This is a first of a series about a journey, by train and bicycle, across Russia to Crimea shortly before the war began.
In the months leading up to the war in Ukraine, I got the idea of traveling through Russia with a bicycle. Now the idea seems daft, even to me, but for many months during the pandemic shutdown, the only country open for me to visit—I live in Switzerland—was Russia. Nearby France (I can see it from my bedroom window) and Germany were off-limits, and Brexited England was lost over the horizon; but Russia’s golden doors remained wide open.
I first went to Russia in summer 1975, and since then I have been back often, mostly to ride the trains, visit the museums, brood about Tolstoy, and walk off the battlefields. (I needed a stroll around Borodino to make headway with War and Peace.) I don’t think much of Russia’s politics or corporate culture, but then I often feel the same way about those in the United States.
What tempted me this time was the chance to see Crimea before Vladimir Putin unleashed his dogs of war. Already there were Russian troops mobilizing around Rostov, but I was hoping that I could go and come back before the shooting started. En route, so I calculated, I could also ride in Volgograd (formerly Stalingrad) and in Cossack lands near Novocherkassk.
What interested me most was the 1854 Crimean War around Sevastopol (in which the Light Brigade charged, fatefully) and the 1945 Yalta conference that divided Europe in half. At the same time I left knowing that Russia was yet again lining up around another valley of death (in which more than six hundred horsemen would ride).
The Letters of Transit
To get a Russian visa took me many weeks of trial and error. I filled out all the forms, applied for an invitation, and complied with the various rules about picture size and color, but every time I had the completed application in hand and biked to Russia Visa Application Centre in Geneva, it was either closed (exceptionally, because of the virus) or had endless lines of applicants.
Finally, after I sat for several hours on the hard plastic chairs in the basement office waiting room, I was able to speak with a visa clerk, who while friendly explained that I was ineligible to apply for a one-year visa. (I had thought that, if I was free to travel in the next year, I would wait some time for the virus to recede.)
She explained that the best I could get would be a three-month tourist visa. I took it, wanting a little something for the effort, but it meant that I only had a window of a month for my travels. It seemed better than nothing, and I set about reserving flights and trains, and booking hotel rooms. Then early one summer morning, I flew east—but not directly to Moscow.
Athens: A Long Wait Between Planes
At that point in the pandemic, there were few flights to Moscow from Geneva, so I ended up booking a one-way ticket for about $120 on the Greek airline Aegean, which came with the selling point (at least for me) of a ten-hour layover in Athens. I could check my luggage and the bicycle through to Moscow, and then spend a day at the beach near the Athens airport and arrive in Russia with a little sand in my shoes.
Had Aegean been flying to the old Athens airport, I would have been on the beach in Vouliagmeni in almost no time. But the new Athens airport, named after former Greek Prime Minister Eleftherios Venizelos (who led Greece at the end of World War I), is in a remote valley far outside the city, and it took me more than an hour on a stop-and-go bus to get to the shore. Then I had to prowl around and find a beach club where I could eat lunch and swim before catching my connecting flight to Moscow.
There were a handful of beach restaurants where I got off the bus, including a few that looked like floating nightclubs. I was too early for the action, and so I picked a more modest taverna that had Greek salads, changing rooms and showers, and a boardwalk to the sea. That became my extended airport waiting room as I idled in between flights.
When I tired of sun and sand, not to mention that the showers had no hot water, I caught another bus into the city center, where I had a drink at Dionysos Zonar’s, which is a touristy restaurant and bar at the foot of the Parthenon Hill that has a million-dollar view of the Acropolis, especially in the early evening
I go there each time I am in Athens, and while nursing a $9 beer, I think of my many family trips to Greece, and those with whom I have climbed the marble stairs to the top.
My first visit came in summer 1976, with my parents and sister, and we walked up just before sunset, perhaps the best time to go.
Another memorable visit came when my son (then in grade school) and I backpacked around Greece on what we called our Persian War tour—a ramble to places such as Marathon, Thermopylae, and Plataea, during which we felt the Greek stones speaking to our backs while camping at Delphi or Sounion without ample padding.
The Elgins Lose Their Marbles
On this occasion my companion, so to speak, was Lady Elgin (wife of the marble stealer) whose biography, Mistress of the Elgin Marbles: A Biography of Mary Nisbet, Countess of Elgin by Susan Nagel, I had downloaded to my Kindle.
I chose it as I figured (correctly) that it would be a page-turning account of the Elgin Marbles that might prove diverting on a night flight across several time zones.
Mary Nesbit, the future wife of Lord Elgin, came of age at the turn of the nineteenth century as one of Britain’s richest and most vivacious debutantes. At age twenty she married Britain’s ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, Thomas Bruce, 7th Earl of Elgin, a military officer of social prominence and a diplomat who was long on dreams but short on cash and executive ability, and often dyspeptic.
Enter Lady Elgin, with her money, beauty, and bedroom eyes, and soon the ambassadorial couple in Constantinople had done up the British embassy and were mixing with the Grand Vizier and other dignitaries at endless soirees. And one of their agendas was to stake a claim to the Acropolis. Nagel writes:
In 1802, while the population in Constantinople was in the hundreds of thousands, there were barely one thousand people living in Athens. The Acropolis was largely a slum with shacks festooning its hillside. To assert that the Parthenon stood serenely at the summit of the Acropolis untouched for two thousand years until that time is simply untrue. In fact, this gleaming white Pentelic marble temple, the heavenward symbol of triumph, superiority, and divine protection, stood over nearly two thousand years of debris and had become the premier target of invaders almost from the moment she crowned the Acropolis.
Lord Elgin had the vision—if that’s the word—to carry off the treasures of the East. Nagel writes:
Elgin’s own reason for collecting the artifacts was that he had an intellectual and visceral passion for these timeless treasures. He felt that by bringing the great works of art to Britain, he was rescuing history, and instead of leaving them to wither and disintegrate, uncared for, he was serving mankind. His intent was to make these great works of art available to artists and educators and in a sense become a messenger of time.
But it was his seductive wife who secured permission from the Vizier, paid for the laborers, engaged the ships, and oversaw the loading of the marbles. Nagel writes: “Unblinking and in fact staring in the eye of controversy, Mary wrapped up Elgin’s marbles and sent them home, using her charm, her wit, and her own money.”
There followed, when the Elgins and the marbles had returned to Britain, a spectacular tabloid divorce, in which Lord Elgin sued his wife on the grounds of adultery and won custody of their children.
But he lost her cash flow, and soon found himself being hounded by creditors and the specter of bankruptcy. In 1816 he was forced to sell his looted treasure to the British Museum. Nagel writes: “His family’s inestimable loss, however, was the public’s priceless gain.”
Would I return the marbles to the Acropolis and the Parthenon Museum? I would, although I realize that it would establish a precedent for all the art treasures dragged somewhere in the last three hundred years. (Berlin has an entire museum devoted to the treasures of Pergamon, a city on Turkey’s west coast.) I am sure the British Museum could keep a reasonable facsimile of the stones, and in sending the originals home Britain could make up some lost goodwill for its years of diplomatic plunder.
Moscow Arrival by Night
I didn’t relish landing in Moscow at 3 a.m. but seemingly it was the cost of my $120 ticket. At least the flight was empty (limited to pandemic queue jumpers, I guess). I still had to stand around the luggage carousel anxiously wondering what had become of my bicycle. Finally, a handler pushing a luggage chart appeared with the boxed bicycle, and once it was scanned by some indolent customs agents I was free to find my ride into Moscow.
Normally there’s a commuter train that makes the run from Domodedovo Airport into the city, but I didn’t think I needed to tempt fate at 3 a.m. (although Moscow is a fairly safe city, provided you’re not an opposition parliamentarian).
Instead I booked a car from a travel website, and for about $25 the driver took me directly to my hotel, which in the pre-dawn gloom of a rainy morning had the look a rundown safe house—a three star establishment of crumbling concrete into which I could come in from the cold.
I had spent a fair amount of time looking through my hotel options before choosing the Gostinitsa Akademicheskaya. It was slightly to the south of the city center, which appealed to me, as I would be leaving on a train from the nearby Paveletskaya station. Plus it was near to the State Tretyakov Gallery and its superb collection of nineteenth century landscape paintings (which I think about when I want to recall that Russia stands for more than war crimes).
I also sized up the Akademicheskaya from the reviews as the kind of place that would let me keep my bicycle in the room and not be too fussed if I rolled damp tires through the lobby.
Finally, I liked the idea of an academic hotel as opposed to a five-star emporium on Tverskaya surrounded by SUV limousines and security guards in tight-fitting black suits.
I had paid for the night before my arrival, so I was assured of an early check-in, and the woman at the front desk promised to call my room so I would not miss breakfast, which, I learned, featured an ice cream cart at the far end of the buffet (which otherwise was long on hot dogs floating in vats of tepid water).
Pushing the Low Gear Through Red Square
To get the hang of bicycle riding through Moscow’s mean street, I headed into Red Square after breakfast. I was leery of riding on its cobblestones, but I need not have worried, as long before I got to St. Basil’s—the iconic church with the colorful onion domes—police in front the Kremlin had waved me off the bike, although they had no issue with me pushing it through the square.
If you have never been to Moscow, Red Square is the emotional center of the city, with on one side Russia’s imperial capitol (behind high crenelated brick walls) and on the other the outlets for every luxury brand in the universe (many of which must now be closed because of the sanctions).
In between, on a sea of large cobblestones, Red Square is a venue not just for Lenin’s Tomb (he must have been in quarantine, as it was closed), but where you come to take wedding pictures, stroll with your baby, and hang out with your school friends.
On this occasion I could not walk directly across the square as in the center there was a large makeshift stage (done up in the red, white and dark blue of Russia’s patriotic colors) for a concert weekend. In the shadow of the Kremlin walls, it reminded me of the bread-and-circuses quote from Juvenal (which later I looked up in full):
…if the old Emperor had been surreptitiously
Smothered; that same crowd in a moment would have hailed
Their new Augustus. They shed their sense of responsibility
Long ago, when they lost their votes, and the bribes; the mob
That used to grant power, high office, the legions, everything,
Curtails its desires, and reveals its anxiety for two things only, Bread and circuses.
I did wonder what Lenin would have made of the techno rock music.
Next: Around Moscow on the bicycle and the apartment of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn.