I wasn’t really expecting to like Moscow. The last time I spent any time in a large Russian city was just after the collapse of the Soviet Union. The economy had, to all extents and purposes stopped working. The Milk shop was full of cartons of orange juice, the Bread shop had very little bread, and the new-fangled Supermarket, designed to stock a wide range of your nutritional requirements, had its shelves filled only with boxes of Kellogg’s cornflakes, nothing but Kellogg’s cornflakes.
In one short step, people had gone from being at the heart of the most powerful and feared empire on the planet to not knowing where their next meal would come from. Huge industrial complexes lay abandoned or idle. Broken men shuffled round university campuses in carpet slippers, unpaid and unpayable. The weather was bitter, life was barren and the future was unthinkable. A lot has happened in the past 20 years.
What follows is a rather long-winded way of telling you that I love Moscow. I am enraptured by this city: by its youthful vigour, beauty, lightness and warmth. We only gave ourselves a couple of days to ‘do Moscow’ but here are three images of Moscow that made me rethink my approach to this great city. They are: Red Square, the Kremlin, and the Ismailovsky Market.
After 48 hours of being roller-coasted across most of the European land mass we emerged from Moscow’s Belorusskaya Station much more in relief than expectation. I ignored every proffer of portering or a taxi until we were outside the building and I could concentrate on finding someone to overcharge me. Unfortunately my chosen taxi driver was only prepared to overcharge me in roubles so I had to first lock myself behind the steel door of a Currency Exchange kiosk and divest myself of some dollars.
The taxi driver then swept us through the almost empty streets of the capital city and I fell in love more or less straight away. The wide boulevards, the outrageous architecture, and the light bright sun of a late June Sunday morning. Fabulous. We arrived at our hotel (which confirmed my companions’ prejudices about my hotel-booking skills) way before our check-in time, abandoned our luggage, and walked the half mile or so down to Red Square.
There are things you probably know about Moscow, but you don’t think about it, it doesn’t really hit home, until its cobbles are beneath your feet. Like Red Square, for example: it’s not really that red (apart from the walls of the Kremlin down one side) and it’s nothing close to a square either. Yet the four sides of its ‘square’ portray the pressures and contexts of our lives and history.
On one side, the high impenetrable red wall of the Kremlin itself, symbol and actuality of supreme political power, imposing itself on every aspect of Russian life, and life far beyond Russia. In front of the wall, Lenin’s mausoleum where the great (and rather small man, it seemed to me) lies in state still, for many of us a man who seemed at one point to have changed the political shape of the world forever.
On one end of the square, St Basil’s Cathedral, the archetypal, quintessential, multicoloured onion-domed Orthodox Church, symbolising of course religion and faith which, despite generations of communism, still holds great sway over the Russian people. Named after Basil, or Vassilly to be more exact, who expressed his saintliness mainly by living bollock-naked on the streets of Moscow and therefore felt able to say things to the most powerful in the land that their sycophants didn’t even dare think, let alone say.
Along the other side, opposite the Kremlin, sits GUM, probably the greatest department store in the world, fascinating even to a confirmed anti-shopper such as myself. Lines and floors of commercial exuberance which lighten both your mood and your wallet and have served to undermine the political system it faced and seek perhaps also to erode the nobler aspects of the faith its sits to the side of.
And at the other end of Red Square, its archways collecting and controlling the flow of people into the square, is the magnificent (and also admittedly now I think of it, fairly red) Museum of Science and History, logging and cataloging our progress in the face of the competing forces of God, Mammon, and the constant craving for political power. And it was here, faint from travel, awestruck, and hot and weary that we found our first bowl of Borsch and battered chicken to sustain us before we beat a weary retreat back to check in at our interesting hotel.
Another thing I think I knew about Moscow, but perhaps didn’t, was what the Kremlin was really like on the inside. We spent a few hours there the following day. The image that lodged itself in my head from an early age was that of the very high, and very red fortress walls behind which, in my youth, a succession of elderly men threatened my very existence and the existence of everything I loved with their missiles, their cold wars, and their threats of hotter ones.
I could never have imagined myself being able to walk up the ramparts into the citadel, and certainly not the sight that would greet me once I was inside the fortress. Walking past the temporary building housing the tourist toilets and souvenir shop, the space suddenly opens up into cathedral square, a square of three magnificent cathedrals, two churches and a bell tower, domes all gleaming in the late Spring sun.
Tombs of Tsars, icons representing generations of faith… how could all this have existed at the heart of a system so opposed to organised religion? The no longer Secret Garden is a delight to eat your ice creams in and a helipad and children’s playground form an interesting juxtaposition next to the fortress walls. We sauntered casually round to view the treasures and chrism stove in the Patriarch’s Palace, while a succession of black limousines whisked high-ranking military officers away from a meeting in their seats of power.
Our plans after visiting the Kremlin to revisit Red Square were foiled by an unexplained meeting of senior police chiefs and orthodox priests which caused Alexander Garden, Red Square and all the surrounding streets to be closed. Travelling with someone barely controlling an urge to hunt for souvenirs in all circumstances, and all of us in serious need of a prolonged sit down, we treated ourselves to an extended ride on the Metro to Partizanskaya station in search of Ismailovsky market.
I’m not sure I’ve ever seen anything quite as bizarre as this. We found it a few hundred yards from the station, lurking beside what appeared to be a deserted and very rundown theme park. We walked past half a dozen or so stalls selling watches and clothes and walked up the crumbling rampart, noting the luxury stretch limos parked amidst the rubble below.
The place was almost deserted when we arrived, with just a few workmen trying to effect urgent repairs on the crumbling structure. A handful of tourists like us wandered around in amazed bemusement, wondering what on earth they had stumbled upon. A site plan of 39 attractions gave no clue as to how far in the past or future these attractions might have been or would be a reality. Finally, we found a handful of occupied units selling souvenirs. We bought more than we wanted for less than we expected. More than anything else, we just left confused, and strangely satisfied.
Our hotel, for the record, was fine. Its location was great, its rooms large and well-appointed, it was clean, and its Wi-Fi free and reliable. It was everything it claimed in its description. It just hadn’t told the whole story. It shared its address with a mobile phone shop, which certainly confused our high-pricing taxi driver. It was accessed through a very heavy metal door with a code keypad. It didn’t have a lift, but did have at least fifty stairs to haul your luggage up to the second floor of the building, which was where its six rooms were located.
Some people might have complained, and did, but I thought it was fine!