After four days in St. Petersburg, we traveled to Moscow (650 km) on the high speed train, a pleasant journey of about five and a half hours. I found myself seated at a large window which afforded me a marvelous view of the Russian countryside through which we sped: green forests, lakes, allotments, dachas, and reedy marshes. I also saw small settlements with derelict warehouses, shabby Soviet-style buildings reminiscent of scenes in WW II films, and uninteresting, and quaint stations, at some of which we briefly paused.
MOSCOW – CITY OF THE SEVEN SISTERS
We arrived in Moscow at an impressive station situated close to two other stations, and opposite our hotel: the Hilton Moscow Leningradskaya.
This hotel is a vast Soviet mausoleum with a cavernous, high-ceilinged foyer. It’s structured like six other buildings in Moscow, what i call the Soviet “wedding-cake” style, with layer upon cubist layer. Altogether they are known as “The Seven Sisters”. (The eighth of such buildings stands in the middle of Warsaw, a “gift” from the Soviet Union to the Polish people: the “Palace of Culture and Science”.)
All night we could hear the passing trains far beneath our window, from which we had a panoramic city view of brightly-coloured Russian neon signs and glittering lights as far as the eye could see.
Moscow, like Rome, was certainly not built in a day!
The booklet Moscow in your pocket is a contradiction in terms. For although I did not enjoy the atmosphere in this old city as I had that of St. Petersburg, it is definitely most impressive. It is very spread out, and I was grateful for a packaged coach tour (courtesy of Insight Vacations) for introduction to Moscow, so that we could be taken from point to point in comfort, whilst excellent guides regaled us with interesting information.
Moscow began as a small settlement on the banks of the Moskva River during the 12th century, and the first mention of the city appears in a document dating from around 1147. Prince Yuri Dolgorsky discerned its potential as a trading outpost, and ordered a kremlin (fortress) to be built there in 1156. But the marauding Tartar hoards continued to burn it down, even after Grand Prince Ivan Kalita (“Moneybags”) built stone walls around the settlement in the 14th century. These eastern raiders, at one time under the leadership of Genghis Khan, invaded for over two centuries, and, having been on the brink of a Renaissance similar to that in Western Europe, Russia was reduced to a smoldering hulk, her wealth destroyed, and all physical evidence of her culture obliterated. As a consequence the country remained backward and mired in the Middle Ages, while the rest of Europe was enjoying a glorious age of science and culture. The Slavic peoples also became split into different ethnic groups.
Ivan III (1462-1505) finally managed to oust the Tartars, and in 1480 ceased paying them tributes. He became the first prince to take the title “tsar” – the Russian version of Caesar. But the Tartars were only to be replaced by Tsardom, which was partly oriental, partly Byzantine, and which amounted to a system of despotism more repressive than anything in Western Europe. The other factor contributing to Russia’s cultural backwardness, and delayed modernisation, was the extreme dogmatism of the Eastern Orthodox Church. This delayed the emergence of secular music and the visual arts.
Ivan the IV Terrible followed, from 1533-84 – a cruel maniac who married six times – each wife evidently dying under suspect circumstances. His only claim to decency was his construction of St. Basil’s Cathedral (1555-61), in commemoration of the capture of Kazan and Astrakhan.
Mikhail I became Tsar in 1613 – the first Tsar to be elected by the people – and the first Romanov. This powerful dynasty lasted until the abdication of Nicolas II in 1917.
Moscow only began to blossom during the late 15th century. The Orthodox Church was fighting a losing battle, for when Peter the Great arrived on the scene in 1682, he was determined to modernise the country, and began importing science, industry, art and manners from Europe, and creating his “Window on the West” at St. Petersburg.
The Kremlin is at the top of every visitor’s list in Moscow, and is the first item listed in the “top ten” of every tourism website. It overlooks the lovely Alexander Gardens, St. Basil’s Cathedral (Cathedral of the Protection of Most Holy Theotokos on the Moat), and Red Square.
It is the best known of all the Russian kremlins, and includes five palaces, four cathedrals and the enclosing Kremlin Wall with Kremlin Towers I particularly enjoyed the State Armoury, containing not only elaborate armour, but also the Treasury: valuable ornaments, furs and jewels, and jewel-studded thrones, collected by the tsars over the centuries. Here some of the famous Fabergé eggs are kept, fabulous and ingenious creations made as Easter gifts on the orders of Alexander III and Nicolas II for their wives and mothers.
Today the Kremlin complex is the official residence of the President of the Russian Federation, Vladimir Putin.
The word Kremlin often refers to the former government of the Soviet Union (1922–1991), and its highest members, such as general secretaries, premiers, presidents, ministers, and commissars. There are many interesting buildings within this complex, majestic churches and quirky towers.
On our second day in the Russian capital, we enjoyed a lovely evening tour. This included photo-stops at the Church of Christ the Saviour, with the chocolate factory “Red October” on the bank opposite.
Beside the factory stands a monumentally tall statue of Peter the Great – reminiscent of Gulliver from children’s story books.
Then, just as the sun was beginning to set, we drove up to the summit of Vorobievy Gory (Sparrow Hills) to see the impressive front view of Moscow State University (founded in 1755) – one of the “Seven Sisters” – across a long rectangular pond.
At this time of evening the young (and not so young) bikers in Moscow congregate, resplendent in leathers and studs, engines revving, with their mini-skirted girlfriends. From here we had a spectacular view over the city, with the massive Olympic stadium built for the Games in 1980 in the foreground.
If architecture has been described as “music in stone”, the architecture of Moscow has been described as “jazz”, because of its diverse conglomeration of different styles.
We then went down to Red Square and admired the Kremlin walls, Kremlin Towers – each topped with a red star, and St. Basil’s Cathedral with its vibrantly-coloured onion domes, all brilliantly illuminated. The nearby GUM department store is lit up with strings of tiny white lights every night, as if for Christmas.
It must be a fine sight during the winter, with the square and trees all covered in snow.
The next day our new city guide, Lidia took us through the awe-inspiring Memorial Park complex which includes the Museum to the Great Patriotic War (WW II). It stands in Victory Park, a large expanse on Poklonnaya Hill which includes a long paved plaza, fountains, and an open space where military vehicles, cannons, and other apparatus from World War II are displayed. The park also includes the Holocaust Memorial Synagogue, the Church of St. George, the Moscow Memorial Mosque, a triumphal arch, an obelisk, and a number of sculptures.
Near the entrance to the museum is the Hall of Commanders. Here there are a decorative “Sword and Shield of Victory”, and bronze busts of recipients of the Order of Victory, the highest military honor awarded by the Soviet union.
In the center of the museum is the Hall of Glory, a white marble room which features the names of over 11,800 of the recipients of the Hero of the Soviet Union distinction. A large bronze sculpture, the “Soldier of Victory,” stands in the center of this hall. Below lies the Hall of Remembrance and Sorrow, which honors Soviet people who died during the war. This room is dimly lit, with strings of glass beads suspended from the ceiling, each symbolizing the tears shed for the dead. The upper floors feature numerous exhibits about the war, including dioramas depicting major battles, photographs of wartime activities, weapons and munitions, uniforms, awards, newsreels, letters from the battlefront, and model aircraft. The museum also maintains an electronic “memory book” which attempts to record the name and fate of every Russian soldier who died in World War II.
The next morning we went on a tour of the small town of Sergeyev Posad, a famous centre of ancient Russian art and architecture, about 70 km from Moscow. For centuries it served as the religious capital of Russia, and a place of pilgrimage for the faithful of the Russian Orthodox creed. It is part of the famous “Golden Ring”, a circle of medieval towns northeast of Moscow that was once the country’s political, cultural and spiritual heart. Each town features a significant religious , a monastery and/or cathedral.
We explored Troitse Sergiyevo Lavra, (the Trinity Lavra of St. Sergius) at Zagorsk, a working monastery which is the most important in Russia.
Here the faith was tolerated by the State, and even kept alive, during the “years of atheism”. It was founded in 1345 by one of the most venerated saints in Russia: Sergius of Radonezh. We saw a number of women pilgrims entering the cathedral there, wearing long skirts and their heads covered with scarves. Before entering, each bowed before the archway, and genuflected with three fingers.
After a comprehensive tour with a local guide, we were able to browse around an excellent, well-priced outdoor market of Russian crafts and souvenirs: beautiful lacquered Palekh boxes, the art of miniature painting on papier mâché items, depicting stories retold by Pushkin, such as Sadko, Russlan and Ludmilla and Tsra Sultan, lacquered artifacts such as spoons and bowls, matryoshkas (wooden stacking dolls), wooden toys, Russian scarves, and Soviet memorabilia – coins, badges, belt buckles, Red Army kits, knives, and pocket watches with cartoons of KGB agents on their faces.
Anna provided us each with “lunch” afterwards: a large round ginger cake filled with raisins and dried apricots. This we happily munched on the coach back to Moscow, gratefully replenishing low blood sugar levels after a fascinating but tiring morning.
In the afternoon we enjoyed free time in and around the Kremlin. This included watching a serious military maneuver: the changing of the guard just outside the Kremlin walls. Nearby Red Square was ablaze that day with a carpet of brightly-coloured flowers, in celebration of the 120th birthday of the GUM department store which flanks the square for its entire length. The Muscovites and tourists were out in full force, enjoying the warm summer sunshine and ice-creams, and taking photographs of one another.
Supper that evening was a simple self-service café affair at one of the many cafés and restaurants on the top floor of this famous department store.
GUM is constructed on several levels in the form of avenues, each avenue linked by two curved bridges, staircases and escalators, and the whole structure covered with a massive curved glass roof. It is a most unique design, housing, apart from the usual designer labels, dozens of uniquely Russian boutiques and novelty stores. We marveled at food emporia, sweet shops, souvenir, shoe and hat shops, the pretty fountain in the basement surrounded by an ivy-clad gazebo, and the magnificent stained-glass dome overhead. Balloons floated between the levels, in celebration of the store’s significant birthday.
An interesting morning was spent in the Novodevichy (New Convent of the Virgin/ Maiden) Cemetery, which dates from the 16th century.
At the Cemetery Lidia told us about many of the famous people buried there, and showed us their tombstones: the ballerina Galina Ulanova, the tenor Sergei Lemeshev, the famous bass Chaliapin, the composers Taneyev, Rubinstein,
Prokofiev, Kabelevsky and Scriabin, Ekaterina, the Soviet Minister of Culture (later dismissed for embezzlement), Anton Chekov, with the image of the seagull on his headstone, Gogol, the violinist David Oistrakh and the cellist Mstislav Rostropovich. An interesting character was Igor Moiseyev, who cultivated the national dances from the different regions in the Soviet Union; his aim was to unite the different cultures through dance and music. He lived to the age of 101!
Tomb of bass singer Fyodor Chaliapin
Arbat (Workers’) Street, about a kilometer in length, was disappointing. Pedestrianised like the principle shopping avenues in a number of cities today, it was sadly bereft of attractive shops and restaurants – and atmosphere.
From our guide’s lyrical descriptions of unbridled shopping bliss, I had expected something like Kärtnerstrasse or the Kohlmarket in Vienna, but found instead only over-priced souvenir shops and shabby eateries, some of them not even Russian, but Chinese, Greek or Italian.
The Arbat has existed since the 15th century, and is one of the oldest streets in Moscow. The street originally formed part of an important trade route, and numerous craftsmen had their shops here. During the 18th century the Russian nobility came to regard the area as the most prestigious place to live. It was almost completely destroyed by the great fire during Napoleon’s occupation of Moscow in 1812, and had to be rebuilt. During the 19th and early 20th centuries it became known as the area where Minor nobility, artists, and academics lived, and during the Soviet period many high-ranking government officials lived here.
Today the street and its surroundings are undergoing “gentrification”, and it is again considered a desirable place to live. The many elegant historic buildings, and the numerous artists who have lived and worked in the street, make it popular with tourists.
In spite of the dearth of interesting eateries, we did enjoy a light meal at Tepemok, an unpretentious little café offering traditional Russian fare. We chose savoury blinis filled with mince, and sweet semolina with honey and almonds, respectively. Also on offer were hearty soups, salads, and buckwheat porridge with bacon, cottage cheese, herbs, chickpeas, mushrooms, and/or salmon. I eyed other sweet delights on the menu longingly, but decided to forego them: blinis with cherries and almonds, caramel, chocolate, or apple and almonds. We eschewed the offer of kvas, a native alcoholic drink made from fermented rye, in the interests of remaining alert for the next afternoon activity:
A tour of the underground Moscow Metro stations (opened in 1935) which was a total revelation. Many are extremely deep, with phenomenally long escalators.
Here the Soviet government spared no expense in bringing art and expensive interior decoration to the people. The ultimate expression of Socialist Realism, these “underground palaces” boast glittering crystal chandeliers and beautiful murals and bronze sculptures depicting ordinary Russian people engaged in everyday activities.
Our last night was spent enjoying a simple but delicious farewell dinner with our group in one of our hotel dining rooms: salad, poached salmon with new potatoes and vegetables, and a rich chocolate mousse.
Since our flight back to Stockholm was in the evening, we spent the morning at the Museum of Russian History, located on Red Square. It is a most interesting museum, encompassing Russian sociological history since the first human inhabitants. Well-kept cases display artifacts from every age until the 20th century, some also labeled in English.
We arrived home after a two-hour flight from Moscow’s Domodedovo Airport, where I bought small souvenirs to dispense with my remaining Rubles. There I found no shortage of samovars and matryoshka dolls, lacquered boxes and fake Soviet memorabilia.
We were grateful to have been two hours ahead of CET in Russia, allowing for an extra two hours once home for a longer night’s much-needed sleep.
It soon became evident to me that Russia – the largest country in Europe, (nine time zones and the longest river (Volga – 3692 km) – must be digested like the proverbial elephant: “one piece at a time”. I look forward to returning to this fascinating country, with its captivating history of Tartars and Cossacks, Tsars and Hussars, an abundance of beautiful churches rich in icons and art works, incense, golden onion domes and magnificent frescoes, glorious palaces decorated with gold leaf and glittering chandeliers, and museums packed with fascinating artifacts and precious treasures.
* Beef Stroganoff
History of the Dish
The Stroganoff (or Stroganov) family made their fortune in 18th century Russia trading salt and furs, but nowadays the name is mainly associated with the popular beef dish which bears their name. It probably goes back to much earlier peasant fare, but is now commonly attributed to the household of Count Pavel Stroganoff (1774-1817). Tolstoy’s War and Peace paints a picture of a Russian society of that time which was fascinated with French culture and language. The interest in all things French extended to food, with chefs of the great households striving to create dishes in a more elegant and refined style. Beef Stroganoff probably came about as a result of this dynamic, though the first recorded appearance thereof in a cookbook was in 1871.
2 lbs sirloin, cut into strips
½ cup flour
½ tsp salt
9 Tbsps butter
1 medium onion, chopped
½ lb. mushrooms, sliced
1 ½ cups sour cream, at room temperature
3 Tbsps Dijon-style mustard
Combine flour, salt and pinch of pepper.
Dredge the meat in flour and sauté quickly in 6 Tbsps butter until well browned. Remove from heat. Fry the onion in the remaining butter for 2-3 minutes. Add the mushrooms and continue to sauté on med-high heat until they are soft and the liquid is thickened and reduced (6-8 minutes).
Add the mushrooms to the meat and simmer 5 minutes. Combine the sour cream and mustard. Add to the meat mixture and simmer on low for a few minutes until heated through and blended. Do not boil. Season to taste with salt and pepper. If the sauce is too thick, thin it with a few drops of milk. Serve at once with noodles or rice.
To return to PART 1: St. Petersburg – Venice of the North, see here