Monday, September 17, 2007 09/17/07-Holy Moscow

In today's excerpt--Moscow, circa 1685, at the time of the completion of the palace at Versailles in France and the inception of the Salem witch trials in America:

"From a distance, Moscow struck one Western traveler as the most 'beautiful city in the world,' an urban feast topped by hundreds of gold-crusted domes and a sea of glistening crosses that surmounted the treetops. Unlike the stone and marble of its European counterparts, Moscow was a city hewn from wood; even the streets themselves were planked with timber, not trampled down or paved with stone. Also unlike anything in the Western world was the somber medieval citadel of Russian power, the Kremlin, which imbued the city with an exotic mystery. ...

"With its massive red walls jutting from the bank of the Moscow River, the Kremlin was not a single building but an entire walled city--Kreml literally means 'fortress' in Russian--ringed by two rivers and a deep moat. Inside this mighty citadel rose gorgeous cathedrals (three), an astonishing number of chapels (sixteen hundred) and hundreds of houses, as well as government offices, law courts, barracks, bakeries, laundries, stables, and a mighty whitewashed-brick bell tower ... And Moscow had a spiritual dimension rivaled only by Jerusalem and the Vatican: It was the 'Third Rome,' the center of Orthodox faith. ...

"The bazaars of Moscow were frequented by Persians, Afghans, Kirghiz, Indians, and Chinese, while traders and artisans peddled an eclectic slice of the Asiatic world: silks, brass and copper goods, tooled leather and bronze, and innumerable objects of hand-carved wood. The city itself was peopled with tattered, itinerant holy men and bearded priests, as well as ruddy peasants in cloth leggings and soldiers in voluminous caftans. ... Russian customs were uncommonly coarse--basic things like cutlery and toothpicks were unheard of; and drunkenness was so rampant that on feast days, travelers were stunned to see naked men, passed out, who had sold their clothing for drink. Dwarfs and fools, increasingly out of fashion in the West, still amused the tsar and his retainers. ...

"Muscovites were an intensely religious people, and most of the city, rich and poor alike, fell under the church's spell. Few had a hold on the Russian mind or imagination as did the starets--the man of God. but the true master who loomed over this ancient land was ultimately the tsar, the very portrait of absolute monarchy. ... From infancy, Russians were taught to regard him as a godlike creature ('Only God and the tsar know,' went one ancient proverb). ... Russian noblemen did not simply bow, they flattened themselves before the tsar, touching the ground with their foreheads ('we humbly beseech you, we your slaves ...')."

Jay Winik, The Great Upheaval, Harper Collins, Copyright 2007 by Jay Winik, pp. 12-14.


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