Tuesday, January 05, 2010

Stranger(s) in Москва

Moscow…For many its name conjures images of the seat of power for the former Soviet Union and is a city synonymous with revolution, Lenin, the KGB, and the Cold War. For almost half a century Moscow was the antithesis of the United States; communist, undemocratic, and the most dangerous enemy of the “free world”, entangled in a tense game of geopolitical cat and mouse. During the Cold War this perception would have had some validity. Of course I have my own childhood memories of watching news stories highlighting the nuclear arms race with images of the impervious walls of the Kremlin displayed on the television. Perhaps this is why I was so intent on visiting Moscow at some point in my life.

Obviously I have never been to the Soviet version of the Russian capital, but reminders of it are still present in the Moscow of 2009/2010. The tomb of Lenin is sacred and still occupies Red Square while his statues adorn the Metro stations, parks, and city corners. Anyone who follows the news will know that the modern Russia, although now ultra-capitalist and “democratic”, is rife with remnants of corruption, cronyism, and militaristic nationalism reminiscent of the Soviet era, but the contemporary Moscow simultaneously embraces a vibrancy and cosmopolitanism that it must have lacked in the decades leading up to the collapse of the Soviet Union. Without going into the current political and economic circumstances of Russia, of which there is plenty of controversy and much to write, I will focus on the new Moscow as a travel destination, not a current political issue.

Palace of Congresses inside the Kremlin:
In spending time in Moscow, it cannot be ignored that this city embodies the country’s often tragic past while at the same time looks forward to a new era. Last year it overtook London and Tokyo as the most expensive city in the world and it boasts the highest number of billionaires per capita than any other global city. At the same time, the gap between rich and poor continues to widen and I’m sure that if we had spent more time on the outskirts of the city, we would have seen this contrast more clearly. It is a complicated city with a complicated past which is why I highly recommend it as a travel destination. Your experience here will not just enrich your contextual understanding of world history, but will broaden your cultural perspective beyond what you’ve grown to know over the years from the usual media outlets.
It should be stressed that travel to Russia is not simple, so plan ahead. Russia has a very stringent immigration policy on all countries with the toughest requirements on UK and US citizens, a policy we share only with Georgia (the small Caucasian country and former Soviet republic that Russia invaded in 2008). We have completed plenty of travel visa applications in the past, but Russia’s was the most comprehensive. In order to even apply for a visa, one has to secure an official “invitation” to travel to Russia as a tourist. These can usually be obtained through the hotel, bed and breakfast, or apartment you book through and there are additional agencies that specifically operate a business for this. Once you arrive in Russia you are required to register your passport and visa with the authorities in each city you visit if you plan to stay in that city for three business days or longer. Again, this is usually something that your hotel, bed and breakfast or apartment can complete for you and the fee is typically included in the cost for the initial invitation. It is not prohibitively difficult, but a bureaucratic process that takes a bit of time and patience. 
We stayed in a serviced apartment in the posh and upper middle class neighborhood of Arbat near the major embassies. During our travels we have come to prefer staying in apartments if possible as it provides extra space and useful amenities like a kitchen and dining area which to us makes our stay more comfortable and enjoyable; especially useful if traveling with friends. It also gives us an opportunity to stay in a more local neighborhood without having to settle for an overly expensive hotel in a major retail, business, or tourist area. My impressions of Arbat were that it was extremely upper middle class and sophisticated, populated with a mix of young urban professionals, young families, as well as old money. The people we saw out and about were extremely well dressed and the restaurants, bars and cafes all seemed very stylish. This wasn’t what I would have necessarily expected of Moscow, but we probably didn’t stay in a neighborhood that was representative of the entire city.
Shopping for black caviar and Russian vodka in Arbat:
Moscow is not an inherently beautiful city, but the sights themselves are amazing and the cityscape is iconic. Modern Moscow was modified during the Soviet era in the typical communist fashion to maximize efficiency and speed of transport which basically means several high speed “ring roads”, or highways, running circles through the middle of the city and vast networks of underground pedestrian tunnels providing links between roads. It was similar to what we saw in Beijing and it isn’t conducive to a pedestrian-friendly lifestyle, but can provide some relief from the harsh cold temperatures in the winter.
Cathedral Square inside The Kremlin:
If you’re not into museums then don’t bother with forcing it on yourself and paying admissions to get in. After living in London which boasts some of the finest museums in the world, and for free, I have a hard time paying for museums elsewhere when we travel unless they are absolutely renowned. The Moscow Metro stations are like mini-museums and are among the most elegant I have ever seen, showcasing actual works of art, sculptures and statues in grandiose, palatial settings. You could easily spend time riding the metro and enjoying the beauty of the stations if you have only a marginal interest in art.
The Red Square and Lenin's Tomb:
St. Basil Cathedral:
Aside from being labeled entirely in Cyrillic, the Moscow Metro is very frequent and efficient. If you plan to travel to Moscow, do you yourself a favor and learn the basic Cyrillic alphabet ahead of time. It isn’t as difficult as it seems as most of the characters are taken from both the Greek and Latin alphabets with several original Russian characters included as well. Spending just a few hours to master the Cyrillic alphabet will save you a lot of trouble when trying to navigate the city and recognize items on menus. It will also avoid a lot of confusion if you need to inquire for directions as you will be able to properly pronounce the words.
Moscow’s sights can easily be covered in two to three full days as most of what you will want to see is centrally located within a healthy walking distance (weather permitting) and between the Metro stations of Kitay Gorod to the east, Lubyanka and Pushinskaya/Tverskaya to the north, and Arabatskaya and Kropotkinskaya to the west and south respectively. Within this area you will be able to cover the Kremlin and its main sights including Cathedral Square, Red Square and Lenin’s Mausoleum, St. Basil’s Cathedral, the Museum of History, the Cathedral of Christ the Savior, Pushkin Square, Theatre Square and the main shopping artery of Tverskaya, the former KGB headquarters and the charming old neighborhood of Kitay Gorod. Further excursions out of the central area of Moscow could take you to Gorki Park south of the River Moscva and Novodevichy Cemetery in the northwestern part of the city.  
The Cathedral of Christ the Savior and the Cathedrals of Kitai Gorod:
Undoubtedly, at some point during your trip to Russia, you will encounter the notorious “babushkas”. While this is the name given to the famous Russian nesting dolls you so often see in eastern Europe and elsewhere, a babushka is actually a mode of thought within a certain type of traditional Russian woman, a philosophy that speaks volumes about the national psyche of the Russian people. Babushkas are typically elderly and may work at a snack kiosk, a coat check, or travel on the same metro train as you. What they share in common among one another is a firm stubbornness and fierce independence with an outspoken tendency to voice their opinion to you, in Russian. It is something that is difficult to define, but apparent once you confront it and gives you a glimpse into the mindset of this generation and what they must have witnessed during their lifetime which is why they are always due your respect.  
Red Square @ Night:
The highlight of the Moscow portion of our trip was being at St. Basil’s Cathedral and Red Square during a heavy snowfall. We were fortunate enough to see Red Square and the Kremlin in four different settings; during the day and night with no snowfall and during the day and the night with heavy snowfall. Although she was skeptical of the cold initially and it took some convincing her, Lily would agree that being in Red Square during the freeze and snowing conditions was a unique and unreal experience. Our final snow covered evening in Moscow before boarding the overnight train to St. Petersburg was the perfect way to wrap up this portion of our trip.
Snowy-clad Red Square:
With the end of the Cold War, Russia struggles to identify its new purpose in a world that is no longer bipolar between competing economic ideologies. While it slowly watches its former eastern European bloc accede to the European Union, Russia seeks to exert its influence in places like the Ukraine, the Caucasus, and Central Asia. Its young and fragile democracy struggles with the threat of a return to oligarchy as political opponents and critics of the ruling party face tactics of intimidation or worse. Insurrections that were dormant during the Soviet era in breakaway regions have returned and threaten the security of its citizens. Only time will tell how Russia will choose its destiny, but Moscow encapsulates the intrigue, contradictions, horrors, and beauty of this nation’s tumultuous past and present. 
Former KGB Building and Tverskaya Street:
For us travel is an opportunity to make the world a smaller place. By seeing new lands, interacting with different cultures and pushing the limits of human experience we are able to bridge the gaps in our mind between perception and reality, thereby clarifying our global view and contributing an informed outlook to a world that inevitably grows more interdependent. It is for this reason, for better or for worse, that Moscow is an essential and fascinating destination for the intrepid and curious traveler. Next stop…St. Petersburg!

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