Thursday, 8 September 2011

Moscow Sightseeing

Like all big cities Moscow has many facets but it's Las Vegas-style casino nightlife is no more, gambling was banned a couple of years ago & all the casinos of the Old Arbat district are gone. But its still a key shopping & nightlife district with the mile long pedestrian Arbat street filled with little shops, cafes, a British-style pub and an assortment of street entertainers, artists & musicians. Pushkin lived at number 53 & there's a statue of him & his wife Natalia opposite. He was killed in a dual with someone he considered was paying too much attention to his wife. She had to flee the scandal but she didnt flee very far as she later married her husbands killers brother.

Arbat also has one of Stalin's 'Seven Sisters' now a 5 star Radisson hotel, popular with visiting celebrities. The Sisters are gothic architechtural masterpieces in Stalin's favoured style - one of the few remnants of his tyranical reign that modern Russia is proud of. Two of these 1920's style New York skyscrappers are government ministeries, two are 5 star hotels, two are expensive apartment blocks and perhaps the best one is Moscow State University.

The other valued inheritance from Stalin is the Moscow metro system, with the most staggeringly beautiful underground stations in the world. Not only are they stunning they're incredibly efficient and in the rush hour trains arrive every minute, carrying ten million Muscovites to work very day. It wasnt that Stalin had a vison of the twentyfirst century needs of Moscow - in the 1930's he suspected that war was coming to Europe, again, so he had them built, unnecessarily deep, because they were actually conceived as secret bomb shelters; one of which gave him an underground escape route from the Kremlin.

The Bolshoi theatre has been closed for extensive remodelling since 2005 and is set to reopen at the end of this month (September 2011) but it was still impossible to take a peek inside at what six years work has produced.

My hotel is 100 yards from Lubyanka square which is flanked by the dull yellow KGB (now FSB) buildings featured in hundreds of spy novels set in the Cold War era. A Soviet era Intourist guide told me that in those days it was a serious offence to name these building & any enquirer had to be told that they were just apartment buildings. The statue of the KGB's founder that originally stood in the centre of the square has been torn down & disposed of.

Red Square & the Kremlin are of course Moscow's biggest attraction. But the Kremlin isnt merely the seat of government its a 69-acre citadel and the site of Moscow's 12th century founding. The 1.5 miles of red brick wall, with watch towers at each corner, enclose a secure government compound, the Armory museum, three cathedrals, the Kremlin palace & the 1960's Palace of Congresses. It a treasure trove for lovers of glittering royal relics - Faberge eggs, crowns, robes, thrones, State coaches, the 190-carat Orlov diamond & weapons galore. There is also the world's largest bell (200 tons) that cracked before it it was ever rung & the intricately chisled 40 ton barrel of the Czar cannon with its ridiculously heavy 1 ton cannon balls that was never fired.

Just off Red Square is the imposing Cathedral of Christ the Saviour which looks like its been there for centuries. In fact Stalin had it blown up in 1935 because it spoilt the view from his Kremlin window. But, as part of the policy of undoing some of the excesses of the old Soviet era it has now been completely rebuilt & was only finished in 2000. Faced in gleaming marble and capped with classic gold onion domes it now sees a regular stream of Kremlin officials attending it on State & religious occasions - Stalin must be turning in his grave.

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