Social distancing – A visit to Moscow

Updated: May 16


This is a one of two portraits done by my friend Konstantin Zubrilan in whose studio I spent many wonderful salon like afternoons and evenings. It reminds me, I was once a person who had her portrait painted. The second portrait is in the hands of an old friend in the US, it is a full portrait inspired when the same Konstantin saw me at a dinner party in a dress my designer friend Armen made for me – “I must paint you in that!” he exclaimed. Hoping to get it back some day and post it here too. A life of total gratitude.

It was Good Friday, Lugano Switzerland April 2020.

We were in lockdown. I was watching an opera on YouTube on our big screen TV.

Mozart's Così fan tutte from The Royal Opera.

Light, full of vigor, a toe tapper of an opera really.

There I was with my headphones on, blissed out on opera, and then suddenly I was in Moscow on another “visit”.

In Vladivostok my friends the Brady’s introduced me to opera, and in Moscow it became am integral part of the fabric of my life. To this day I cannot say that I know very much about opera and when I hear it, my heart vibrates with love and joy. I am transported. Warm, encouraging relationships, an entire world to explore. Moscow represents two of the most cultured years of my life to date. The portrait image that leads this post is a perfect example.

Outside the Bolshoi theater with Sasha Kuzmina one of my Vladivostok friends who has remained with me wherever I go (she is presently living in Africa).

In Moscow as Director of the American Cultural Center (AMC) I had a free pass into the rich cultural world of this amazing city. At that time the AMC was located in the Library of Foreign Literature along with the French and Japanese cultural centers plus the British cultural center, the British Council. My colleague at the British Council was a lovely gent, a career diplomat who gave me the honor of a monthly lunch where he regaled me with stories of his career and life. The Director of the prestigious library of Foreign Literature at the time was a formidable woman named Ekaterina Yurievna Genieva. At one point I was invited to a birthday celebration for Ekaterina Yurievna, already an event of some pretense, Madeline Albright showed up as a special guest. Four hours of toasting and congratulating, I left legless.

Another perk of being the Director of this center, directly related to the US Embassy, free use of the athletic facilities on the Embassy compound. There another journey began, I was introduced to Aikido which eventually led me to yoga and Qi gong. A colleague heading the science desk at the British Embassy, Liz, had with her a ‘trailing spouse’. Alick, a super intelligent and highly active man was an environmental scientist, and with the time he had on his hands in Moscow he started an Aikido dojo at the US Embassy. The rest is history for me, and for them too as they went on to be serious players in the Moscow Aikido scene. Claudio and I have been to see them in England, and we are still in touch to this day. On visits to Moscow after I was no longer living there, I would sometimes stay in their lovely flat located in an historic area of Moscow. My friendship with Liz & Alick remains a treasure form my Moscow life. Equally, my appreciation of Qi gong, which stemmed from my fascination with Aikido's exercise about prioritizing the sticks.

My delight at being in Moscow was compounded by the location of my flat. I lived in the heart of the city, in an inner circle of the garden ring on Malaya Nikitskaya street. At one end of this street was the church where Pushkin was married, the Greater Church of the Ascension. At the other end one of the Moscow’s towering seven sister buildings built in the Stalinist style, Kudrinskaya Square. Also known as the ‘spy skyscraper’ due to its proximity to the US Embassy mission in Moscow. Just a few steps away, the chic and fashionable Патриарши Пруды (Patriarchy Prude), the iconic scene at the opening of Bulgakov's classic the Master and Margarita. A ten minute walk down another fashionable street and I was in Red Square. In the other direction the Arbat one of Moscow’s most historic streets full of art, cafes, and strolling people.

My “commute” to work was through Red Square. In the late 90’s I walked through Red Square as late/early as 2am, snow falling on the onion domes of St. Basil’s cathedral. For me this image of snow falling in the square, alone in the starry night is iconic of my life in Moscow. The romantic way in which I lived it and choose to remember it.

This said, I had a rocky start. It was August 1998 when I began my role as the Director, my first “job” after Peace Corps (PC). Five days after I started, the Russian economy crashed, and we had no operating funds. Translation, no money to pay salaries to 12 staff for two months while the US Embassy (our funding body) comically insisted on knowing “where the funds went”. It was, to quote my friend Tom, a shit show. We managed with enormous creativity and spirit through these two months, and for two years I had the honor to direct this center. Two of the most challenging and rewarding years of my adult life. How much I learned!

Art, culture, language, etiquette, intrigue, loneliness, and self-discovery all played out in my Moscow life. The people who populated my life, who shared their city with me, made the experience all the more amazing. While I am no longer in touch with many of them, their place in my heart is as if they are with me every day. More people to ‘visit’.

Top a photo preparation for the eventual portrait taken one lazy evening in Konstantin’s studio; bottom left Kostya at one of our favorite spots of the time having a cup of tea; middle Kostya and I meeting or parting at some airport or train station I cannot recall; bottom right Natasha darling friend of Kostya and treasured friend of mine.

There are many people who have profoundly affected my life. Sometimes I know it in the moment, and sometimes it is only years after that I realize the positive mark they have left upon me. Konstantin (Kostya) and Natasha are a composite of the later. How I met them now escapes me and their roles as the golden thread that knits together much of my Moscow life strike me only now as I conjure them in my memory.

A Soviet portrait artist sent to all corners of the USSR to paint leaders and their families, Kostya re-invented himself in the 1990’s as the USSR was crumbling. By the time I met him in 1998 he was making a rich living painting a new kind of portrait, murals of historical scenes for up and coming Russian oligarchs. The portraiture, would be their face and the faces of their families, in the murals. Along with this Kostya worked on interior design and architecture to create the entire look for sumptuous villas and apartments in and around the city.

Retrospectively, Kostya represents for me the Russian archetype of a man who can shape change for the times and always come out on top. What was constant, his talent, his awesome sense of humor, and his chivalry. His studio was a vast cavern of rooms in an historic Russian building not far from the center, and it was there that I met Natasha. My Russian Sophia Loren. Natasha was a woman of extraordinary intellect and poise. She had been involved in the art world under the Soviets and was as well re-inventing herself when we met. Art critic and designer, we would call her an effortless fashion influencer today. Together they took me on vast explorations of art, culture, and design in the stupefying landscape of post-Soviet Moscow. We were the three musketeers and every excursion was an unforgettable adventure. From art museums famous and obscure, to tea salons, Kostya’s studio, and my home, each encounter was a fresh delight. When I flew my host sisters to Moscow for two weeks this dynamic duo made sure they saw every possible aspect of their own capital from the perspective of art and culture. When my father came to visit, we were treated to personally guided tours of several of their favorite cultural spots. One of the most tender moments was when they took us on a private tour of one of my favorite galleries in Moscow, the Tretyakov. How curious and proud my father was to see this gallery and its contents with a team of ‘experts’ and a private translator as his guides.

As I write, again Bulgakov’s Master & Margarita comes to mind. I see Kostya as the Master and Natasha as Margarita. The details of that story, not mine to tell. Enough to say that what I learned from them about art and culture is equal to what I learned from them about integrity, love, and humanity.

Already inclined to self-reflection and personal discovery, Moscow presented me with another golden opportunity. Having worked in the training sector in the RFE I was immediately connected with the training, USAID, and NGO worlds in full buzz in the late 90’s in Moscow. In the two years I lived in Moscow I attended 6 extensive, powerful trainings in leadership and professional/personal development. These courses in fact form the first block of my career as a coach and guide. In one of these week-long trainings we were 120 people, only four of us were foreigners, me, two Brits, and a Frenchman. The rest were mid to high level Russians including members of the Duma (Russian Parliament).

These trainings served as both self-discovery and cultural immersion; for the trainings themselves and the friendships that formed as an extension of participating in them. At one of my first trainings I met Nikolay Yurevich Ignatiev, soon after I met his wife Svetlana (Sveta) Ivanovna. In true Russian style, I met Sveta the day after she gave birth to their daughter Nika, in the bathtub of their luxurious Moscow flat. From that moment on I was smitten, in love with them all. Nikita their 2 year old son was full of fire and spirit, a natural extension of his parents. Nika was a sweet little miracle. In a twist of fate I even became her Godmother complete with the full Orthodox ceremony. Nikolay’s mother was none too plussed that a non-Orthodox would be in charge of her grand-daughters spiritual health. That I was a foreigner was a double hex. In some respects she was right, my physical presence has been nearly non-existent in Nika’s life, and my honor and awe of being offered this role remains.

Nika in our favorite plum tree having breakfast at their home in Tikhoretsk when she was about 4.

The Ignatiev’s were/are a modern Russian success story, and for me they were everything romantic and hopeful about Russia as a nation. Both university graduates, Sveta in English language and literature and Nikolay in metallurgy. For years Sveta sold bulbs from her parents’ land near Rostov-na-Donu to supplement the family income while Nikolay built his career. She cultivated a network of flower kiosks in Moscow offering her bulbs until one day she had a full-fledged network, a small bulb empire. Meanwhile, Nikolay worked his way to be an important member of an industrial organization dealing in metals at just the right moment. At a certain point Sveta’s bulbs became more a hobby and she put her extensive energies and talents into home and family.

By the time I left Russia in 2007, they had two lovely flats in Moscow and owned the entire bend of a river in Tikhoretsk. The latter had been the small homestead of Sveta’s parents, where those original bulbs came from. Writing this section I had on my table the photos you see below from my trip to visit them all in Tikhoretsk in 2003.

On one of my visits to their place in Tikhoretsk. Top their home on the river bend; bottom left Sveta’s father watering the bulbs; middle the bridge over the river to get to; bottom right massive sunflower fields.

Top Sveta in their main Moscow flat with her characteristic sensuality; bottom us on a visit with me far left, Sveta in the middle, and Nikolay right them in their motorcycle gear.

My friendship with Nikolay and Sveta, as with Kostya and Natasha, are brilliant highlights of the meaningful and life changing friendships that underlined my life in Moscow. My life wherever I am. It is the people that I meet that remain with me when I leave a place. In some cases, like the Sasha’s from Vladivostok, the friendships move on with me into new dimensions of my life. In others time and space become too large to maintain current friendships, and the impact these people have on my life is everlasting.

Travel was another component of my time in Moscow. At the end of the 90’s Moscow was a bustling hub of international traffic. It seemed one could get anywhere from there, and I did. In the two years I lived there I visited Bali, South Africa, Estonia, and Latvia. I made the first of three trips to Budapest, and went to Prague, England, Egypt, and Kazakhstan. This last visit was with my father and we went to the very same Brady’s who started me on my opera path.

What eventually led to my leaving Moscow was two-fold. First, my job as the Director of the American Cultural Center was a reconnaissance mission. As this center lived under the umbrella of the US Embassy, this was my way of determining if I wanted to invest in a career as a Foreign Service officer, working for the US State Department. A few of my colleagues from PC had taken this route and a life traveling the world as a diplomat was attractive, until it was not. My time at the center, working with the US Embassy, made my choice clear. I learned a lot and gained enormous respect for my colleagues. To this day I consider the work of the State Department to be the single most important work of the US abroad.

My choice to leave Moscow in 2000 was a dramatic one, as I thought it meant I would be returning to the US. As a way to soften the transition my father and I agreed to meet in Turkey for a visit, after he had fallen in love with Turkish food and coffee in Kazakhstan. We did meet there, and after he left, I got sidetracked and there is where my Turkish adventures began. We save that for another ‘visit’.

Less than a dozen photos remain in my possession from my two years in Moscow and they are actual photos, nothing digital. These you see scattered throughout the post. To make these collages I actually took photos of the few photos I have and made these collages with them. What joy I had in searching for and creating with these images. It meant I took a lot more time to create this post and subsequently I had more time to visit, and invite you to visit with me, in technicolor.

Finally, I did several takes of video to accompany this post. They all fell flat or I began to cry. In the end I have decided to let the written word and the few images I have here tell the story. Thanks for joining me, until next time.

Left an initial sketch for the first portrait; Right a close up of the portrait which leads the post.

#Moscow #love #gratitude #art #culture #beauty #connections

© 2023 by NICOLE CRABTREE