Under God

As Moscow transforms, one corner of the city remains sacred

Translated by Antonina W. Bouis

There are places in Moscow that are directly under God’s protection, places for the sake of which Moscow is still tolerated. Even though it probably shouldn’t be. Today’s Moscow is disgusting. But it has a few strange places that nothing will ever happen to. There are points of absolute evil, like the Kremlin, and there are expanses of pure poetry where you can sense the presence of the irrational and mysterious. One such is Lenin Hills, which I call that not out of love for Lenin but out of loyalty to my childhood, even though the original name, Sparrow Hills, is back. That’s what they were called then, and it was always a space of absolute joy. I don’t know who Vorobyov was, the name means nothing to me. In fact there was a priest nicknamed Vorobei (Sparrow) and he sold Sofia Vitovtovna, the wife of Vasily I, the village named after him. The fact that this place is called by such random names that hardly express its essence—Lenin had nothing to do with it, either—proves yet again its divine nature: everything beautiful disguises itself in order to be left alone. What else could you call it? Paradise Hills?

This location is protected from anthropogenic interference and remains more or less in its original state: fortunately, any attempt to build a mall and parking lot, a church or high-rise is doomed because it will create landslides. Leveling the Hills completely is, you know, a bit much. That means earning the curses of the future residents forever. I remember how mayor Yuri Luzhkov, whom some remember with nostalgic fondness in comparison to present-day Mayor Sobyanin, decided to build a gigantic store with a multilevel underground garage right on the viewing platform. Everyone was outraged, a rally was organized, and I dragged myself there, and Sergei Nikitin sang, and there was a huge crowd that included all the celebrities of our South-West region; and I said then, folks, don’t worry, they won’t be able to do it.

Nothing can be built here, and it’s not about the landslides, it’s because God doesn’t want it. This is a place of contact with the other side, that’s why Herzen and Ogarev made their vows here and Woland in Master and Margarita flew off from here. Everyone laughed, but they were wrong. Nothing happened with that store, and subsequently Luzhkov flew very far away, cursing loudly. Then they wanted to put Prince Vladimir there, so that Vladimir Hill would be not in Kiev but in Moscow, automatically making it the mother of Russian cities; the statue was built, so disgusting that the flattest plain would slide out from under it; Arkhnadzor, the landmark preservation society, protested, everyone signed petitions, and I said: don’t worry, nothing will happen.  Nothing did, and I’m practically convinced that in the nearest future the initiator of this installation will fly off further than Luzhkov. And some will remember him with nostalgic fondness, because in deteriorating empires things only get worse. Comrade Stalin was horrible, no one disagrees, but in hell, where he is cooking, he gets breaks—not because he implemented industrialization but because he built Moscow University (MGU) and had a forest park created around it, planted with apple trees. It was an oasis amidst Stalinism and the Moscow Vampire style—a piece of pure nature, with living hedges, paths, and fruit trees, sour apples, and small round pears. And the university botanical gardens. Even if Moscow vanishes, this point of absolute joy will remain.  The ones who followed ravaged at the first opportunity, though not on that scale, but they did not take destroyed gardens like that.

I always think of Lenin Hills as a vernal phenomenon, March-April. There aren’t that many moments of absolute joy in my life, but for example, going to Lenin Hills is always a delight. Here I am around six years old, and my mother and I are going “to look at the brides,” as we call it here.  We still go sometimes, with the same goal, because it truly is amusing. Moscow has a tradition—which began in the early fifties when they surrounded the viewing platform with marble parapet, the highest point in Moscow—wedding parties come there, usually right after the registry office. There are two places where they traditionally go for photo ops—the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and Lenin Hills. Honestly, I can’t understand why you need to go from a wedding to a grave, however symbolic it is. It seems blasphemous to me. But going to Lenin Hills is marvelous, simply because it is very beautiful there. (I celebrated both my weddings more modestly, probably because I was afraid that someone would come to look at the brides and make judgments. … It’s not a bride-viewing platform, after all!)

Moscow is not a capital, it’s a glutton’s market, a natural preserve for the elite, a mix of bank and boutique.

And here’s spring, April, the first leaves are just opening, and not even opening yet, but there is grass, and the smell from the soil is the kind that occurs in April; to the usual spring freshness and decay and the rather fishy smell of early spring is added the fermentation that comes before new grass. It’s not just an awakening, not just spring mud that makes you happy because it is still better than death, it is the start of new life, when the air holds, using Tolstoyan terms, hidden warmth. The March air is still cold, but in April beneath it all you feel the sturdy foundation of warmth: don’t be afraid, there is no return, snow will not fall, everything is turned toward blossoming, and that—and not nakedness and poverty, as you so recently thought—is the true norm of life. And on such an April evening, with a pink-blue and even, perhaps, a red-blue sky, on Lenin Hills you look at brides, for the most part not beautiful, but charming (the beautiful brides always have unattractive girlfriends, who are being cuddled by the groom’s friends with sashes across their inflated chests proclaiming them witnesses), all with mandatory bouquets, and always carnations for some reason, and the fragrance of the carnations floats over the viewing platform, mixing with the sour smell of Soviet champagne.

The champagne is opened on the spot. I can’t stand Soviet holidays with their traditions (it’s hard to imagine anything stupider than kidnapping the bride, for example, or all those toasts read from a piece of paper, particularly horrible among the military), but those spring weddings on Lenin Hills had a kind of pagan majesty. Spring rebirth and all that. The most amazing thing—I remember my mother first showed it to me and now I always watch for it—two or three days before leafing out the color of the branches changes sharply, some turn red, others green, that’s the sap rising in them, and before the hills dress in green haze, they become multicolored from the reviving branches. And then you go home, always by foot. Why is that? We took the number 7 trolleybus to get there, and that is my favorite route, the route of happiness. But we walked back because the 7 goes straight to Kiev Station from the Hills, without stopping on Mosfilm Street, so you have to transfer, and that’s such a waste of time! It’s much better to cut diagonally through the park.

No one feared maniacs in those days. Walking home through the dusky park and listening to nightingales in May is one of my most vivid and indescribable memories: the cooling, darkening air, pink apple tees, the smell of earth, grass, and damp bark, and suddenly the nightingale burbling in the middle of all that. Strictly speaking, the nightingale’s song is not beautiful, that is, there is no melody, no special filigree trills—but such richness, such variety, after the crazy monotony of winter and its black and white world! It knows how to do many things, and the most captivating part of its voice is the inexpressibility, overflowing: it can’t convey all the delight, it can only add its breathtaking burble. The Azeris have the most accurate name for the nightingale: bul-bul. Choking on bliss. This all came together in Lenin Hills, because it is the only place in Moscow—at least in the center, if you don’t count Losiny Ostrov National Park or Izmailovsky Park—that is untouched, wild, intact. There, on those sliding hills and the almost sheer cliffs, where you would have trouble climbing in summer, it is truly wild, you never know what’s you’ll find. As a child I always imagined treasure was buried there. And even the government dachas and House of Receptions, situated there, do not spoil that impression, because they are also mysterious and seemingly very rarely visited.

It was wonderful there in winter, too. Probably my happiest time there was during my last two years in high school and first year of college, because I had marvelous friends, group outings to theaters and movies, and endless walks around Moscow, and literary studios, and the children’s section in radio broadcasting, and work at the newspaper—a world that had expanded, with excellent people in it; add to that first love with its new, astonishing possibilities.

Lenin Hills, 1964
Photo credit: Thomas T. Hammond

I don’t enjoy cross-country skiing, but downhill I’ve always liked, and we went to Lenin Hills, almost always for some reason in soft, almost warm weather, with matte snow and gray skies, and then suddenly a very red and quiet sunset would clear things up. There in the Hills it was rather quiet then, huge layers of snow falling softly from branches, it was tacky, our skis stuck, but it was still indescribably good. There were a lot of mysterious places—life saving stations, ski bases—but the most mysterious for me were the ski jumps. There were two back then—the big and the small. The people who used them—mostly eleven- and twelve-year-old schoolchildren, training in the ski section of the Pioneer Palace—seemed like demigods to me: I just couldn’t understand how you could ski down an artificial mountain, jump, and then fly. I wouldn’t have been able to do that for any amount of money, under any circumstances. Sometimes, when no one was watching, you could get on the jump and take a good look at its surface of plastic mats—and when I looked up from there, I couldn’t understand how people could force themselves to let go of the handrails and ride down crouching and gradually straightening up. And how did they land on their skis? Sometimes we watched these competitions, screaming with everyone else. We had a great group: one died of drink, another is in the US now, a third all the way in Australia, and the girls, I think, are all in Russia, but have long forgotten all this. Memory, as the Russian saying goes, is girlish.

The Lenin Hills naturally have their cultural myth, but here I’m writing about my personal attitude, which is minimally affected by the myth. Take Herzen: he and Ogarev made their famous vow, and look at the pattern of fate! Herzen’s earliest memories are related to family legends about his nanny and la Grande Armée, family reminiscences of the War of 1812, the Moscow fire, which occurred eighteen months after he was born. In honor of the victory over Bonaparte, they decided to build the Church of Christ the Savior on Sparrow Hills, prepared by Vitberg; that draft came in handy for Rudnev, when 140 years later he designed the Moscow Skyscrapers (Lenin Hills is probably the only place in Moscow from which you can see all seven). Vitberg’s project did not come to fruition, proving once again that it’s better not to build anything on the hills; the famous landslides started, plus Vitberg was charged with embezzlement and sent into exile in Vyatka. (His fate was horrible, he should never have tried to create that church—while he was being tried, his father and first wife died of shame, and yet he was a truly honest Swede, who never took a kopeck; the theft was done by others, and the whole construction was doomed.

You can’t touch “the crown of Moscow,” as Alexander I called Sparrow Hills!)  Herzen was in Vyatka, also in exile, at the same time; this was the same Herzen who at the age of fifteen swore on Sparrow Hills in 1827 with his friend Ogarev to devote their lives to the people’s welfare, like the Decembrists. The Decembrists awakened Herzen, Herzen made his vow. And in Vyatka he met Vitberg, who had also wanted to serve the Homeland, but it didn’t work out. Everything great begins on Sparrow Hills and has a great chance of ending in Vyatka. It’s terrifying to say it, but a monument to Herzen and Ogarev was erected in a quiet, dead end spot in my lifetime, and I found it with difficulty. It’s a stele in the form of two mingled tongues of flame with a small bas-relief. Whether this was the exact spot where they made their vow or perhaps a bit to the right and higher is not known to scholarship. Truth to tell, I don’t like Herzen very much, a great essayist all the same (but Ogarev, a mediocre poet, I don’t like at all); making vows, in my opinion, even for 1827, is in very poor taste, but this location predisposes people to dramatic gestures, and this unexpected impulse from two expansive young men started the Sparrow Hills mythology. No, wait, that’s a lie! Somewhere in this area poor Liza picked flowers, and as we remember, fed them to her mother. But it’s still not clear about Liza—she threw herself into the pond near the Simonov Monastery, but that’s lower down the Moskva River. However, Woland flew off near the landing where the riverboats moored (brought up on the shore, as we remember, after Azazello’s whistle). The spot of their flight is now the top station of the cable car, which I rode many times and took and posed for photos: in part for me it replaced the one in Yalta, which now for many reasons I can’t ride and won’t be able to for a long time, it seems.

Moscow clusters in the lanes and courtyards, and its river does not flow straight, it loops.

Yes, the riverboats! A totally special joy: Moskva River, unlike the sovereign Neva, is shallow, warm, muddy, and not in the least sovereign. I think that St. Petersburg looks more like a capital—even in its current worn and provincial shape: the view from the Palace Bridge of the Neva, the Neva perspective, even any local park, not the Summer Garden, but say Elagin Park, is a grander and more impressive sight. Moscow is not a capital, it’s a glutton’s market, a natural preserve for the elite, a mix of bank and boutique. Our river is not formal, but warm, green, made for outings, and when the year’s first riverboat, also called Moskva, travels on it, that’s it, it’s spring. The embankment is full of people on bicycles, skateboards and roller-skates (and on Segways and Solowheels, we ride there with friends), and dog walkers—in general, it’s a place for relaxation and picnics, sunbathing on blankets, and consumption of fast food (no swimming allowed), and there is nothing of capital self-importance about it, except for the massive Luzhniki stadium on the other bank.  That’s what I like about Moscow—for all it’s showing off, it’s still not imperial. It does have the Kremlin, rather alien, but fine: Moscow clusters in the lanes and courtyards, and its river does not flow straight, it loops. The city’s character depends on the river. The warm Moskva River covered in poplar fluff, the white foam mustaches in the wake of riverboats, Neskuchny Garden, also mysterious and almost always empty—that is the face of Moscow, not the parades or GUM. Time stands still here, like water in a pond, and it will never move.

And, it goes without saying, Eros. The Lenin Hlls are not so much the crown of Moscow as—how shall I put it? Remember Aksyonov’s words: “mons veneris”… It is the most erotic place in Moscow in general, because it is surrounded by students from MGU, and everyone who has no other place goes into the woods in summer with very definite plans. I, for one, did. There, exactly where Moskva River makes a loop, the forest starts practically at the shore. Go up a bit and there are several lovely shady meadows, practically inaccessible to people’s eyes. You can’t find a better place on a warm summer evening. A place for what? Everything. I kissed there so many times it’s impossible to count, and a dozen times it was more than kissing, and who would have thought that it’s so easy to find a place in Moscow where you can do all that outdoors? Naturally, you need to know the spots, but I grew up there, after all. And it was there that I made a pass at a girl whom I loved probably more than all the rest in my now long life. I never loved anyone like that and never hated like that. It lasted seventeen years, and it was worth it.

It was in Lenin Hills that I first understood that being under God does not mean being in the center of general attention and generally succeeding; being truly under God is being in the eye of a hurricane, unseen by anyone, and you can quietly get on with your favorite things, blossoming, fading, rotting, and flowering again. The Lenin Hills are directly under the patronage of the main master, they are safely protected from interference, and life here is present in its true fullness: luxurious red-gold leaf fall in September and October, charming love in April, summer passion, soft flakes in winter, and always mystery. It turned out very well that I live nearby. In any other place, who know what would have become of me.


Dmitry Bykov

Dmitry Bykov is one of Russia's leading public intellectuals. He won the 2006 National Bestseller and Big Book awards for his biography of poet and novelist Boris Pasternak, and the 2011 National Bestseller for his novel about 1920s Freemasons, Ostromov or The Teachings of the Magician.

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