“You’re going to Russia?!?! Why?” I heard these words pretty much every time I announced my upcoming trip to the east.
This reaction is understandable. Most people in Europe and the United States have a Putin-provoked distaste of the Russian Federation, which is growing by the day. Politicians claim that Russia’s sole mission is to diminish and undermine western powers to strengthen its own. After all, the name Vladimir comes from two old Slavic words, which together mean “great ruler of the world.” Make of that what you will…
Even the non-political vision of Russia is unfavorable. Most think of a cold, grey, backward place with Soviet architecture or battle-hardened, weather-beaten people. However, arriving at the sleek Moscow Domodedovo airport, I was impressed. I had been right to rebut popular notions of an unwelcoming and stony place.
However, almost immediately after leaving the airport, the ground for my righteous vindication became shaky. Driving into the outskirts of Moscow, my mind drew comparisons to television images of North Korean suburbs. Miles of uniform houses and bleak tower blocks lined the roads.
At the Izmailovov Delta Hotel next to the famous market of the same name, things were not looking much better. Truly peculiar decorations and violently colored walls competed for one’s gaze in the hotel lobby. Luckily, the rooms themselves were perfectly comfortable, though not particularly noteworthy. I’d stay central next time.
After dropping bags, I ventured toward the Izmailovov market for a look at how the locals live. From a distance, the buildings that encase the market are vivid, intricate and quite something to behold. As it was late in the day, the market was empty. Shop shutters were closed and stalls were folded up. I got the same uneasy feeling I get when walking through Disney Land – as if this was what remained after the recent collapse of a utopian society.
While nearly all the vendors had packed up and gone home, a few stalls remained opened for business. All that was left was an abundance of satirical matryoshka dolls containing various countries’ political leaders in historical order.
A tattooed burly salesman came over to me as I withdrew François Mitterrand from the wooden bowels of Valéry Giscard d’Estaing.
“Where are you from, friend?” He asked.
Ignoring my response, he launched into a speech about his armed forces days and the political situation in Russia.
“You really ought not to trust the government, ok? Putin is a dangerous man, you see. Someone’s always watching in this city.”
The whiff of Glühwein that carried with each sentence made me doubt the erudition of his analysis. Then again… this is what we hear in the news. I was not sure what to believe. After thanking the man and hastily filling Charles de Gaulle with the rest of the presidents of the Fifth Republic, I made my way back to the hotel.
The next morning, we descended on central Moscow via the metro. Many of the stations are decorated with ornate mosaics, statues and exuberant crystal chandeliers. At each stop, you are given a few seconds to take in each majestic hall before the doors close and you are whisked onto the next.
Emerging from the underground we rounded the corner and immediately found ourselves in Red Square. The sight demands you stop and stare.
The insurmountable walls of the Kremlin line the length of one side; halfway along lies Lenin’s tomb and opposite is the lavish exterior of the Gosudarstvennyi Universalnyi Magazin shopping center (or GUM, as it’s referred to, thank God). The architectural marvel of Saint Basil’s Cathedral stands at the south end, with the State History Museum at the other. Even though the foreboding structures radiate a rouge pastel hue into every corner of the square, there is a sense of openness. No-doubt there was a somewhat different atmosphere when thousands of Soviet soldiers goose-stepped through the square. Interestingly, the Russian army still marches like this today.
Walking around central Moscow, history oozes from every spire and pillar. Buildings seem to lean over as you walk past, as if peering down on whoever dares to enter these austere places. For every moment or event in Russian history, there is a dedicated museum.
The quality of each museum is notably high. In particular, the Armory inside the Kremlin holds astonishing collections of royal carriages from across the world and throughout the ages. The world-renowned Fabergé Eggs are displayed here too.
Visiting Lenin’s Tomb is an intense experience. His preserved remains lie in a crystal case in the center of the room. Eyes of the presidential guard follow your every move as you walk slowly through the room and towards the exit. Behind the tomb along the Kremlin wall lie the graves of other famous Russians, including Stalin and Yuri Gagarin.
Having wandered around for so long during the day, we had no time to eat before attending the Ballet that evening. Sitting in the Bolshoi, the long day began to catch up with me.
It is now that I must make a confession: while attending a performance by one of the world’s greatest ballet companies, I fell asleep.
Thankfully, I woke up later in the second half and was treated to the final leaps and prances of Shostakovich’s The Bright Stream. As someone who is not a ballet aficionado, that was probably enough.
Feeling significantly perkier afterward, a late dinner was in order. Just behind the Bolshoi is VOGUE Café, a gastronomic outpost of the famous magazine. It claimed to serve an eclectic mix of Japanese, Italian and Russian dishes. Intrigued, we entered.
Adventurously, we accepted the offer of some Russian wine. Full bodied and berried, it was delicious. Our evident surprise led the waitress to explain that Russian food and drink has improved hugely over the last few years. As it turns out, since the United States and the European Union placed sanctions on Russia after their annexation of Crimea, food imports have been scarce. As a result, Russian producers have been forced to meet the demand and quality expected today. As a result, Siberian wines and cheeses now win awards around the globe.
When we left the restaurant, it was late. Only a day had passed, yet we had filled every minute with history, culture and food. The next three days followed a similar format and we continued to make our way down the list of museums and sights. A boat ride along the river is a must-do for alternative views of the Kremlin and Saint Basil’s Cathedral. Afterwards, sit on the rooftop Strelka bar opposite the Cathedral of Christ the Savior and watch the 3-mile-long line of pilgrims move slowly forward.
On the third day, we were due to board an overnight train to Saint Petersburg, but there was still so much left to do. Truth be told, it was probably too much for another three days, let alone one.
Nonetheless, I was satisfied. Moscow had revealed itself to be a fascinating and impressive city. While the city infrastructure isn’t as up-to-date as most capitals, the needs of every modern traveler can be met. It certainly isn’t the cold and unfriendly place envisioned by most in the west. Moscow’s winning attribute is its omnipresent sense of untouched history. This is a feature that is so often lost amongst hordes of tourists in Europe’s capitals.
It goes to show: what we hear about places we haven’t been in the news or through general hearsay, we can formulate pretty strong prejudices in our mind. While the political realities may still be ugly, by visiting, you can learn to separate and appreciate the everyday, the culture and the history of a place. On one side of a great red wall in central Moscow, a tyrannical leader works. On the other side, wholly separated, lies a magnificent Red Square where an overwhelming sense of history reveals the essence of Moscow and of Russia. And it is truly remarkable.
Russia Tourism: https://www.russiatourism.ru/en/