Tuesday, 13 August 2013

Comrades, this is the real Russia (7)

The overnight train was pleasant enough and brought us into Moscow on time. We shared this stretch of the journey in a four-berth compartment with a couple of Russians who, though they spoke almost no English, were no bother (and I trust we were none to them either!). I'll say more about the trains in a later post, but one slight concern here was seeing the stretcher in the toilet cubicle. At least they were prepared.

Somehow St Petersburg hadn't quite felt like Russia, but Moscow certainly did. It's not that I'd ever felt Russia before, but one gets notions of a place and St Petersburg had not coincided with my particular notions of Russia. Moscow, on the other hand, was different.

The train arrived in Moscow at a slightly unethical hour of the morning, but our driver met us at the station as planned and whisked us through the city to our hotel, pointing out a couple of places on the way. The hotel seemed at first to be in a rather obscure location as he had to ask a gatekeeper to let us into what looked like a run-down compound area, but it transpired that the front of the hotel was actually next door to a Metro station - jolly handy.

All change for the Kremlin guard
Lena, our walking-tour guide, met us and introduced us to the Moscow Metro, taking us to the city centre. Similar to the St Petersburg system, each journey cost a standard amount purchased here through a sort of swipe card which could hold multiple journeys for future use. Whilst Lena held our place in the queue for the mausoleum, we popped off to see the changing of the Kremlin guard. This was a relatively simple affair, though the goose-step does always look rather amusing and it was impossible not to be mindful of the Ministry of Silly Walks, from which these soldiers would need no grant. The idea of standing in the Kremlin was itself rather strange, considering that for years during my youth this had essentially been the very heart  of 'enemy' territory. Anyway, we’re all friends now, all differences forgotten and … well, actually, there are still a lot of differences not to be forgotten - and that’s quite ok. That’s one of the delights of travelling.

The Kremlin from the Moskva River
The guard having been changed, we rejoined the queue that was now slowly moving towards the mausoleum. Passing by the graves of Josef Stalin and Leonid Brezhnev, I knew that this was going to be another strange experience and eventually we entered the building and joined the hundreds of admirers, or voyeurs, that pass by the dead body of Vladimir Lenin each day. From 1918 until his death in 1924, Lenin was the first leader of the Soviet Union and now virtually worshipped by many as the father of Soviet communism.

One wonders how much longer can this spectacle continue. A body that has been dead for nearly ninety years requires a good deal of attention to keep it looking as it does, attention that consists of wiping it down every few days and then, every 18 months, submerging it in a tub of chemicals, including paraffin wax. The fact that Lenin himself wanted to be buried beside his mother in St Petersburg seems to be of little concern, though occasional voices suggesting that his wishes should be fulfilled are soon silenced by the political left and thought inexpedient by the tour operators. As for his brain, well it was removed after his death and spent the next forty years being dissected and analysed by scientists trying to discover secrets of his hidden genius. I would love to share these with you, but they are secret.

If standing in the Kremlin made me feel strangely as if I really ought not to have been there, staring at the dead body of Lenin was plainly bizarre. He may well have led the Russians in their godless revolution, but he is no longer there - and I suspect he knows much better now. And the irony of such a man being religiously revered by so many, so long after his death, did not escape me.

The Main Department Store (GUM)
A tour of the Kremlin would wait until the morrow, for we next headed across Red Square and towards a rather upmarket shopping centre which, ironically, stands opposite Lenin's mausoleum. Red Square, so named because the Russian word ‘red’ used also to mean ‘beautiful’ and has nothing to do with the colour of nearby buildings nor any allusion to communism. The real beauty here is St Basil’s Cathedral which lies just to the south east of the square, though the shopping centre was also impressive.

Towards the end of the 19th century, Vladimir Shukhov, a Russian engineer, was responsible for building the glass roof of a covered trading area that during Soviet times was known as State Department Store (GUM is the Russian acronym). Now privatised, it is known as Main Department Store (still GUM) and most of the stuff is rather pricey. Well the place is an architectural delight, with over 20,000 panes of glass in the roof its three arcades are each on three levels linked by walkways. And there is even a very pretty fountain.

The Dining Room of the Hotel Metropol
We would revisit the shopping centre later to enjoy lunch at Stolovaya Number 57, a retro Soviet canteen. First we had more of the city to explore with Lena who showed us the Hotel Metropol, an extremely posh hotel built at the beginning of the 20th century that is really a masterpiece of art nouveau. The stained-glass dining room ceiling really is a must to see, and many a well-known name has dined here.

We saw the ex-KGB headquarters which, appropriately, was under cover in the process of renovation. And then we walked past the Moscow Operetta Theatre where, in July 1918, Vladimir Lenin gave a speech at a Joint Session of the All-Russia Central Executive Committee, the Moscow Soviet, Factory Committees and Trade Unions of Moscow encouraging his comrades at a crucial time in their “struggle against the onslaught of the whole imperialist world.”

The Chekhov Moscow Art Theatre
Across the street from a statue of Anton Chekhov is the Moscow Art Theatre which produced Chekhov’s four major works including premieres of his Three Sisters and The Cherry Orchard. From here, looking west, it was rather interesting to note the architecture of various decades and of particular interest were the seven impressive, gothic-style skyscrapers, or the 'Seven Sisters', which Stalin had built in the mid-20th century.

Lunch at Stolovaya No. 57
Lunch at Stolovaya No. 57 is a must for all visitors to Moscow. I can't say I would whole-heartedly recommend the food, though it was quite edible, but the experience was worth any lack of palatability. I'm not sure that Shanae fully appreciated the significance of the rather plain cuisine of the set lunch, having never experienced the reality of the Soviet Union, but that diners were addressed as 'comrades' in a rhyming sign on the table asking us to clean our table after eating was most fitting.

One of Stalin's seven sky-scrapers from the river
The afternoon continued to be most sunny so we took to the river and enjoyed an hour and a half's boat ride that took us past a number of notable sites. We met a couple of English visitors who were over to cheer on the British athletes at the World Championships that were being held in Moscow. I asked them to do a bit of cheering on my behalf too - just so as not to appear totally unpatriotic. I'm sure it helped.


  1. When we moved to Tampere, Finland, the building where we registered the boys for school was called the Lenin building. Lenin had signed some important papers in that building back in the early 1900's. Usually in Finland, when a building gets to be 50 years old it is torn down and another one built. Except this building was still standing. Finland catered to Russia at that time. Every time the president made a trip to a foreign country, a few days after his return to Finland, he made a trip to Moscow. I suppose the Russians wanted to keep Finland "in line."

  2. Paddy I've really been enjoying your posts, thank you for all the details and pictures. I'm realy looking forward to hearing about the rest of your trip.