Our 4 days in Moscow passed in a blur of constant movement, unrelenting traffic, numerous metro journeys, a sense of chaos but also amazing sights in Red Square and beyond, great Russian and European art at the Tretyakov and Puskin galleries, wonderful Russian hospitality.... and exhaustion. Moscow is a city with a population of at least 11m (possibly as high as 14m), which is a third more than London but packed into a much smaller space so that it felt like a constant mass of people on the move: on foot, on public transport and by car. We were enthralled by it and overwhelmed by it.
We were lucky to be shielded from some of the chaos of the streets by being lent a flat, which was a haven to return to each night. And we got to see another side of Moscow and more than just the usual tourist sights by being shown round by Peter, a friend of our Russian teacher’s, who whizzed us around and showed us streets of old low level nineteenth century town houses, now overlooked by Soviet tower blocks but still a world away from them; the majestic Moscow University sitting high and proud overlooking the city; the small churches and big monasteries and their peaceful gardens; and the bridges over the river with views that equal those from Waterloo Bridge over the Thames.
The one thing that struck us as more confusing and dominating than the number of people and cars constantly moving around the city (and the driving!) was the country’s relationship to its history. Everyone we spoke to was keen to stress how much the country had changed since the fall of Communism and yet there seems to have been no official or public consideration of the past so unlike for example in East Germany we found no museums or references to the Soviet period or to life under Communism. And all around the city the physical reminders of the Soviet era still dominate, often jarring strangely with symbols of contemporary capitalist Russia.
On one side of Red Square we visited Lenin, still laying in State (itself a slightly bizarre experience, the former revolutionary looking more waxwork than man), and then popped across to the other side of Square to check out GUM, the State department store, which hosts boutiques which more than rival Knightsbridge’s for price and posh shoppers. Dominating the skyline around the city are the seven identical “Stalin Skyscrapers,” massive gothic apartment blocks built for loyal and powerful Party members that symbolise the Stalinist era and still house the State University, Government Ministries and now even a Hilton hotel (the photo above shows one of them). And while many (though by no means all) of the statues of old Soviet leaders have been taken down from the squares and streets they’re housed and preserved at the Art Muzeon Sculpture Park, which when we visited was filled by families out for a stroll on a Sunday afternoon. We also took a trip out to the All Russia Exhibition Centre, originally set up to display the economic achievements of the USSR, with an enormous sculpture of a space shuttle (top photo), and which now houses tacky gift shops inside the once grand neo-classical temples dedicated to achievements in health, education, agriculture or industry. And so, with the numerous hammer and sickles on display in metro stations and across the city, and the Red Star shining brightly on top of the Kremlin each night it still feels, perhaps unsurprisingly, like Moscow has a mixed attitude to its recent and how to reconcile past and present.
Some familiar faces at the Park of Fallen Heroes