Russia - Capital Gains
Written by Brian Johnston
Ever since I studied literature and history at university, Russia has fascinated me with its larger-than-life historical figures, epic novels, and tumultuous revolutions. I love Moscow because the past still echoes through its current, in-your-face confidence and taste for the big and brash.
Moscow is no modest capital. Its buildings are huge. So are its cars and traffic jams, sprawling parks, and extravagant, wildly expensive nightclubs. In the Russian capital, billionaires are the new millionaires, presidents the new action heroes, and even babushkas buzz with energy. For anyone interested in a grand and tumultuous history, rich cultural life, and all the troubles and joys that a fast-changing society brings, Moscow delivers – supersized.
Moscow is the only city in Russia where you truly get a wide sweep of history, starting with medieval tsars and moving on to Soviet apparatchiks and modern-day middle classes. Much is said about the new Russian appetite for extravagance, but wandering around Moscow, you might conclude that modesty has never been part of the Russian psyche. After all, its foremost historical figures are Terrible and Great, its composers known for bold symphonies, and novelists from Tolstoy to Dostoyevsky exhausting.
Understatement has its place, but in Moscow I just have to admire sheer size and ambition. I always start off with a pilgrimage to Red Square, which provides such a strange feeling of déjà-vu to those of us who remember news from the Soviet era. Red Square amply demonstrates that Moscow was big long before its current boom. It’s large enough to hold military parades, though rock concerts and product promotions are more likely these days. At one end, St Basil’s Cathedral is a magnificent swirl of candy-cane colour. Few people venture into the sombre interior, which is a pity: it recalls an old, mysterious Russia of bearded prophets and mad monks.
The Kremlin’s red walls run along Red Square, but the best views of the Kremlin are from a distance, across the Moscow River. Fans of Le Carré novels expect the Kremlin to be full of lurking spies, but you’re more likely to encounter chirpy Chinese tour groups. If you’re after big things, you’ll encounter the world’s biggest bell (200 tons) and largest-calibre cannon (40 tons), both completely impractical, yet strangely fascinating.
The tsars who once ruled from here were always thinking big, even knocking up four cathedrals – one each for weddings, coronations, burials, and private prayers. They’re a marvel of beauty, but for me the Armoury Palace outshines everything. It exhibits thrones apparently made for giants, carriages for extravagant empresses, and coronation crowns studded with rubies that prove a taste for implausible bling is by no means confined to modern Russia.
History changes, but perhaps cultural habits mostly stay the same. Across Red Square in the GUM department store you can goggle at a contemporary version of all these consumer goodies. Vast as a train station, GUM is packed with big-brand fashion shops and jaw-sagging jewellery. Sit outside at one of the cafés (champagne is de rigueur among the coiffed social set) and, with some irony, you can eyeball Lenin’s red-granite tomb across the way. The founder of the Soviet Union was a short man, but his ideas were as big as everything else hereabouts, though now confined to history.
I like Moscow because, unlike St Petersburg, it has a distinctive Soviet appearance, too. Stalin’s monstrous 1950s skyscrapers stud the skyline, a Buran space shuttle parked by the river is a reminder of the space race, and Gorky Park is a vast sprawl where half of Moscow still congregates on sunny weekends. I like loitering at Patriarshy Prudiy too, a pond-filled square surrounded by Stalinist buildings, and one of Moscow’s most tranquil spots. Get there on the metro, another Soviet masterpiece. Train stations (especially Komsomolskaya, Mayakovskaya and Ploshchad Revolutsii) are a sight in themselves: vast cathedrals to transport decorated with mosaics and murals depicting factory workers and collective farmers.
Moscow’s nightlife is renowned, but for me, the evening should be rounded off at the Bolshoi Theatre, recently reopened after a six-year, US$680 million renovation that has restored it to imperial-era elegance in sumptuous gilt and red Italian velvet. It specialises in ballet and classical Russian opera such as Boris Godunov and The Tsar’s Bride – naturally on an outrageously epic scale. Programmes rustle, a few coughs sound. Then a great burst of music swirls, and I’m seduced by bold, theatrical Moscow once more.
Magnificence in Moscow
When it comes to big, bold Moscow, there’s probably no better place to stay than the Ritz-Carlton on Tverskaya Street near Red Square, one of Moscow’s busiest thoroughfares. Many consider it the city’s finest hotel. It certainly epitomises Moscow extravagance, from its spectacular lobby to its spacious suites decorated with Murano glass, marble, and gilt. The summit of the grand building is topped with a glass-and-steel modern addition with a rooftop cocktail lounge, whose terrace has wonderful views over the Kremlin – but whose prices are surely strictly for those who own a mine in Siberia.
A Disneyland-like take on an old Russian town, Izmailovsky Kremlin is a huge open-air museum, cultural centre, and popular haunt among locals and visitors alike. Adjacent to the Kremlin is the Vernisage at Ismailovo, a large outdoor market selling Russian crafts and kitsch Soviet souvenirs including matryoshki (nesting dolls), lacquer boxes, Soviet posters, tea towels, and more. Theres also a large flea market on weekends.
A taste of Tsarist Russia
Moscow’s hectic move towards modernisation hasn’t prevented nostalgia for the past, nowhere better demonstrated than at Café Pushkin on Tverskoy Boulevard. Here a replica of an aristocratic mansion brings you a luxe restaurant – open 24 hours – that’s straight out of tsarist times, offering Russian favourites such as blini (pancakes), borscht (beetroot soup), pelmeni (dumplings), sturgeon, and, of course, caviar. Waiters wear 19th-century costume, the menu resembles a newspaper, and you might think you’ve strolled into a gentleman’s club for a chat with Tolstoy or Pushkin himself. Choose from a café, formal restaurant, or informal rooftop patio, popular in summer.