I awoke at 4:30 a.m. in our five star hotel in Moscow. My internal clock was still somewhere over the Atlantic. After a hot shower, I quietly turned on the TV so as not to wake my sleeping beauty. Surfing through the channels I found CNN, MSNBC from Germany, and Porn TV. These alone were enough to bring down communism.
We had a wonderful buffet breakfast then on a Mercedes bus for a tour of Moscow. During the morning, we skirted the walls of the Kremlin, drove by Gorky Park and Novodevichy Convent, and stretched our legs on the hill overlooking the Moscow Stadium.
The afternoon was spent in the Kremlin and on Red Square. By seven o’clock we were on the train for an overnight trip to St. Petersburg.
Just one day in Russia’s capital certainly did not do it justice, but I did begin to get a flavor of the history of 800–year–old Moscow. Soon after Rome fell to the Goths, Slavic tribes made their way north from the Black Sea. They set up walled settlements and trading posts all the way to the Baltic Sea. The early northern settlement of Novgorod fell to the Vikings in 862, and the Slavs dug in at Kiev.
A hundred years later, Vladimir, the chief of Southern Slavs at Kiev, decided his people needed to “upgrade” their religion from pagan superstitions. He received emissaries from the three major religions of Europe: Judaism, Islam, and Christianity. He rejected Judaism because it lacked a central authority. He rejected Islam because its prohibition of alcohol would not set well with his hard–drinking warriors. By default, he ended up with Christianity. He chose the Byzantine (eastern) version over the Roman ( western) version… probably because of the beauty of its onion– domed churches… and definitely because he wanted to marry an Orthodox princess. To enforce his decision on his people, he personally conducted town–by–town conversions under threat of the sword.
Vladimir’s decision marked a major fork in the road of Russian history that confuses Russians to this day— Are we Asians or Europeans? Do we look east or west? While the early Russians were pondering which fork to take, a horde from Mongolia took over for 300 years. Kiev was overrun by Kublai Khan’s fierce horsemen in 1249.
A few clever Russians fled north, established a walled town on the Moscow River, then cut an agreement with the dreaded horsemen from the Steppes. They agreed to pay homage to the Mongol ruler, actually taxes they imposed on traders going north and south. And they promised not to threaten the Khan’s authority. In return they were allowed to keep their heads. The fortress around their town was known as the Kremlin.
When the Mongols began to lose their grip, Prince Ivan took control of the Kremlin and sent his army out to gather up pledges of allegiance. He crowned himself Tsar (Caesar) of All Russians.
Under his leadership, the concept of serfdom was developed. The idea is simple: the lord would protect the serf, and the serf would work for the lord. This form of slavery that bound workers to the land remained legal until 1861. The parallel institutions of despotism and servitude were planted in the Russian mentality by Ivan the Great. The tsars cultivated them; the soviets harvested them. Russia is still struggling to conquer this internal conflict.
Throughout its history Russians have struggled with the same questions: East or West? Master or slave? I saw it in their architecture, their religion, their food, and their attitude… from Moscow to Vladivostok, across ten time zones, over 6,000 miles of railroad track. Next Week: Ivan to Peter