‘Moscow is the city where…’: ten ways to finish this sentence and make a portrait of Moscow as I experienced and remember it. Here are entries #6 to #10.
So, about Moscow. Let’s pick up where we left off!
6. If you take public transport, you might bump into grumpy, annoying or rude people
This remark closely recalls what I said about local people in entry number 2. Again, one should never generalise, as there will always be multiple exceptions that contradict the rule (and thankfully so). It’s also true that public transport often brings out the worst in us and, in this case, Moscow is no exception. Not even the stunning beauty of some of its metro stations can always make up for a not-entirely pleasant ride.
If you’re a first-time visitor and you’re not familiar with the metro map and the geography of its central –and most crowded– stations, finding your way around might not be the easiest task. It doesn’t get better if you’re travelling at rush hour and there really is a LOT of people around. So be patient, and patiently let the escalator ‘swallow’ you underground. As the Russian saying goes, все будет хорошо: everything will be fine.
Also, maybe don’t be too ‘theatrical’ if you wish to take photos of the metro stations. I was especially mindful of that, as I was never able to clarify whether it was actually forbidden, only frowned upon, or it was all just a groundless urban legend. I did steal a few shots here and there and, as I understand, photographing in the metro used to be banned, but it’s no longer the case. Just don’t be too much of a show-off, while you’re down there.
7. You will want and have to visit at least a number of truly stunning churches, regardless of your religious beliefs
I know, I know, I’ve said the same about Kiev. Again. But it’s a fact: you go to Moscow, ergo you go see at least a few churches, if not because they are religious buildings, because they’re super unique. Like these:
Cathedral of Vasily the Blessed (Василий блаженный)
This one is commonly referred to as St. Basil’s Cathedral, and you know it even though you think you don’t. It’s the super colourful one that features in virtually all Red Square photos ever taken.
Any stereotypical remark you’ve heard about how beautiful St. Basil is will no longer be a stereotype, once you’ve seen it for yourself: it really is as unique as it can be. Its multi-colour domes are a delight for the eye, and there are no two of them alike; the polychromy is mesmerising.
The interiors live up to the expectations understandably raised by the exteriors. The walls are colourful, the towers stunningly high. So yes, ‘wow’ makes for an accurate conclusive remark.
Cathedral of Christ the Saviour (Храм Христа Спасителя)
Christ the Saviour is St. Basil’s ideal counterpart. Where the latter is a palette of colours, the former is a triumph of white and gold. If you stand in front of the cathedral on a sunny day without sunglasses, the light will almost blind you.
The beauty of this church and its surroundings, with the river flowing right behind it and the elaborate iron bridge crossing over it, are objective and unquestionable.
Again, the interiors are equally marvellous, richly decorated and evocative. Plus, this church happens to be the one where in February 2012 Russian punk rock group Pussy Riot staged a well-known performance. Said performance was deemed blasphemous by the Orthodox clergy and resulted in the arrest of three band members, who were charged with hooliganism and consequently convicted.
(Pussy Riot are strenuous opponents of the Putin regime, as well as his close ties with the leaders of the Orthodox Church, whose support for Putin during the 2012 electoral campaign triggered the performance in the first place.)
Kazan Cathedral (Казанский собор)
This small yet splendid church is situated across the Red Square from St Basil and, despite its being outsized by virtually all buildings and monuments overlooking the square, it doesn’t go unnoticed.
Kazan is the name of another Russian city, and a beautiful one (more about it in the dedicated post). The church’s name owes nothing to the city per se. What happened is, the end of the 16th century and the early 17th century marked the end of one Tsar dynasty and the establishment of the Romanov dynasty. Around that time, Russia was invaded by Poland-plus-Lithuania, aka the ‘Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth’. The Prince that led Russian forces against the enemy managed to rid Moscow of the invaders. He claimed he owed the victory to the icon of Our Lady of Kazan, whom he had prayed multiple times.
So the prince funded the construction of a church dedicated to the Virgin of Kazan, which went on to become the Kazan Cathedral, and also one of the most significant churches in the city. Except, in 1936 Stalin ordered the destruction of all churches around the Red Square. While St. Basil was spared, the Kazan Cathedral was demolished, and only rebuilt in the early 90s.
Novodevichy Convent (Новодевичий монастырь)
Unlike the Kazan Cathedral (and many other religious buildings in the city), the 16th-century Novodevichy Convent has been virtually untouched since the 17th century.
The complex includes several churches, towers and buildings, whose functions and purposes I will carefully avoid mentioning here, as that is way beyond the scope of this post. What I can say for sure is, the complex is beautiful, what with the bright colours and well-preserved architecture, as well as its strategic location close to the river.
8. Looking at some monuments and buildings is like leafing through a history textbook
Okay, one has to be highly selective here (or this post will be officially without end), so I shall only mention a handful of places from the list. Like, say:
The whole of the Red Square itself
This is ‘one of those places’, where the concentration of history and culture is at its highest. Alongside the buildings and monuments mentioned in entry no. 5, there you even have the Lenin Mausoleum, which, as you might know (because it’s an exceptional fun fact), is the resting place of Lenin’s embalmed body.
Lubyanka Square (Лубянская площадь)
Lubyanka is the square where, in the building by the same name, the KGB (Комитет государственной безопасности), the Soviet Secret Services, had their HQ. Later, it was the FSB (Федеральная служба безопасности), the Russian Secret Services, that were headquartered there, alongside the KGB Museum.
Victory Park (Парк победы)
Victory Park is the complex that commemorates Russia’s victory against Nazi Germany during World War II. It is located on Poklonnaya Hill, one of the highest spots in Moscow.
Officially opened in 1995, the park is scattered with the following: terraces, religious buildings, fountains (and a lot of them), an obelisk (topped by the statue of… Nike, who else? The goddess of Victory), the People’s Tragedy Sculpture (which commemorates the victims of the Holocaust), military equipment and tanks, and the semi-circular Museum of the Great Patriotic War.
Speaking of which, it is worth noting that the Great Patriotic War does not exactly coincide with World War II as we know it: it refers to the conflict Russia fought against Germany as a result of the German invasion of Soviet Union.
And, really, Victory Day (celebrated on 9 May) is one of the most important days of the year in the country, a day Russians call and truly consider ‘святой‘, ‘sacred’, one they don’t ever joke about, so don’t make jokes about it yourselves. Saying it would come across as inappropriate really is a euphemism.
Well, after entry no. 1 you know pretty much all about them, don’t you?
9. You can find yummt street food anywhere
Remember remember the word ‘pirozhky’ (пирожки). You’re going to need to use it when, tired from all the walking and sightseeing, you will be looking for some tasty and energetic comfort food to keep you going.
That’s what piroshky are for. They’re small pies made from puff pastry, which come in different shapes and fifty shades of filling: potato, mushrooms, meat, tvorog cheese (творог, a type of cheese that reminds of ricotta, though it’s not quite the same thing), cabbage, blueberry jam, strawberry jam- yes, there is a lot of them.
My favourite pirozhky place was the kiosk right behind the cathedral of Christ the Saviour, by the iron bridge. I honestly don’t know if that stall is still there, but if and when I go back to Moscow I will definitely go have a look around the area, hoping to find it.
And if you don’t come across that specific kiosk, do make sure that you come across pirozhky at least, and also don’t miss out on Russian traditional cuisine, which comes in the shape of dumplings variously filled, called pelmeny (пельмени) or varenyky (вареники), soups like borsch (борщ) and schi (щи), and a lot more.
But that’s another story.
10. Railway stations have cool, evocative names
Moscow has nine railway terminals, each of which serves a specific route. It’s the route itself that explains the name of the station: you read its name, and you can easily guess where trains leaving from there take you.
So you have Leningradskiy Station (Ленинградский вокзал) because that one takes you to Saint-Petersburg (formerly Leningrad), while if you’re leaving for Kazan, you want to go to Kazanskiy Station (Казанский вокзал), if your destination is Kiev, you go for Kievsky Station (Киевский вокзал), and- well, you get the gist.
As for the Trans-Siberian journey, it begins at Yaroslavskiy Station (Ярославский вокзал). You might want to note that down somewhere.