Monday, May 30, 2011

Weekend Recap

Besides packing for camp, marking tests, and waging an unsuccessful war against the new bane of my existence, mosquitos, I managed to get some sightseeing in during my last weekend in Moscow/Mytishi.

On Wednesday morning I leave for camp, where I'll be teaching English for a month before coming back to Moscow for one day and then...flying back to Canada! Where has this year gone?!?

On Saturday I took the metro to VDNKh, then using my powers of navigation (you can stop smirking, oh ye of little faith! Because...) I managed to find Ostankino Palace and parkgrounds. Touring the palace has been one of the things I've been dreaming about since I read Orlando Figes' excellent cultural history of Russia, "Natasha's Dance," and was introduced to the love story of Count Nikolai Sheremetev and Praskovia Zhemchugova.

Be warned, their love story is definitely not a classic "meet-cute" rom-com adaption starring Katherine Heigl-worthy tale. Nikolai was the heir of one of Russia's wealthiest aristocratic families, and, as such, he had little to do with his time but bum around Europe, get inspired by all the culture there, and return to his family's vast holdings in Moscow to try and replicate the art he had been exposed to. He set up a serf theatre on his estate, where his serfs (read: slaves) were trained in classical opera and would perform massive spectacles and plays for thousands of guests.

The star of his serf theatre was the beautiful serf Praskovia Zhemchugova (which means Pearl), and naturally, Nikolai fell in love with her. In a move echoing that of his contemporary across the ocean, Thomas Jefferson, Nikolai began a relationship with his serf - a relationship that must have had some odd dynamics, to be sure. Yet it really was true love, because eventually he married her - Moscow society be damned! - and he moved her to the beautiful pink and white stucco palace he had built in the northeast of Moscow. There, they lived together away from society's prying and scandalized eyes, and Praskovia quickly became pregnant. Tragically, however, she died shortly after giving birth to a healthy male heir. Nikolai, overcome with grief, built a hospital in her name to care for women, a goal she had always wanted to fulfill, and he himself followed her to the grave only a few years later.

I was transfixed by this story when I first heard it, and last year I used it as the foundation for a paper exploring the curious institutions of serf theatres that sprang up around Russia in the latter half of the eighteenth century. It is a story that continues to sadden and intrigue me, and so I was very excited to be able to tour the palace where Nikolai and Praskovia spent their brief period of happiness together.

The Lonely Planet guidebook was NOT very helpful in directions, so I just kept the massive Ostankino TV tower in my sights and eventually the wide expanse of a man-made lake filled my view and beyond that, I glimpsed the pink and white palace. Unfortunately, pretty much the entire exterior of the building was under reconstruction! Scaffolding was everywhere, blocking any real view of what the palace looks like - very disappointing!

You can only tour the inside of the palace on your own between 4-6pm, and as I got there around 2:30, I had to pay 350 roubles to join the Russian-language tour group. That was okay, as I managed to understand most of what the guide was saying (on a random sidenote, he increasingly became cuter and cuter to me as the tour went on...does this mean after nine months in the country I am falling under the charms of Russian men?!) and like I said, I had some previous knowledge of the palace. It was beautiful inside, but very cold, and we had to wear these giant slippers on over our shoes to protect the floors.

The highlight of the tour was definitely getting to see the legendary serf theatre that Nikolai had constructed! It truly is a feat - there was even a removable floor, and all sorts of props and stage equipment to make his productions a rival of the greatest theatres in Europe! I tried to imagine myself in Praskovia's shoes, having to perform in front of her lover - who also happened to be her master.

After the tour, I walked around the park, which was bustling with Russians out enjoying the warm weather and sunbathing. If only we could all be so comfortable with our bodies as this man, sprawled out in his speedo:

Saturday was also a celebration of sorts for some people, as I saw a group of rowdy, tipsy men storm through the metro waving a flag, wearing green hats, and singing loudly. I asked a friend later on if there had been a special day.

"Yes," he said. "It was Border Guards' Day."

"Oh. What do they do?" I asked.

"They guard Russia's borders" was the reply. Oh. Ok. As the Russians say, "спасибо капитан очевидно." Thank you, Captain Obvious.

Sunday was a museum-free day, as I spent a wonderful day at Tsaritsyno Park with my friends Iain and Ilya. We brought a picnic and a frisbee (a 700 rouble adidas frisbee at that, so you'd think maybe that would have helped us play better!) and walked all along the wooded trails as well. Tsaritsyno is such a beautiful park (it was my second time being there, I blogged about it previously here) and I had a great time! It was really sad saying goodbye to Ilya afterwards; as I'm going to camp, then to Canada, then to England, and he's moving to Finland after he defends his PhD on the 16th, I'm not sure when I will see him again. But I believe that we never know how or when our paths may cross again with people, so I'm keeping an open mind. Who knows what adventures (or countries) I may experience next year?

At the back of the palace, with some of the scaffolding

Outside the Tsaritsyno metro station

Intricate "royal icing" look that reminds me
of a gingerbread house!

Iain in action!

Breath-taking views of the lake at Tsaritsyno, which
is in the southeast of Moscow (on the way to
Domodedovo airport, on the same green metro line)

Rapunzel, Rapunzel, let down your hair!
Climbing to the top of a fairy-tale tower in the woods.

And of course, what would a day out in Moscow be
without a Segway sighting?


  1. Congrats on finally finding your way around Moscow. As I was reading this it reminded me of one of your first posts about getting lost on your first night in Moscow. I'm glad that after 9 months you've finally figured it out!

  2. I know you won't have access to the internet while you're at EuroCamp, I'm going to miss my morning Devushka Diaries blog reading! But I'm so excited for you to come home in a month!
    Enjoy the next month in "the mother land"
    See you soon!!

  3. The scaffolding in Moscow and St. Petersburg was a bit of an eyesore at times, but it is so nice to see the Russians caring for and renovating their beautiful buildings. It just means we have to go back, right?

    I remember how disappointed I was on our family trip to Ottawa in 2005 when the Library of Parliament was being renovated. (Hey, I'm a Librarian). We have that otherwise perfect family photo from the Museum of Civilization, with the Ottawa River, and a big honking piece of white tarping covering that section of the Parliament Buildings in the background. But when I got back last year - what a view!

    Tsaritsyno does look breath-taking. I think I would choose June to go back to Russia. Everything looks beautiful. And White Nights would be awesome.

    Hopefully we'll get a quick post or two from camp.

    Counting down the days until we hug you again!

  4. Our next trip will definitely have to be in June so we can do the White Nights Mum! and maybe try the Trans-Siberian railway? (that is, if the scars from the train ride back to Moscow have faded haha!)

    I can't wait to hug you again!