In a Second World War radio broadcast Winston Churchill described the Soviet Union as a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma. The Soviet Union is long gone and each of its constituent parts has officially abandoned communism, yet Russia, once the heart and soul of the Soviet Union, remains a difficult country to understand, maybe the most enigmatic we have visited.
We arrived in Moscow in a thunderstorm. Lightning flashed and the wind buffeted the 80-seater Embraer, swinging the small plane alarmingly from side to side as we came into land. We were probably much safer than we felt; at least that is what I prefer to believe.
Eventually we arrived at smallish hotel deep in the northern suburbs. It looked pleasant enough. ‘There is no hot water this week,’ we were told as we checked in. Hot water is centrally supplied and the authorities occasionally turn off a whole block for servicing or maintenance. Sweating in the warm humid air we might have welcomed a cool shower, but that was not an option, there was only melt water pumped direct from the arctic in an ice lined pipe. Welcome to the Soviet Union.
The metro is Moscow’s pride and joy, carrying (in 2009) 2.4 billion passengers between 182 stations, some of which are works of art in their own right, but it is not the easiest system for a foreigner to use. The lines are deep and the escalators move fast. A surprising number of people read books as they plunged through the earth - thick, weighty novels by the look of it, but for all I knew they could have been the latest Dan Brown. The carriages were crowded, despite it being a weekend, and the ride was bone shaking and noisy. The train’s screeching drowned out the announcements – and the station names were written in ludicrously small print on the tunnel side only. A limited ability to read Cyrillic hardly mattered, as we rarely caught sight of a station name. We emerged at the right place by observing the map and counting stops. Further confusion is added when you change lines. Interchange stations have different names on different lines and you find yourself wandering through the bowels of the earth, as you attempt to navigate a path through up to four linked stations with four different names.
Saturday morning in Tverskaya, the main drag leading down to Red Square, was remarkably quiet given the crowds below. We dropped into Eliseevsky, a palace converted into a grocery store, which is not something you see every day. Further along we passed the statue of ‘long armed’ Yuri Dolgorukiy, credited with the founding of Moscow in the 11th century. There is some debate as to whether he was physically long armed, or whether it was only in the metaphorical sense. The KGB, the locals say, was notoriously long armed.
Continuing towards Red Square we passed through the art nouveau Hotel Metropol, where Isadora Duncan and her Russian husband cut a rare dash in post-revolutionary Moscow. Outside a score or more vintage Citroens of the sort Maigret used to drive with running boards and huge inverted chevrons on the radiators, were being photographed before the start of a Moscow to Paris rally.
The end of the square is occupied by the State History Museum, a red brick building with white piping like a birthday cake. Down one side is GUM, once the Soviet Union's one and only department store, now rather disappointingly, a shopping mall with the same names you see in every other major city. Opposite GUM is the Kremlin Wall and Lenin’s tomb, while at the far end the extravagant onions domes of St Basil’s Cathedral look down on a scene which is otherwise all straight lines and right angles. Inside, where you might expect grandeur, there is a series of small rooms and corridors, many of them disappointingly dull.
The square was crowded with locals, tourists and most noticeably wedding parties. They trooped in procession behind the bride and groom, many swigging from bottles of Champanski as they went. Occasionally they stopped for photographs or to throw loose change over their shoulders to ensure good luck. Marriages used to be blessed outside Lenin’s tomb, but the approved site is now by the Eternal Flame at the tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Since 1997 the Guard of Honour which once looked after Lenin’s corpse has been attending the Unknown Soldier. We watched as four ‘young men of Slavic appearance with good legs’ goose-stepped out and, after some elaborate choreography, four others goose-stepped away. There were moments of unintended comedy, the old guard’s knowingly perky look of recognition at the newcomers extracted an involuntary chuckle from an otherwise respectful audience.
In Soviet days ‘The Kremlin’ denoted the government, but ‘Kremlin’ merely means ‘citadel’ and many other Russian cities have Kremlins of their own. Inside Moscow's are twenty towers, six cathedrals, five palaces, any number of officious security guards and one bell with a big chip out of it. There is also the Kremlin Armoury, one of Moscow’s ‘must-sees’. Our time, though, was finite - maybe next time.
We went to visit Lenin’s tomb early on Sunday morning, queuing at the side of Red Square half an hour before it opened, along with several hundred Russians from all over the country. At ten o’clock precisely the barrier was lifted and we were allowed forward in small groups. We walked up the side of the square and through the doors into the darkened interior. Russia’s tallest and smartest soldiers stood to attention along the walls ready to hush to silence anyone who had the temerity to talk. We were required to walk slowly and reverently past the embalmed corpse. One man of central Asia appearance stopped by the open coffin, placed his hand on his heart and lowered his eyes as if in prayer. Quietly but firmly the guard moved him on. Lenin looked quite well – for a man who has been dead eighty-four years. In fact, he looked like a waxwork, and perhaps, in truth, that was what we saw but, despite all the changes that Russia has undergone, Lenin is still there, and still deeply revered.
|A nice wave from President Putin|
Sheremetyevo airport is cavernous, the walls bare, the floor litter-strewn. ‘Welcome to the Soviet Union’ it seemed to be saying. We found our driver, a stooped elderly man with bloodshot eyes swimming behind improbably thick glasses, and he led us to his aging Lada. The rain had eased off, which was fortunate as the windscreen wipers engaged only marginally with the water streaming down the cracked screen.
The drive through semi-flooded streets seemed both interminable and directionless, as we turned first one way, then the other and then back the way we had come. In a regular taxi I would have accused him of inflating the fare, but in a prearranged transfer that made no sense.
|A picture of St Basil's is compulsary in all writings about Moscow|
Next day we took the metro to the city centre. Petrovsko-Razumovskaya, our nearest station was a short walk away through a market. There was a ramp for handcarts where an overground railway crossed our path, but neither there nor anywhere else was there a barrier to prevent a boy chasing a football to his death or an inattentive trader stepping backwards to oblivion.
|'Long Armed' Yuri Dolgorukiy, the founder of Moscow|
|Eliseevsky - once a palace now a grocer's|
|Dinner at the Metropol anyone?|
I had always lazily assumed that Red Square had been so called by the communists, but the name is actually much older. It is either a reference to the colour of the buildings, or more likely, is a consequence of the word ‘krasnaya’ meaning ‘beautiful’ as well as ‘red’ in old Russian.
|Wedding Party, Red Square|
|The old guard goose steps away|
Eschewing Macdonald’s and KFC (come back Soviet Union, all is forgiven) we fought our way through the crowds to acquire a slice of pizza which, though regrettable, was not the very worst I have eaten. Then we queued to enter the Kremlin.
|The Bell Tower of Ivan III in the Kremlin|
There are plenty of hints that the Russians have abandoned communism with reluctance. St Basil’s multi-hued onion domes may have been built at the city’s geometric centre but Moscow’s real spiritual centre is a couple of hundred metres away by the Kremlin Wall.
|Lenin's Mausoleum, Red Square|
On to part 2: Yekaterinburg