Beauty and the Bleakness

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March 16th 2010
Published: March 17th 2010
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On returning to Moscow from Kiev I tell a friend how beautiful the latter is. "Moscow really can't compare," I say.

"What do you mean? What about the Kremlin and Red Square? St. Basil's Cathedral?" he asks.

"Well yeah, I guess..."

And what about this, that, the other, such and such a monastery, park, cathedral...?

It suddenly dawns on me what a ridiculous claim I have just made and that in the 18 months I have spent in Moscow I have never really given the place a chance. I arrived here due to my Russian ex-girlfriend, not because of interest in Moscow or Russia. A very strong interest later developed but while in Moscow I have always been working too hard to take time out to just wander round or take in the sites. If I have enough time I tend to get out of the city, visit some other, smaller towns closer to nature with fresher air and less people.

In Kiev I was so impressed by the friendliness of the inhabitants after incidents such as the one where a woman came up to me while I was standing on a street corner looking at a map and offered to help me. But now I realise I have never carried a map with me in Moscow, never stood on street corners looking lost.

I decide to give Moscow a chance. While I am still in touristy mode after Kiev I wrap up tight and plough manically through the minus 15 Centigrade and driving snow for three hours, crossing the Red Square, circling the Kremlin then wandering the streets of Kitay Gorod.

The Red Square and the Kremlin, in their magnificence, never fail to impress. I like the outlandish colours and eastern-looking domes of Russian churches and St. Basil's on the Red Square is archetypal of this. Next to it stands the 242-metre long, trapezoid, architecturally impressive GUM, or State Department Store. It's long and checkered history includes a 19th-century construction, followed by Stalinist nationalisation as office space in 1928 then being used to display the body of his wife who committed suicide in 1932. In 1953 it became a department store again and one of the few not to suffer chronic shortages of goods, instead being plagued by constant lengthy queues. Now it is the luxury goods store in Moscow, somewhere that only a minute percentage of the population can actually afford to shop.

Many Russian cities, towns and villages have Kremlins (they are the walled centres of the settlements, the original fortresses that existed before they expanded into towns), but none that I have seen so far can compete with the splendour of the one in Moscow. The site of Moscow's Kremlin has been occupied since the second millenium BC but no stone structures existed within its walls until the 1320s. Most of these early structures did not survive to the twentieth century and the one that did was torn down by Stalin. Today's palaces and churches, whose golden domes can be seen glittering and protruding over the red, battlemented walls that encircle the whole Kremlin and whose length features twenty towers up to 70 metres tall, were mostly built between the fifteenth and seventeenth centuries. This is the official residence of the President of Russia, Lord over us all, Vladimir Putin. I mean, Dmitry Medvedev.

Though I walk past the Kremlin and Red Square several times a week, Kitay Gorod is an area that I rarely venture into and even less often actually pay attention to when I am there. In the 13th Century it was a traders centre, the merchants of which used the Red Square as a market area. I trudge through the black slush that washes around the streets, splattering the cars and turning them filthy as they drive through it. I tread carefully down pavements totally iced over and find the lowest point in the snow drift that lines the pavement to scramble over when I need to cross the street. The sky overhead is about as overcast as it is possible to be - grey, unfriendly and foreboding. Yet amid all this bleakness there is so much beauty to be spotted by someone who, unlike most in Moscow, has time on his hands to stop and look around him. Buildings of gentle pinks and blues, their walls covered in frescoes, patterns, pictures. A multitude of small churches with a mixture of bright-coloured, gold-gilded and star-spangled domes. Statues, a synagogue, quaint winding back streets dotted with little cafes.

The wind picks up so that snow is being blown into my face not only from the sky above but from the pavement too. It is freezing cold and almost feels as though it is eroding me, devouring my skin somehow. I arrive at Lubyanka Square and decide to get the metro one stop to my school at Okhotny Ryad. Before going underground I take a glance at the bleakest of bleak Moscow buildings, one with a history so grim that for decades its name struck fear into the hearts of Muscovites - the Lubyanka, former headquarters of the KGB and the place where, after their initial arrests, Stalin's millions of victims were taken to be starved, deprived of sleep and horrifically tortured for weeks or months on end before giving in, confessing and naming their friends and families as enemies of the state. It was a place they later looked back on with longing as they died slowly in forced labour camps.

I exit the Metro again and walk up Tverskaya, Moscow's main street, towards the school. Before heading inside I turn round and look down the street to the stunning view of the Kremlin at the other end. It is a site I see almost every day but pay no attention too, just as in Oxford I pay no attention to Christchurch Cathedral, the Bodleian or the Radcliffe Camera. I realise there must be many more beauty spots in this enormous city which in 18 months I have explored so little of and resolve to at least make an attempt to do it justice in future.

Click this link for advice on independent travel in Russia, with individual sections on many beautiful, interesting, hard-to-reach and off the beaten track destinations within the country.

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Marshal Georgy Konstantinovich ZhukovMarshal Georgy Konstantinovich Zhukov
Marshal Georgy Konstantinovich Zhukov

He liberated most of the Soviet Union from the Nazis and captured Berlin

18th March 2010

Lovely pictures
I tried quite hard to find beauty in the town I'm living at, but to no avail. The river is full of drifting debris, its blackened water flows sluggishly among the city's waste. A thin layer of floating oil reflects the colours of rainbow under the blistering sun. Next to it, there is an avalanche of rubbish baked slowly during the day, casts a rotten odor a hundred metres away. There is a historical building as well. It was built during the Dutch colonization: with hundreds of doors and windows, also has dooms and spires, it's called "the house of thousand doors". The homeless take it as their residence and so dogs pee on its wall. ( I think I'm not the best person to promote tourism in my hometown). I've never been to the poles but any cold places look nice to me. In my opinion, the city in your pictures is like Disneyland without Mickey Mouse or Snow white. It's full of colourful castles, buildings and dooms. I could imagine that it contrasts the bleakness of the surroundings and it's very beautiful to my eyes (even the crapdogs lol). Perhaps a city won't look good if you have to work to live in it =)
18th March 2010

Great posting!
I'm really enjoying reading about your travels! What amazing experiences you're having! Thanks for sharing, and keep up the great posting!
19th March 2010

nice photos
the buildings look nice.

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