Moscow in August

NL_Sept2010_AEintro3 Moscow. Red Square. St. Basil’s Cathedral. When I first saw these pictures next to each other, I didn’t notice anything striking. Only later did I realize that they were taken one year apart, and consider the differences between the two years, the two days, the two photos.

Usually, in the first week of August as my birthday approaches I’m thinking about the past year and what lies ahead, as I’ve written in past newsletters. I love the month and, being a true Leo, I never underplay the excitement of a birthday! This year, that first week of August was quite different. This year, my visit to Moscow coincided with the horrific fires surrounding the city, which were major news around the world. The picture you are looking at was taken on the only day during my visit that the Cathedral was clearly visible from even a few meters away, due to the fires and smoke that covered the city.

Moscow was already suffering from a heat wave. The extreme heat of over 100ºF lasted longer than ever recorded, in a city where air conditioning is a pure luxury, rarely available. Then, as devastating fires surrounded the city, it became shrouded in smoke. Each morning that I was there, I woke up with the windows shut tight against the choking odor of burning turf, which smelled like a mixture of poison and dirt.

Despite many leaving the city, Moscow still lived. Tourists walked on Red Square taking pictures of Lenin’s Tomb and St. Basil’s Cathedral. The salsa club organized thousands of dancers for an evening of salsa lessons in the park by the Moscow River. I saw construction workers continue renovations at the historic Bolshoi Theatre.

Things got scarier when I saw increasing numbers of people on the streets wearing masks to protect their breathing. However, people continued to go about their lives despite the heat and smoke. Those who could stand the intense heat of public transportation traveled to work from their small apartments (some just 300-500 square feet for a whole family). Some chose, instead, to spend the nights at their manufacturing plants to avoid public transportation, and have the extra breathing room of a bigger space.

It is always inspiring to witness or learn about the commitment and dedication – to their family’s survival, their work and their responsibilities – people can maintain when their character and courage are put to the test, going far above and beyond what one can imagine when not put in extreme situations. It’s hard to know true limits of our strength when we aren’t faced with tremendous challenges.

Remembering the devastation, danger and sense of helplessness of my time in Moscow this August, my deepest sympathy goes to all the families whose homes and even lives have been affected by the fires. I have deep respect for everybody who continued to work to maintain Moscow’s operations, including continued manufacturing of dance shoes for Russian Pointe’s dancers. Here in Chicago, I have a new appreciation for cold water in the shower and the fresh air of Michigan Avenue.

Although my 33rd birthday didn’t include a glamorous celebration and festivities like I had planned, I felt that these were days that would make a difference in my life – affecting the way I value life, safety and family. So, as I look at these two pictures again, I am moved by the differences between two such similar images. In one, I see the threat that was hanging over everyone in Moscow in August 2010, while the May 2009 photo radiates nothing but a happy summer night on the beautiful Red Square. Together, they remind me of how fragile and delicate our safety and security can be, the care and appreciation we should have for these valuable gifts, and the strength that we can find in ourselves when facing adversity.