Our first day in Moscow gave us a chance to see some of the grand sights of this enormous cosmopolitan city.
This city stands out, not only because of its economic and political importance in Russia, but also because it is simply grand in so many ways. Some of the main roads carry eight lanes of traffic. Its buildings provide grand streetscapes and are decorative and ornate. It seems to bustle with energy. The new downtown business area is packed with modern skyscrapers and the old areas that contain theatres and palatial buildings contrast heavily with their own form of grandeur. Apart from buildings and structures, any relics of life under the Soviets have long been removed. Those days are ancient history now, although we westerners seem fascinated by them.
I don’t think that Moscow (and Russia) can yet be seen as quite democratic or as an open society. Moscow has the largest number of billionaire residents in the world – much of the wealth created from corruption and by the Russian Mafia who stole government property during the fall of the Soviet Empire in the 1990’s and invested the proceeds for their own purposes.
One of the sights of Soviet intrigue is the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour on the northern bank of the Moskva River, a few blocks southwest of the Kremlin. It has an overall height of 103 metres and is the tallest Orthodox Christian church in the world. The current church is the second to stand on this site. The original church, built during the 19th century, took more than 40 years to build. It was destroyed in 1931 during the Communist rule of Joseph Stalin as part of his program of removing religion from society. The demolition was supposed to make way for a colossal Palace of the Soviets. This was planned to be taller than the Empire State Building. It was started, but much of the steel was eventually used for fortifications around Moscow in WW2. It was never built and after the fall of communism, the present version of the church was reconstructed in the 1990s on the same site. The original church was the scene of the 1882 world premiere of the famous 1812 Overture by Tchaikovsky. The current one was the scene of the now famous display by the punk group, Pussy Riot, whose members ended up in prison for two years for offensive behaviour. We would probably have called their actions a simple (but, perhaps obnoxious) protest.
A fascinating experience was for us to have a ride on the Metro. The network of underground trains in Moscow has a total length of 325.4 km and consists of 12 lines and 194 stations. It costs 30 Roubles to travel from anywhere to anywhere although this isn a far cry from the fares of the 1960s to the 1990’s where the cost of a ride was five kopecks (1/20 of a Soviet ruble). The stations are very deep. Some of them were constructed to provide shelter from nuclear attack during the cold war. The escalator on the station from which we started near the war memorial, was a enormous 100 metres long. Many of the stations are ornate and decorated with murals that originally displayed the largesse of life under the Soviets. Now, they are like living museums. One of them we stopped at had large murals that illustrated the value of the connection between Russia and the Ukraine which was the food bowl of Russia during the 1930’s. Good public propaganda of the day!
At Sparrow Hills (once known as Lenin Hills) we stood on one of the highest points in Moscow. The observation platform there, gave us a good panoramic view of the city. Last time I was here, it was hard to look out at the view without being jostled by souvenir vendors but they have been moved on by the authorities. Behind the hill is the very impressive building of the Moscow University. This is one of the ‘Seven Sisters’ a series of Stalinist buildings that were designed to compete with the skyscrapers of the USA. All these were significantly over-engineered with steel frames and concrete ceilings and masonry infill. They were based on concrete slab foundations (in the case of the University building – 7 meters thick). Exterior ceramic tiles, panels up to 15 square meters, were secured with stainless steel anchors. The height of these buildings was not limited by political will, but by lack of technology and experience – the structures were far heavier than the American skyscrapers.
We spent a good few hours at Red Square. This is one of the great public squares of the world. Its name does not come from either the pigment of the surrounding bricks (which, in fact, were whitewashed at certain times in history) nor from the link between the color red and communism. Rather, the name came about because the Russian word for the name of the square, krasnaya, means either “red” or “beautiful”.
This square separates the Kremlin, the former royal citadel and currently the official residence of the President of Russia, from the historic merchant quarter. Along the wall of the Kremlin is the bunker like mausoleum of Comrade Lenin, whose body can be viewed at certain hours of the morning. On the other side of the square, facing the Kremlin, is the famous GUM Department store. This beautiful building was full of empty shops in the Soviet days but is now stacked with designer shops and a lovely old food store that would rival Harrods or the store that we visited in Berlin.
At the end of the square is the famous landmark of Moscow, St Basil’s Cathedral. The building is now a museum and is officially known as the Cathedral of the Intercession of the Blessed Virgin on the Moat. It was built from 1555–61 on orders from Ivan the Terrible and commemorates the capture of Kazan and Astrakhan. It has been the hub of the city’s growth since the 14th century and was the city’s tallest building until the completion of the Ivan the Great Bell Tower. The church is shaped as a flame of a bonfire rising into the sky, a design that has no comparison in Russian,or world, architecture. Stalin wanted to demolish this building but it was saved only the personal appeals of a famous Russian Architect, Baranovsky.
By the time we returned to the ship, our home for our time in Moscow, we were tired but thrilled with our experience of seeing so many significant sights in the one day.