Red Square – how surreal it is to be standing on this sizable stretch of cobblestone that is synonymous with the Russian capital! My heart flutters as my eyes become glued to the sight of St. Basil’s Cathedral. Its onion shaped domes and exterior in as many colours of the most elaborate artist’s pallet dazzle the senses. The grey stone GUM Department Store is an imposing structure along another side of the square (which is really a rectangle), and on the remaining sides are the State History Museum and the Kremlin wall, the latter incorporating the Lenin Mausoleum. For most of my life Russia has been a country considered off-limits to North American travellers, and it is a euphoric feeling to be in this country that has intrigued Rick and me for so long with its complex history. We are ready to delve first hand into its current atmosphere.
Our Moscow Photo Gallery
The whole of the middle section of the square is a clanging bustle of workmen assembling bleachers and fences for the upcoming annual International Military Music Festival, where a thousand soldiers, bands, and displays of horsemanship and fireworks will entertain. “All this suspended metal makes it difficult to get a perspective on the size of the square”, laments Rick, but other than this observation the construction doesn’t deter us in the least. We circumnavigate the square again and again – until it is time to look inside some of these alluring edifices.
St. Basil’s was built in 1561 to celebrate Ivan the Terrible’s victory over the Tarter stronghold of the Khan of Kazan (grandson of Genghis Khan). Expecting a large open interior, I am taken by surprise at the seemingly endless stone maze of small chapels. The nooks and crannies and narrow winding staircases are amazing to explore, with a wealth of icons and frescos decorating the walls at every turn.
It is time for a cappuccino break at the GUM, which during Soviet times stood for Gosudarstvennyi Universalnyi Magazin, meaning State Universal Store, or State Department Store. It was one of the few stores that had a good supply of goods to buy, and the queues of shoppers were often so long they extended entirely across the square.
It came under private ownership in May 2005 and drips of elegance with 200 designer shops, restaurants and cafes under the timeless vaulted glass roof, granite and marble walls and stairs. Cleverly the same acronym GUM remains, the “G” now standing for Glavnyi (Main). Our cappuccinos in a deluxe cafe are accompanied by large wedges of decadent cream cakes, for an energy boast (we rationalize).
I am hyped to join the lengthy queue to enter the Mausoleum of Vladimir Lenin. (Rick forfeits accompanying me as cameras are not allowed and the locker-line to deposit cameras/backpacks/etc is a block long.) Along the raised pathway to Lenin’s Tomb is the Kremlin Wall Necropolis with plaques in a row indicating earlier prominent figures that are buried in the wall. Closer to the tomb are marble dais with busts of more recent Soviet leaders; the ones I recognize written in Cyrillic are Joseph Stalin and Leonid Brezhnev. The entry to the Mausoleum is flanked by guards. Filing past Lenin’s waxy form, I shiver from more than the cold air at the sight of the man who was the Force behind the Russian Revolution. Some predict Lenin’s body may not lie in this tomb much longer. Lenin’s last request was to be buried next to his mother in St. Petersburg, and much to the chagrin of his widow Stalin decided Lenin’s body should lie in state. He hired a biochemist and anatomist to put a stop to natural decomposition, their success until recently was a state secret. The chemical solution and method is now available for a mere million dollars.
Next we venture inside the famous red walls dotted with 19 watch towers including the stunning Spasskaya Tower. A collection of huge buildings face us, in a range of styles indicative of the Kremlin’s long history. Ancient Russian ecclesiastical cathedrals peak my interest. There is the Annunciation Cathedral, erected in 1482, where all the Russian Tsars were christened and married. The Cathedral of the Archangel was erected in the early 1500’s and holds the tombs of rulers from Ivan 1 to Ivan V. The granddaddy in size and age (1475) is the Assumption Cathedral. I gaze up at the brass chandeliers, some weighting 5 tonnes, and wonder at how some were carried off by Napoleons’ soldiers, and retrieved by the Cossacks after they caught up to the pilfering Frenchman. Moscow proudly displays monuments to the Russian victory over Napoleon in the Patriotic War of 1812 and mega-celebrations will take place this September marking the 200th Anniversary of this defeat.
Standing out from more gigantic buildings of Romanov imperial classicism is the sombre grey concrete of the State Kremlin Palace, built in 1960-61 for the Communist Party Congresses. Being the apex of the current Government, it is off limits to tourists. Russian presidents used to live within the Kremlin; now they only work here and receive their own residence in an elite area of the city, which they do not have to vacate at the end of their term.
Speaking of government, my finance minister, Rick, occasionally is having heart palpitations as he tallies our daily expenses. We knew that Russia would not come under the category of a “budget travellers paradise”, but are finding shared lunches of a sandwich, salad and two beverages comes to $30 CDN, and such things as entry fees to cathedrals are $10 CDN each. But in the end he sighs, “It is what it is.”
On the weekend we make our way back to Red Square, and as promised by our hotel staff the area behind the Square is set up with souvenir and snack vendors, and shoulder-to-shoulder Moscovites and visitors enjoying the brilliant sunshine, side-walk cafes and restaurants. We admire the flowers in Alexandrovsky Gardens and watch with humour at people lying about on the grass being sprayed by water tank trucks that seem to circle the grounds continually watering the grass, yet the sunbathers resume their spots between rounds. Our mission today is to get a good spot along the Kremlin Wall facing the gardens, where the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier is located and the changing of the guard takes place hourly. The Tomb contains the remains of a soldier who died December of 1941 at the closest spot the invading Nazis came to Moscow (which was 41km south).
What?! Half and hour to go and the crowd is already gathering. We leave our shady niche and rush over to stake a spot, and swelter in the heat until exactly on the hour all heads turn toward three soldiers “goosestep” marching; swinging their legs in unison high off the ground, while keeping their knees locked; their rifles balanced vertically from their left hand bent at the elbow. The change is completed and the exiting soldiers precision march off the grounds – an exhilarating display!
Our physiques are responding positively to our 5 to 6 hours a day of walking to and from and around sites. Yah! Calories without unwanted consequences! We tested this out on my Birthday with the following delights: Fillets of herring in a brine of green apples and pickles doused in creamy butter sauce. Borscht (beet soup) with sweet peppers, crushed garlic dressed in aromatic lard, greens and a dollop of sour cream the size of an orange – and hunks of rich black bread. Homemade garlic-laden pork and beef sausage baked on a board with potatoes, mushrooms and a vegetable medley. Paper-thin pancakes wrapped around vanilla ice-cream, topped with tangy raspberries, cedar nuts and drizzled with honey. Plenty of Siberian beer. We declare Russia a “foodies” heaven.
If there is one Moscow edifice we cannot pass by without sitting on one of the benches in front and contemplating its rich history and calibre of entertainment that leaves all in awe – it’s the renowned Bolshoi Theatre. The first theatre was completed in the late 1700’s. It has since seen many fires and reconstructions. The renovations to the Bolshoi in 2000, which also incorporated restored older buildings under the same roof, was not without its woes. From 2005 to 2011 the theatre was closed due to the structure being unstable (during this time performances moved to the Great Kremlin Palace). It is a sight to behold with its iconic neoclassic design and double-headed eagle of the original Russian coat of arms on the top the façade. My thoughts are on the many young dancers and opera singers whose dream it is to perform within.
On another day’s walk we cross paths with Lubyanka Prison under a sombre sky – apropos to its dark history. During the Stalin years, this was a feared KGB destination which was a conveyor belt of torture, death or sentence to the Gulag for victims of Stalin’s purges. Between doing away with all who he suspected of plotting against him, and his self-directed famines wherein all agrarian production was confiscated by the State, the total of Stalin’s victims was in the millions. This facility is now the headquarters of the KGB’s successor, the FSB (Federal Security Service) and not open to the public.
Walking on, and after much map consultation, we arrive at the Gulag Museum, which instead of being filled with Gulag facts (as we expected), is filled with evidence of how Stalin falsified history with many examples of original photos taken during this period, and the same photos doctored to remove people Stalin had purged and/or political rivals, especially Leon Trotsky who was his chief adversary for power after Lenin’s death.
Further up the road we stop at the modest Upper St Peter’s Monastery dating back to the 14th century. Over the centuries buildings and chapels were added with many of the older edifices now crumbling. The many locals who came to worship projected an aura of peace and tranquility for me that was missing from the big cathedrals with tour groups charging about and tour guides speaking up to be heard by their “herd”.
You never know on this big blue ball who one will catch schmoozing. One instance of truth being stranger than fiction is when I am flicking through the TV channels one evening and come to “live” Extreme Fighting. Rick exclaims, “Hey, that’s Putin!” And who is sitting beside the President, none other than US movie actor, looking very rotund – Steven Seagal. We watch the whole match to catch the camera swings off the fighters and onto these two buddies chatting like old comrades and enjoying the competition – surrounded by four sides-of-beef, Putin’s body guards.
After several days of scorching weather abated, soaking up a mellower sunshine in a park seemed in order. Gorky Park once a full amusement park has recently had the outdated carnival rides removed and the focus is now on a green escape to stroll, picnic, bike or jog about. Benches surrounding the large water fountain have a smattering of older folks while young’uns run in the spray carried on the breeze. Flowers run along the walkways. We lunched at the small café, and I hopped on the only remaining ride, an old merry-go-round with tiny tots being held on the colourful horses by their moms. The park looked a bit tired to us, but plans are underway to make the park a bright star of the city. Speaking of restorations, we could hardly believe the great number of buildings in the city undergoing a face-lift, and/or renewed interiors.
Along the Gorky Park route is a church that cries out for admiration with its humungous size, startling white exterior and gleaming gold onion domes.
“Do you know what is strange about this church,” I say to Rick, “It looks newly built.” We find the name on a gold plaque on the fence – Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, and later research reveals the original church, modelled on the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul by Nicholas I, was built in 1860, with an added 23 years to finish the interior. Only a few decades later Stalin (oh, that Stalin) had the whole structure demolished, and the current cathedral was rebuilt in the 1990’s based on paintings and old records.
It is time for a trial run on the Metro to the Leningradsky Train Station, where in a few days we will depart on an Express Train to St. Petersburg. We gleefully purchase our Metro tickets – 23 Rubles each (75 cents CDN). The long escalator ride down to the metro train level deposits us in the bowels of the earth. Amid the whirlwind of bodies rushing around on the platform below, we manage to find the correct train to our destination. Standing room only takes on a new meaning on the Metro, it’s more like wedging into an already over-packed space. We even manage to get off at the correct stop, giving us confidence that on our departure day all will flow well.
Our introduction to Russia was exhilarating. We have been thoroughly enthralled by the sights of Moscow, and if we had only one word to describe it – it would be “BIG”, from the city’s population of over 11 million, to the massive buildings throughout the vast historic district each taking up a city block, to the super-wide streets, everything is dynamically huge! We have found that English is not widely spoken in Russia, and we do miss engaging with locals to glean their take on events and hearing their stories. We know from a previous visit to Ukraine not to be put off by the lack of smiling faces on the city streets; the citizens are really friendly, but have a serious demeanour, unless engaging with people they know.
Our next stop….St. Petersburg.
A bit of info:
Taxies can be expensive. Our pre-paid taxi from the airport to the historic centre was 1800 Rubles ($58 CAN).
There are now small hotels from converted apartments for a reasonable price (well, reasonable for Russia anyway) in the historic area. We found a gem in the Matreshka Hotel, a few blocks away from the Kremlin, and the staff speak English, good-sized clean and comfortable rooms, great breakfast included.
As well as minimal English speakers, information brochures in English are hard to come by, and English tour guides do not exist (at least I never came across one). Luckily I know how to read the Cyrillic alphabet, and can identify streets, etc. If not, have hotel staff write the names of streets and museums, etc in Cyrillic, so you recognize them.