Elena and I set out on the Metro on a Sunday afternoon to visit an exhibition of Bible etchings by Marc Chagall at the International University of Moscow.
We had still not learned that Moscow is virtually without signage and that one wrong turn could catapult us into the equivalent of the Gobi desert without a compass at night-time.
The policemen and women of Moscow look like irregular soldiers - they are in uniforms but the uniforms are more like fatigues and camouflage than police uniforms. In Britain, we enjoy the myth that the police are servants of the public. Try telling that to anyone who has been ‘kettled’ whilst trying to get through a supposedly legal demonstration. It’s been a long time since a British ‘Bobby’ - how quaint that title now seems- addressed me as sir and asked me politely to move along.
Here in Moscow, however, there is very little attempt to pretend that the police are here to do anything other than crack your skull if you step out of line.
Baffled as usual by the complete absence of any signage indicating the address we sought, we spotted two short and rotund men in the vaguely desert combat uniform that some of the police seem to favour.
Elena asked them for directions to the address we had - street name and number and the name of the university.
It is common for policemen to smoke on duty and both of these were smoking off what looked, as given away by bloodshot eyes and dry, flaked and pasty skin, a massive hangover.
Aggressively stabbing in one particular direction, one of them expressed his irritation at such a stupid question by reminding Elena that even numbers were on this side of the road so we should travel in the direction he pointed in but that we should have stayed on the metro for one more stop. Elena retorted that the university was very clear about the nearest metro but this was a mistake as the soldier - policeman began to get angry.
Timidly, perhaps following in the footsteps of the infamous Stanford experiments wherein ordinary people blindly follow white coated authority figures to the point of torturing their peers, we did as we were told - a big mistake!
A mile along the eight lanes of motorway that bulldozed through the street that the university sat on, we were obviously going nowhere. Factory buildings not faculty buildings were all around.
At last, a kindly samaritan took us in hand and turned us around - we were going in the wrong direction on the wrong side of the road. It would have been impossible to give us more misleading, erroneous and irritaingly wrong directions other than to tell us that the university had closed and Marc Chagall had never existed.
A strange irony that the authoritarian tendency of the Russian Federation should tolerate such a sloppy manifestation of its power over the public. A simple measure like banning the police from smoking on duty whilst outdoors would make a huge difference to public perceptions of their efficiency, surely? And how difficult would it be to smarten them up a little and give them an A to Z of the city?
Perhaps the objective is control and the strategy intimidation and the tactic unpredictability and general unattractiveness - if so, it works.
But our hearts lifted as at last, exhausted but pleased that we had made it at all, we arrived at the university.
Inside, the security guard proved again the eternal verity that if you have nothing to do you probably can’t be bothered to do it. We asked where we should go in the very large building we had entered to find the exhibition. Without moving his lips some incomprehensible sounds came forth, just, only two, I think.
Another security guard shouted at us in what seemed to be an empty building except for security guards. Perhaps it was a security convention?
We were called over to face some sort of dressing down by a blue clad guard - did we not know that it is against the law to photograph the outside of the university?
Elena turned to me and translated this, asking me if it could possibly be true.
Of course not, I replied with certain ignorance.
Of course not, said Elena to the guard in English, then corrected herself (almost like the great scene in The Great Escape! ).
The guard said it was against the law.
Elena said she wanted to ask the Rector of the university.
But it is Sunday, said he.
The laws delays took on another dimension, but eventually Elena promised to obliterate the photographs if it did turn out to be illegal to have them, and our legal guardian and security guard showed us the way to Chagall.
Some thirty odd small coloured etchings showed the genius of Chagall’s idiosyncratic attachment to his Jewish - Russian roots and how these influenced his understanding of the old Testament as stories which tell us how life is and always will be.
Simple lines and smudges of colour miraculously pump blood and emotion around the figure of a reclining Eve as God, bearded and angry, jabs his finger at her in reproval for eating the apple - she looks incredibly achingly vulnerable, almost erotically so, and we are on her side against God, but this can’t be how Chagall sees it. Or can it. artists can be notoriously vague or inconsistent on why they do what they do and what it means.
In the background flickered footage of the Nazi forces destruction of the small village in Byelorussia that Chagall had grown up in.
Despite this, God still seemed to exist for Chagall.
And so did Russia - despite the kindness they showed to him, Chagall later excoriated the USA for failing to fight Nazism full bloodedly and he praised Stalin as Fascism’s only true destroyer.
Chagall, along with a number of other prominent artists in Europe, too busy with art and work to understand the horror that was enveloping Europe, left it late to leave Paris with his wife. They got to Marseilles but had no documents so were forbidden to leave for the United States. The local US consulate was staffed by a brave and imaginitive diplomat who forged the necessary documents for the Chagalls and many others, thereby saving for posterity some of the most brilliant art and artists of the 20th century.
This exhibition, however, built bridges between cultures and people.
It presented in a pleasant setting that complemented the small scale of the work itself a reflective and profound example of a complex and brilliant man: a Russian, a Jew, a man who loved France and who settled not entirely comfortably in the USA and returned to Russia with his work.
A great individual and humanitarian who loved a jealous God.
He and Walt Whitman might have been very good mates.( I contradict myself........)
Thank You the International University of Moscow.
By the way, is it against the law to photograph the exterior of your building?
Unless otherwise stated all photographs by Elena Bruce