Mikhail Lermontov

A Panorama of Moscow

He who has never climbed on the top of Ivan the Great, who has never had an opportunity to take in the whole of the ancient capital at one glance from end to end, who has never admired that majestic panorama, stretching almost beyond that range of vision, knows absolutely nothing about Moscow. For Moscow is not an ordinary city like thousands of others; Moscow is no silent immensity of cold stones piled one upon other to form symmetrical patterns no indeed! It has its own soul, its own life. As in ancient Roman cemetery, every stone is graven with its own inscription beyond the comprehension of the crowd but rich and rewarding in thought, feeling and inspiration for the scholar, the patriot and the poet! Like the ocean, the city has its own language, powerful, resonant, prayerful! No sooner has the day begun than from its golden-helmeted churches resounds a harmonious hymn of bells reminiscent of some strange, fantastical Beethoven overture, in which the dense tones of the double-bass and clashing of the kettle-drums mingle with the signing of the violins and flutes to make one magnificent whol; - and it seems as though the disembodied sounds were taking on a visible form, as though the spirits of heaven and hell were combining under the clouds in one diverse, immeasurable swiftly whirling dance!.. Oh, what bliss to hear this sacred music from the topmost turret of Ivan the Great, resting your elbows in the narrow, mossy window embrasure to which you have been led by a worn and slippery spiral staircase, and to think that all this orchestra is clamoring beneath your feet and to imagine that the whole performance is for you alone, that you are the sovereign of this immaterial world, and to devour with your eyes that vast anthill where people you do not know are all so busy about their own business, where passions are seething which you, for the moment, have put away from you and forgotten! What bliss thus to perceive in ones heart the whole vanity of life, all the pettiness of mans concerns, and to contemplate the world from a height! To the North, in the extreme distance, a little to the right of Peter Castle, the fable quarter of Maryina Roshcha stretches black to blue edge of the horizon and before it lies a strata of brightly-coloured roofs intersected here and there by the dusty green of the boulevards which follow the line of the ancient city wall; on the steep rise, with its scattering of low houses and here and there the wide white wall of some boyars dwelling, rises a four-cornered, grey-blue fantastic pile: the Sukharev Watchtower. It surveys its surroundings proudly, as though aware that the name of Peter is inscribed on its mossy brow! Its gloomy appearance, gigantic proportions and incisive lines all bear the stamp of another age, the stamp of that formidable power which proved so irresistible to every foe. Nearer to the centre the appearance of the city becomes more harmonious, more European; we catch a glimpse of rich colonnade, wide courtyards surrounded by wrought-iron railings, countless cupolas, pointed bell-towers surmounted by rusty crosses and patterned by brightly painted cornices. Still nearer, on the wide square, rises the Peter Theatre, a product of the very latest art, a huge building constructed according to all the canons of good taste with flat roof and majestic portico from which there rises and alabaster Apollo riding lightly poised on one foot in an alabaster chariot, immovably driving three alabaster stallions and gazing with considerable vexation at the Kremlin wall, which jealously cuts his off from the more ancient and sacred monument of Russia! To the East the picture is yet richer and more varied; just beyond the wall of the Kremlin, which follows the slope downhill to the right and terminates in a round corner-tower, covered with green tiles as of with scales, a little to the left of this tower appear the countless cupolas of the Church of St. Basil the Blessed, whose seventy side-chapels are the wonder of all foreigners and which no Russian has yet undertaken to describe in exact detail. Like the ancient tower of Babylon, the church consists of several elevations crowned by a huge, indented rainbow-coloured dome, strikingly reminiscent (if I may be forgiven for the comparison) of the stopper of an old cutglass decanter. To all points of the compass round about are placed the secondary domes, no one in the very least like the others; they are scattered about the whole building without symmetry or order like young growths sprouting from the gnarled and naked roofs of an ancient tree. Heavy twisted pillars support the iron roofing which overhangs the doors and the outer galleries from which small, dark windows peer like the wary eyes of some hundred-headed monster. Around these windows are traced thousand of hieroglyphics; occasionally the dim light of an icon-lamp can been seen flickering through their latticed glass like a peaceful glowworm pulsating amongst ivy which has festooned itself about some ancient ruinous tower. From the outside each side-chapel is painted in a different colour as though they had not all been built at the same time, as though each successive ruler of Moscow had, of course of many years, added an altar in honour of his own patron saint. There must be very few citizens of Moscow who have made up their minds to tour each one of the side-chapels of this church. Its sombre outward appearance is in itself discouraging; it seems as though one were looking at Ivan the Terrible himself, - such as he was in the last years of his life! And what of it? - Immediately next door to this magnificent gloomy building, right opposite its very doors, seethes the unwashed crowd: - rows of stalls shine, itinerant salesmen cry their wares, bakers bustle about the foot of the Minin Monument: fashionable carriages rattle by, fashionable ladies chatter, everything is so noisy, animated, bustling! To the right of St.Basils, at the bottom of a steep slope, flows the River Moskva, wide, shallow and dirty, overcrowded by a vast number of heave vessels bringing cargoes of grain and wood; their long masts crowned with striped pennants rise from behind the Moskoveretsky bridge; their creaking rigging, shaken like cobwebs in the wind, makes a faint clack tracery against the blueness of the sky. On the left bank of the river, gazing down into its smooth waters, stands the white orphanage whose wide, bare walls, symmetrically placed windows and chimneys and generally European air are in strong contrast to the other buildings in that neighbourhood which are either clothed in oriental luxury or clearly medieval in inspiration. Further to the East on three hills, between which the river winds and loops, are various large groups of houses of every conceivable shape and colour; the weary eye scarcely distinguishes the far horizon on which are outlined the groupings of several monasteries, among which the St. Simon Monastery is remarkable for its look-out platform, hovering almost between earth and sky, from which our ancestors kept watch upon the movements of approaching Tatars. To the South, at the foot of the hill immediately beneath the Kremlin wall itself, opposite the Taynitskye Gates, the river flows on and beyond it a wide vale scattered with houses and churches stretches to the very foot of the Poklonnaya Hill from which Napoleon cast his first glance upon the Kremlin that was to prove his doom and from which, for the first time, he saw that prophetic flame, that dread torch which was to illuminate his triumph and his fall! To the West, beyond the tall tower where only swallows can live (because, having been built after the French, it has neither floors nor ceilings inside and its walls are supported only be the crossbeams) rise the arches of Kamenny bridge, which soars from one bank to the other in one leaping curve; the water, held back by a smallish dam, flows noisily beneath the vaults, forming small waterfalls which, particularly in the spring, attract the curiosity of our Muscovite idlers, and sometimes became receptacle of the body of some poor sinner. Further then the bridge, on the right-hand side of the river you can distinguish the jagged silhouette of the Aleksis Monastery to the left, on the plain between the roofs of the Donskoy Monastery... And there behind them, clothed in a blue mist rising from the cold waves of the river, begin the Vorobyev Hills, topped by dense groves looking down from their steep slopes to the river as it goes winding past their feet like a silvery snake. When the day begins to fade, the more distant parts of the city and encircling hills are wrapped in a rosy haze, then only is it possible to see our ancient capital in all its glory, for like a beauty who only in this solemn hour that she can make a really strong, indelible impression on our hearts. What is comparable to this Kremlin which, surrounded by its coronated wall, the golden domes of its cathedrals shining, adorns its lofty hill like a royal crown the forehead of a mighty sovereign?.. It is an altar of Russia on which many sacrifices worthy of the fatherland have been and will yet be laid Is it so long since, like the legendary phoenix, it rose from its own flaming ashes? What could be more impressive that these dark churches, huddled close together? Than the mysterious palace of Godunov whose cold pillars and stone have now for so many years heard no sound of human voices like a mausoleum that rises in the midst of a desert in memory of great kings?! No; neither the Kremlin, nor its crenellated walls, nor it dark passages, nor its magnificent state appartments can really be described. All this must be seen, be seen and all that they have to say to the heart and imaginations this all has to be felt. Lermontov, Cornet of the Hussar Regiment of Imperial Guards.