American volunteers at Moscow dig have 'an odd way' of spending vacations

August 15, 1993|By Kathy Lally | Kathy Lally,Moscow Bureau

MOSCOW -- Even they admit it's a strange idea of fun -- spending thousands of dollars for the privilege of standing in deep pits outside the Kremlin walls, scrabbling through dirt, mud and swamp.

Sixty-year-old Jeanie Jung of Dundalk laughed at herself a bit last week.

"I always said I wasn't willing to spend American Express prices to go and work halfway around the world like slave labor," she said. "And here I am, having a wonderful time."

Twenty-six-year-old Susie Riggs of Gaithersburg, patiently gluing bits of pottery together, surveyed the vast sweep of the historic square before her.

"Yes!" she said, gazing at the majestic Kremlin gates. "That's all I could say when I finally saw this site."

As volunteers on an important archaeological dig, Mrs. Jung and Miss Riggs have spent the last two weeks traveling back through time, all the way to 15th-century Moscow.

On their way, they have unearthed 19th-century cobblestones, an 18th-century wooden road, 17th-century building foundations, assorted pottery, coins and rings.

The Russian government launched this journey under Manezhnaya Square to collect whatever shards of history it could before clearing the way for the future.

Manezhnaya Square, which is next to the Kremlin and still bears signs of its czarist and Communist epochs, now is entering its capitalist period.

The city of Moscow plans to build a huge underground city with shopping mall, movie theaters and parking lots beneath the square.

The estimated cost is $250 million, and the city hopes to build it, with foreign partnerships, over the next three years.

But first, Russian archaeologists are salvaging the past.

They are doing so with two brigades of 15 U.S. volunteers each, recruited by an archaeology buff, Nicole Prevost Logan, whose husband was a U.S. diplomat in Moscow in the 1960s.

Mrs. Logan proposed the volunteer idea to Earthwatch, a U.S. environmental group that arranges digs and other excursions to raise funds for save-the-earth projects.

She persuaded the Russian government that it could benefit from the free help and contacts with Americans, and the idea quickly took off.

There was a long waiting list, Mrs. Logan said, for the 30 spots offered.

The volunteers pay anywhere from $1,500 to $2,000 for such trips, plus airfare.

Mrs. Jung, whose husband had gone on digs, was never interested herself.

Then, last year she retired from Baltimore County government after working in a variety of jobs, including deputy zoning commissioner.

She found the idea of a dig just off Red Square irresistible, and she hasn't been disappointed, despite working life in Moscow.

The group has experienced the real thing.

Their hotel, for example, doesn't have hot water.

Muscovites lose their hot water for a month or more every summer because officials say the pipes must be cleaned.

Mrs. Jung was spared heavy shoveling, but she has put in long days sifting through dirt.

"This is hard as the devil on the knees," she says.

It's been worth it, she said.

As they examined the dirt under Manezhnaya Square, now a huge expanse of asphalt next to the Kremlin, Russia's larger-than-life historical figures marched before them.

In the 16th century, Ivan the Terrible directed his reign of terror from a building near the edge of the square.

One of the buildings still standing was erected in honor of the Russian victory over Napoleon.

Early in this century, czarist police fired on a crowd of 150,000 people who had attended the funeral of a revolutionary hero.

The hulking Moskva Hotel was built by a more recent dictator, Josef V. Stalin.

For years, loyal Communists jammed the square every May 1 celebrating communism's greatest holiday.

All that tumultuous past lies silent now, piled up, layer upon layer.

It has been summoned forth only in innocent bits of pottery, forgotten wine bottles, sprinklings of buttons, scraps of ovens and other evidence of life -- such as an ear scratcher made of out bone.

Seventy-two-year-old Robert Wilson of St. Michaels described the ear scratcher as a very early Q-tip.

He spent the other day crouched over cobblestones. "It's called articulating, a very fancy term for cleaning between the crevices," he said.

Although he later owned a bookstore, as a young man Mr. Wilson worked as a diplomat.

He spent May Day in 1947 in the U.S. Embassy in Moscow, which at the time occupied a building still on Manezhnaya Square. In those days, U.S. diplomats were confined to a 12-block area around the embassy, he said.

"I never dreamed when I stood up there that day watching the parade that some day I would be down here digging," he said. "It's heaven."

A few feet away, a cellar door was half-buried in the dirt. "I can't wait to get behind that door," he said.

In a nearby hole, John Parrish, a young New Jersey humanities teacher who grew up in Baltimore, was deep in the 18th century.

He worked next to a wooden road that was nicely constructed for carriages but accompanied by a rubble-strewn sidewalk.

"Anyone who couldn't afford a carriage wasn't worth the trouble of a decent road," Mrs. Logan told him.

Mr. Parrish paused for a moment between shovel loads.

"It's exciting and boring at the same time," he decided. "You find something, and then you dig for three hours for nothing and you think, 'This is an odd way to spend your vacation.' '

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