I was born in the year 1066 on land that is now called Red Square in Moscow, Russia. It wasn’t much of a village then, mostly a gathering of huts made of stone and logs held together by dried mud. Less than 100 people lived in the village but we were well fed. The river and forest provided us with all of our needs even during the long cold winters. We traded with peoples from both the north and south who traveled along the Moskva River. Life was hard but life was good.
When I first set food in Red Square in July, 1988 I felt like I had been born there. I’ve always believed in reincarnation, and I think I had lives before 1066, but it was on Red Square where the soul I have today was born. I made 10 trips to the Soviet Union between 1988 and 1992 and have never felt as comfortable traveling as I did there. I managed to learn enough Russian before my first trip to get around but language wasn’t a barrier. I walked the streets and the people there looked like me. It was like being with family.
Sasha, my best friend in St. Petersburg, always seemed like an uncle to me. Most trips I stayed in his apartment and it was as close to feeling like home as possible. The walk from his house to the Kirov Theatre was something I did dozens of times in every type of weather while shooting with the Kirov Ballet. It was always interesting, like the streets of New York City, and I often took pictures on the way home after the ballet.
But still, there was nothing like Red Square. During trips to Moscow I stayed in giant Intourist hotels typically a mile from the Kremlin. Wealthy tourists and businessmen stayed in hotels closer to the city center. I enjoyed staying in the older hotels with their mix of Eastern European visitors along with the prostitutes who prowled the hallways at night.
I think they were always shocked when I kindly turned them away. Western men did not often travel alone in these hotels (all the rooms are doubles) and they must have thought I booked a room by myself for a reason! I loved my walks from these hotels to Red Square, passing some of the great Moscow train stations, the shops not meant for tourists, and some wonderful bookstores. My shelves at home can attest to the amount of books I purchased and brought back home.
Rounding the Kremlin walls as I approached Red Square always filled me with a sense of wonder and intrigue. Even though Gorbachev (and later Yeltsin) was now the Russian premiere, the Soviet Union was still officially the enemy. Reagan and George H.W. Bush were our presidents at the time of those trips and though tensions thawed during the four years I traveled to Russia, an American wandering the streets of Moscow (or Leningrad) alone still had to be wary of the police, soldiers, or black marketeers.
Red Square and the Kremlin are on a small hill, typical of ancient cities. High points are easiest to defend and 1,000 years of civilization produces a lot of rubble for each proceeding generation to build upon. Walking up the slope from Krasnaya Ploshchad to Red Square, one sees the domes of St. Basil’s Cathedral as you pass the Lenin Museum on your left.
The museum is interesting place and the old photographs on the walls are honestly hysterical. As old heros of the Soviet Union fell out of favor they were erased out of the pictures. Faces of new party members were often added in their places. Both Lenin and Stalin changed history as they saw fit. The retouching was terrible. Ghosts of the erased people could often still be seen and added faces, typically placed on the old bodies, reminded me of the cut and paste paper dolls my sister played with as a child. The Soviets should have flown in retouchers from the old MGM studios to work on the photographs. Those guys were experts.
Past the museum I stood on Red Square. I think I let out a deep breath every time. In that era there were very few Westerners and certainly no Americans traveling alone. The square was filled mostly with locals going to and from work, Russian and Eastern European tourists, and school children here to see Lenin’s tomb. The mood on Red Square always seemed somber. Even the children rarely laughed or ran about the large square. This isn’t the White House or The Mall in Washington D.C. This is a country where the government has always been dark and secretive. It’s a country where during WWII the German army was at their very doorstep. Lenin lies in state here, guarded by two soldiers at all times.
I think this is one reason I love Red Square so much. It’s strong, thoughtful, and very moody. There are no smiles… just like my portraits. And of course, I was born there.