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Published: July 24th 2019
It seemed, I discovered chatting to the Russian chap sat next to me on the high speed train from St Petersberg to Moscow, I'd inadvertently booked myself into the 'Premier Economy' carriage - snack included and would you like tea or coffee with that? All bought to your seat with no need to navigate to the buffet car with the riff raff. So yes, I had found the English language version of the Russian Railways website when booking my tickets, but the myriad of symbols for different classes and options, never mind the inference of the train number being high or low, or indeed whether the train had a name, was bewildering. If nothing else this trip will be a voyage of discovery as I find out exactly what I booked!
I was also amused at how many times my bags were scanned. 1) On entering the station in St Petersberg, 2) boarding the train (what could I have done between the entrance and train?!), 3) getting off at Moscow and 4) entering the metro! 4 By the end I had a routine sorted - bag through scanner, don't worry too much about pockets as the body scanning component, well,
I wasn’t entirely convinced it wasn’t more decorative.
Hanging out in Red Square
I arrived late afternoon and checked into my hotel, located in what seemed to be Moscow’s equivalent of London's West End, with the Bolshoi theatre, designer boutiques and restaurants at the end of the street. It’s the area I work in in London so it felt kind of familiar…. except that Red Square was a 5 minute walk. I headed straight there, entering the massive cobbled square from the north end via Resurrection gate. St Basil's Cathedral dominated my view ahead, with its multi colored, stripy, spiky, totally bonkers onion shaped domes and tent shaped roofs. It is, I was to discover, not a single chapel but a rabbit warren of small chapels with connecting corridors, commissioned by Ivan the Terrible in 1555 following his victory over the Tatars in Kazan (the next stop on my journey).
The long red brick walls and towers of the Kremlin complex ran the length of the square to my right. To my left the stunning 200m facade and glass domed roof of the GUM department store, full of designer shops and walkways dotted with colorful benches and umm
bike art on the handrails?! And it makes its own ice-cream… tasty, although you have to navigate more of the body scanners to get to it.
Next to Resurrection Gate is the imposing State History Museum. I ducked in here late one afternoon when the rain set in. Built in the 19th century the building is itself a historical journey through museum design. The first floor fascinated me, from the entrance hall with its historical lineage ceiling frescos, through stone-age times to Mongol invasions. Each room was designed with context in mind, reflected in the ceiling artwork (some by famous artists of the time) as well as the objects on show in ‘traditional’ style display cases.
And into the Kremlin...
One of my more surreal experiences! The historical seat of the Orthodox Church and politics (Putin commutes to the office by helicopter apparently), tourists can visit the Armory and Cathedral Square, named for the 3 surrounding cathedrals. Both were good but if I had to pick one it’d be the Armory. With a 10am ticket I was in the door as soon as it opened, peacefully ambling through for an hour before the groups arrived…. through room
after room of gold and richness, from jewel inlaid religious paraphernalia, gifts from foreign powers to armor (including bejeweled ceremonial wear for human and horse), carriages, crowns and coronation outfits.
Lenin and De-Stalinisation
I did two great walking tours in Moscow. The free tour on my first morning was a great introduction to the city, taking in smaller churches, quiet, dark and austere, still with standing room only and Park Zarayade, Moscow’s newest park showcasing the different vegetation zones, tundra, steppe, wetlands and forest, in Russia. A glass ‘bridge to no-where’ goes part way across the Moscow River before doubling back on itself, offering great views of one of Stalin's Seven Sisters. Concerned visitors would be unimpressed by the lack of skyscrapers, Stalin commissioned architects to remedy the problem - one had worked on the New York skyline and, well you almost could be there instead.
We skirted back through Red Square to Lenin's Mausoleum and the adjacent Kremlin Wall Necropolis. Stalin initially lay next to Lenin in the Mausoleum, but was moved in 1961 as part of the de-Stalinisation reforms under Nikita Khrushchev. He was reburied in the adjacent, but more understated, Kremlin Wall Necropolis, with other
leading Communists and famous people - Yuri Gagarin was later buried here.
Riding the Metro
The reforms involved demolishing the personality cult surrounding Stalin and even found their way onto the Metro. Begun in 1935, each station is an artistic and architectural… extravaganza?!? The most spectacular were built in the Soviet era, particularly Stalin’s reign when he envisaged them as ‘Palaces for the People’. With everyone equal, all could now spend time surrounded by reflective marble walls, high ceilings, statues, mosaics and grand chandeliers.... on the Metro. As de-Stalinisation spread, murals depicting Stalin’s image were reworked, perhaps transforming him to Lenin, an astronaut or something quite abstract.
The most stunning stations for me were Mayakovskaya and the stained glass windows of Novoslobodskaya. The 1930s Art Deco style of the former incorporates graceful steel faced arches and a line of oval ceiling vaults, edged with simple lighting and inset with mosaics depicting scenes from 24hrs in the Soviet Sky - from planes and skydiving to birds and rockets.
My final stop in Moscow was the Gulag museum, incredibly sad, starting with a display of doors in an eerily dimly lit room, each with a story to tell. The
most moving aspect though was listening to personal experiences of families split apart in the middle of the night, denounced on trumped up charges, often never to be reunited. Distance travelled from St Petersberg - Moscow:
631KM Time taken:
3hrs 40 Mins
Tot: 3.473s; Tpl: 0.24s; cc: 16; qc: 23; dbt: 0.1613s; 3; m:saturn w:www (22.214.171.124); sld: 11;
; mem: 1.4mb