​​Lovers and Newlyweds in Moscow Seal Their Bond with Padlocks 

A “weird Moscow custom”: Many newlyweds in Moscow rush to the Luzhkov Bridge, soon after the wedding ceremony, and hang “Padlocks of Love” on “Trees of Love” placed on the bridge. They make their union permanent by throwing the keys to the locks into the canal below. Since the custom gained popularity, the divorce rate in Moscow has gone down considerably, according to a joke making the rounds among Muscovites. The reason? To get a divorce, the padlock has to be opened. Many married couples prefer staying married to going through the impossible task of retrieving the keys from the cold, polluted waters of the canal.

July 26, 2009—Sunday

The tour I took the day before was educative and interesting. But it was also very tiring. I slept like a log all through the night. By the time I got up in the morning, it was well past nine o’clock.

I had nothing specific planned for this day. So I decided to wander around the city on my own, at my own leisurely pace. I remembered what our guide had told us: that the underground metro was always preferable to surface transportation. Being a Sunday, it would be totally hassle-free, I thought to myself.

In Moscow, getting from one place to another by road can often be a nightmarish experience. The city’s population has been growing rapidly, and public transportation has not been able to cope with that growth. Traffic jams are so frequent that it can sometimes take three hours for people to get to work. There are no yellow cabs or government-regulated taxi systems in Moscow. There are private cars illegally operating as taxis. “Be careful,” the guide had warned us, “if you speak English, the fare will go up.” The authorities have started cracking down on this illegal operation.

Three-fourths of Moscow’s 12 million residents rely on the underground metro to get around the city. The metro system, which started in 1935, is well maintained and runs efficiently. Some of the 188 underground stations were also built as bomb shelters. That explains why they are deep below the surface. Only in Stockholm and Oslo have I seen subway train tunnels built as far below the surface as in Moscow. In the Scandinavian cities, however, they were built that far below not with a view to sheltering people from bombs, but to enable huge ocean liners to pass freely above them.

Some metro stations in Moscow are as labyrinthine and confusing as the one in Times Square in New York City, especially for a newly arrived person. Built about eight decades ago, most of them have no escalators or elevators, except at the entrance and exit. But there are redeeming features in many of them. With “elaborate architecture, marble decoration, stained glass, statuary, and chandeliers,” some stations look like “art galleries,” according to the travel brochures I browsed. I left my hotel room in the morning, hoping to give myself the pleasure of visiting some of those “galleries.”

“What a difference two days make!” That was the first thought that crossed my mind, as I arrived at the Partizanskaya station. There were only a handful of passengers on the platform. When I arrived at this station two days before, it was teeming with men and women jostling with one another to get onto or off the train. “But then,” I reminded myself, “unlike today, a Sunday, the day I landed here was a working day.” In any case, I started enjoying the slow pace of the day. The train arrived in a couple of minutes.

Visit to Tretyakov Gallery

The first place I wanted to visit was the Tretyakov Gallery. I got off at the Tetryakovskaya station, from where the gallery was within walking distance.

The State Tretyakov Gallery is one of the largest in Russia. It started as a private collection of the well-known Moscow industrialist and philanthropist Pavel Mikhailovich Tretyakov (1832–1898). It was named after him later.

Tretyakov opened his private gallery to the public in 1870. And, in 1892, he donated his entire collection to the City of Moscow. After the Communist takeover of the country, “art was bought, donated, or ‘transferred’ from other museums, private collections, cathedrals, and monasteries.” Naturally, the collection at the Tretyakov Gallery grew rapidly. It now houses over 130,000 works of art—icons, paintings, graphics, and sculptures. They represent the evolution of Russian art over ten centuries—from the eleventh to the twentieth. Under the Nationalization Decree signed by Lenin in 1918, it became the State Tretyakov Gallery.

I could have spent all day at the gallery and still would have glanced at only a small part of its collection. There was a lot more of Moscow I had yet to explore. So, after spending about two hours at the gallery, I came out. The next place I had marked for a visit on the tourist map I was carrying was Bolotnaya Square. It was close to where I was.

A “Weird” Moscow Custom

When I reached the square, I saw the place crowded with newly- wed couples and their friends and relatives. Many of them looked as though they had just come out of the wedding ceremony. It has become a custom among some of the newlyweds in Moscow to come to Bolotnaya Square and get photographed in their wedding dress.

The nearby Luzhkov Bridge is known for another “weird Moscow custom”—the custom of lovers and newlyweds sealing their bond by hanging padlocks on metal trees placed on the bridge and then throwing the key into the canal below. The canal that flows into the Moscow River separates Bolotnaya Square from the Bolotniy Garden. Throwing the key away symbolizes the permanence of the union. If either of the couple wishes to end the union, he or she will have to dive into the bottom of the canal to retrieve the key from among the thousands that are lying there. A joke making the rounds in Moscow says that, since the practice began, the divorce rate in the city has gone down considerably. The reason? Many married couples prefer staying married to going through the impossible task of retrieving the key from the cold, polluted waters of the canal.

The practice, it is said, had its origin in an ancient Russian custom. According to Russian lore (Russians are fond of folklore), young married couples used to be locked inside a granary shed on their wedding night. The purpose behind it was to provide them some privacy, away from the wedding-day crowd. A few years ago, some romantic Muscovites decided to adapt the ancient custom. The newlyweds’ hanging “Padlocks of Love”—as they call those locks— on “Trees of Love” placed on the Luzhkov Bridge is the outcome of that adaptation. The practice caught on so fast that, in a couple of years, the bridge was packed with metal trees, and additional ones had to be placed on the street next to the bridge. It spread still further. Today, one of the travel brochures says, there are ten streets in Moscow where newly bonded couples can go and demonstrate their inseparability by placing padlocks on metal trees.

As I walked on the for-pedestrians-only Luzhkov Bridge, I was amused by another spectacle: grooms cradling their brides and carrying them from one end of the bridge to the other. After enjoying the scene for a while, I crossed over to the other side of the bridge and walked into the vast Bolotniy Garden.

Bolotniy Garden

Everything was quiet around the Bolotniy Garden. It was a welcome change from the noisy scenes of Bolotnaya Square. I was aware that I wouldn’t be enjoying this kind of quietude if I had come here after sunset. On most days, after sunset, the garden becomes a venue for “fire shows,” accompanied by drumbeats. Young men from nearby areas come here with firecrackers and conduct their shows, mostly for fun. Sometimes they also expect from spectators some remuneration for the fun they provide.

After wandering around the garden for a while, I stopped in front of the monument to the famous Russian painter Ilya Repin (1844–1930). It was opened by the Soviet government on September 29, 1958. The epigraph on the pedestal (as translated into English) reads: “To the great Russian artist Ilya Repin from the government of the Soviet Union.” I was surprised that the Soviet authorities decided to perpetuate Repin’s memory with a monument. His attitude toward Soviet power was not all that flattering. The attitude could be gauged from The Bolsheviks, one of his paintings, according to the Russian writer Olga Pigareva. It depicts “ugly men with crooked smiles rob[bing] a little boy.”

I rested for a while on a nearby concrete bench. The Kremlin was only a short distance from there. “Why not visit the Kremlin for one last time, before saying good-bye to Moscow?” I said to myself and headed in that direction.

By the time I reached the Kremlin, it was past 4:00 p.m. and raining. Though raining, there was a big crowd near the entrance— the same Kutafya Tower gate through which I had entered the complex the day before. Those who had already bought tickets—different units of the complex charged different entry fees—were rushing to the gate. Others were rushing to the ticket windows. I was surprised that people were buying tickets even though they knew that the place would be closed to visitors at 5:00 p.m. Most of them were foreigners. It seemed that even a token visit to the Kremlin was important for them. A tourist to Moscow wouldn’t consider his tour complete unless he had visited the Kremlin, even if it was only for a few minutes.

The purpose of my being there was not to pay any perfunctory visit like that. It was to relive the excitement I had felt before, when I was face-to-face with monuments and icons representing individuals and events that changed the course of Russia’s history. I wouldn’t be able to do that in a few minutes, I thought to myself, looking at the long line in front of the ticket windows. I changed my mind about going in. After hanging around for a while, I headed for the nearby metro station.

Russian State Library

As I was walking toward the station, I saw a statue of the legendary Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky at the entrance to a building complex. Only when I entered the complex did I realize that it was the famous Russian State Library. I wondered why our guide didn’t even mention it, when we were only a few yards away from it. It’s not just any library. It’s the largest library in Russia, and the fifth-largest in the world, the largest being the British Library located in London.

It was founded in 1862 as the Moscow Public Museum and Rumyantsev Museum. The library part of the museum had its origins in the personal collections of Count Nikolai Rumyantsev (1754– 1826). It grew rapidly by virtue of its being the legal depository of all publications issued in the Russian Empire and also as a recipient of personal collections donated by prominent Russian scholars, scientists, and writers. In 1925, it was renamed V. I. Lenin State Library of the USSR, in honor of the founding father of the first Communist country in the world. Lenin, after the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution, had played an important role in the library’s reorganization, supplementing its original collection with many private collections confiscated by the authorities. In 1992, with the dissolution of the USSR, the name was again changed—this time to the Russian State Library. Most Muscovites still refer to it as the Lenin Library.

The library was closed when I arrived there, and I was disappointed. I had hoped to get at least a glimpse of what the interior of this storied institution—which attracts about four thousand visitors a day—looks like. It contains, according to The Columbia Encyclopedia, more than 42 million items—including some 17 million books and serials, 13 million journals, and 650,000 newspapers in Russian and 247 other languages.

As I came out of the gate, I took a good look at the Dostoevsky statue. I wondered whether the Russian literary giant, if alive, would have approved of the idea of a statue commemorating him being placed on the premises of a library that some Russians still associate with Lenin’s name. Dostoevsky, though respected all over the world for his literary accomplishments, was a Slavophile who believed in the superiority of Slavic—especially Russian—culture and language. The supremacy of the international proletariat, which Lenin believed in and strove to establish, is something Dostoevsky would have detested.

“Two Russian giants, but poles apart in terms of personality.” That’s what I mulled over as I headed for my hotel.

​(Published on April 11, 2017. This is a slightly edited version of Chapter 14 from the author's book, An Indian Goes Around the World – II: What I Learned from My Thirty-Day European Odyssey. The book can be ordered online at amazon.com, xlibris.com and at Barnes and Noble stores.)

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