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And Snovem Godom To You Too!
(Or Happy New Year from Moscow's Red Square)
by Charles Barnard

New Year's Eve is the one night of every year which requires planning, I mean strategy, I mean finding real, rational solutions to the problem of who-what-when-where-how-and-why. Only the "when" part is arranged for us by the cosmos — midnight, December 31. Everything else is up to you, and if you happen to be single — especially if you're single — all those other question marks had better be resolved before the relentless clock strikes twelve.

Whom shall I spend New Year's Eve with? What shall we do? Where shall we do it? How can I afford it? Why does this have to be an annual problem?

It's a problem because New Year's Eve is the one Senior Prom we never seem to outgrow, a "must" time, alas, for party hats and champagne and often-senseless whoopee — a Big Date Night, make no mistake. And it does not avail us to say simply, the hell with all this game-show gaiety. The world and friends usually won't let one get away with that retreat. No sitting at home with a pizza and a good book, pal. Not on 12/31. Not when the ball drops.

What to do, then?

I'm working on an escape plan, have been for several years. I travel. I get the hell out. I disappear. I have been in some odd places when the Big Midnight has arrived, come to think of it. I first experienced a New Year's escape in a midwest college town. Most other students had gone home for the holidays. I was broke; I worked the night shift in a near-empty cafeteria and met a pretty girl at quarter to midnight.

Then came a December 31 in Paris (very civilized); later on, I crossed the New Year's dateline on a trans-Pacific flight (slept through the moment, I fear). The more remote I made myself, it seemed, the more delicious the escape. Last year, I was north of the arctic circle in Finnish Lapland on the chime of midnight. Toasting the moment with snow-chilled bubbly and telling fortunes at 20-below-zero under northern lights was unforgetable.

As New Years have turned out, "remote" has not always meant alone. Travelers are rewarded with some of life's best encounters, I think — and, hey, not to brag, but there has often been someone around to kiss at midnight, and perhaps for a time thereafter.

Now I get interesting suggestions from people who know this game I play. Try New Year's Eve on the Orient Express, they say. (Must do that some year; very elegant, very festive, I'm told). Or New Year's Eve on the island of Madeira. (Beautiful festival, all agree.) Or maybe switch to Lunar New Year in Hong Kong (the first day of the first moon after the sun enters Aquarius).

One year, as December wound down, I somehow became intrigued with nothing more than a play on words. "How's about spending New Year's Eve in Red Square instead of Times Square?" I kept repeating the thought until it seemed the height of logic. Why not, indeed? Friends smiled tolerantly when I mentioned my idea, then politely asked if I knew what actually happens in Moscow's famous square on the big night.

"Do the Soviets parade their tanks? Does a ball drop?"

I dunno, I said. I'm going to find out. Discovery is all the fun.

Finnair's big jet lofts me to Helsinki and thence to Russia in two great, across-the-world arcs that seem to take no longer than a meal and a nap. In the USSR, we enter an ice age, the worst winter in years. Pilot to passengers before landing: "It's snowing in Moscow, temperature sixteen below." It is the evening of December 30. Tamara is our Intourist guide; I like her at once. She recites the usual social-studies data during the 45-minute bus ride through darkness from airport to city. ("Moscow has nine railroad terminals . . .we do not import any automobiles . . .we call Pushkin the father of the Russian language . . .those public decorations you see are not Christmas trees but New Year trees . . . .")

Snow swirls as if permanently suspended around towering street lights which cast a peachy-pink glow. We follow Leningradsky Prospekt, then Gorki Street to the National Hotel. "You will be very comfortable," Tamara reassures her guests. "Both Armand Hammer and Lenin have stayed here."

A hefty, uniformed doorman ushers the Americans into the 1903 lobby. An illuminated Heineken beer sign casts a green glow on four heroic Atlas figures which support the ceiling on their sculpted marble backs. A pretty Russian woman wearing a fur-trimmed conical hat, a long embroidered gown and boots — all white — offers us salt and bread from a round, crusty loaf. A traditional gesture of welcome, Tamara explains.

I enter my third-floor room through two sets of towering French doors. The ceiling is at least 16 feet high, the twin beds seem only 2 feet wide, the bathtub 9 feet long. I swish the window curtains back; icy cold slides from the glass. Below, I see a rectangular plaza where some Christmas trees (sorry, Tamara) gleam and blink while groups of costumed folk dancers perform on temporary stages. School is out; there are many children with their families in the crowds.

I look beyond. There is a high wall, illuminated; some Gothic spires, black against a red-stained night sky; then, dimly-lighted in the distance, unmistakable St. Basil's Cathedral, the ornate, onion-domed trademark of Red Square. I am here! — I can't wait to explore — but dinner is served just now: cold smoked salmon, "meat in the pot" (beef stew), stacks of good bread and a bottled mineral water that tastes like Alka Seltzer. I eat and run.

It is barely a five-minute walk from the hotel to Red Square, but I am doing it for the first time and excitement makes the route seem long: through a pedestrian underpass, then up a short, unlighted street in the shadow of a large museum building with many darkened windows. No cars here, only the hunched silhouettes of pedestrians, cold-stiffened figures in boots and fur hats hurrying through the soft snow.

The square seems chin-high ahead of me; I walk uphill towards my goal; the domes of St. Basil's slowly rise above the horizon as I approach. On the left, a battery of searchlights is mounted high on the long, low building which is the state-owned GUM department store. The beams of light thrust across the square through swirling draperies of young flakes. On my right are the red brick walls of the Kremlin with its mustard-and-white palaces rising behind. A huge red banner, the flag of the Soviet Union, flies over all. It strains and thrashes in the winter wind.

Have I walked onto a movie set? Are you here, Dr. Zhivago? Do I hear Lara's Theme? I see the place Lenin lies, there, across the square, in the shiny red marble tomb, his name cut in five Cyrillic letters across the top. Great ruby red stars perch on the points of the Kremlin's spires. A clock tower displays the hour, gold on black. I stand like a tourist and gaze all around. A lone police car is parked at one end of the square, looking as small as a toy in the distance. It is the only vehicle in sight.

Red Square is not a square, but a rectangle. (Times Square is not a square either, I remember, just an intersection.) Red Square is not flat, either, but has a slight crown at the center. The effect, I think, could be mistaken for the curvature of the earth. People criss-cross the area, small and lost in the vast gloom of the space, bulky, black figures moving, moving over the snowy cobbles, some pulling sleds, some carrying shopping bags, all leaning against the wind. The branches of winter-bare trees make a black-lace pattern against pink-lighted brick walls. There are no sounds, only occasional muffled voices in passing, no smell but the moist, mineral scent released by new snow falling on old stones.

There is no sign, either, that tomorrow will be New Year's Eve, no plywood-protected shop windows as in Times Square, no illuminated ball poised to drop, no stacks of police barricades to contain a crowd. Would there be any celebration, any fun at all? Had it been a mistake to come here? Would it be just me and Lenin and the police car at midnight?

I take a walk through GUM, all bathed in gritty, blue-gray factory light from naked fluorescent tubes. The unheated halls and mezzanines of "the world's largest store" are as cold as a stable. It is nearly closing time. A horn, honking like an air-raid alarm, is ordering shoppers out.

My first reconnaissance is complete; I am frozen; I return to the hotel. Half-melted snow is beginning to make a puddle of brown gruel on the lobby floor tiles. People are talking about the cold in many languages. I go to the "dollar bar" on the second floor where foreigners can pay with a credit card for an expresso and an Armenian brandy. I sit alone with these medications and try to accept where I am.

The square, so near, is like a magnet. By 10:30 p.m., my curiosity prevails over the weather — I go back. I want to see if I was right about the earth-curvature. There are fewer people now and the snow is deeper. I watch seven old snowplows move out of a side street — an armored column, no headlights, each truck fitted with a plow and a large rotary brush. They sweep around like a phalanx of combines harvesting a wheat field, snow spurting from the plow blades and and being whipped into a blizzard by spinning brushes which hiss on the frozen cobbles. The trucks are weary; they balk and smoke and grind their gears, but Red Square is cleared of snow in 30 minutes and the plows return to lurk again in their side street.

At every hour on the hour, the two Red Army sentinels who stand guard at the door to the Lenin mausoleum are changed. I am in time to see the 11 p.m. event. A small number of well-muffled people begin to gather in front of the tomb a few minutes before the hour. A watery illumination reaches across the square from the many floodlights on GUM; the light arrives horizontally, accusingly, like a searching beam from a guard tower.

At four minutes, the crowd stirs — they see the new guards coming. Three figures are goose-stepping their way from one of the Kremlin gates: a corporal of the guard and two sentries. They wear fur hats, long belted greatcoats and black boots. The tall men carry bayonet-pointed rifles in a stilted, vertical position, balanced in the cup of one hand. The crowd silences as they approach. Six boots thump.

With a minute to spare, the new guards mount the steps of the tomb and pause. All five men stand rigid until the bells of the Kremlin clock begin to toll the hour. Then the corporal turns down the fur collars of the old guard and turns up the collars of the new. A few cold blue blinks from spectators' cameras reflect on the shining red marble of the tomb. Bunches of red carnations lie frozen where people have placed them on the surrounding wall. The guards exchange places with precise, pivoting movements, synchronous as the figures in a Bavarian clock, lifeless as the corpse they honor.

I wake in the night. Was it still snowing? Were the red stars still shining? I go to the window. Some cars are passing below, snow slanting into their headlights. The red stars are darkened. I cannot see St. Basil's. I look at my watch. It is December 31.

There will be New Year's Eve parties at the Intourist-operated hotels in Moscow, I discover, and every public function room in the National is getting ready. I decide to attend to my eating and drinking after the New Year arrives, but while the old year still has an hour or two of life, I follow my now-familiar route back to the square. At 11 p.m., I find I am only one individual in a vast migration. Hundreds are moving in the same direction.

Last night Red Square was for Muscovites headed home with their shopping. Tonight I see new faces: Mongol eyes, Armenian noses, Uzbek hats, Tatar costumes. I see young soldiers from the Soviet provinces looking in awe at Red Square — like young soldiers from anywhere gawking at Times Square. I see Russian fathers with children on their shoulders and old soldiers wearing medals won in battles long ago. A few police stroll in pairs through the crowd, but they are ignored.

A young man runs, carrying a small, straggly Christmas tree that is draped with tinsel. He stands it upright on the snowy cobbles and a circle of dancers forms around the tree almost immediately, arms and hands locked, like Israelis or Greeks, moving first one way, then the other. "What are they doing?" I ask a friendly face. I get a friendly and lengthy reply — in Russian.

A Santa Claus arrives, of course, but then, in the Soviet Union, they called him Father Frost. No matter, he wears the same red suit, black boots and long white beard. He is followed by children, teased by teens and offered swigs of vodka by grownups. Santa has a helper, too, the Snow Princess, blonde and bosomy and all in white.

The temperature has fallen even lower, too cold now for snow. The square is filling rapidly as midnight nears — a sea of fur hats, brightened here and there with daubs of stocking-cap colors from Ireland, or Minnesota or New Zealand. A happy group of Kiwis from Auckland wave their flag and promise all who will listen that the America's Cup is as good as theirs.

For some reason, the Chinese Year of the Rabbit has meaning here — a figure in a cardboard rabbit head runs and hops through the crowd, two tall paper ears, bent and flopping. A guitarist materializes and the antic rabbit dances while another circle of happy Russians forms.

Russian girls sparkle their hair with strands of silver tinsel; their dates carry bottles of Georgian champagne and plastic cups. There is spilling and sharing everywhere, but no shaking and spraying. Discarded champagne bottles spin like frosted rolling pins on the icy pavements, but I see none smashed.

The air is below-zero dry and full of needles when inhaled; visibility is as sharp as through an expensive lens. The fluted domes of St. Basil's are a story-book illustration: blue and white stripes, red and green cubes, green and gold spirals. They look like Christmas tree ornaments frosted with real snow. A young Russian couple sets up a camera on a tripod and poses in front of the former church for a self-timer picture.

At five minutes before midnight, red-fire flares sputter on the cobblestones and cast a theatrical glow on faces and snow alike. Young men light sparklers and hold them, burning, between their teeth. Some Australians have joined a large circle and are trying to dance like Cossacks, arms folded, knees bent. They fall and laugh and solicitous Russian friends help them up to try again.

The tomb guards appear before midnight and all eyes turn to watch them. Then the clock tower bells begin to count down the end of the old year. Some sparklers are thrown across the black sky in wobbling silver arcs, red flares make long black shadows on the snow, the sentries' bayonets gleam in the searchlights and the rabbit dances with a girl from Glasgow.

A group of Americans are earnestly trying to form the biggest circle yet. They hold any hand they can grab and begin to sing Auld Lang Syne. I scuff through tangles of colored paper streamers to join them. It is January 1. I've done it again.


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