deeper dive, check out this article on icons from Russia Behind the Headlines.


Hope you’ve enjoyed this little Art History lesson. I look forward to sharing more with you as the year unfolds. Cheers, everyone!