A tale of two cities
If you take the red-eye flight from London to Moscow you’ll arrive at 4.55 a.m. local time, but it’s worth it for the empty drive from the airport at Domodedovo into the city. Blinking in the early morning light, you’ll skim past the skinny, melancholic birch trees, then the looming tower blocks and smoking chimneys of the suburbs; past the matchbox kiosks that are already open for chocolate and cigarettes. Catch a glimpse of Red Square, with St Basil’s, a whipped-up, cupcake cathedral at the heart of the city, before you get to your hotel, and the strange puzzle that is Moscow will start to unfold.
It’s a relentless, criminal, glamorous city, Moscow, tiring for a holiday, but intoxicating and lovely when combined with a trip to St Petersburg, where you can sooth yourself at the Hermitage after the relentless vodka nights of the capital. Every new visitor should gaze at the glittering diamonds and Fabergé eggs in the Armory and troop past Lenin’s waxy corpse. Outside the walled containment of the Kremlin, the rest of the city might seem like a huge, unyielding challenge, but it is easy to forget that part of the reason for this is that Moscow was a showcase for Soviet might, whose specific aim was that the individual should feel intimidated and insignificant.
The Moscow metro is justifiably famous, and you can take an underground tour by getting on at a central stop called Arbatsakya, alighting at every stop to see bronze sculptures and dazzling mosaics. Get out at Partizanskaya, and go to the huge outdoor market at Izmailovo to buy quilts, antiques and toys. In the Zamoskvorechie region, there’s a mixture of architecture which exemplifies the collision of styles and centuries that characterises much of Moscow. On Bolshaya Ordynka there are three churches which are examples of neo-classical, baroque and early 20th-century arts and crafts architecture.
Modern and old exist alongside one another with relative harmony in the Ostozhenka area. You’ll find beautiful 19thcentury palaces but you can also see cuttingedge Moscow at play: this area is favoured by architects and designers, who go to ArtPlay, an industrial conversion of an old silk warehouse, for good cocktails.
More traditionally, Kitai Gorod is the region east of Red Square, settled in the 13th century as a trading district, and once home to merchants and craftsmen, their trades still present in the street names: khrustalny, meaning crystal, rybny, fish or vetoshny, rags. The narrow streets of Kitai Gorod hold many treasures: St George’s Church or the 15th-century Pskov-style Church of the Conception of St Anne and the dilapidated 17th-century Church of the Zaikonospassky Monastery.
But in those narrow streets, there is evidence of something very sad and sinister happening to Moscow’s architectural heritage too: you’ll see builders, sometimes men in hard hats with clipboards, and numerous covered-up façades, with all evidence of destruction or so-called ‘restoration’ hidden from view.
Moscow is changing fast. Many buildings are being destroyed, even those that are listed, and it was in reaction to this that Maps the Moscow Architectural Preservation Society — was formed in 2004 by a group of international architects and journalists. It has just released a report, together with a Bristol group, Save Europe’s Heritage, called ‘Moscow heritage at crisis point’.
‘The destruction of listed buildings is appalling. It’s hard to recognise some areas compared to even a few years ago,’ says Clementine Cecil, co-founder and trustee of Maps. ‘In February, for example, an early department store, the Middle Trading Rows on Red Square, was delisted and demolished. Now the foundations of St. Basil’s are under threat.’ Cecil is concerned that Moscow’s mayor, Yuri Luzhkov, is responsible for much of this change. His wife, Elena Baturina, is Russia’s only female billionaire and happens also to be head of a construction company.
A more reverential attitude towards the past is noticeable in St Petersburg. Take the overnight train to St Petersburg after the whirl of Moscow and you will wake up in a city of palaces and gold leaf, birthplace of Russian ballet and home to Pushkin and Dostoevsky, where you can get a clear impression of Russia’s imperial past.
The Hermitage is the glittering jewel at the heart of this distinctly European city. In 1764 Catherine the Great bought 225 paintings by Western European masters and housed them in her home, the Winter Palace, now one the museum’s five main buildings with 1,057 rooms alone. But her appetite for art, like her legendary appetite for sex, was voracious, and five years later she had over 2,500 paintings; so she named her museum the Hermitage, ‘Place of Solitude’, as it was only for her.
It’s the largest museum in the world, so large that only one fifth of the collection is displayed at any one time. The scale of the collection is matched by the sumptuousness of the building, with gold leaf dripping from every surface, each ballroom more staggeringly opulent than the last.
After this rolling gold, the ‘Hidden Treasures Revealed’ collection is an Impressionistic delight; go upstairs to the plain white rooms which house 87 French Impressionist paintings that the Soviet army stole from Germany in 1945 and which were hidden in the Hermitage for over 50 years.
Every way you turn, your eye meets a palace, a cathedral or a church. But there is a stranger, less opulent side to the city too which is easy to miss. In the Kuntz Kamera you can see Peter the Great’s macabre collection of freaks and misfits: bottled babies and a fawn with two heads. More strangeness is embodied in the Yusupov Palace, where the royal family came to see Rachmaninov play and Pavlova dance. It was here, in the basement, that Felix Yusupov murdered Rasputin. The palace echoes with deception and visual trickery, partly due to the trompe l’oeil ceilings and papier-mâché chandeliers.
St. Petersburg is a good place to discover on foot. A vast statue of Catherine the Great dominates Ploshchad Ostrovskogo, with some of her lovers, including Orlov and Potyomkin, cowering at her heels. But the statuesque grandeur of the woman who had such a hold over the city is undercut by the chess, backgammon and mah jong players who straddle the benches in the square.
There is a romance, too, in the Church on Spilled Blood, where Alexander II was murdered by the People’s Will terrorist group in 1881. It’s also worth visiting Pushkin’s last home, on a picturesque curve of the Moika river, where he died in 1837 after a duel with Baron d’Anthes who was courting the poet’s much admired wife Natalia, although gossip suggested that Tsar Nicholas I engineered this, distressed by Pushkin’s radical literary opinions, and because Natalia had caught his eye, too.
Intrigue and romance dances through the streets and along the canals of St Petersburg. After the choppy traffic and unsmiling crowds of Moscow, it feels a bit like walking into a Russian fairy tale, where kings and queens order ever more opulent gold palaces.
Both cities command your attention, although they are very different. St Petersburg is famed for the white nights of high summer, when light bathes the city for 24 hours a day and a carnival mood descends, but is equally sensational in deepest winter, when snow muffles the city and icicles hang like swords above the pavements. And Moscow is a place to go to as soon as possible, before the past is rewritten and what you see is no more than a mocked-up pastiche of a great city that once was. Go soon. Go now.