One of the most exciting, strange and bewildering places I have ever been is Russia. It is a country that still feels on the edge of the Cold War, a fact The Simpsons seemed to realise as well.
Walking around Moscow with the unfamiliar language and history of conflict with the West you felt like a foreigner in a strange land, but it is one of the few countries I would love to return to if only it wasn’t so crazy.
I’m not Russian, so it is a bit unfair of me to judge a repressive, corrupt and authoritarian regime that rules with an iron fist over a spectacular nation. The irony is that beauty of Moscow and St Petersburg was built by exactly the same kind of person through in its past. Peter the Great and Stalin weren’t exactly the most progressive of leaders but their single minded determination as to how Russia should look and act is shown in the architecture.
Take Moscow, along with the towers of St Basils (apparently the architects had their eyes removed so they could never build anything more beautiful) and the imposing walls of the Kremlin you have the brutalist buildings of the Soviets, with Stalin’s pastiche to the skyscrapers of New York piercing the skyline. These were erected to show the capitalist pig dogs that the Soviets could do anything collectively better.
The same with the subway system, which is a jewel in Moscow’s crown. I have never, and do not believe I will, ever seen a public transport system that is so pretty. Every station on the Metro is different, it is worth doing a Google image search but if you are feeling a bit lazy here are a few pictures from the stations we stopped at.
From gold leaf on the ceilings to stained glass, the Moscow Metro is a destination in itself.
The rest of Moscow is a contradiction as the past fights against the new. It is the era of the Tzars battling against the Reds but somehow comes together to enhance the city.
The very old
The not so old
The brand new, but looking old
In fact that last church was built after the fall of the wall to replace a cathedral that was destroyed by Stalin to make way for a giant Lenin statue. The 1940’s still runs through the mentality of Moscow as Lenin’s tomb still holds pride of place in Red Square. We were lucky enough to be able to join the respectful single file line that passes the famed Russian and it is a strange experience.
Nobody makes a sound, nobody dare look at a guard the wrong way as you stroll past the wax like figure of Lenin. It’s eerie to think that as you stumble past his pale visage you exit just a few hundred metres from the location of the first Russian McDonald’s.
But that is Moscow, an aged, vibrant, decaying, modern, corrupt city that reeks with an air of menace but has an inescapable attraction.
Along with the trip to Moscow we took the opportunity to make the trip to the northern city of St Petersburg, I mean Leningrad, no sorry it’s St Petersburg again. Where as Moscow was brutal in its beauty, St Petersburg is an entirely different world. It is the start of modern Russia and has its own elegance that is reminiscent of an Italian city.
To get there however you first have to go by rail, normally I am averse to public transport so imagine my reaction to getting on an overnight train from Moscow.
Actually that is my reaction to events on the journey, as we were travelling in the middle of the night the train stopped. Dead stop, engines off. There was no noise as I opened the curtains ever so slightly to see what was happening outside. All I could see was the snow-covered Russian countryside lit by the light of the moon.
There was only one explanation, it was Chechen separatists holding up the train and shortly I would hear shouts in the corridor as we would be dragged out of our beds. I checked the cabin, there was a tiny crawl space behind the suitcases I could fit in. But I was sharing a room with my sister and there was hiding space for a sole occupant. Knowing how grouchy and disoriented she could be when woken early I decided it would be kinder to just let her sleep. As I was about to initiate the escape plan I heard a loud noise outside the window.
The train coming the other way on the line rushed past. Our engine fired up the diesel engine and carried on its way.
Obviously not being taken from the train was a good thing, not just for the fact that I wasn’t looking forward to dealing with terrorists but that it was cold. So cold.
When we arrived in St Petersburg it was cold.
When we got to the hotel it was cold
By the way, the big patch of ice…that’s the Baltic Sea.
It was cold in the night
It was cold in the day
St Petersburg It was cold everywhere, I have never been so cold. Even the marrow in my bones hurt. That -11c was added to by the icy wind coming in from the frozen Baltic.
You have to ask why would Peter the Great decide to found his eponymous city on this frozen location. It is like an Italian city encased in ice, and the appearance of the southern european architecture is no accident. When looking for architects the most renowned were from Italy so the whole design reeks of Milan, Rome or Naples. Just with more ice.
In fact it is an amazingly cultured city, take the famous Hermitage museum.
What, you’ve never heard of it?
Neither had I, but it hosts a stunning art collection that rivals anything in Paris, New York or London. A couple of Da Vincis, some Goya, Rembrandts and one of the only Michelangelo sculptures out of Italy.
It is a city that has seen miserable tragedy, from the assassination of Tzars to the terrible siege in the Second World War. It is a city that shines as an example of one man’s determination to drag Russia from fur skins to suits and stands as a testament to how a country can reinvent itself time and time again. It is the birthplace of the modern Tzar, the Russian Revolution and Putin.
It is also very cold.