May 2013 – Moscow, Russia

Moscow Skyline

While it seems that most everyone prefers St Petersburg to Moscow, we preferred Moscow and we were both thoroughly impressed with what the city has to offer.  Yes, St Petersburg has all the history and the Hermitage, but Moscow just seemed an infinitely more friendly and livable city. One disclaimer: we visited Moscow during the Russian domestic holiday and were told that normally oppressive overcrowding was significantly mitigated by many citizens fleeing to the countryside for some relaxation.

But aside from being a really pleasant city to be in and we’re sure a fine one in which to live, it’s not really a city that’s all that different from other big cities that are really pleasant to be in and fine pages to live.  As a Russian we would later meet said when we responded to a question about our impressions of Russia with an example from Moscow  “No,  I asked about Russia. Moscow is not Russia, it is Moscow.” Of course you could probably make an analogous statement about many major cities.

Kremlin Gate, Moscow

Kremlin
The day we visited the Kremlin was also the day US Secretary of State John Kerry made a rare visit for discussions with government officials at the Great Kremlin Palace and Senate building.   Security was noticeably tight, but perhaps it is that way everyday. The horde of anxiously waiting journalists and photographers, however, was certainly here only to document this visit.

We waited in line at security where a number of men in suits –  the cut of which suggested them to be American – were waved in ahead of us.  Then as we climbed the ramp-like entrance to the Kremlin we watched a military procession from afar, as lines of uniformed men from each arm of the Russian military circled the out-of-view eternal flame. We took this to be preparation for the much heralded 9 May parade but later found out that it had in fact been a specially arranged ceremony in which Kerry placed flowers on the grave of the unknown soldier.

The entrance to the Kremlin from this western side is impressive and imposing, a stark contrast to the interior of the place which is surprisingly peaceful and includes beautiful parklands that offer great views out over the river and the city. As much as the exterior of the Kremlin is everything you expect it to be, the area inside the walls is purpose-built and includes large offices and official looking buildings with ample greenspace for relaxation and head-clearing. As an American who’s often seen the photo of the Kennedy brothers pondering the problems posed by the Cubana missile crisis in the White House corridor, it makes one wonder if there is a similar photo of Khrushchev pondering the same on a bench in the Kremlin’s southeast park looking out over Moscow. Considering the erasure of all things Khrushchev in Russia, save his ubiquitous contributions to housing, if such a photo did exist at the time it is likely not included in Russian history lessons.

The Kremlin gate opens into a wide cobbled road and around the corner is the historic heart of the place which dates back to tsarist times. The Russian Orthodox Church is well represented, no surprise given the connection between the tsars and the church. The Patriarchs Palace and the Church of the Twelve Apostles is the first of many churches visitors come to and is the former home and private church of the Russian Orthodox Patriarch.   Patriarch was the title given to the head of the church for a time and in most cases the Patriarch was chosen by the tsar. The tight cooperation between church and state, though less official, still exists in the minds of many Russians. On display in the Palace were items dating from the 17th century including the Patriarch’s ceremonial clothing and items used to entertain guests.

Assumption Cathedral, Kremlin, Moscow

If there is a centerpiece of the Kremlin’s central square it is the Assumption Cathedral, a building dating to the 1400s and designed based on Vladimir’s famous cathedral of the same name. This was an intentional replication of the cathedral which was at that time the center of the Russian Orthodox Church, as Moscow (successfully) tried to wrest political power from Vladimir and replace it as the most dominant city in the area.  The murals and iconostasis in Moscow’s Assumption Cathedral were beautiful, as you’d expect from a building who’s construction was undertaken with such lofty political objectives.

Ivan the Great Belltower, Kremlin, Moscow

Ivan the Great Bell Tower was closed the days we were at Moscow perhaps due to the 9 May parade which was set to take place just outside the Kremlin’s walls in Red Square.   The belltower apparently offers views of all Moscow and, presumably, Red Square. The base of the tower was open and hosts a nice museum on restoration of historical artwork such as cloth items, paintings and icons, a display with information in only Russian that was nonetheless interesting.  Other sights visited at the Kremlin included the Church of the Deposition of the Robe, Archangel Cathedral, Annunciation Cathedral, and the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.

While the parklands in the Kremlin are really pleasant, we also noticed some questionable behavior from apparent visitors whenever we took out our tablet, making us wonder if plainclothed security personnel were amongst us actual visitors. Twice we sat down to look at the tablet and twice someone would casually but quickly appear nearby. In the first instance, a woman approached our location in a nearly uninhabited park and sat very near to us,  peculiarly choosing as her seat the edge of a flower bed rather than one of the many benches.  Another time  a lady scampered over to us and began taking closeup photos of pansy flowers which were everywhere.

Red Square, Moscow

Red Square
Red Square has a bit of a reputation. I think most people have a mental image of an immense space with the huge lurking red walls of the Kremlin behind, a place tailor made for impressive gatherings, speeches, military displays and the like. While it is suitable for many of those uses, if they are to be impressive the participants should focus on quality rather than quantity – the Square is quite a lot smaller than you’d expect and not likely to accommodate the number of people required for any mass display.

The Square was fenced off for preparations for the 9 May military parade during most of our visit but was reopened the day following the parade, which happened to be our last day in Moscow. However, Lenin’s perserved body was not scheduled to be open on that day of the week and so we were unable to see the grandfather.

During the week leading up to the parade we watched as large displays, banners and oversized military medals were placed all around the Square. On May 10, when the celebrations were complete and the square was again opened to the public, the much smaller than expected square was packed with people.

9 May Military Parade

9 May Parade
9 May is known as Victory Day in Russia and the countries formerly part of the Soviet Union. This marks the day the Nazis surrendered to the Soviets in The Great Patriotic War (which the same war that most of the rest of the world refers to a World War II).

In order to understand the significance of this to Russians those reading from Australia and the US probably need to understand the imminent threat that the people here felt. Of course Darwin and Pearl Harbor were attacks on home soil, but the Nazis occupied St Petersburg (Leningrad) for months and came so close to the walls of the Kremlin that noted hater of religions Joseph Stalin is rumored to have ordered a last ditch emergency Russian Orthodox service at the Kremlin’s Assumption Cathedral. Of course the emotional flame has been consistently and aggressively fanned by both the Soviets and their successors – Putin’s parade decor prominently displays old Soviet military medals as he, like any talented politician, seeks to align himself with his country’s most recent and dramatic military victory as a way to swell nationalistic pride and distract from his government’s shortcomings.  And in that way, perhaps Australians and Americans can actually relate quite well to the Russians.

The parade is a huge event for the city and it is apparently best viewed in Red Square, though only politicians, dignitaries and some select veterans are lucky enough to be admitted (remember, its a bit tiny). While the display in Red Square includes all types of military vehicles, performances by soldiers and a dramatic flyover from many military planes, the public that line up on the streets only are treated to the military vehicles – and this seems to suit everyone fine as apparently Russians love tanks and missiles.

Ah! A missile (I think)!

We stood on the foothpath for over an hour waiting for our glimpse, and the flyover which marked the end of the Red Square display also signalled the start of the procession which we had waited to see.  We were amazed at the size and number of vehicles – massive tanks, missile trucks with cargo so large that one wondered how it would navigate Moscow’s street, and personel transport vehicles. For Russia,  it is a show of military strength and pride.

More things that shoot and blow things up

The best part of the day was not watching the machinery go by but observing a beautiful tradition where the public carry flowers, passing one to each veteran they encounter as a display of appreciation for their service.  The veterans end up carrying around large mixed bouquets of flowers by the end of the day.

St Basil’s Cathedral, Moscow

St. Basils Cathedral
I guess that like musicians, the ability of cathedral architects might be enhanced when in an altered state of mind – I know no other way to explain the ridiculous hodgepodge of shapes and colors,  somehow cohesive and appealing, that makup St Basil’s Cathedral.  It is as striking a view in person as any photo would have you believe, and the interior of this cathedral that has grown organically with many add-ons during its life is one of the more interesting and comfortable you will find in Russia.

The dimly lit halls of St Basil’s Cathedral, Moscow

There are nine different chapels inside this cathedral, each decorated quite differently and connected by dimly-lit fresco-covered hallways that remain cool even on the warmest days. In fact, the halls and arrangement of the interior are even more unique among Russian Cathedrals than the wacky exterior.

The Original Buddy Christ, State History Museum, Moscow

State History Museum
This museum located in the old Lenin Museum at the north end of Red Square is huge.  We purchased the audio guide in an attempt to hear an English explanation to the displays, but the guide was incredibly laborious and the over-the-top glorification of every tsar in Russia’s history was a bit much.  On the first floor each room was designed differently, and the decoration of the interior of the museum was one of the most interesting things we saw. The second floor covered 18 to 20th century, which we didn’t find as interesting. There was some very interesting history to be picked up here, and then there was a lot we didn’t care to know but that may have been interesting to Russians who are, of course, already well versed in their own history.  The museum also covered only up until the Bolshevik era, an omission which was disappointing but which we would also later find to be a trend in Russian museums.  Still, we spent a whopping 3 and1/2 hours here!

Kazan Cathedral
The current Kazan Cathedral was constructed in 1993, the original structure having been removed by the Soviets as it impeded access to Red Square during parades and other events – specifically it impeded 9 May parades and Stalin would have none of that.  It is a small pleasant church that is easy to overlook when strolling around Red Square as it is tucked away in the corner and dwarfed by the Lenin Museum and the GUM.

A crooked photo of the Cathedral of Christ the Savior, Moscow

Cathedral of Christ the Savior
We visited on Easter Sunday and the church was packed with people as the nationally televised Easter mass was about to get underway. This cathedral was recently built in 2000 on the site of an old church destroyed by the Bolsheviks and the interior was covered with  gold and icons.

GUM
The GUM (or GUME) is an old shopping center turned into a fancy shopping center with beautiful decor and architecture and lots of very overpriced shops.  It reminded us of the QVB in Sydney, or rather about eight QVBs such was its size.  We did find one cheap eatery on the top floor, which may have been Moscow’s only such place.  Odd that it was located here.

One of the Stalin Skyscrapers, though not the one at Moscow State

Moscow State University,  Universitetskaya ploshchad and Stalin buildings
We visited the university’s campus with a couchsurfing host,  Ksenia.  She showed us around and took us to the lookout for a nice view out over the city which was partially marred by the dreary overcast weather. We could see five of the Stalin skyscrapers, which are massive structures which would look quite at home in Gotham City.

Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow

Tretyakov Gallery
The huge gallery had an immense and impressive collection of Russian art and some of Russia’s most treasured icons from cathedrals across the country.  It is difficult to compare any museum to the Savitsky Museum in Nukus, Uzbekistan, and the quality of the work displayed there has somewhat tempered our enthusiasm for collections elsewhere, but the Tretyakov is a worldclass place.

GULAG History Museum
This was a small but interesting museum that focuses more on individual stories of survivors of the GULAGs rather than the history of the GULAG system itself. It is perhaps not the best place if you don’t already know a fair bit about Stalin’s use of the GULAG camps, but it has some fascinating first-hand accounts – written, spoken and in video. Should Russia really wish to confront the past, this is definitely a topic that could be covered in a much more substantial museum like the Peace Memorial in Hiroshima or the Holocaust Museum in Washington.

Novedevichy Convent, Moscow

Novodevichy Convent
We visited this Convent twice, as we failed to visit the famous cemetery on our first visit – a place that is filled with tour bus visitors flocking to see the graves of Gogol, Chekov, Yeltsin and Kruschev.

The convent was founded in the 1500s and contains some very appealing buildings. Just outside the Convent walls are a park and a pleasant pond which are well-used by the public.

Red October and the ridiculous Peter the Great statue

Red October and the massive Peter the Great statue
Red October is a former chocolate factory set on an island in the Moscow River that has been renovated into a maze of hip cafes and popular bars and clubs. We found a nice bar/restaurant/cafe and had a wonderful coffee – and finding respectable coffee at a reasonable price is no small feat in this absurdly expensive city.

It is impossible for anyone walking around this part of town to overlook the massive sculpture of a Peter the Great standing on a stack of old naval ships. There is apparently a lot of controversy over this and one can see why as it is really an eyesore.

Lev’s Desk

Tolstoy Estate and Tolstoy Literary Museum 

The estate was the home where Tolstoy lived for the time he was away from Yasnaya Polyana, a span of over a decade in the later part of the 1800s. It was turned into a museum in the 1920s and the rooms have been maintained  how they were when he lived there.

The literary museum was filled with numerous paintings artists had done over the years of Tolstoy, original versions of some of his works, many photographs and much more. The state museum was well done and interesting.

Gorky Park couch pillows!

Gorky Park
This park was amazing and should be a model which all cities follow. Gorky park had almost all recreational activities you could hope for – from ping pong to paddle boats, kiosks to restaurants, and benches to huge pillow-like couches. If we lived in Moscow, we would be here frequently.  Of course its easy to fund such a place when its not actually publically owned – billionaire Roman Abramovich has purchased and refurbished this place in the last year.

Danilovsky Monastery
This is headquarters of the Russian Orthodox Church. We visited a bit too late in the day to make it into the cathedral but it was a pleasant setting. The bells rang from the tower while we were there and Brett spotted the man actually playing the bells.

Ascension Church, Kolomenskoe

Kolomenskoe Museum – Reserve
The best part of the area was the beautiful UNESCO Ascension Church with its tent like roof sitting on the hillside high above the Moscow River. There were other old churches and buildings on the grounds dating from the 17th century.

Tsaritsyno

Tsaritsyno
This Palace was originally the plan of Catherine the Great but was never completed during her life as she ran out of money.  The current government recently completed the buildings as a nice park and palace area that is a nice retreat from the city. We did not go in any of the grand looking buildings but enjoyed wandering through on a gorgeous warm day.

To get around Moscow, the metro system is great. However at times we choose to walk to enjoy the sights around. Some other places weeps while walking include : Art Muzeon Sculpture Park, Synod Printing House, Zaikonospassky Monastery, Monastery of the Epiphany, Gostiny Dvor, St Barbara’s Church, Old English Court,  Church of Maxim the Blessed,  Monastery of the Sign, Romanov Chambers, St George Church, Church of the Trinity in Nikitniki.

Russian Dream Hotel
Yes, it was called the Russian Dream. We stayed here several nights and the only dreamy thing about this place was its location, a 10 minute walk from Red Square. The guys that ran the place were very friendly to us and  anytime they saw us cooking and eating made sure to say, ‘bon appetite.’ Other than that, I wouldn’t say it was a dream you would want to repeat much, but was okay for the short visit. It was cheap and served the purpose of giving us a place to sleep, clean and eat.

Click here to see our Moscow photos

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