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Red Square at Night

The guide books were wrong when they told me that Moscow is dreary in November. I have watched winter arrive, felt the first wet snows and now the city is covered in white and you hear the scraping of shovels every time you step out a door. It sounds as if these same shovellers have been patiently lifting snow off of sidewalks forever. The sound stands in contrast with the enormous bustle of Moscow.
I teach in the Humanities building, a large rectangular steel and glass mirror just out of the shadow of the skyscraper that symbolizes Moscow State University. Getting in and out of the Humanities building means edging into a fast-moving stream of students and faculty who are hustling to class. Though this city is very different from New York or Chicago, but I am surprised to find that the students are identical to those that I teach at home. Students have the same curiosity and the same random completion or non-completion of reading assignments. My class meets as night falls. Outside the window of the classroom the perpetual flame that commemorates MSU students who died in the war against the Nazis becomes vivid. Class runs over its allotted time and students from the next class pile up like flotsam in the hall. As we finally squeeze out of the room, I make the same apology to these students as I do to those whose time I have taken at home.
But turn back towards the sculptural main building and walk toward it, tired and exhilarated. This building rises in a kind of symphonic crescendo from a series of solid square buildings connected by arcade-like wings toward a central tower that has an enormous soaring steeple topped by a gold star encircled by laurel. At the base of the steeple, about twenty five stories above the street a pewter colored scroll bears the hammer and sickle. The whole building is lit and the light in its thousand windows make it seem unreal, a heroic monument, but rather than evoking reverential awe, this one is teeming with life.
Maybe it is because of the stories Americans heard as children about the control and surveillance Russians lived with during the Soviet period, but I always feel as though I am somehow in a taboo realm as I head to the metro at night, after dinner, to spend an hour walking around Red Square. The metro in Moscow is itself an amazing thing. As part of his workers' paradise, Stalin made the metro stations into heroic spaces, places that glorify you as you go about your daily business. In some, the long escalator ride toward the platform creates a kind of grand entrance into the platform which itself is like an elegant ballroom, or the lobby of a great hotel. Ormolu chandeliers and stained-glass lanterns light the marble floors as you wait for a train. It is about a fifteen minute ride from the University to the Ohxotny Ryad stop near Red Square. One thing the guide books got right is that Red Square at night creates an indescribable impression.

Greg Garvey

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