I had a slow start on the third day of my Russian adventures, but did finally make it to the Moscow History Museum.
This place tells the story of human civilization through four million exhibits, spanning thousands of years from the Stone Age and on. The museum puts a lot of emphasis on the various peoples and cultures that comprise the Russian Federation.
For that matter, a stroll down any Moscow street can be a very informative ethnographic experience. Russian citizens’ backgrounds are extremely varied. My friend Renata for example has Russian (Slavic) and Tatar blood running through her veins, while other friend Dzera is half-Russian and half-Ossetian. On my trip, I met people of German, Baltic, Swami, and Central Asian heritage, among many others.
All of these ethnic groups and more are represented in the Museum. It was peculiar to see the personal belongings of past czars and church patriarchs next to shamanic tools and flint stone daggers, such contrast!
However, one of the exhibits that especially moved me was devoted to the late Imam Shamel of the Caucasus. There was his portrait in oil, as well as his personal dress and kamas (daggers) next to official letters handwritten and signed by him. To my astonishment, the language of these documents was Arabic and not Chechen, despite the fact that they were official written orders and directions to his followers and agents. The history of interaction between Russian and Arab cultures had never seemed more tangible to me as it did when I stood next to that exhibit.
Suddenly feeling even more at home in Russia, I decided to try my newly-instilled confidence and maneuvered the Moscow underground on my own. I traveled to the outskirts of the city to a place called Novodevichiy Convent. This five hundred-year old establishment is heavily fortified, like most convents in Russia. The wealth of the convents, coupled with unstable politics, made them a target for all sorts of unwelcome attention.
The Russian church’s wealth dazzled me throughout my trip. I should not have been too surprised, though, as my parents and grandparents always mentioned rich, Russian-made adornments in the churches of Jerusalem. I myself witnessed the Orthodoxy’s exuberance, when it donated the golden dome of the Baptismal Church on the river Jordan.
It should be noted that the convents were originally fortified against the Tatar threat in particular. The Tatars of the Golden Horde kept on receiving tribute from the Russian principalities and kept on raiding deep into Russia up till they started getting defeated themselves, their territories falling into Russian hands. Yet the Russians didn’t eradicate their occupied nations upon their expansion towards the Pacific Ocean. They definitely didn’t subscribe to the ethnic cleansing or reservation policy applied to the Native Americans, for example.
In fact, the Tatar city of Kazan is still the capital of Tatarstan, where the residents are still Muslims, still speaking their language and celebrating their traditional holidays. Furthermore, despite being conquered, the Tatars themselves conquered a part of Russia’s collective culture. There are many names and words in the Russian language that come from Tatar origins. There is even a saying: “scratch a Russian and you will find a Tatar underneath”.
Meanwhile, inside the seemingly impenetrable walls of the Novodevichiy Convent, there are multiple old buildings: museums and churches worth visiting. The surrounding area outside the convent is dominated by a large lake, ringed with romantically shaded sidewalks around, bustling with children and old folks, all gleefully feeding the ducks.
Death and the afterlife are celebrated in the adjacent cemetery. Leaders, thinkers, musicians and writers, in short the crème de la crème of Russian history and society, are buried here. Here lies Chekhov. Here lies Tupolev. The various monuments, some simple, some elaborate, some religious, some secular, are a history lesson in and of themselves. Together they stand as a single reminder that even at its most beautiful, the world, to us, is a temporary place.