MOSCOW (pop 11.8 million)
The St Petersburg train arrives in Moscow at Leningradsky vokzal Train Station next to the Komsomolskaya Metro. I arrived at 6PM at he height of rush hour. The pace was frenetic – people were almost running and crowds huge. I went to tourist information tucked away in a far corner of the station. It looked like I was the first person they had seen all day. The unsmiling clerk gave me an English version of the Moscow Metro system which can be very helpful. I needed to find the ring line and it seemed like a mile of connecting passageways. The Moscow Metro is possibly the most difficult subway system in the world to navigate. There are no color-coded arrows or overhead signs like in most systems. I did not realize that those directions are on the floor in Moscow and had to ask several times where to go on my first experience. And Russians are generally not helpful with their poor English – although some are very nice. The most difficult part is choosing between the two directions available at each station as this bit is only in Cyrillic. Refer to my separate section on the Russian Metro at the end of this section.
I stayed at Godzillas Hostel, the top rated hostel in Moscow. It is a purpose-built hostel with all the facilities.
RED SQUARE. This 400m-by-150m area of cobbles is at the heart of Moscow. The square forms the eastern side of the Kremlin. Once a merchant area, then the site for military parades and now the location for concerts, festivals and cultural events, it is surrounded by many iconic Russian sites. Try to go at night to see all the lights of the GUM store, St Basils and the Kremlin.
St. Basil’s Cathedral. Built from 1555-61 by Ivan the Terrible, it is a crazy confusion of colored onion domes and shapes. Inside there are 9 chapels, the tall, tent shaped one in the center surrounded by 8 small chapels. There are lovely frescoed walls and tons of nooks and crannies to explore.
Lenin Mausoleum. On the west side next to the Kremlin, in a large granite tomb, is the embalmed body of Vladimir Lenin. Everyone troops solemnly past the oddly waxy figure. The embalming formulae is a closely guarded secret but my bet is that he is indeed wax. His brain was removed, and sliced and diced for the next 40 years in the hope of uncovering its hidden genius.
GUM (Gosudarstvenny Universalny Magazin or State Department Store). This huge store takes up the entire east side of the square. It once symbolized all that was bad about Soviet shopping: long queues and empty shelves. Behind the elaborate 19th century façade, is a gorgeous three- storied shopping center. The 1000 shops contain all the most exclusive world brands. Who buys all this expensive stuff? At night all windows and the roofline are lit up. The large specialty grocery store is a treat to explore as it has exotic food from all over the world – who could afford to shop there?
State History Museum. Occupying the north end of the square, the building itself is an attraction, with each room in the style of a different region or period.
KREMLIN (a ‘kremlin’ is a town’s fortified stronghold). Shaped like a large triangle, behind its crenellated red brick walls with 19 distinctive towers rise many typical Russian buildings. The entrance is on the west side past the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier (the remains of a soldier who died in December, 1941 at km41, the nearest the Nazis came to Moscow). The dramatic high-stepping changing of the guards happens every hour. Next to the Kremlin on this side is the lovely Alexander Park with some spectacular fountains and another big shopping center full of brand name stores.
The 350R general admission gets you into four churches but that is it. Ivan the Great Bell Tower and the Armory require separate admissions. Don’t renege on the Armory (700R) with its fantastic display of precious silver and gold metal works, jewelry, armor, weapons, gowns, and carriages. The most intriguing are the collection of Faberge eggs – most were gifts exchanged between Nicholas II and his wife each year at Easter. Most famous is the Grand Siberian Railway egg with its gold train and platinum locomotive. Inside the Armory is also the Diamond Fund Exhibition (another 500R) with its lavish collection of precious stones (30,000 carats of rough diamonds, and 5 uncut diamonds of 241, 232, 298, 320 and 342 carats), jewelry and huge gold and platinum nuggets. Unfortunately the guide listed all the contents of each showcase but there are no individual labels. There are only 2 other collections of equal status – the crown treasure of England and the treasure of the previous Shah of Iran.
Also on the grounds are the Tsar Cannon (weighs 40 tons, balls too big to fire) and the Tsar Bell (at 200 tons, 6.14m tall and 6.6m in diameter, the largest bell in the world, water was accidentally splashed on it when cooling and a huge chunk broke off rendering the bell useless).
On my second day in Moscow, I had a big walking day. The State Tretyakov Gallery is on the south side of the Moscow River. Moscow’s most famous gallery, it holds an outstanding collection of pre-revolutionary Russian art and the world’s best collection of Russian icons. From the gallery, I walked along the river passing the imposing statue of Peter the Great steering a large ship (at 94.5m, it is twice as tall as the Statue of Liberty without its pedestal). The 3km long Gorky Park hugs the river. Russians do flower beds like no one else. The several ponds are used for ice skating in the winter. Cruise boats ply the river.
Other attractions in Moscow that I did not see but would have liked to include the Novodevichy Convent with its cemetery for many famous political and cultural figures, the Gulag History Museum, the Cosmonautics Museum, Ostankino TV Tower (at 540m, when opened in 1967 was the world’s tallest free-standing structure), the Great Wooden Palace, a river cruise, one of the circuses, and the Hotel Metropol. It would have been nice to go to a performance at the Bolshoi but Swan Lake was sold out and the two operas were $280 and $380, just a little dear. Lubyanka Prison is not open to the public.
Some Personal Observations on Russia and Russians
St Petersburg and Moscow have the appearance in their central areas of being very affluent. The number of expensive German cars, luxury Japanese models and Cadillac’s is unbelievable. The only stores you see are high-end brand-name ones. The buildings rival those of Paris or Buenos Aires. There is no litter, no recycling and no homelessness. The restaurants and bars are full. I can only believe that it is different elsewhere in the country.
The women in St Petersburg and Moscow seem to be an unusually attractive bunch. I doubt if they are the most beautiful in the world and I am sure you would get arguments from Venezuelans, Poles or many other countries. When contemplating what adds to the allure of Russian women, some of the factors I came up with are: they are very slim, unusually tall (hard to tell with the heels), lots of makeup, expensive hair-styles, expensive clothes (short black leather jackets are in vogue), and spike heels. Russia is an example, like many other countries, where women have an ‘ornamental’ function in society. Probably most women would look this good with all this money spent on appearance. There must be a great deal of pressure – personal and from the men – to be so slim. And the spike heels are so impractical. However Russian women don’t seem to age well with obesity common in virtually all over the mid-forties. The eastern European bride market is big, but they and especially these Russian women would be too expensive for me. Outside of those two large metropolitan cities, it appears that most of the ‘beautiful people” have left.
Men, on the other hand do not measure up. Often overweight with Putin style buzz cuts, mediocre dress and a red-faced ‘swarthiness’ from too much vodka. On my exploration of Moscow’s metro system on a Saturday night, there was sporadic drunken behavior and a huge police presence. Drinking is an obligatory part of Russian social behavior and contributes to the markedly decreased longevity of both men and women. Few wear hats or sunglasses. Neither facial hair nor long hair are common.
You don’t see many old people. Maybe they aren’t where I was, but more likely, they don’t exist. The only panhandlers I saw were elderly women. With the recent issues in Ukraine and resulting sanctions, government budgets were rearranged and money supposed to go into the national pension scheme didn’t. This doesn’t bode well for the country’s elderly. I stand out – long hair, hat and flip-flops (I am the only person wearing flip-flops in Russia and get many stares and shakes of the head).
Many stores, especially the brand stores have their name in Latin letters. It just seems odd with the level of English so poor. Recently I was in a food court in Irkutsk and the only store name in Cyrillic was Baskin Robbins.
Russians are great readers and one sees many more reading on the metro than are on screens, which are uncommon.
The Vodka Wars. By far the greatest split between Vladimir Putin and Dmitry Medvedev came over vodka. Putin had occasionally spoken out against Russia’s national shame, but words were rarely matched by deeds that would threaten the state’s alcohol revenues. President Medvedev took a decidedly more aggressive approach to Russia’s vodka problem beginning in the summer of 2009. By the time Medvedev handed the presidency back to Putin in 2012, his anti-alcohol campaign had quietly produced marked improvements in Russian health. Consumption of all types of alcohol had dropped from 18 liters per capita to 15. Suicides, homicides, and – most telling – alcohol-poisoning deaths occurred less frequently. In 2011, “only” 11,700 Russians died from alcohol poisoning, quite a drop from the average of 36,000 a year during Putin’s first eight years (2000-08) but still some 50 times higher than the rate in Europe and North America. The same year, combined life expectancy for men and women surpassed 70 years (64.3 for men, 76.1 for women) for the first time since 1986, during Mikhail Gorbachev’s anti-alcohol campaign.
MOSCOW’S METRO STATIONS – Underground Art
Initially this appears to be the most difficult metro in the world to navigate. Here the directions to connecting stations are usually on the floor (and this is a recent addition to the system). The real challenge is the directions at each individual station (which side to be on for your destination) are all in Cyrillic. On the wall opposite where you stand to board, the stations for your particular line are on the top row in the color of the line and under each are listed the stations of the line that that station connects to. It takes a while to understand. The trains are reliable and you rarely wait longer than 3 minutes. The escalators in Moscow’s Metro stations must be the longest in the world. I timed how long the ride was – 123 seconds. They are this deep so that they could function as bomb shelters in time of war.
Moscow’s Metro stations are spectacular creations of art. All 150+ of them are nice with a profusion of marble in the stations and passages connecting stations. Google “Moscow’s Best Metro Stations” and there are several lists. It is easy to see the 15 or so best ones in about 3 hours. This will be your cheapest 3 hours in Moscow – you can see them all for one $1 (40R) fare. I also gained some understanding of Cyrillic which is radically different from our alphabet.
Most of the good stations are on two lines – the ring Kolsevaya or brown line (arguably the most opulent in a system known for its palatial stations) and the Arbatsko-Pokrovskaya or dark blue line – only three on my list were off these lines. Start your trip at 9PM or so when the system is not busy. I stayed at Godzillas Hostel in the north central area of Moscow and started my evening at the closest Metro – Tsetvoy Bulvar on the grey line.
From Tsetvoy Bulvar go NW to Novosloboskaya (Koltsevaya or brown line).
1. Novoslobodskaya. It is best known for its 32 stained glass panels. Each panel, surrounded by an elaborate brass border, is set into one of the station’s pylons and illuminated from within. Both the pylons and the pointed arches between them are faced with pinkish Ural marble and edged with brass molding. At the end of the platform is a mosaic by Pavel Korin entitled “Peace Throughout the World.” The vestibule is an imposing structure with a grand portico, located on the northeast corner of Novoslobodskaya Ulitsa and Seleznevskaya Ulitsa.
Continue on brown line to:
2. Belorusskaya. It is named for the nearby Belarus rail terminal. It opened in 1952, serving briefly as the terminus of the line before the circle was completed in 1954. The station has low, white marble pylons, an elaborately patterned plaster ceiling, light fixtures supported by ornate scroll-shaped brackets, and a variety of decorations based on Belarusian themes. Overhead, twelve octagonal mosaics depict Belarusian daily life, and underfoot the platform is intricately tiled to resemble a Belarusian quilt. A sculptural group called “Soviet Belorussia” used to stand at the end of the platform before it was removed in 1998 to make room for a second entrance. Another sculptural group, “Belarusian Partisans,” is located in the passage between this station and Belorusskaya-Radialnaya.
Change to the dark green line for a short detour to the gem of the system:
3. Mayaskovskaya. This is a monument to pre-WWII Stalinist Architecture. There are stainless steel and pink rhodonite columns with grey marble walls. The floor is marble in geometric patterns. The highlight is 34 inset ceiling mosaics showing an idealized Soviet future. Most have airplanes, but some show sports and flowers. This station was the Grand Prize winner at the 1938 World’s Fair in New York.
Return back to the brown line and continue on to:
4. Krasnopresnenskaya. It was opened in 1954. The station has red granite pylons with white marble cornices and 14 bas-reliefs. Eight of the bas-reliefs depict the events of the Russian Revolution of 1905 and the other six show scenes from the Russian Revolution of 1917. Statues of Lenin and Stalin originally stood at the end of the platform, though these had been removed by the early 1960s.
Continue on the brown line to:
5. Kievskaya. It is named for the nearby Kievsky Rail Terminal. The design for the station was chosen in an open competition held in the Ukraine. Kievskaya features low, square pylons faced with white marble and surmounted by large mosaics, celebrating Russo-Ukrainian unity from 1654 to 1945. Both the mosaics and the arches between the pylons are edged with elaborate gold-colored trim. At the end of the platform is a portrait of Lenin.
Change to the dark blue line and go west to:
6. Park Pobody. The columns are white and rust marble producing a very sleek, modern look. At the end is a large enameled ceramic celebrating the end of WW II in 1945.
Return back continuing on the dark blue line passing Smolenskaya to:
7. Arbatskaya. Along with Smolenskaya and Kievskaya, it was built in 1953 to replace an older, parallel section of track which has since become part of the Filyovskaya Line. The old station had been damaged in a German bomb attack in 1941, so its replacement was much deeper and included larger stations that could double as shelters. Although it was initially supposed to be closed permanently, the old section was reopened five years later.
Continue on the dark blue line to:
8. Ploshchad Revolyutsii. 76 life-size bronze statues of soldiers, farmers, children and workers are on the dark marble columns. It is good luck to rub the nose of the dog, the chicken and the little boys penis so the dark brown patina is rubbed down to the golden bronze.
Bypass two stations staying on the dark blue line to:
9. Electrozavodskaya (Electric Factory). It is one of the more spectacular and better-known stations on the Moscow Metro opened in 1944. Aptly named for a nearby power plant, Elektrozavodskaya’s defining feature is the ceiling, which is almost completely covered by six rows of circular incandescent inset lamps – 318 in all. In keeping with the electrical theme, the inside of the vestibule is decorated with portraits of pioneers in electricity and electrical engineering. The platform is relatively short, with only six white marble pylons on each side. The inward-facing sides of the pylons are decorated with bas-reliefs depicting the Soviet Union’s industrial and agricultural workers. The outside faces have sconces and decorative metal grilles depicting the hammer and sickle.
Return back on the dark blue line changing to the brown line at Kurskaya and continue to:
10. Taganskaya. It was opened on January 1, 1950. The station is decorated with fourteen large triangular majolica panels which include cameo portraits of heroes of the Red Army as well as intricate floral designs. The panels facing the centre of the station are colored pale blue while those facing outwards are untinted. There was originally a marble bas-relief at the end of the platform depicting Stalin surrounded by an adoring throng, but this was torn out in 1966 when the passage to Taganskaya-Radialnaya was built. Another artwork in the station is a circular ceiling panel entitled “Victory Salute” located in the intermediate hall between the two sets of escalators.
Return back on the brown line bypassing Kurskaya to:
11. Komsomolskaya. It opened on January 30,1952.The station’s most noticeable feature is its grandiose Baroque-style ceiling, which is painted pale yellow and encrusted with large mosaics and floral moldings. The ceiling is supported by 68 octagonal white marble columns with modified Ionic capitals. The artistic theme of the station is Russia’s fight for independence and historical struggles against invaders. In keeping with this theme are the eight large mosaics along the center of the ceiling. At the end of the platform are a bust of Lenin and an arch decorated with gilt floral designs and the Soviet coat of arms. The station’s vestibule is built on a grand scale as well, with an immense octagonal dome, cupola, and spire and imposing full-height portico with stylized Corinthian columns. Most everyone will go through this station as it gives access to the trains to St Petersburg and the Trans-Siberian.
Continue on the brown line to Prospekt Mira and change to the orange line (Kaluzhsko-Rizhskaya line) to:
12. Prospekt Mira (Avenue of Peace). It was opened on May 1, 1958. The station features flared pylons faced with white marble and trimmed with sharp-edged metal cornices. The walls are faced with off-white ceramic tile with horizontal black stripes.
Continue on the orange line heading south to Turgenevskaya where you change lines to the light green line at Stretensky Bulvar (stainless steel columns) heading north to:
13. Dostoevskaya. The light green line is a new line with this station opening in 2010. The marble murals are from scenes of Dostoyevsky’s books with a large portrait of the author at the end. One scene was controversial as it contains a murder scene.
Return on the light green line to:
14. Trubnaya. Another very modern station, it has glass mosaics surrounded by metal light supports in the green marble columns.
Trubnaya connects back to Tsvetnoy Bulvar and home! Have a good nights sleep.
Other stations that were apparently good but I did not see are: Partiznaskaya (decorated with AK-47 machine guns), Novokunznetskaya (military bas-reliefs, ceiling mosaics and elegant marble benches), Shossi Entuziastov, and Nakhimovsky Prospekt.
For 300 years, before Moscow was capital, several towns north of Moscow were the seats of power of medieval Russia. To see Vladimir and Suzdal, I exchanged a night in my hostel for its counterpart hostel in Suzdal. Catch the train from Kursky vokzal train station, 3¼ hours to Vladimir (198kms from Moscow and the end of the line).
Vladimir. Established as the capital in 1157, it lasted for less than 100 years. Above the railway station are two nice churches, the Assumption Cathedral (built 1158, frescos) and the Cathedral of St Dmitry (built 1193-1197, amazing stone carvings on the outside). They are both World Heritage listed.
Suzdal. In 1864, the Trans-Siberian Railway bypassed Suzdal, 35km south of Vladimir, in favor of Vladimir, so Suzdal, was bypassed not only by trains, but by the 20th century. Full of cute wooden cottages, it was transformed into a major monastic center in the times of Ivan the Terrible. The walled Intercession Convent (1364) was a place of exile for the unwanted wives of tsars. The Saviour Monastery of St Euthymius was founded in the 14th century. Its enormous walls protected the town’s northern entrance. An all-inclusive fee of 350R gets you into several attractions including a church, bell tower, prison and exhibits. The Kremlin with its 1.4km-long rampart contains houses and the usual spate of churches. Suzdal is a lovely place to stroll around with its meandering river.
In retrospect, it is toss-up whether to see these Golden Ring towns or stay in Moscow. I think I would have stayed in Moscow. Most of the sites were churches, but the scenery and location of Suzdal were very nice.
On September 21, I boarded the Trans Siberian train for the three-day trip to Irkutsk and Lake Baikal, half way to the Pacific. The train leaves from Yarslavky Station (connected to Komsomolskaya Metro, the same as for trains between Moscow and St Petersburg), at platform 4 on the far eastern side of the metro/train complex (directions are great until you exit the train statin, then they disappear). The train departed exactly on time.