Moscow was our journey‘s summit. St. Petersburg, in particular the Hermitage, had been more like an outcrop just below the peak, the one with the best views, but we’d still had some climbing to do. It would be all downhill from here to Greece, our next and last destination on this trip. Arriving so early in the morning on the peak meant we virtually had it to ourselves.
For a family that had just taken an overnight train from Veliky-Novgorod, we were more refreshed than we thought we’d be, but nonetheless still felt fairly disoriented and confused by Yaroslavskiy Railway Station. Our tourist instincts told us to take the Metro straight to Red Square. Alighting at Revolution Square, we walked along a deserted Nikolskaya St., looking good with its ‘chandelier’ of hanging lights catching the early morning rays, and emerged into the sunshine at the north end of a practically empty Red Square.
The effect of stealing an intimate glimpse, free of the masses, of such a world-renowned site gave me the same giddy thrill I’d felt when we’d gone – again, early in the morning – to the pyramid city of Teotihuacán, just outside Mexico City. Here on Red Square, almost the only other person we could see was a young girl, posing in ballerina-like, or maybe athletic, poses, with whom we were more than happy to share the square.
The high walls of the Kremlin contain the square on one side. These are the familiar backdrop to the military parades you see on the news, where Russia’s top brass inspects the tanks and missiles as they roll past the low pyramid of Lenin’s Mausoleum. We had plans to visit both Mausoleum and Kremlin, but in the end we’d see neither. By the time the Mausoleum opened, the crowds we were sure would turn up at some stage on the square had turned up. With so much to see in this city, we weren’t prepared to stand in the sun just to see a guy who’s been dead for a century. In any case, it was only going to be Tina and the kids. The more I read about Lenin, the less I felt like paying homage to him. Regarding the Kremlin: well, we’d already been to one: how many did we have to see?
Like Stonehenge, the Mona Lisa, or your take-home salary, St. Basil’s Cathedral turns out to be smaller than you’d think, at least if you hadn’t thought too much in advance about how big it would actually be, which I hadn’t. Really, it was big enough; it did the job, but such is one’s overexcited expectation of world-famous icons, that one expects them to be massive, and even when they are, to be more massive still. Not that we were disappointed with St. Basil’s – far from it – but like many of the buildings on Red Square, like I say, it was smaller than you’d think.
GUM (pronounced goom), on the other hand, was large. The one-hundred-and-twenty-six-year-old department store dominates the eastern side of Red Square but its domination was impotent since, when we walked past, it hadn’t opened yet. Coming from Australia, it often surprises us how late things open in the morning in other countries. Granted, it was still only 6:30am or so at that stage, but we were in the centre of a city of thirteen million residents, were we not? It wasn’t even as if we wanted to buy shoes or ice cream. But there was the matter of coffee, you see. The smell of roast arabica would be wafting through the streets of Brisbane, our home town, by that time in the morning. Then again, the business centre and the tourist centre of Brisbane are both more or less the same, whereas here in Moscow the main business area, Moskva-City (Moscow City, or more officially, Moscow International Business Center), and hence the caffeine to fuel all that international business, lay a few kilometres west of us.
At the southern end of Red Square there seemed to be a lot of security around the Gostinyy Dvor Convention Centre. It turned out that President Putin’s annual public Q&A was being held there at that moment and it seemed (we watched parts of it later on that day in our apartment) the president wasn’t getting too easy a time of it. A stagnant economy and a much-publicised trumped-up case against independent journalist Ivan Golyunov, which the authorities were forced to drop, had Putin on the back foot. I’d followed the news about Golunov on Meduza while we were in St. Petersburg and was amazed when he’d been released. (From about this time on – June 2019 -, perhaps emboldened by the vocal support for Golyunov among journalists, businesses, and ordinary citizens, people started gathering regularly to protest the suppression of the opposition parties, not that we saw any of it.)
The sun rose higher as we walked past St. Basil’s to the nearby, relatively new Zaryadye Park, our only other companions a large party of Chinese tourists. From there you have a good view (see the main picture) of one of the “Seven Sisters”, those conspicuous, ’empire-style’, high-rise buildings built during the Stalin era that stand out in the Moscow skyline like castles on a faraway hill. We’d picked a good day to arrive in the city; the sun reflected brilliantly off the Moscow River and, sun-sensible as we Australians are, we duly applied our sunscreen. Turning back north again we walked through the old Kitay Gorod (a ‘Chinatown’, with no obvious Chinamen or pagodas) area.
A good two hours after emerging out onto street level at this stage we finally reached a café called Кофемания (‘Coffee Mania’ – a bland name for such a grand place) into which we fell, tired, and having swept our table for bugs, we sat down and ordered espressos and croissants. Without really meaning to, we’d stopped on Lubyanka Square so there was a good chance that some of our well-heeled fellow customers were KGB. Outside on the square, close to the incongruously merry-coloured golden-brown KGB headquarters, we read the plaque on a monument called the Solovetsy Stone.
During the years of Soviet power, more then one million people were shot in politically motivated executions in the USSR…
On October 30 1990, Political Prisoners’ Day in the USSR, Memorial, with the support of the Moscow Municipal Government, laid a stone from the Solovetsky Islands – home to the Solovetsky Special Prison Camp – on Lubyanka Square. This stone has become the traditional site of commemorating victims of Soviet terror.
I’d read Anne Applebaum’s ‘Gulag‘ earlier in the year as part of my Russian reading project (I was halfway through Doctor Zhivago by the time we actually got to Russia, and both Tina and I were by that stage big fans of Gogol) in preparation for our trip, so I knew about the camp up in the Solovetsky archipelago, and had read about Memorial, the organisation responsible for the monument. We paid our respects at the monument and began our return to Red Square.
Our walk back took us past the Bolshoi and the Duma (main government building). Walking through Revolution Square among the crowds which had begun to gather, I was seduced by the siren song of the loudspeakers outside a stately red brick building. The voice over the speakers said that this was the Museum of the Patriotic War of 1812. In other words, a museum dedicated to Napoleon’s Fatal March on Moscow. Having already expressed my disinterest in the mausoleum, I told Tina I’d meet her in an hour or so after she and the kids had done their Lenin thing (which they ended up not being able to get in to, as I said) and I’d done my Napoleon thing.
Ninety minutes later, having seen all the impressive oil paintings of Napoleon fleeing the flames of the Kremlin and bits of artillery salvaged from the ashes of Smolensk that I needed to see, I met Tina and the kids again. We reentered Red Square, now well populated, through the twin Voskresensky gates. GUM was open.
GUM (as you can see in the photo) was bright and beautiful, and as well as the usual plethora of clothes stores, ice cream joints and jewellery displays, it had a decent stolovaya. Stolovayas are the traditional canteens, usually far less salubrious than this one, that we would try to eat in as much as we could here in Moscow. We’d usually get some combination of borscht, buckwheat, Borodinsky bread, and salted cucumber. Oh, and beer, of course.
So that was our busy morning – the start of our week in the great city.