Moscow, the capital of the Russian Federation. For most of my life, I knew so little about Russia and it's people. On my second trip to the country, I found I had learned much about it, but still knew so little. It still blows my mind that there continues to be such tensions between the NATO nations (Western Europe, UK, US, Canada, etc.) and Russia. Russians can be somewhat xenophobic, which can be apparent when visiting. It's definitely not the friendliest of places, though it also didn't live up to all the warnings I received about Moscow. And despite what I was warned against, I often smiled at strangers who made eye contact with me (which is a common practice of mine). A friendly smile does indeed mark you as a visitor, but it is not always met with a scowl. I even found a few smiles returned. Behind this xenophobia and seeming unfriendliness, a true Russian friend, if you're lucky enough to make one, is a genuine one.
Where else to start on Moscow but the Kremlin. It is the center of Moscow, and thus, the center of Russia. The Kremlin is the old, walled palace complex. Princes, Tsars, Communist dictators, and now Capitalist dictators have all administered over the city and Russia from this fortress on the hill beside the Moscow River. Moscow dates back at least to the 1100s; it is a very old city with a rich and, like much of the rest of Russia, often dark history.
The Kremlin is quite interesting since it is comprised of architectural styles from a range of different eras. The medieval-Italian walls and towers, the neoclassical palaces, and the modernist blocks all make up the complex. Entrance is highly controlled since it is still the administrative capital. Walking over the Moscow River, a friend pointed out the building where President Medvedev works. The place is obviously still in business. It is clearly fortified, with zig-zagy barricades in place at the one road-entrance to prevent any suicidal rush attacks by tank or other ground vehicle. There are plenty of heavily armed soldiers visible at the entrances too, and I'm sure there are plenty more hidden away inside and in plain clothes and hidden sniper posts all around the complex too. These walls and towers have served as the barrier between Russia's rulers and the outside world for almost a millennium now. I also found out that those stars at the tops of the towers around the walls (each tower is unique too) are made of ruby glass and are supposedly very expensive. They light up at night too, like faint red beacons.
The Russian Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, with eternal flame and all. Interestingly, it is supposedly tradition for newlyweds to come here on their wedding days, in full dress, to pay homage to their fallen comrades of yesteryear. They also do a regular changing of the guard, which is quite impressive, if not for the serious demeanor of the soldiers and officers then for the straight-legged, almost ballet-like, high kicks they perform while marching.
Wandering around those crimson battlements, one comes upon this, the first entrance to Red Square. Those iconic Soviet military parades, with row upon row of tanks and soldiers and ICBM's on proud display, rolled through this very place.
Greatly more iconic than those parades is St. Basil's Cathedral, a symbol of Moscow. Like Westminster Clock Tower (Big Ben), the Statue of Liberty, the Eiffel Tower, the Pyramids, and Christ the Redeemer, St. Basil's is an instantly recognizable landmark that makes one think immediately of its home city.
I found out after my trip that my timing to see the landmark was quite fortuitous. They had just finished a face lift for St. Basil's 450th anniversary! The architect was commissioned in 1555 by none other than Ivan the Terrible (Tsar Ivan IV). The architect decided to make a cathedral in the Russian Orthodox style that mimicked a bonfire. After completion, legend has it that Ivan had the architect blinded, so that he could never build anything as beautiful again. Supposedly, there is no other building like St. Basil's in Russia or the rest of the world, so maybe the legend is true!
Taking your eyes away from St. Basil's in Red Square and looking towards the Kremlin, you see this interesting structure that almost blends into the city-scape. This is Lenin's tomb. Still a heroic figure in Russia, Vladamir Lenin has been preserved and is entombed inside this interesting and massive mausoleum.
Lenin is very much still idolized in Russia; Stalin on the other hand is definitely not. The atrocities that occurred under his rule, particularly those millions of Russian citizens who were shipped off to the gulags in Siberia to die as slave laborers, have not been forgotten. Reading up on Russian history however, informed me that Stalin was just one of the latest in a long history of brutal and vicious Russian dictators. I don't envy the Russian leadership; they play in one of the most cutthroat, traitorous, power-hungry political arenas in the world. Russian political history is fraught with power struggles, political purges, and assassinations covered up like untimely or accidental deaths.
The ultimate slap in the face of Communism (and Lenin too!): the GUM (state department store) shopping mall, which is housed in this beautiful Russian-style-Victorian complex across Red Square from the Kremlin (and Lenin's tomb!).
Inside GUM, it's the ritziest of ritzy. Prada, Gucci, whatever you want, they've got it if it's high-end, designer fashion. They even have a Dyson vacuum store (can you say stupid rich trend?). I mean, this place used to be a state distribution center during the Communist-era, and now this? And this seemingly epitomizes the new-Russia (Moscow and St. Petersburg only in actuality). I was blown away by how seemingly obsessed those with money in Russia are on flaunting their wealth! I don't think "millionaire next door" is a phrase that applies to Russia's wealthy. If they have money, they're apparently spending it to show that they have money. This goes well beyond GUM and the blatantly expensive fashion too...it's apparent everywhere, from trendy, overpriced restaurants, clubs, and cafes to the variety of multi-$100K cars racing around (literally) on the streets. Interestingly, this is probably not a new trait of the wealthy Russian mentality. I mean, look at the architecture; it is equally ornate and flashy. I think this is just part of the Russian wealthy-elite characteristic...like birds of paradise or something!
While in Moscow, I covered the larger distances between sights using the famous Moscow Metro. One good thing Stalin did insist on was the best public transportation system for the people. The Metro stations are elaborate! Many have chandeliers, works of art, and expensive architecture and decor. Each is different too, themed on one thing or another. Shown above here is the statue in the Izmaylovo station, which is themed to commemorate the Great Patriotic War (WWII). The pillars lining the platforms have machine gun decorations and you are greeted by this massive statue of peasants armed to defend Mother Russia from the invading Nazis. It's really quite impressive; every visitor to Moscow should take a ride around in the metro and get out and wander around each of the stations. I found the Moscow Metro to be much more user friendly than the St. Petersburg equivalent. Some of the signs have the station names in both Cyrillic and Latin alphabets, though the announcements are still only in Russian (understandable...I mean you are in Russia! It's not like any American metro services say anything in Russian, right?!). Also, the trains come right into the platformed stations in Moscow, unlike the unmarked, dark tunnels that the doors open onto at stations in St. Petersburg.
So I ventured out to Izmaylovo to see this place, the Izmaylovo Market. Part flea market, part antique market, part carnival even, the market is housed in a series of old, colorful wooden buildings and structures just a short walk from the station (just make sure you get off at the right one...there are a couple with the name Izmaylovo...if the train comes above ground, then you've gone too far). Walking up to the market is just bizarre, with all those bright wooden buildings making it look like some crazy circus or carnival. Once inside, it is a seemingly endless maze of market stalls. It's really a lot of fun if you're into markets.
There's Lenin again. This is a typical stall there. If you're looking for original, touristy or otherwise, souvenirs, then this is the place to go. You can even buy a whole bunch of old Soviet stuff, from medals to propaganda to old weapons (guns, grenades, bazookas, etc). I even found a mint condition German MP40, the WWII submachine gun. Outside the market, a man was even selling tasers. This place is a junk collectors heaven.
Russian icons. Russia is famous for these religious paintings on wood, and has been since the middle ages.
Of course, the matryoshka dolls. The more traditional and more fun, new ones (like Lenin, Medvedev, Putin, and even Michael Jackson) are seen on display here.
They have grilled food too, but it is ridiculously overpriced. My Russian is nowhere near the ability to bargain either, so I went without. It all smelled amazing though...especially the salmon kabobs.
As I mentioned previously, this shows the wooden architecture. It was most impressive. I was blown away by how many things in Russia are made of wood. I know it makes sense when you consider Siberia, but still, it was quite remarkable. The workmanship and quality of just ordinary things too (tables, chairs, walkways, etc.) was incredible too. If you need some high quality, inexpensive wood furniture or decorations, go to Russia.
Back in the center, there are reminders of the Soviet-era all around if you pay attention. This was just a little mosaic at the top of a random door on a random street.
This bas-relief on the large building on one side of Red Square seems to be installed by the Soviets.
I think this one is on the State Duma (legislative) building. I also saw the old Soviet State broadcasting building, the ITAR-TASS, from which propaganda and highly controlled and skewed news was broadcast throughout the Soviet empire. Another interesting and dark landmark is the Lubyanka building, former headquarters of the KGB and current headquarters of its domestic predecessor, the FSB. The Lubyanka is imposing, even more so when considering how far underground it supposedly goes. Many, many, many people have died in the Lubyanka, probably most by way of executioners bullet to the head. Outside in Lubyanka Square, there used to be a massive, 6-meter-tall statue of "Iron Felix" Dzerzhinsky, the first head of the Bolshevic Cheka, which evolved into the KGB. This statue was one of the first things to go after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, which goes to show much much fear and hatred there was for the Soviet secret police.
One of the "Seven Sisters" as seen from Old Arbat Street. There were supposed to be seven of these Stalin Skyscrapers all around Moscow, but there are only six today. The grandest, the Palace of the Soviets, was never built. The original Cathedral of Christ the Savior was torn down and a massive foundation was dug. The Palace was supposed to be higher than the Empire State Building and Statue of Liberty combined, crowned with a 100-meter-tall (330 feet) aluminum statue of Lenin, and cover an enormous area. WWII interrupted construction and, combined with unstable ground so close to the river, ultimately canceled the project. The Soviets then turned the massive foundation into a public pool, which was supposedly quite popular. After the fall of the USSR, the Cathedral was rebuilt on the spot, much to the chagrin of swimming enthusiasts. Now, Old Arbat Street is also something to check out. Way too over-touristy for my standards, but it is historically relevant as the old bohemian district. There are plenty of places to eat and shop, the old architecture is great, and being a pedestrian-only street, it is a great place to go for a nice stroll.
The Moscow River and another Stalin Skyscraper in the background. It's really amazing that most of these are apartment blocks now and one is even a Radisson hotel! Stalin must be rolling in his grave!
Along Ulista Kuznetskiy most, a beautiful old street with plenty of bookshops, neat cafes and restaurants, and great architecture, including this old bank which just totally had me fixated. Like St. Petersburg, I enjoyed my time in Moscow. It is a great city to walk around, just keep your head about you as there is a very legitimate and powerful underworld of organized crime. Moscow is a very expensive and cultured city...the New New York is what they're calling it, but I think it's well deserving of just being Moscow. It is rich in history and culture and now money too. There are supposedly more millionaires in Moscow than in any other city in the world right now, and as I mentioned before, they aren't too humble about displaying their wealth. I really look forward to getting back to Russia to explore more outside of its two great cities!