Moscow: what you must see – and why you must go
There has always been an edge to visiting Moscow – whether it was in the era when the USSR was Ronald Reagan’s “Evil Empire” (as I first did) or now that it’s Russia under Putin (and I was back again).
But you have to differentiate a nation’s government from its people. Moscow is a remarkable city populated by some of the most hospitable, urbane people on earth. If you have a chance to go I’d recommend accepting with aplomb.
There is a focal point for Moscow and it’s the one that appears in just about every image representing the city. Of course, it’s Red Square where there are significant features everywhere you look.
The riot of colour and shapes that is St Basil’s Cathedral immediately dispels any preconception of the city as dour and drab. Who paints their church in wavy bright contrasting colours that look more suited to a Beatles album during their psychedelic phase?
Its true title could even be a song title ,as it is actually “The Cathedral of the Intercession of the Virgin by the Moat”. This surreal wedding cake of spires and brightly painted onion domes was built in 1560 by Ivan the Terrible who, on this achievement, would have been better named Ivan the Quirky but Tasteless.
The image of Moscow as a monochromatic place dissolves when St Basil's psychedelic towers can be glimpsed from numerous places around the city.
The present colour scheme came about in 1860 and the interior is just as elaborate. It’s now a museum and well worth visiting.
St Basil's Cathedral (left) and Lenin's Mausoleum (right) - two iconic shapes of Moscow
Across the square from St Basil’s, by the wall of the Kremlin is the considerably less-jolly Lenin’s Mausoleum, a guarded red and black rock pyramid.
The embalmed body of Lenin, the father of the revolution, may be looking more waxy with every passing decade but he’s still there and can still be visited for those prepared to line up for the lengthy wait for the brief visit.
Red Square's great expanse of cobblestones was once the site of the city markets. Moscow shoppers are now found indoors in the building that extends for several hundred metres along the eastern side of the square - this is the GUM (or Glavny Universalny Magazin) Department Store.
In the Soviet days it was a rabbit warren of over a thousand small stalls and more like an oriental bazaar than a store, with little to purchase. Now it has a lot of name brand shops - and you still can’t buy anything because of the high prices.
"Kremlin" is the Russian word for fortress and within its heavy, high walls is a mini-city with cathedrals, towers, gardens, museums and palaces. Political dignitaries are whisked by limousine into the closed areas of the Senate and the Presidium through the Spasskaya tower gate near St Basil's. Tourists enter by the back gate, just as Napoleon did in 1812.
Faberge's jewelled eggs, the world's biggest bell, rooms roofed in gold, priceless religious paintings and a throne with some 800 diamonds in it are some of the highlights. Try to buy tickets in advance – including the Armoury and the Diamond Fund – and be prepared for lots of security.
The Grand Kremlin Palace is an interior designer's dream
For the human face of Moscow, visit Arbat Street, traditionally the artists' quarter, rather like Paris’ Montmartre. It's now a pedestrian mall that was once full of young artists displaying their wares but is now lined with fast food outlets and overpriced shops. There’s some interesting architecture here, however, and it’s a great place to walk and talk to people, especially when beams of sunlight break through steel grey clouds to strike Stalin's towering skyscrapers behind.
It may seem strange to list the weather as a tourist attraction, but for Moscow it’s essential. Summer is rather like it is in other European capitals, but comparatively short. Winter is COLD. The city’s lowest-ever temperature was -42°C. Snow on the ground and fur-clad faces are very Doctor Zhivago and beautifully atmospheric but if you don’t dress for the conditions you’ll freeze.
If you can handle the cold, Moscow is a winter wonderland
This city is home to some 12 million people so it needs a sophisticated transport system. It has it in the Metropolitan subway where the time between peak hour trains is 90 seconds and the Metro operates with 99.99 per cent efficiency for some 2.5 billion rides each year. A Sydneysider can only sigh with envy.
The system was built between 1931 and 1935 and some of the stations are beautiful and even feature original works of art. Indeed, there is more marble in Kropotkinskaya station than any building in Australia. Brass chandeliers, vast murals and gilt framed oil paintings are all part of the decor.
To assist the sight-impaired, trains towards the city centre announce the stations with a female voice while those heading out of the city use a male voice. The circle line has a male voice clockwise and a female voice anticlockwise.
Explore the shops at GUM department store
Those who remember the Martin Cruz Smith novel will be glad to hear that Gorky Park is worth a visit if only to see Muscovites at leisure. More correctly, the Gorky Central Park of Culture and Leisure (presumably for those who are unsure what to do in a park) first opened in 1928.
By 2011 the park and its rides and stalls were all looking very tired so it was substantially recreated with new gardens and lawns, wifi, a giant ice rink and a crowded events schedule.
The Bolshoi is just one of Moscow’s 70 theatres, but is by far the most famous. Its main rival is the Kirov in St Petersburg. It’s the second largest opera house in Europe (after La Scala) and was built in Russian Classical style facing the Kremlin walls.
Experience the wonder of the Bolshoi theatre
Seeing a performance here is a very Muscovite experience that shouldn’t be missed – and you can book in advance on line here. For the classic experience aim for the Historic Stage not the New Stage. If you can’t catch an opera or ballet performance, there are tours of the beautifully restored building.
For those of us who lived through the Cold War, a visit to Lubyanka Square, a 10-minute walk from Red Square, is a step back in time. The large neo-Baroque building was the office of the All-Russia Insurance Company when it was built in 1898. More recently it was headquarters and prison for the KGB, the Soviet secret police.
It now houses the FSB or Federal Security Service. There is a small KGB museum in the building that contains antiquated spyware but it’s closed to the public, though you may find a tour that can take you inside.
In 1990 a stone was brought from a Siberian gulag and placed in the square as a monument to the oppressed.
The classic Russian souvenir has always been the chubby matryoshka dolls that nest inside each other. Indeed, you can tell where Russian politics is up to by seeing the figures represented. Of course there are now Trump/Putin matryoshka as well as Star Wars and Guardians of the Galaxy ones. But I’ve even seen a matryoshka set of AFL players in a Moscow market.
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Photography: (feature image) OlegDoroshin / Shutterstock; (in-text) ID1974, Railway Fx, Wasilisa / Shutterstock