Our 5.30am arrival into the heart of Mother Russia is smooth and effortless. Much less hassle than arriving at JFK and much, much less drama than arriving in India. No photographs, no finger-printing, no cavity searches. Our driver whisks us along a deserted freeway, past high clusters of depressing Soviet era apartment blocks, until just 40 minutes later, he drops us at the Golden Ring Hotel. He has not offered one word. Not even a grunted “nyet”. It is barely 7.00am.
A quick shower and we’re troughing into the breakfast buffet. Maggie’s fears of inadequate vegetarian food is quickly dispelled as we’re presented with a selection equal to anywhere in the world. At the table next to us, two German women with smiles as wide as Texas slurp Prosecco from the buffet, and in a corner, a harpist plays Russian favourites, such as Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered, and Midnight from Cats.
Today is a free day, and although we’re slightly discombobulated with fatigue, and with rain threatening, we set off to conquer the Moscow Metro. Wisely, as all the information and station names are in Cyrillic script, we have chosen a diminutive guide named Elena who is from Siberia. But first, a little history. The Moscow Metro came late to the party with first line opening in 1935, much later than New York or London which were both opened in the 19th Century. Indeed, while the grunt work was carried out with Russian labour, the engineering expertise was all brought from London Underground. The paranoia of the NKVD was evident when the secret police arrested numerous British engineers for espionage because they’d gained an in-depth knowledge of the city’s physical layout. The engineers were given a show trial and deported in 1933.
As we descend the long escalator we are aware that apart from St Petersburg, Moscow has the deepest subway in the world, with a minimum depth of 60 meters. And the escalators seem to run at about twice the speed of ours at home. You need to build up a fast walk, throw your good leg forward and grab the handrail, as the rapid spurt is likely to flip you backwards. The loose skin on your face is pulled back by the force of the rapid acceleration as you plunge downwards, watched from the bottom of the escalators by a stony-eyed crone someone’s delightful grandmother in a glass booth whose job is to ensure safety and probity.
Elena dances us from one train to another, explaining that the reason the Metro is so deep is largely because Moscow is built on a soft sedimentary layer unsuitable for tunnelling. But the lines built during the Cold War were also built as possible shelters in case of a nuclear attack, and so are sufficiently deep to withstand all but a direct hit. The stations are more like museum pieces than the soulless dark spaces we are accustomed to and we never wait more than 90 seconds for a train to arrive. The cost of a single ticket anywhere on the system of over 200 stations is just over $1, much less if you use your Opal card. And did I mention that every carriage features free wifi. There are plans underway to add 150 kms of new track to the Metro by 2020 with 24 tunnel boring machines happily drilling away underground as I write. Our beloved NSW Premier, Gladys, certainly needs a visit to the Moscow Metro!!!
After dinner, and just 40 hours since we left home, we fall exhaustedly into bed and pull the doona over our heads. It’s not quite 9pm but as we are so far north, the sun shines brightly into our bedroom from the west.
For the next three days, our delightful, diminutive guide Tatiana takes over the cat-herding duties and takes us initially on a tour of the Kremlin. We learn that the Kremlin is not a single building (as we had thought), but a 28-hectare fortified complex at the heart of Moscow, overlooking the Moscow River and includes five palaces, four cathedrals and the Grand Kremlin Palace from where Vlad earns his daily shilling. The whole thing is surrounded by high walls and watch towers and looks out toward the Red Square and the shining towers of St Basil’s Cathedral. It was originally surrounded by a moat, was the residence of the tsars, but now represents the seat of Government.
The Kremlin, and much of the city, is bathed in golden glow of the onion-shaped church domes that crowd the landscape. They are as endemic to Moscow as stray cats are to Istanbul. But with a little more charm.
We treat ourselves to a night at the Bolshoi. Unfortunately, that Cyrillic alphabet and a bit of misdirection are our undoing as we travel two stations in the wrong direction, are misdirected onto a different line and then, once we realise our error, have to retrace our steps and arrive at the Bolshoi after the curtain has risen. But the ushers are non-plussed, and instead of being forced to wait at the bar as would happen in Sydney, we are taken way upstairs to the nose-bleed seats where we enjoyed the first act before being reseated after the interval. At the interval, I noticed a couple of people waiting with huge bunches of flowers. After the finale and the curtain call, the ushers came on stage and distributed bunches of flowers (unevenly) amongst the leads. Obviously, these are tributes from Stage-Door Johnnies’, (or in this case Stage-Door Sergey’s).
Next night we pay more attention on the Metro and at a brand-new theatre out in the burbs, we attend the Russian National Dance Show which traces the history of Russia through dance. Although aimed fairly at the tourists, this knocked the excellent Bolshoi out of the park. The dance was exceptional, with the fifty dancers doing steps that we could only dream about. The Berisoka style, where the feet don’t seem to move and the dancers glide across the stage was just amazing. We’ve seen Cossack dancing before, but this took our breath away – although I do think some of those moves, where the guys leap into the air air and kick their feet up so they can touch them with their hands, is just showing off.
Outside, on our way back to the Metro, we discover the most beautiful mosque.
On our last day with Tatania we have an immersive lesson on the Romanoff dynasty, starting with the huge reconstructed timber palace of Tsar Alexei, which despite being only a handful of years old, is a beautiful example of Russian architecture of the XVII century.
Next stop is Kolomenskoye, which beginning from the 15th century, served as a summer country residence for the Grand Dukes of Moscow and Russian Tsars with its UNESCO listed Ascension Church. The apples from the trees at Kolomenskoye were shipped to St Petersburg for Elizabeth, (whose part in the Romanov drama I can’t quite remember), but who just fancied an apple from time to time.
Finally, Tatiana walks us through a delightful wooded forest to Tsaritsyno. This palace complex was created as a suburb residence of the Empress Catherine II who was by all accounts a woman with the most remarkable vision. The cost of such a complex must have been staggering, even in the 18th Century, but as Tatiana remarks, “She owned a great deal of land”. Then again, I guess there were all those serfs.
On our last day in Moscow we visit the museum/house of Leo Tolstoy, once situated in the countryside but now surrounded by the city. In homage to Martin Cruz Smith we walk under the Linden trees in Gorky Park, and as the evening rises, we walk through Red Square after dark, enjoying the lights on the GUM department store, which from the outside at least, makes Harrods look rather 2nd rate.
So, what have we learned? Obviously, we didn’t expect people to be eating gruel and standing in bread lines, but we didn’t expect to find a city as sophisticated and cosmopolitan as the Moscow that has greeted us. The built architecture is simply amazing – from the 17th and 18th century buildings to the new CBD we can see from our bedroom window. The streets are clogged with imported cars – every conceivable brand, particular at the top end, is represented on the roads, and in four days we saw only two Russian produced Ladas. Frequently, when we stopped with quizzical looks and a map in hand, local people would stop to help us. And the streets are free from graffiti and in all our time here we saw only one beggar. Compare that to George Street in Sydney.
But now it’s time to leave Moscow. it’s a few minutes after 11.30pm and we are comfortable ensconced in our compartment on the Red Arrow Express to St Petersburg. This train has been running continuously since 1931 and has only been interrupted between 1941 and 1943 during the Siege of Leningrad. (But it does look as if they’ve changed the sheets.) The train will depart at 11.55pm and when it departs St Petersburg, at the same time, they play The Hymn to the Great City. Let’s see what happens in a few minutes from here.
Let’s talk again in a few days.