Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Country #86: The Magnificent Madness of Moscow in March

Question I have heard a number of times in the last week: Why would you go to Russia- a place created solely for bears and snow monsters- in the still frigid month of March?

Answers I have given : Because I can. Because it is there. It won't be so cold, really- statistical averages put in the high 40's and 50's during this time of year. (Note: Turns out, statistical averages lie like a bitch.) Because I found a fare for $199 RT from NY to Moscow ($411 with taxes). And finally: because I've never been.

To be both obvious and honest, one of these responses carried more weight than the others. I've been watching fares to Russia for ages, and combined with the hassles of acquiring a visa beforehand, have found much to be discouraged about. But now, with this cutthroat rate and enough time on my hands to follow the comedically-dictatorial process necessary to obtain a Russian visa, (ie. sample rule of many: Visa application photos must show the applicant with a neutral expression- no frowning, no smiling) I figured I could just layer-up and ignore the cold. This line of thinking must have had some merit to it- or I have successfully surrounded myself with like-minded travelers- because four friends, Amy, Laura, Diana and Georgiana also signed up for this snowy adventure.
Amy and I arrived first, easily navigating the journey from airport to minibus to metro before hitting the first snag. The directions provided by the hostel used as their chosen landmark, a church bell tower. OK, at first glance that makes sense. A tower would, by definition, stand out and be easily spotted from afar...that is, if there is only A tower. Moscow, as far as I could tell, is a city of churches with a few homes and businesses thrown in for contrast. There are bell towers on every corner. The directions were crap and we were now at the mercy of the Muscovites to get us (and our bags) out of the snow and into our hostel.

We encountered some people who clearly wanted to help, often via gesturing and sign language. We found others who refused to give us the time of day. Approaching people, it was hard to tell which group was which since both shared a stubborn refusal to smile. Now, after having spend ten days in Russia, if I were asked to describe the 'typical' Russian persona, I would still be unable to do so. There were moments when I desperately wished I knew some Russian curses, such as the two times I busted my ass on the ice in Moscow (yes-TWICE!) and the crowds just parted and walked around me, with nary a soul to help out. But then, many times I was the recipient of such unexpected kindnesses on the part of strangers that I had to remind myself that random hugging was probably not a good idea. Times such as when I was struggling to get my metro-card to work and a woman, apparently sensing my mounting frustration, tapped me on the shoulder, leaned in and used her's, before waving me through. Or the older woman on her way out of a rock club I was going into that noticed that I did not speak any Russian (not hard to do) and went around to the entire waitstaff asking them to take care of me, in the way one would with a wayward unaccompanied minor on her first flight. Or Sonia and Alina, our walking tour guides (more on them later) and the people of the Soul Kitchen hostel in St. Petersburg, who were so generous with their time...

Anyway, point being, we did eventually find the correct church tower and consequently, the hostel and soon our three Romanian pals....

leaving us all free to find THE church towers, the ones that appear on every coffee cup, postcard, and t-shirt relating to Moscow. I refer to the Cathedral of Intercession of the Virgin on the Moat, better known as St. Basil's Cathedral. Built by Ivan the Terrible in the 16th century to commemorate the capture of Kazan from the Mongols, it is now one of the most recognizable pieces of architecture in the world. Even if that were not the case, it would still have come to feel like a familiar friend. No matter where in Moscow we set out to visit, we would inevitably end up back in Red Square taking yet another round of pictures of St. Basil's. I have photos of that church in every meteorological condition imaginable, with an empty square, with a crowded square, daytime, nighttime...name a scenario and I'll bet I have a photo of it. And I have no doubt that if I were there at this very moment, I would be taking even more pictures. It has that kind of power.

The same can be said for the whole of Red Square. With St. Basil's on one end, the State Historical Museum on the other, the Kremlin walls and a high-end mall in between, this central point of the city, possesses a very high wow-factor. Also wowing within the square, the plasticized body of Lenin. After having missed out on the opportunity to see Mao in Beijing and Ho Chi Minh in Hanoi, this was to be my shot at viewing a frozen Communist leader. Our first full day was to begin with a visit to his tomb. Oddly enough, as we approached a little before the opening hour, there was no line. Perhaps we had the time wrong. I walked up to a guard, pointed at my wrist, pointed at the tomb and asked "What time?" His response: "April".

On the left, the Kremlin and Lenin's tomb. Straight ahead- the State Historical Museum. On the right, the GUM shopping mall. Bottom left, me and my shadow.

Personally, I found the square most beautiful at night...but then again, I am part owl.

The real Lenin was off somewhere being refreshed. The closest I came to a Lenin, with a Stalin thrown in for good luck, were these two guys, who seemed to be simply everywhere. For $3 a piece, you could get your photo taken with them and, for a couple bucks more, even have it signed by the faux leaders. If anyone can think of a more capitalistic use of a slight resemblance to a public figure, please let me know.

Keeping with our affinity for the Red Square and its surroundings, we visited the nearby walled city, which translates literally to the Kremlin. This area has been a religious center and home to both the czars and the now apparently ambulatory Lenin. It currently houses the offices of the President. With so much history in such a compact area, one would think that it would be overwhelming, but with only a portion open to the public (our plans on dropping in on Medvedev for cocktails were kiboshed by the security guards shooing us away anytime we wandered too close) and a pretty simple layout, we were able to hit the highlights without much difficulty. The star of the show, without question, is the Armoury. The medium-sized museum employs a timed-entry system that allows the visitor 1 1/2 hour to view the treasures of the czars. In that time, you can view bejeweled holy books, intricately- detailed Faberge eggs, opulent garments, weapons of all kinds (all of them created with as much an eye for beauty as for war), masterpieces of silversmith, and many other priceless objet d'arts that I probably whizzed by. Thankfully, an audio-guide points out the highlights of the collection and provides some background into this once gilded era. Considering I had taken the name all too literally and expected mainly weaponry to be displayed, I was blown away by the collection and its window into the remarkable talents of the period's top artisans.

The Cathedral Square, within the complex, groups together three cathedrals. The Cathedral of the Annunciation was the home church for the tsars but it is the Cathedral of the Archangel that now houses the remains of quite a number of them (including Ivan the Terrible). All are open to the public.

This, being our first day in Russia, we were unprepared for the schizophrenic nature of Russian spring. As can be noted in the below photos of Cathedral Square, we exited the Armoury to find a brisk but clear, sun-shiny day. Within the hour, I kid you not, we visited St. Basil's Cathedral and stepped out into a blinding blizzard. It continued like this for the duration of our stay. It was almost like some evil wizard had a weather machine and was just spinning the dial willy-nilly from one setting to the next, just to mess with us. There were afternoons when we got rain, sunshine and snow all in the time it took us to get across town.

Crazy weather aside, we had a relatively short time to see the two principal cities of the world's largest country- 3 nights in Moscow and 4 in St. Petersburg, with an additional 2 on trains travelling between the two- therefore it was decided beforehand that sleep was not an option. There were museums to visits, squares to explore and vodka shots to consume.  We had to get a taste of Russian nightlife.

Our first night in Moscow, we hit the Old and New Arbat neighborhoods- home to Stalin's "7 Sisters" skyscrapers- for drinks, dinner and souvenirs.

The second night had us attending the Bolshoi Theater annex (the main room is closed for renovation) to watch the opera, Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk

The final night: the spectacular Big Stereo Orchestra at the Chinese Pilot Bar.

I don't know if it was the late nights, the wacky maze that is the Moscow metro system or the station closure that was only announced in Russian, but one morning found us hopelessly lost deep underneath the city. At that moment, we had two options: make ourselves crazy trying to figure out how to reach the intended sculpture garden or sit back, enjoy the ride and check out the most elegant metro system any of us had ever seen. I love it when choices are that easy. We hopped on and off trains for the better part of an hour photographing one magnificent station after another; an easy feat to pull off since the trains come every two minutes. The taking pictures part was where the challenge came in since eight million people a day use the Moscow metro to get around and they'll be damned if they are going to stop for a bunch of tourists trying to get the perfect shot. Also, I'm pretty sure taking photos in the Metro stations is prohibited, but either Police apathy or our hit and run method kept us safely out of any Siberian prisons.

I was reminded of a story I heard from a Russian friend, who grew up outside Moscow. The first time he visited NY, he envisioned everything would be epically grand...that is until he used the subway system for the first time. His disappointed reaction: "This is not a metro station, this is a sewer system with a train running through it!" Now, I totally get it....

After two days of confining our sightseeing to the Red Square/ Kremlin area and random subterranean roaming, we did something I whole-heartedly recommend to all Moscow visitors. We partook of the fantastic Moscow Free Tour. Due to our timing during the low season (shockingly not everyone is flocking to Moscow while the average temperature is 15F), it ended up being just us and Sonia, the afore-mentioned super-guide. She quickly ascertained the limited scope of our wanderings and changed her itinerary to show us areas outside of our little sphere.

She led us across the river, through bustling neighborhoods, showing us numerous monuments and even the mammoth, newly rebuild Cathedral of Christ the Savior, all along answering all our three days worth of questions about the city and its people.

The locks on these "trees" are placed by couples prior to marriage to symbolize the strength of their union.  I imagine there is someone nearby with a bolt-cutter making a mint.

The original Cathedral of Christ the Savior was demolished to make way for a monument to Socialism. When circumstances prevented this project from coming to fruition, the already dug foundation was turned into a giant swimming pool.  The rebuilding of the Church was done in two years time (!!) from 1995-1997. In 2007, Boris Yeltsin lay in state here, prior to his interment. 

There really is nothing better than seeing a city in the company of an enthused, well-informed local. Many thanks go out to Sonia for being such a gracious host and to Nikita for helping to put us together.

At the end of this whirlwind journey, Amy and I returned to Moscow for one last day in order to catch our flight home. It was on this last day that we tried to see all those things that we had missed the first time around, only to find that this was totally and utterly impossible. This city requires at least a full week to begin to scratch the surface. And better weather. Better weather would have helped immensely, I find one can be more productive if not pissing away all that time trying to regain feeling in their extremities.

We found the one company that operated an English language bus tour, in order to reach the further sites, while staying relatively warm/ not lost. This gave us enough time to do a quick drive-by of Poklonnaya Hill and its Victory Park....

And a somewhat longer stay (a whopping15 minutes) at the Novodevichy Convent,  a nunnery where the czars would send inconvenient first wives when they wanted to switch to a newer model. Consequently,  the wives brought with them a lot of money, making for the building of a stunning convent. Russians still come here to pray and thus pay no entrance fee. Our guide informed us of this by way of advising us on how to avoid paying. Her tips: Do not speak. Do not take out your cameras until you pass security. Look Russian.  I heeded her advise by staring the guard in the eyes and scowling....and it worked!!

This 18th century bell tower is recognized as a UNESCO world heritage site.

All in all, it was not nearly enough time but it did provide us with a great introduction into Russia's capital city and also provided a compelling argument as to why when climate is involved, statistical averages should never, ever be relied upon.


  1. Fantastic photography, and fascinating city to go with them. I agree, the night pictures with the weather effects look fabulous, specially the St. Basil shot. Отличная статья

  2. We really captured as much as we could without much sleep during our short freezing time there. I thought both cities were grandly elegant. I couldn't believe the high fashion factor; HIGH heels, mini skirts with thin stockings worn by many during the most wintery snowy spring I have ever encountered. I'm getting chills just thinking about it. Stunning Red Square and The Hermitage were my favorite locales of each city. Best idea of the trip to pre-buy Hermitage tix... highly recommend to anyone! Thanks Berti, great pics, great post!!!


  3. I agree, amazing photos and a great post! I can't believe I haven't been there since 1989, wow. St. Basil's looks just the same _ I was stunned by it as well. I spent many nights just staring up at it in awe (I like it better at night, too). Owl sisters, unite! I never got to see Lenin's body, either, despite being in the city for almost 4 months. I would love to go back again and track more changes _ but yes, as you say, when the weather is better! I'm with Roland: Отличная статья!