Reposting from Pujya Priyadashni’s blog.
Often, we hear the phrase ‘left spellbound or speechless’ be used casually in conversations. But have you ever truly been to a place that left you so mesmerised that you just couldn’t think of how to describe it to the world? Or simply, have you had your Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Alice in Wonderland or Hogwarts moment? Well, Moscow was that for me this summer. It has taken nearly two months, while blogs on other travels continued, to attempt to capture the magnificence and grandeur of the Russian capital (and I am only attempting…).
For Indians, Russia is not just another country. While the ideological exchange emboldened by the history of Soviet-era friendship treaties may be the reference points for the intelligentsia, the legendary Raj Kapoor’s ‘Lal Topi Russi’ (Red Russian Hat) song has immortalized the country in the commoner’s psyche. Thus, the enigma that is Russia is one to be experienced. Not to mention that it has fast emerged as an affordable international destination owing to Aeroflot connections and the Rouble-Rupee exchange rate!
Somehow, even today, going to Russia is like flying to a land unknown. Off to a family holiday, the excitement that gripped us was so innocent, almost child-like. And starting with the flight literally, the world that begins to unfold is unlike any other; the ‘RED’ uniform of the Aeroflot staff for example. I mean, it is a red that seems brighter than the sun and yet alien to the familiar colour spectrum. Is communist red the word? I don’t know.
The Moscow airport looks like a godown; you could confuse it for a giant warehouse if it were not for the planes parked in front. The size of the Antonov planes parked dwarf everything around them. It is an apt welcome to the Soviet style infrastructure: grand yet bare, ostentation yet not pretentious.
As Moscow emerges after a 45-minute drive, it is more than love at first sight it. It is a heart in the mouth, guts in the lungs and eye-popping experience, one that is exulting and sensual. It has ornate multi-hued buildings of a distinct architecture, glistening broad pavements (the size of main streets of most metropolitans) that seemed to have been paved only yesterday and a landscaped montage that is aesthetic, austere and aristocratic at the same time. As the crimson yellow skyline gave each building a golden touch, and despite the occasional familiarity of McDonald’s and Starbucks, the city exudes the vibe of a mighty empire untarnished by the world outside.
A good way to initiate yourself into a new city is to start with a walking tour. These give you a context, an orientation and the local feel. I don’t remember the name of our guide, but I do remember her telling us that it meant “Shanti” (peace) in Hindi. Starting with monument of Cyril and Methodius in Slavyanskaya Square, Shanti took us via promenades, along the Moskva river, through the Zaryadye Park, around the Red Square and ended ironically in front of the KGB building (popularly called Lubyanka; she didn’t speak much of it). “We don’t know where our President lives and we respect his privacy,” she said at one point. While narrating stories of the house of Romanov, soviet years, the religious past and the local culture, Shanti was well aware of the global perception of her Russia and she wore it with pride.
You will keep going back to the Red Square for it’s like living a dream! Of course, it has a reddish hue all around (not the same RED though). With the GUM (an iconic departmental store) and the Kremlin wall guarding the lengths, the expanse of the cobbled square is bookended with the State Historical Museum and the multi-coloured onion-headed St. Basil’s Cathedral (the postcard image of Moscow). Each building is like a painting come to life; one that is not just gorgeous but also well maintained. The buildings and the hustle-bustle seem to gravitate towards Lenin’s mausoleum at the heart of the square. Despite being packed with tourists, you won’t find even a single cigarette butt littered. Pick a spot, stand back (for there isn’t seating around) and relax with a Marojne (Russian Ice Cream)! And go back at night for the lighting exudes an air of impending celebrations.
The afternoon was spent pouring over the exhibits at the Diamond Fund and Armoury at the Kremlin. It is advised to pre-book tickets. As you enter the walled city, you suddenly feel acutely aware of authority. Perhaps it’s the imposing structures, the constant police vigil or the clearly restricted areas where you can’t set foot. While unnerving initially, the beauty of Kremlin takes over. Walk through the Cathedral Square, the gardens and climb Ivan the Great’s Bell Tower for a view of the city’s expanse across the Moskva river.
From the historical complex, the next day we went to the museum that showcases how Russia made history. The first sight of the Museum of Cosmonautics will leave you stumped and your necks craned as you trace the height of Monument to the Conquerors of Space. As we relived the history of Soviet efforts and the celebration of Yuri Gagarin, I saw my mother, a space enthusiast and a literary science fiction author, transform. She pranced around the museum like a child in Disneyland; entering every exhibit, posing for photos and being disappointed that the Café serving space food was shut. Her vicarious journey to space was paralleled by mine witnessing momentary time travel!
From space head straight deep into the earth’s crevices for the Moscow Metro Stations are sites to behold; each grander than a heritage hotel. You’ll find the escalators seem never ending. No wonder, Russians read, tend to children and do other business as they wait patiently to be transported away from or back to humanity. While some stations have large paintings fit to be in the national museum, others have abundant sculptures with stories of luck and charm woven around them. Highly recommended stations are the Ploshchad Revolyutsii, Teatralnaya and Elektrozavodskaya Station for they epitomize the vision of these station being ‘People’s Palaces’.
Cemeteries are usually not on the itinerary, except perhaps the likes of the Necropolis is Athens or the pyramids in Egypt. But Novodevichy Cemetery is Moscow is yet another marvel. You will find yourself not only looking for the graves of Anton Chekhov or Boris Yeltsin, but also admire the sculptures and art that has gone to make each space characteristic of its inhabitant. The nostalgia of an era gone is hard to miss. Also, on offer are the river cruises on the Moskva, the Bolshoi theatre, Arbat Street and the Izmailovo market. The market is a distance from the city centre, but accessible by metro and is a great bargain to buy souvenirs and trinkets!
Everyone told us that Moscow is beautiful, but St. Petersburg is in a league of its own. However, the next three days in St. Petersburg seemed more like a European montage extended on a Soviet canvas. Few would agree with this am sure. In an interconnected world, Moscow’s charm emanated from its very distinct identity and an almost alternate idea to what one had always conceived as developed and ideal. Of course, there is so much one as a tourist can comment on the makings of the city and empire that it has become. All I can say is that Moscow is like the first love; one we cherish, imagine to be grander than reality and never forget…