When in Rome… one visits St Peter’s; in London, Trafalgar Square. Red Square, too, flanked by the domes of St Basil’s and the Kremlin fortress, is one of the world’s great crossroads.
Moscow, the engine room of the world’s largest nation, is truly a world city – and probably the world’s most expensive. Its history extends back to distant times when a few log huts huddled beside a sweeping bend in the Moscow River.
So much history lingers here, not just tyrants, Tartars and czars, but the turbulent events within the lifetimes of people living today: the 1917 Revolution, Stalin’s reign of terror, the Cold War and the eventual collapse of Communism.
The Soviet Union is dead, but in many ways Russia remains a society of closed doors. Orthodox church altars lie hidden behind the iconostasis, a massive ornamented screen; icons often wore bejewelled masks. Foreigners, required to register afresh in every city, must never go out without their documents.
Getting around can prove challenging. Entrances to Metro stations are often imposing but no two alike. Within the subways, all signage is in Cyrillic script and often not visible from within the carriages. Station concourses are monuments in themselves, often finished in marble and adorned with heroic murals.
Shopping can also be frustrating: Muscovites often line up to peer through the service hatch of a Soviet-era kiosk. The once-vast GUM department store on Red Square has become an elegant, sterile gallery of apparel and giftware boutiques (world’s most expensive city, remember?)
We are ‘homestay’ guests within a private apartment, housed within one of Stalin’s ‘Seven Sisters’, the 1952 Hotel Ukraina building beside the Moscow River. These enormous wedding-cake structures were conceived perhaps to rival to anything Manhattan could muster.
Ready to eat? Keep one eye peeled for the eateries labelled ‘MY MY’ which in Russian script reads as ‘Moo Moo’ – just look out for the plywood Jersey cow. Amazingly, many staff speak English. Elsewhere, traktir means a rustic restaurant, akin to an American diner.
A walking tour of Moscow could consume many days, without even venturing into Red Square or the Kremlin. We found the Arbat precinct with its cobblestones and street musicians a little over-hyped, but next up are the theatre district around the Bolshoi Theatre and the smart cafes, boutiques and nightclubs on Tverskaya Street. Over on Lubyanka Square, guards outside the security police headquarters gesture forcefully at any would-be photographer. The meandering back streets of old-world Kitai Gorod will also repay a wander.
If you only visit one monastery, make it the eighteenth-century Novodevichy Monastery, cloistered in a walled garden compound beside a lake in the southern suburbs. Oddly, Novodevichy means ‘new maidens’, probably deriving from an ancient Tatar slave market. Many notables are buried at the graveyard here.
We tip-toed into Orthodox Easter services in two or three onion-domed churches before stepping up to the most commanding of them all. It’s a sign of the times that the imposing Church of Christ the Saviour stands again on the river bank. The original church was demolished by Stalin in 1931 to make way for a Lenin monument which never took shape; the site was then excavated for an Olympic-standard swimming pool but now rebuilt with private funds.
Zamoskvorechye simply means ‘Beyond the Moscow River’, an attractive district across from Christ the Saviour. Pastel-hued heritage townhouses and churches stand in quiet streets or along canals beyond the State Tretyakov Gallery, the national museum of Russian fine art.
There’s something intriguing about the Soviet legacy, and many fallen idols linger on at an open-air sculpture park on the east bank of the Moscow River. Stalin, Lenin and other luminaries, originally immortalized in bronze or marble, lie about on the grass, staring blankly at strollers and young lovers.
Moscow’s crown jewels are best appreciated on a weekday morning when the crowds have thinned, although Red Square, bordered by the GUM building, Lenin’s Tomb and the candy-striped onion domes of St Basil’s Cathedral, is not to be missed when it hums with life.
Still the seat of government, the Kremlin is a walled compound of palaces, cathedrals and churches, crammed with priceless icons. At its heart Cathedral Square preserves a trio of cathedrals rebuilt in the fifteenth century. In the Assumption Cathedral the czars and emperors were crowned and the Orthodox patriarchs buried. Until the era of Peter the Great, all the czars were buried in the Archangel Cathedral.
Black-robed priests line up in two rows in Cathedral Square as a sumptuous Orthodox procession forms up. Bewhiskered priests and baby-faced acolytes carry richly-embroidered banners and gleaming, gilded icons, to herald the arrival of their patriarch, Alexis II, head of the Russian Orthodox church. Religion is big again in Russia.