When you think of Moscow, you probably think of the distinctive onion-shaped domes of the Kremlin. Or at least I did, until I actually visited and found out that the Kremlin was a whole other building from that. Having now spent a whole day in Moscow and corrected my mistake, however, I am now fully equipped to lecture you on what to see and do in the heart of Mother Russia.
Red Square and Lenin’s Mausoleum
Imagine my disappointment when I found out that, contrary to expectations, Red Square is not actually very red. It’s sort of greyish-brown, much like any number of squares or plazas throughout the world. There were some propaganda posters up when we visited, extolling the virtues of Putin or soldiers or something, and at one end is the spectacular sight of St. Basil’s Cathedral (and not, as is popularly believed by otherwise intelligent people, the Kremlin). Off to the right of the square is a mausoleum to some guy called Lenin, who was apparently kind of a big deal back in the day.
No photos are allowed in Lenin’s mausoleum, which is probably to protect the poor bloke’s vanity. Lenin looks like Madame Tussaud was having a bad day and knocked off early for a pint. I’ve seen Taiwanese rip-offs of Star Wars figures that looked more verisimilitudinous.
Our guide’s explanation for this was simple and probably true: the bloke’s been dead for almost 100 years, and there’s gonna be some wear and tear. The Russian powers that be have likely touched Grandpa Lenin up over the years – a bit of botox here, a bit of collagen there, a little work around the eyes, etc. etc. The problem with cosmetic surgery is, of course, that you don’t know when to stop, and the end result is that the Bride of Wildenstein has had less work than Vlad at this point.
St. Basil’s Cathedral and the Kremlin
Those two easily confused Muscovite structures, St. Basil’s and the Kremlin are a stone’s throw from each other. St. Basil’s is that fantastic onion-domed cathedral that is more emblematic of Russia than those little dolls that sit inside each other (not in a sexual way), and the Kremlin is a bunch of walls with the odd tower to spice things up a bit.
You can pay to go inside St. Basil’s; our guide assured us repeatedly that it totally wasn’t worth it, so we didn’t.
Of note outside the Kremlin is the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier (“who’s he?” I asked; nobody laughed). Some soldiers in fancy rags stand about for a bit, then goosestep off to get replaced by some identical soldiers. A good time was had by all.
GUM department store
If you’re into Soviet kitsch, you’re gonna love the GUM department store. 3-4 floors of Soviet-era stores chocked with the most Russian stuff you can imagine (so vodka and bears, basically), you can get anything you want in GUM, as long as it’s vodka (or bears). I immediately forfeited my YPT credentials by not buying a bottle of Beluga Premium vodka, alas.
On the top floor of GUM is a fantastic Soviet-style canteen, which is a bit like a school dinner: grab a tray and load up on a bunch of wicked Soviet-era food, such as fish in fish jelly, bits of fish, some weird cakes and rabbit stew. I got carried away here and grabbed 1000 rubles’ worth of food before I checked myself. It was all fantastic, except for the fish in fish jelly, which I’m assuming is an acquired taste.
The décor within and around the canteen is great: plenty of “USSR da” propaganda posters and Soviet kitsch such as old TVs and nightstands and such. Also of note were the toilets, for which one had to pay due to the singular experience provided by being able to shit like an October Revolutionary. I, secretly being a capitalist counter-revolutionary pig, did not opt to experience this.
As someone who is required to spend a fair amount of time in Beijing, I am not an individual noted for my love of metros. Beijing metro is not a patch on Moscow’s, however; statuary and frescoes devoted to Great Socialist Motherland abound, including a couple of statues of canine superhero Laika, whose noses have been rubbed into non-existence. Our guide gave us a before-and-after comparison of several murals and tableaux that used to feature Papa Joe Stalin: in a move of some irony, the Great Eraser has himself been erased from every piece of art that formerly featured him.
Other than this it was a nice metro system, I suppose. The trains were pretty noisy (apparently the Russians have not stolen the Chinese plans for quiet trains yet) and, in a nice tribute to cult video game Metro 2033, the authorities have installed huge nuclear blast doors.
Church of Christ the Saviour
Not content with having one blinged-out cathedral, Moscow doubled down recently with a reconstruction of the Church of Christ the Saviour. Papa Joe, a man noted for having a bit of a beef with God, had the original torn down and turned into a swimming pool. In a continuing bid to undo the legacy of Russia’s Man of Steel, the Russkies have thrown up an identical replica.
Despite being an atheist I have a healthy respect for churches and cathedrals, being as they are generally beautiful buildings, and Christ the Saviour was no exception. Orthodox Jesus also struck me as being a bit better off than Normal Jesus, as he is thoughtfully provided with a little platform so his legs don’t get tired during crucifixion.
Outside the cathedral you can also get some spectacular views of Moscow, including one tower-toting fortress that may or may not be St. Basil’s Cathedral.
And there we have it – a very briefly, though obviously very well-informed, one-stop tour of Russia’s premier city. A brief shout-out to our local guide, Paul, who spoke better English than me, and was a veritable wealth of knowledge on every place we went to. If you’re planning your own tour of Moscow, look no further than he.
Paul can be found at Moscow360.org, and is highly recommended for his fascinating and informative Moscow day tours.
Visit Moscow yourself as part of Young Pioneer Tours’ Eurasian Adventure tour!