Transmissions from an American journalist's 44 weeks in Moscow.



CSKA Arena is located on the remains of a Soviet limousine factory, hence the name of its metro stop—Avtozavodskaya (avto is perhaps self-explanatory, zavod is Russian for factory). The station itself, like many in Moscow, is made of marble—a luxury to which I am now accustomed. The base color of this particular stone is rose, classified as “Oraktuoy,” which I googled once on a frigid January walk to some meaningless late-season matchup. Spoiler: they’re all meaningless when the opponent is CSKA Moscow. They only lost nine this season.

Every English citation of ‘Oraktuoy marble’ that I could find was in pieces written about this particular metro station. Someone mistakenly referenced the marble once, and that nonsense transliteration reverberated for Google eternity. My most romantic hypothesis was that perhaps Avtozavodskaya boasted the world’s entire supply of Oraktuoy, the way a Vanderbilt mansion in Newport has one-fourth of the world’s African white marble, or something. I heard that on a school tour once and can’t quite remember…and now you see, this is how marble disinformation spreads!

The reality, after resorting to a Russian search, is that this particular marble hails from the Oroktoyskoye deposit in the Altai mountains, known for a rich shade of blush streaked with black Hematite. But I get it, Oroktoyskoye deposit in the Altai is hard to spell…so, just make it up.

On the fourteen minute and thirty two second walk from the metro to the arena, you pass a number of landmarks. There is a shawarma window that always has a line, even when the temperatures are 10 below. Then there is the popcorn stand. I can taste how stale the popcorn is from the smell alone—a blend of cardboard, cigarettes and memories of high school football games—but people buy it. Sometimes.

It is imperative to pay one’s respects to the mural of Anatoly Tarasov, the father of Soviet hockey, who guards the Hockey Hall of Fame. His training styles were unconventional to the point of being droll: carrying teammates up stairs, sprinting in ankle-deep water, throwing rocks. If his teams had lost, he would be called a moron. But they won, so he’s a genius.

One hour before the Western Conference Final—an iconic, made-for-TV clash between Moscow and Saint Petersburg—a press badge I had barely flashed from under a parka for seven months is manhandled, memorized, yanked for further inspection. Soviet hockey legends who seem more suited to posters or pedestals are loitering in the parking lot like teenage rascals. The television trucks block every shortcut I know to the media lodge, and then it hits me: the season is fading.

I once asked Romanian gymnast Nadia Comaneci what she thought about on the Olympic podium after winning that elusive women’s all-around gold. “I don’t remember,” she said. “But what I do remember is - I blinked, and it was over.”

Kaprizov, Kalinin, Sorokin.

When the announcer calls the starting lineup, I realize that I have even memorized how the CSKA players pose on the Jumbotron. Kaprizov stares into the lens with childlike wonder, which seems to be a permanent state for him. Kalinin rests his stick across his shoulders with a cavalier smirk. Sorokin makes a slow approach to the camera under the weight of his goalkeeping pads.

Speaking of poor Sorokin, I run into a newspaper reporter who is being forced to cover for a colleague who has been banned from the arena.

The backstory goes like this. After Game 5, the exiled columnist jokingly asked a Saint Petersburg player, “Wouldn’t it be easier if you just killed Sorokin?”

As this newspaper had the privilege of sponsoring Moscow, the team demanded retribution for the mere insinuation of Sorokin’s demise.

It’s easy to remember how far the media tribune is from the elevator if you count the number of black and white murals of Soviet international victories (three, to be exact). The blue velvet seats of the press conference auditorium are deceptive; one stroke and they’re soft, but they will carpet burn your bare arms or shoulders if you lean too hard against them. I learned this the hard way in September.

Hockey players, and Russians in general, are highly superstitious. My best friend told me about an academic paper that correlated superstitious cultures with volatile systems of government—the notion that people look for means of control outside of themselves when the bare necessities are unreliable. I scoffed at this until my life in Moscow entered its twilight. If I don’t step foot in the Hockey Hall of Fame, will I have to return? If I throw ten rubles in the Moscow River, will it bring me back like Rome’s Trevi Fountain?

I step outside after the game and realize it’s the first time that the night is warm as I walk back toward Avtozavodskaya. Moscow feels different — spring has restored her ephemeral lightness, and yet for me, the air weighs on my shoulders. This city has blazed into technicolor as my final weeks narrowed to two, but it is a blaze that only I can see. The wreckage of an old Soviet car factory is now as romantic as any stretch of tulips in some conventional spring on the Eastern seaboard. My eyes try to memorize the minutia even as they are clouding with tears, and I have to rely on the muscle memory of steps I’ve taken a thousand times to navigate the way. Maybe I don’t want to see.

But make no mistake: there is something electrifying about this new awareness—how the world suddenly becomes so beautiful when reminded of its transience. I wonder how I can access this devout attention, this presence of mind, when not burdened with the pain of departure. I wonder if that, perhaps, is the secret to life—and why sport is one of the few things that snaps me out of my head for even just a moment.

In twelve short days, I will take a new journey. I will get lost a few times until the landmarks reveal themselves, none of which will matter until the suggestion that they will be taken away. There will be new names sewn into the backs of polyester shirts, and they will smile differently on the Jumbotron, and I won’t know their stories right away. And the prospect of those awkward first few moments, like a child taking its first steps, feels as dreadful as Russian winter once felt when I mulled it in the height of summer.

This is why I care so much about the marble all of a sudden. Oroktoyskoye marble from the Altai. If you only ever have the chance to see it on one spring night, for one last game of an iconic Western Conference Final, you might as well know what it is. Michelangelo used to say that he saw the masterpiece in the marble and carved until he set it free. The same could be said for the Soviet engineers, I think—and in two weeks, I will struggle to explain chandeliered subways to New Yorkers who dodge rats on their way home.

In the words of someone far greater than me: I blinked, and it was over.