Moscow, Russia: What to See in 24 Hours

September 04, 2015

Side-by-side in the new capital are two very different faces of Russia's turbulent history - namely, the shiny glamour of the nouveau-riche vs. the equally majestic remains of the first Soviet state.

While it was St Petersburg that truly awed me with her palaces - monuments to the excess of Russia's Tsars, which actually made this resolute royalist emphatize with the proletariat -  I was no less moved by Moscow. The history and sheer artistry of her monuments - from the Red Square (the old Russian word for red - krasni - also means 'beautiful') to the instantly-recognisable onions of St Basil's Cathedral - was a perfect introduction to the rich heritage of Russia, an education I keenly continued afterward in St Petersburg. This post is about how to see, in a short space of time, the key sights of Moscow's duality.

I began at the southern end of Moscow's Red Square, with what is arguably the icon of Russia - St Basil's Cathedral. Onions, meringues, sweets - whatever you think the domes look like, their mad anarchy of colour, shapes, and patterns are a style that is uniquely, distinctively Russian. I wonder if Ivan the Terrible - who commissioned St Basil's Cathedral to commemorate his victory over Kazan in 1552 - ever considered that his masterpiece would be the Pinterest-perfect postcard picture of Russia?

I didn't have time to go inside Lenin's Mausoleum to pay my respects to the world's first embalmed leader (an art the Russians invented, and perfected - every year the Vietnamese bring Uncle Ho to Russia for upkeep). Lenin expressedly had no desire to be a mummy (a sentiment his widow also vehemently opposed) and I didn't share the Russian's revere of their great hero, so I just admired his tomb from the outside. The locals told me that while there are still living generations of Russians who worship him, he will remain there for his people to visit.

The imposing State History Museum against the cobblestoned, pedestrianised Red Square make for the most photogenic backdrop. Which is why on that gorgeous summer's day, I saw many a bridal photoshoot alongside tourists with their selfie sticks. In fact, during summer you will see wedding shoots everywhere in Russia - I counted at least 20 during my stay in Moscow and St Petersburg. Each sighting was no less sweet - I couldn't help smiling and waving to the happy parties!

Through these magnificent arches in the Red Square is another Russian monument, but one as far-removed from Communism as it gets - the capitalist behemoth that is State Department Store GUM, Moscow's answer to Harrods. Heaving with the usual luxury brands (Louis Vuitton and the like) and facing Lenin's final resting place just opposite, I thought it an ironic juxtaposition of sorts - a composition that perfectly summed up the sudden upheaval of modern Moscow's economy.

The overly-modestly named GUM (pronounced goom as in boom, not gum as in chewing gum) literally translates as 'main universal store', or State Department Store as it was known during Soviet times. The interior is that of a typically European shopping arcade, with skylights, soaring arched walkways, and fountains filled with fruit (yes, really). It was here at GUM that I saw the superficial, flashy side of Moscow - the side that could be any international see-and-be-seen destination where people aspire to drive the fastest cars, wear the flashiest watches, and have the leggiest of the trophy wives. You know, the 'luxury capitals' with the same brands, the same prices, and follow the same template for 'we're living the dream'.

Still, I bought a few novelty Russian vodkas (how deliciously tacky is that Faberge Egg vodka box? Yours for a mere €1000) and shopped at Paul Smith (of all places...when in London I know the former head designer) so I can't really talk about mindless consumerism...

...but I can say, with some authority, that GUM's illuminated facade by night did remind me of the Harrods.

I left the ostentation (although relatively conservative by my usual standards) of the State Department Store and cut across the cobblestones to Alexandrovsky (Alexander) Gardens, one of Moscow's first public urban spaces - now that's a pleasure for everyone to enjoy, regardless of bank balance or social standing. Democracy is a beautiful thing, is it not?

The watery walkways of Alexandrovsky's Lower Gardens, which was the view I woke up to every morning at Hotel National.

Just past the wrought iron grille (the design of which commemorates the Russian defeat of Napoleon) that flanks the entrance to the Upper Garden is the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, for whom an eternal flame brought from the Field of Mars in Leningrad (now St Petersburg) burns ever bright. In 1967, an unnamed soldier who fell during the Great Patriotic War where the Nazis penetrated towards Moscow, was brought here. Today, honour sentinels guard the solemn reminder of how bravely Russia fought to defend the free world. 

Although the changing of the guard draws far less crowds than that of Buckingham Palace and certainly has less pomp, there is no shortage of ceremony.  

No trip to Moscow is complete without a walk through Russia's best-known Kremlin - Kremlin literally means 'fortress within a city' - the official residence of President Putin, site of the Assumption Cathedral (where the Tsars were coronated), and the Church of The Twelve Apostles, among five palaces, four cathedrals enclosed by the Kremlin Wall and towers. 

As historically-signifcant as the Moscow Kremlin is as a site of Russian power, personally I felt that to truly understand the spirit of Soviet Russia one has to take a ride on Moscow's famously lavish Metro. 

One could dismiss the mother of pearl walls, marble floors, ornate plater carvings, opulent chandeliers and detailed mosaic murals of the Moscow Metro as a symbol of Russian ostentation. But, the opposite is true. The whole point of Communism and Soviet Russia was that riches were to be distributed equally among the people, and that wealth was for all not just for one. 

Where better for the everyman to enjoy the wealth of his nation than on the public transport system, where his daily commute is one of comfort and beauty? The Moscow Metro is truly a 'palace for the people' and an example that TFL should pay close attention too. The Shoreditch High Street Overground station could do with some marble and rose gold, is all I'm saying...

Rub here for good luck - the Russian people are very superstitious and even the busiest commuter will pause to pat the noses of various animal statues, which is why the bronze has faded off many a stone nose.

Another interesting (although slightly out of the way of the city-centre) place worthy of a visit in Moscow is the Memorial Museum of Cosmonautics, or simply, the Cosmonaut Museum.

A celebration of space exploration, with a huge display of space-related exhibits and models (mostly from the Soviet era) telling the story of man's conquest of the last great frontier, there is no other museum quite like it, simple because no man got to space before Russian hero Yuri Gagarin.

Although the taxidermied figure of Laika, the first dog in space, might be a bit unsettling for some, the Cosmonaut Museum exhibits are wondrous to behold and more than likely to make you feel somewhat existential (shouldn't have watched all those Brian Cox documentaries on the flight to Moscow...). Rather amusing was the museum canteen, where 'space food' (the very same eaten by astronauts) served from tubes and sachets are on the menu. I'd definitely recommend a visit to the Memorial Museum of Cosmonautics - I thought it was out of this world (har har).

So...Moscow. What are my thoughts on the new capital of Russia? I have all sorts of feelings; awe at the beauty and magnificence of its historical buildings, slight-repulsion and 'oh, this again...' at the materialisism of the city's jet-set (look who's talking), yet the comforting familiarity that even on this side of the world I can still find a rooftop bar to sip cocktails with the capital's elite (I'll blog about this, soon). Personally, while I enjoyed the monuments I found the rest of Moscow a bit shallow. I much preferred St Petersburg for its more laid-back pace, friendly citizens, and historical opulence of truly epic levels which was a surprisingly sobering reminder of why revolution and Communism was so necessary at the time. I know, I know, Russia has nudged me toward the left! I never expected that to happen, and I'd like to reiterate that I am still firmly centre-wing, but now my views are a bit more balanced. Anyway, I'll talk about a little more sometime later, because I'm Russian (rushing) to get back to work - I really Moscow (must go)! What's that sound of awkward silence? Fine, I'll stop now. Thank you for taking this trip with me. x

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