Part 4: High Summer at the Bruce Estate
Text and photos by Ian Mitchell
On a beautiful Sunday morning in August, I wheeled the bike out of the entrance to our pannelny dom in Khimki at about 7.30, when all was quiet and cool, but already bright. I was on the MKAD within ten minutes, heading east. I cycled forty kilometres round to the Chaussee Entusiastov exit, then headed slightly north of east towards Losino-Petrovsky.
I am constantly assailed by people who tell me that they would never cycle on the MKAD. But in fact it is one of the best routes in Moscow. It is the only road where you have a whole lane to yourself (usually), so the trucks do not crowd you towards the pavement or the pot-holed dirt shoulder, as sometimes happens on other roads. The surface is good, and it is properly drained so that after rain you do not have to navigate pond-sized puddles which, elsewhere, I worry about as they can conceal pot-holes. Furthermore, there are no traffic lights, wayward pedestrians, barking dogs, broken glass or lunatic Lada drivers darting out of side-roads as if they had important meetings to get to.
True, the traffic moves fast, but so it does elsewhere. I like the MKAD and, just for the hell of it, plan to do a full circuit one Sunday in the autumn, when the weather is cooler. Anyone who wishes to join me for a non-competitive cycle “rally”, should email me (ian@ianmitchellonline. co.uk). It might be fun.
A word about those Lada drivers. I noted in the first article in this series that, in general, in Moscow a lower level of attention is paid to other road users than in Britain. I should qualify this. The fact is that most Russian drivers are courteous to cyclists, but there are two types of road-user you need to watch out for.
The first are the Lada drivers, in which category I also include the drivers of elderly Russian cars, like Volgas, as well as of busses, marshrutki and, surprisingly, ambulances, though not, equally surprisingly, police vehicles. In my experience, the police usually give cyclists a courteously wide berth. A minority—I should stress that—of these people drive as if cyclists are trespassing on the road.
The other problem category is the driver of a black-windowed Lexus or LandCruiser who is very conscious of your presence on the road. They do not view the road as territory that should be forbidden to cyclists, Soviet-style, but as place for free competition where the market favours weight and aggression, capitalist-style.
But don’t let that discourage you. The vast majority of drivers are polite and make every allowance for the presence of cyclists. And the situation overall is getting better, not worse. In the five years I have been riding the roads of the city, I have noticed a definite improvement in the level of courtesy.
Beyond the behaviour of some drivers, the other big danger for cyclists in Russia is the condition of the roads. Here, as elsewhere in Russia, my motto is “expect the unexpected”. Apart from the obvious problems of holes and bumps etc., there is the fact that you often have to take rapid avoiding action if you are not to crash into a pot-hole and buckle a wheel or ride through a scatter of broken glass and puncture a tyre. Sudden manoeuvres annoy some Lada-drivers, so the better the road the pleasanter the cycling, which is another reason why I favour the MKAD.
After turning off at Chaussee Entusiastov, I had about 25 kms to go, first through grim Moscow semi-suburbia, and then through beautiful wheat fields and woods before I reached the little village where Jacob (James) Bruce, one of Peter the Great’s most important confrères, built an estate, called Glinka, in the 1720s.
Some of the Bruces of Airth (in Stirlingshire) came to Russia as mercenary soldiers in the time of Peter’s father, Tsar Alexis. Jacob was born in the Nemetskaya Sloboda in Moscow in 1669. There he met Peter, and became a close friend. In 1697 he travelled with the young Tsar to England where, amongst other things, he introduced him to Sir Isaac Newton.
Bruce is said to have been one of the best-educated men in Russia. He had a scientific bent, founding the first astronomical observatory in the country, on top of the Sukharevsky Tower. His book collection later became an important part of the Russian Academy of Science library.
Bruce was also a talented military engineer, and served with distinction in many of Peter’s wars. He commanded the artillery at the crucial battle of Poltava, when Sweden’s challenge to Russia’s Baltic expansion was decisively crushed. In 1721 Peter made him one of the first Counts of his newly-proclaimed Empire.
Six years later, Bruce bought the Glinka estate where he built a modestlysized but elegant mansion of his own design (see picture opposite above). A normal man would have settled down to enjoy the fruits of a productive and interesting life-time. But Bruce was as restlessly energetic and curious as many of his illustrious ancestors—he claimed a family tree going back to Robert the Bruce, King of Scotland and hero of the battle of Bannockburn in 1314.
At Glinka, Jacob researched what we would today call the occult arts. In this he was following Isaac Newton, who devoted more of his life to alchemy than to physics. Bruce tried to derive what he called “the formula of the soul”, which was given in a booklet which I bought from a kiosk at the Estate. It is Greek to me, but I reproduce it here in the hope that PASSPORT’s resident mathematician, Ross Hunter (M.A. Cantab.), can unlock the secret.
Bruce was known in Moscow as “the Scottish magus”. It was discovered long after his death that he had built a network of secret tunnels connecting the various buildings on his Estate so that he could move equipment and secret materials away from prying eyes—at least that is what their purpose is thought by researchers to have been, but nobody knows for sure. He was a mysterious character, and I wanted to see the small museum which both Kathleen Berton Morrell in her book, Discovering Moscow’s Countryside and several internet sites said was housed in Bruce’s old laboratory at Glinka.
This being Russia, I discovered after cycling 65 kms there that the contents of the museum had recently been moved to Moscow. There was nothing to see, though I was, of course, welcome to wander round the grounds of the sanatorium which is now there. It appears to be used mainly by Lada drivers, who seemed perfectly pleasant people when out of their cars. Expect the unexpected.
I spent a leisurely afternoon exploring the Estate, during the course of which I discovered, totally by accident, the most astonishing church I believe it is possible to find anywhere. It was a vast, baroque building in a state of ruination such as one might have expected to see five years after the London Blitz (see photo opposite). Then I heard beautiful singing coming from somewhere underneath the rubble. I investigated and saw people filing into a decorated chamber where a service was being held in what was called the Cathedral of the Apostle and Evangelist Ioann Bogoslov (see above). Once again, in Russia: expect the unexpected. That’s the joy of the place, except on the MKAD.