Seldom is there a time when a particular destination grabs my attention, makes me sit up and take notice. My latest journey to Moscow did just that even though I did relive the negative feelings of the late 70’s and 80’s (I am old enough to remember, young enough to make meaningful sense of it). I was elated for the opportunity to explore and soak in the culture of both the people and the country as a whole, to experience a subtle mixture of the past meeting the present in a way that captures both thrill and suspense.
Moscow, the capital and the largest city of the Russian Federation, is a city in which one comes face to face with all that is great and frustrating in Russia. Its generous people are as evident as the extreme tension of a city coming to terms with the un-assuredness of social change. In Moscow, more than anywhere else in a country of 6.592 million square miles, one can feel the Soviet of the past colliding with its capitalistic future.
My first encounter with Russia was the Metro, yes the Metro. I enjoy public transportation, a great way to truly look at a society as a whole, and in its purest form. I was on my way to Red Square; I got a small taste of what I was in for just by taking this mode of travel. Not only are the Metro stations clean (being from Boston I can certainly appreciate that), but elegant designs of lavish use of marble, mosaics and sculptures were at every stop. I asked another traveler who has been to Moscow a few times about this; he filled me in, saying these stations were built during the rule of Stalin and where the best of Russian art is displayed - Mayakovskaya Station, Novokusnetskaya Station, Novoslobodskaya Station and the Kropotkinskaya Station are a must and almost entirely clear of tourists.
Red Square is enormous – 400 by 150 meters. It really does epitomize everything that Moscow is and once was. Established in the 15th century under the rule of Ivan III, Trinity Square, later named Krasnaya Ploschad. The word Krasnaya meant beautiful oringinally; in more modern times it is synonymous with red. A common assumption is that the red in Red Square refers to Communism blood spill.
On its four sides stand the Kremlin, GUM Department Stores (becoming more akin to a Macy’s), State Historical Museum & St. Basil’s Cathedral which stands in the spot where the Trinity Cathedral – for which the Square was once named after, stood. Here you also find Lenin’s tomb, a gleaming granite mausoleum to the revered founder of Communism. When Lenin’s tomb is open, most of Red Square is blocked off.
Over the years, Red Square has been like Moscow’s equivalent to Rome’s Forum – a meeting place for the Muscovites – celebrating religious festivals, public gatherings or Tsars’ addresses; and even watching executions – various political dissidents were publically butchered here by Ivan the Terrible and Peter the Great.
I didn’t want to miss Lenin’s Mausoleum, not often I’ll have the chance to see an influential historical figure in the flesh. Some cynics claim that the embalmed body is really a wax work.
There are many architectural symbols of Russia, but the most recognizable is St. Basil’s Cathedral. The domes, cupolas, arches, towers and spires inspire everyone who see it – a magnificent mix of Western and Eastern architecture, internationally renowed, and across the street from the Kremlin.
Taking up the entire east side of Red Square is where you can do most if not all of your shopping. Looking more like a palace then a shopping centre, GUM (pronounced goom) is the largest in Russia. I’m not much of a shopper, but as you enter this complex, you are hit with its elegantly-decorated interior. A fountain is centrally located while three parallel arcades invite you to explore some designer shopping – and the glass ceiling is also an attention grabber.
The State Historical Museum was constructed in the late 19th century, with its red brick walls and ornate cornices. It’s a great addition to Moscow’s Red Square. All manner of treasures lie awaiting the prospective explorer. You are led back through Russian history, with artifacts dating back to its Neanderthal beginnings. You can also check out a 5,000-year-old long boat. Of course there is plenty of glitz and glamour of the 19th century Ruski royals and aristocrats. The whole experience takes about 1-2 hours. If you want to know Russia from its beginning up through he Russian Revolution, it’s well worth the time. Hungry -one restaurant is housed here where you can eat like a Tsar!
I saved one of the most anticipated stops for last – a visit to the seat of the Russian government, the Kremlin. Being Russia’s top tourist attraction is no lie. This place was filled with those who wanted to set foot inside where some of the most infamous leaders once held court: Ivan the Great, Ivan the Terrible, Stalin, Gorbachuev – all held sway here, and they cast their marks on history inside these walls.
Back in the 1150s, the Kremlin began in a much smaller scale then what it is now. As Moscow grew in wealth and power, so then did the modifications. Ivan the Great was responsible for the most ambitious modifications and Italian architects were brought in to build new walls and a number of cathedrals – including the Cathedral of the Assumption during the period of 1475-1516. The architectural styles are a timeline between the 15th and 20th centuries.
A trip to Moscow was something that was truly one of those "once in a lifetime" experiences to discuss with your friends. With the surfacing of some great airfare deals, that unique opportunity may be coming around a few more times.