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A Weekend in Moscow

It was a disturbing moment when I discovered that my preconceptions of what Moscow would be like were shaped almost entirely by Police Academy 7: Mission to Moscow. Its generally not good to base ones prejudices on TV or films. And its generally a terrible idea to base anything whatsoever on the innocently entertaining but ultimately glib Police Academy series (for the record it gets 1 and a half stars on IMDB. A farce, frankly).

But I was still generally expecting a city sheened with ice and snow, with baubled buildings on every corner, vast imposing communist structures and statues of Lenin everywhere.

This is me doing a totally original pose which no-one else has ever attempted before or since.
This is me doing a totally original pose which no-one else has ever attempted before or since.

How wrong I was. This isn’t a city which fits any stereotype you might have. There are no imposing communist monoliths hankering back to the 1950s, perhaps other than Stalin’s ‘7 sisters’ which reminded me of Stalin’s Birthday Cake from Riga. In fact, this city feels less like a post-communist nerve centre and more like any other confident, developing, modern European capital city you might visit. I remember commenting to one of our group that ‘I don’t feel like I’m in Moscow yet’. When you’re walking down a street lined with McDonalds, KFC and Starbucks, I guess you could be walking down any street in the world.

Also, all those baubles you’re expecting to see on the buildings? That’s really only St Basil’s Cathedral, the archetypal Moscow vista which every Western news reporter makes it their business to stand in front of when filming. They’re not really on every street corner at all. Eat that, Commandant Lassard.

Christ the Saviour Cathedral.
Christ the Saviour Cathedral.

That said, I found Moscow a much more interesting city than St Petersburg. Where St Petersburg was grand and classical, Moscow felt bold and lively. My time in St Petersburg was limited, admittedly, and I didn’t even spend long enough in Moscow. But given the choice, I’d go back to Moscow first (although you can get from one to the other in around 4 hours on the Sapsan train).

So what did we do? We had a mooch around the underground, which I wrote about earlier this week. We went to Lenin’s mausoleum, which I’ve also already written about. We also climbed Sparrow Hill for a panoramic view of the city; we sat in a park and drank beer, hiding the bottles from the Moscow police; we visited the tomb of the unknown soldier, a memorial for the millions who lost their lives in the World Wars who’s names were never known; we went for a midnight walk through Red Square; and we sat across the river from Christ the Saviour Cathedral sipping on White Russian cocktails. It was generally all very pleasant and interesting, if wearing on the toes.

Modern Russia: very expensive caviar.
Modern Russia: very expensive caviar.
Christ the Saviour Cathedral.
Christ the Saviour Cathedral.

I grew to like Moscow. Its a beautiful city, architecturally dramatic and historically rich. But, one reflection I had on the city and the general national psyche: I’m not sure Russia has decided quite what to do with its history just yet. On the one hand, the proliferation of American chain stores, and the half dozen Disney characters roaming Red Square, make it fairly clear that communism is very much in Russia’s past, certainly in Moscow.

A panoramic view of Moscow from Sparrow Hill.
A panoramic view of Moscow from Sparrow Hill.

But travelling around the city, and indeed around Russia more broadly, much of the communist symbolism remains. Whether it is blatant and imposing, such as the magnificent Lenin paintings that stare down at the platforms of the metro or the vast statues of broad jawed men clutching hammers and bold women wielding sickles, or more subtle symbolism such as communist stars worked into the latticework on bridges crossing the river, you’re never far away from being reminded about the last century of Russian history.

Its clear they’re not embarrassed, as such. Rather they simply don’t seem to have made up their minds how to deal with it all. They clearly can’t delete the last 100 years. The practicalities of doing so in themselves would be prohibitive, involving ripping down sky scrapers and tearing out mosaics of the brave proletariat in metro stations. And even then, I don’t get the sense they want to deny what has happened.

But they also don’t celebrate that history. They don’t seem to talk about it. You get the sense that its there, and they know its there, and they don’t deny its there. They’d just rather talk about something else right now. Its a bit like having an uncle who you love, but who’s just a little bit racist. Whenever anyone brings it up you just shrug and go ‘Oh, yeah, but he’s lovely really. He’s into photography at the moment. Landscapes, mostly’. If you can allow for the shortcomings of that admittedly leaky comparison I’d be tremendously grateful, but it does sort of underline how I feel Moscow is handling its history.

And yet, it is a history which has so much richness and variety. This massive, complex country underwent a huge political experiment for half a century. That experiment ended 20 years ago, and yet there is no museum of communism in Moscow. There is no ordered documentation of the progress communism made. If it wasn’t for the communist symbolism (some of it quite remarkable) that still dots the city, you wouldn’t even know communism had ever happened. Its there, but no-one is talking about it.

The tomb of the unknown soldier. These guards only work during the day, we discovered.
The tomb of the unknown soldier.
These guards only work during the day, we discovered.

Perhaps its all still just a bit too fresh in the memory. Perhaps, as Russia continues to define where it wants to be in the world, its all still just too close for comfort. I was going to compare this to Liverpool, where we have an International Slavery Museum documenting the city’s quite grisly connections with the slave trade, acknowledging a history which isn’t all rosy and wonderful and taking steps to contribute to our understanding of it. But then that was all 200 years ago. Everyone who was involved is dead. Its easier to talk about something when there is no risk of hurting people’s feelings.

Drinking in the park. Surely there are few better examples of disguise in history than my efforts to hide the bottle?
Drinking in the park. Surely there are few better examples of disguise in history than my efforts to hide the bottle?

Maybe in years to come Moscow and Russia will also find ways to tell the story of communism. Until then, what nods there are towards Russia’s communist history in Moscow are there incidentally. Personally, I just hope they survive what seems to now be a worldwide march towards neo-liberal consumerism, which Moscow has finally also succumbed too.

Adam’s Top Tips: Moscow

Sooooo… Where did you stay?

I stayed at Godzilla’s hostel, with my VodkaTrain tour group. Its a big place, but pretty cheap. Well placed. 10 people to a room isn’t great, and there aren’t enough showers. But the quality you get for the price is pretty decent.

Are there any more upmarket places?

Of course there are. But Moscow isn’t cheap these days. This is the city with the world’s richest concentration of billionaires! You’ll pay top dollar for a good central hotel room, and food and drink will hit the wallet as well.

How long should I stay for?

A couple of days. Pick off a few things each day, and wind it in with a trip to St Petersburg as well. You could happily spend a week or two just in these two places, and even taking day trips out to other local places.

Smashing that. Would you say its worth it?

Of course I’d say its worth it! Especially if you’re a history nerd like me.

Top three things to do?

Ooooh, you’re spoiled for choice! But:

1. Lenin’s Mausoleum is a must. Its open on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Thursdays and weekends from 10am to 1pm. Admission is free of charge.

2. The Moscow Underground is also worth a gander. 30 roubles (60p) will buy you a single trip on the underground, which can essentially give you freedom to roam to whichever stations you like before resurfacing.

3. Climb Sparrow Hill. Plenty going on up there, including (bizarrely) a group of people dressed as native Americans pretending to play pan pipes, but quite clearly miming.

Crazy stuff. Any other bits of handy info I should know?

Don’t drink the water. Its worse in St Petersburg, but the mains water streams are known to have parasites in that can cause nasty tummy bugs. Bottled water is better.

That is a handy bit of info!

Well, you know me.