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From Russia, with love

/ 05:28 AM October 05, 2018

After an early morning arrival at Moscow Domodedovo Airport, I had a taste of Russian traffic with the hourlong drive to our embassy. It was quite eerie, coming from Tuesday afternoon Edsa gridlock, to see slow-moving traffic but where motorists patiently stayed on their lane, and no one blew their car horns or swerved to use the shoulder or the part of the road reserved for emergency and police vehicles.

The weather was not good, the skies were gray, but the city was clean, with no dilapidated buildings, no graffiti, no billboards to distract the eye from an old but well-ordered cityscape. Having been raised on too many James Bond movies, I thought Moscow was populated by spies in trench coats, but I saw ordinary people in Uniqlo.

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I declined the offer to rest after breakfast, preferring to take a long walk around Red Square with the Philippine ambassador’s wife, Consuelo, to force me to stay awake and adjust to Moscow time, which is five hours behind Manila’s. We took the famous subway system, carved so deep from street level that it could be used as a shelter during an air raid or nuclear attack. Each station has its own distinct character, each adorned with paintings, mosaics, bronze or plaster sculptures extolling the virtues of Soviet-era life and the utopian ideals of the working class. I could spend days visiting the various stations and emerge to write an essay borrowing the title of Dostoevsky’s 1864 novel, “Notes from Underground.”

In a station adorned with statues depicting working-class occupations, I was told to find the statue of a soldier and a dog, and to rub the now shiny dog for good luck. It reminded me of Tokyo’s Shibuya Station, where tourists visit the statue of Hachiko, the loyal dog that waited for its master by the train station every day and continued to do so long after the master had passed away.

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Before I found the Russian dog, I had to weave my way through a horde of noisy mainland Chinese tourists who were gathered by a depiction of a farmer beside a shiny gold rooster, whose original dark patina has been worn away by thousands of Chinese hands rubbing all over it for luck.

Red Square did not disappoint; the red walls of the Kremlin were just as I had imagined them to be, though minus the military parade alongside them. Having viewed the mummified remains of Chairman Mao in Beijing and Ho Chi Minh in Hanoi, I needed to complete the set and see Lenin, but I was discouraged by the long line of tourists, again mostly mainland Chinese.

Lenin’s Tomb was the peg for the Ferdinand Marcos Mausoleum in Batac, Ilocos Norte, where the remains of the former president—in a formal  barong  and wearing his state decorations (not his controversial World War II military medals)—were venerated for many years before the body’s interment, despite widespread protests, in the Libingan ng mga Bayani.

Passing by the Four Seasons Hotel—where President Duterte stayed for 24 hours before cutting short his state visit to Russia to address the siege of Marawi with a declaration of martial law—I recalled a souvenir of his visit, a Duterte matryoshka doll, a series of nesting dolls of decreasing size placed inside each other. You twisted Duterte open to find P-Noy, then GMA, then Erap, and down to FVR, now too small to be recognizable. It would be historically accurate to have Marcos as the smallest, most insignificant doll; after all, it was he who established diplomatic relations with Russia in 1976.

To prepare for my Moscow trip, I reread the Marcos diary entries that covered his state visit from May 31 to June 7, 1976. They were mostly notes on substantial political and diplomatic concerns, but, on the lighter side, Marcos noted a stain, from a leaking fountain pen, on Leonid Brezhnev’s shirt when they met. Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko tried to distract the leaders by advising that the American pen be thrown away.

Then followed an exchange of empty pens that would not write. Brezhnev offered a Russian-made pen, and Marcos reciprocated with a gold pen. Then Mrs. Marcos borrowed a coin from close-in security and handed it quietly to her husband, who offered it to Brezhnev with the explanation that it was a Filipino custom to present a coin together with any pointed or sharp gift to symbolically blunt it.

More than superstition, Marcos was signaling his hope that Russia would not support the communist insurgency in the Philippines.

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TAGS: history and culture, opinion, Philippines, Red Square, Russia
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