Intimidating, grim and dour yet crammed with the glamour of a thousand West End openings, Moscow means many things to many people. The truth, of course, is that Moscow manages to be all these things and more to everyone who manages to spend time here. From the gleaming neon of Tvserkaya Street - one of the busiest and best known streets of the city - to the drab out reaches of the Strogino district, Moscow is a city of never ending contrasts. And no where are these contrasts more evident than in the clash between old and new, the functional and the extravagant. Moscow is an ancient town that today is a veritable megacity. The bustling metropolis serves as a major hub for political, economic and cultural activity, and is a significant travel destination, and rightfully so.
Starting life as little more than a market on the banks of the Moscow River, it was the city that was to take the name of the river rather than the other way round. Almost haphazardly, a wooden fort was gradually constructed around the market to protect the traders and customers within from the elements for which parts of Russia are so widely known. This original construction just as gradually evolved into the Kremlin and Red Square, which still stand in the same place today and which are now at the very centre of Moscow's sprawling cultural and political world.
Modern Moscow is a bold city. Its wide streets are flanked on either side by the kind of giant modernist architecture that came to define the Stalinist era. Viewed from a distance, Moscow's buildings are uniform, rectangular and more than just a little intimidating. Up close, however, the streets tell a different story. Fur clad shoppers compete to buy the latest Western fashions at the most expensive of Russian prices. In winter, the lights from ornate window displays fall onto the pavement’s tightly packed snow, lending the entire city the feel of a never ending Christmas shopping spree.
While Moscow has kept many of the functional and - it has to be said - austere aspects of its Soviet past, it was at the forefront of Russian cities in its headlong rush to embrace the new freedoms of Glasnost and Perestroika. It's a lead that Moscow has worked hard to retain and, regardless of where you travel in Russia, you'd be hard pressed to encounter the same dizzying number of designer brands and determined flaunting of disposable income. If Moscow is an ancient city, it's an ancient city with bling. Those who want to get up close and personal with the new Russia need only take a short stroll along Kuznetskii Most or Kutusovskii, or through any number of the extravagantly expensive shopping centres that have made their homes within the city centre. Of these, it is probably GYM - pronounced 'Goom' - which is the most famous. GYM is littered with ironies as rich as its customers. Originally, the central state outlet for everything (despite its ostentation, the acronym GYM still translates as, 'State Universal Store'), it has transformed itself into the very definition of elite upmarket shopping. With an interior built like a modern Versailles, the genteel tinkle of its fountains and the gentle swipe of its credit card tills stretch their way across Red Square to the Mausoleum where Lenin's mummified corpse still lies, controversially, in State.
One of the most visible and dramatic changes to befall Moscow following Perestroika was the huge influx of migrants from throughout the former Soviet Union. It's a change that doesn't always sit easily with most Russians, but it's one that makes a visit to the capital as rich and culturally diverse as you would expect from any cosmopolitan centre. In stark contrast to their admittedly uninspired past, Moscow's eateries now buzz with the shawarma and kebabs of the Asian Steppe, as well as the heart-stoppingly rich meat and dairy output of Central Europe and the Caucuses. Whether it likes it or not, modern Moscow has become a succulent microcosm of the former Soviet Union's dining habits. Add to this an overwhelming obsession with sushi - more sushi is eaten here than in Tokyo, so they say - and you have a culinary proposition that's hard to resist.
However, the Soviet Union's mixed legacies don't end above ground or in the gastrointestinal system of its visitors. Moscow's commuters are served by one of the most impressive metro systems to be found anywhere in the world. Initiated by Stalin in the 1930's, central Moscow's stations really are something to see. Visitors should be under no illusions; Moscow's underground 'people's palaces' really were intended as the ultimate display of the best and the brightest of Soviet design and architecture, all laid out in the service of the toiling proletariat. Komsomolskaya, with its baroque arches and gigantic chandeliers will always be a worthwhile stop on any itinerary, and Mayakovskaya's towering chrome columns are always worth a look. As impressive as they are, however, Ploshchad Revolyutsii, with its life-size bronze statues of the defenders of the Soviet Union, has always been a personal favourite - just don't forget to stroke the dog for luck!
A note of caution, however: Moscow's Metro is the second busiest in the world, so peak times are probably best left to locals and the foolhardy. Muscovites take few prisoners when it comes to finding a place on a packed Metro car, so commuters can find themselves crushed and breathless against their fellows, or alternatively hurled onto the platform as those behind try to disembark. The important thing to remember is that it's not personal; it's just Moscow trying to get to work.
As day turns to night, the Metro cars' passengers shift from the bored commuters of the day to the coiffured and cool party goers of the Moscow night. Few cities can party like Moscow. Within Russia, young Muscovites are famous for their ability to keep a party going throughout the weekend without sleep or rest. This really is the ultimate in what Moscow does best: show off. Heels are not so much high as vertiginous, with the difference between belt and skirt often only discernible to the practiced eye. It really is one of the most impressive fashion shows on earth.
No travel guide is ever going to fully do service to the contrasts and contradictions of this great city. You could live an entire life in Moscow and still never know it. This is the city where oligarchs dance through the night while the heroes of the Soviet Union shiver in their cold beds. Nothing in Moscow makes much sense. It is there to be experienced rather than studied and when it really comes down to it, that's a summation that Moscow could probably live with.
About the Author Simon Speakman Cordall used to have a real job, but he doesn't anymore. Instead he lives in Moscow, where he teaches English for a living. When not working, Simon likes to travel around a bit and share his adventures in writing. Check out more of Simon on his blog at http://life2thesequel.wordpress.com.
About the Author
Simon Speakman Cordall used to have a real job, but he doesn't anymore. Instead he lives in Moscow, where he teaches English for a living. When not working, Simon likes to travel around a bit and share his adventures in writing. Check out more of Simon on his blog at http://life2thesequel.wordpress.com.