Two Hearts of Russia

Cold War.  Crimea.  Pussy Riot.  These are just some of the unsavoury tags attached to Russia by the Western media.  Increasingly, the provocative question posed by Prime Minister Medvedev at this year’s Munich Security Conference, ‘Is this 2016 or 1962?’, gains relevance.  Even if the current stand off between Russia and the West differs in many ways from the Cold War, discourse in the media and the attitudes of the general public have certainly regained their ‘Us and Them’ framework.  When I mentioned my interest in Russia to an acquaintance, she wrinkled her nose and asked ‘Russia?  But why? Aren’t they the bad guys?’  This was in 2015.  Not 1962.  My American mother grew up when the Cold War was at its zenith.  For her, ‘Russia’ conjures images of tanks rolling across Red Square, grim-faced Communist officials, and the threat of nuclear annihilation.  ‘In my mind’, she told me, ‘Russia is still half Soviet Union’.  My attitude is rather different.  I have long been passionately interested in Russian history and culture, and I started learning the language two years ago.  If you ever lose me in a book store, you’ll probably find me in the Russian history section.  While I am greatly unsettled by many of the Kremlin’s current policies, this interest has helped me take a more empathetic (if not sympathetic) and nuanced view towards the country so demonised in the West.   My fascination managed to overcome my mother’s fears and, on the 14th of May, we boarded our flight to Moscow.

Moscow 

First Impressions

Our first evening in Moscow was disorientating to say the least.  We arrived at our hotel in Izmailovo, a region in the north-east of the city, late in the afternoon.  Our car ride to the hotel was perilous, and we encountered the infamous Moscow traffic.  It is not often as a tourist that one sees the quotidian, residential, parts of the city before the picturesque historical centre – the slow traffic gave us ample opportunity to do so!  Next to our hotel was the immense Izmailovsky Market – a huge complex with brightly coloured turrets.  The kitsch but striking building made us feel that we were looking at a romanticised representation of Russia that one might see in the West.  

We began to ‘find our feet’ when we took advantage of the sunshine and walked around Izmailovsky Park.  The park is home to buildings from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries such as a cathedral, a bridge tower, and alms houses.  We were, as far as I could tell, the only non-Russian people in the park.  At first, we felt a little self-conscious.  Was everyone else thinking ‘what are these tourists doing in our park?’ But this self-consciousness soon disappeared as we realised that no one was paying the slightest attention to us.  We were just two more people taking advantage of this peaceful location to enjoy the May sunshine.  Despite having strolled amongst Russian people in Izmailovsky Park, when we returned to our hotel room that evening, we still found ourselves asking ‘Are we really in Moscow?’  Then, I looked out of the window and saw two of Stalin’s ‘Seven Sisters’ (Skyscrapers built between 1947-53 in the Russian baroque and gothic style) in the distance, their dramatic silhouettes thrown into relief by the amber sunlight.  We were, I realised, definitely in Moscow. 

Red Square 

I have visited the historical centres of many European cities, but Red Square surpasses them all.  In London, people go to Covent Garden, Trafalgar Square, or Piccadilly and immerse themselves slowly in the atmosphere of the British capital.  There are relatively famous things to see: the Covent Garden piazza, the start of the Mall leading up to Buckingham Palace, Nelson’s Column.  But London is a city of multiple centres, and tourists can be forgiven for wondering where the ‘middle’ is.  Red Square allows for no such ambiguity.  Trafalgar Square impresses – Red Square awes.  The impression that the Kremlin, Lenin’s Mausoleum, GUM, and St. Basil’s Cathedral – places that I had been reading about and seeing on TV for years – made on me was as powerful, even visceral.  I had to blink a few times to convince myself I was really standing in the middle of all those iconic buildings! Just six days ago, we had seen footage of the Victory Day parade taking place here.  The heady combination of power and history – Tsarist, Soviet, and modern make for a surreal but exhilarating experience. 

The Metro 

While some of the newer London tube stations are aesthetically acceptable, standing in the claustrophobic tunnels surrounded by peeling paint, it’s hard to imagine that a city’s underground transport system can be anything more than grim.  Not so the Moscow metro.  I have been told that less elaborate stations exist at the outskirts of the city, but the central ones we used were stunning.   Kievskaya station, covered with intricate mosaics of Ukrainian people and traditions surrounded with florid gold-painted frames was my personal favourite.  

On a more practical note, the metro was far cheaper than the London tube.  I was surprised to find that distance travelled made no difference to the price, and that I didn’t have to get out my ticket again to leave the underground.  In London, a journey in zones 1 and 2 can cost up to £6.50 (without an Oyster card).  A journey on the Moscow metro (to any location) costs just fifty roubles – approximately £0.50.  

I was warned by a Russian acquaintance never to get the metro between 6 and 9pm unless I wanted to be consumed by the rush hour crowd.  Still, we ended up using the metro at this time every day we were in Moscow, and I was relieved to find that the reality did not live up to the horror stories.  It was certainly busy, but did not compare with the London tube where rush hour means squeezing into an overfilled carriage and ending up with your nose pressed against the armpit of a total stranger! 

On foot 

Moscow is not a city that we in the West associate with strolling and people watching.  These leisured activities, we assume, are the preserve of Paris, Rome, Prague, and the like.  But, in the three and a half days I spent in Russia’s capital, I learnt that this assumption was far from the truth.  On our first day, we walked from the Tretyakov Gallery to Café Pushkin and were surprised to find how pleasant, even relaxing, it was to walk around the city centre.  On our second day, we walked around Red Square and the Alexander Gardens by night.  Surrounded by these illuminated buildings, beautiful and imposing, the atmosphere was truly magical.

I had expected that this area to be full of tourists and that we would hardly hear a Russian voice – I was wrong.  There were remarkably few Anglophone tourists, and only a smattering of those from other countries.  When I visited Venice, it was like being in a sardine can of every conceivable nationality apart from the Italians themselves.  Even in London, there are often times in the central locations where it is hard to find a ‘true Londoner’.  Moscow was nothing like these cities.  I was pleased to note that, wherever we went, there were always Russian people – some domestic tourists, some locals – using and enjoying their capital city.

The Kremlin 

Few buildings fascinate and intimidate the Western public like the Kremlin: It stands for power, grandeur, and cold inapproachability.   As my mother and I walked around inside its famous red brick walls, we felt as if we had walked into the Russian equivalent of the Forbidden City.  The medieval, the baroque, the Soviet, and the modern all inhabit this triangular fortress.  The fortress affords a commanding view over Moscow and its grandeur was almost shocking in comparison to the modest town house of No. 10 Downing Street, and even the clean, neo-classical lines of the White House.  Even though a surprising amount of the grounds were open, there was much that was tantalisingly out of bounds.  Walking in the gardens, there were soldiers stationed on every path the make sure we didn’t take the wrong route.  On a zebra crossing, a police man reprimanded anyone whose foot left the crossing.  Just a hundred metres away from there was the official office of the Russian President.  Winston Churchill once declared: ‘Russia is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma’.  Moscow is the heart of Russia.  The Kremlin is the heart of Moscow and yet, as Churchill’s quote suggests, the real heart seemed to be obscured by impenetrable shrouds of mystery.

Silences

Convenience of finance and logistics persuaded my mother and I to choose a semi-guided tour for our time in Russia (‘Semi’ meaning that we spent the morning with a guide and the afternoons and evenings alone).  Our guides were sent by the Russian National Tourist Office and were all extremely knowledgeable, recounting to us Russia’s sweeping history from the early tsars to the collapse of the Soviet Union.  They remained silent on modern politics.  In truth, it was easy to forget Russia’s current political realities.  Even standing in the middle of the Kremlin complex, it was all too easy to relegate everything to history.  There were however, some disconcerting reminders of these realities.  Walking across Bolshoi Moskovretskiy Bridge, we passed flowers and photographs dedicated to the assassinated opposition politician, Boris Nemtsov.  On our journey from the Tretyakov Gallery to Café Pushkin, we passed through Bolotnaya Square, the epicentre of the 2012 protests.  On our final day, we visited the beautiful and immense Christ the Saviour Cathedral – the location of Pussy Riot’s infamous ‘punk prayer’.  During our stay, the British news was reporting on the conviction of political activist Petr Pavlensky and the shake-up of the independent news group RBC.  The Russia of news headlines, and the Russia we were experiencing as tourists felt almost like separate worlds.  Only in locations like the ones I have mentioned did these worlds seem to coalesce.

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St Petersburg 

First impressions 

“St. Petersburg, the most abstract and intentional city on the entire globe (cities can be intentional or unintentional)” 

Such is Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s famous assessment of Russia’s former imperial capital from his best-known novel, Crime and Punishment.  The moment I stepped out, slightly bleary eyed, from Moskovsky Railway station (we had taken the night train from Moscow) I was struck by the aptness of Dostoyevsky’s description.  From reading about the city, I’d learnt that St. Petersburg embodied Peter the Great’s turn towards Europe and the West and yet, somehow, I had never imagined how un-Russian it would feel.  Having woken up at six in the morning, I squinted a little: Was I still in Russia?  I felt like I’d suddenly landed in Paris or Vienna.  As our driver took us to the hotel, I felt we were travelling through a place that combined all European cities without letting any one national style take over.  Hints of Holland, England, Italy, France, and Austria hung in the air like faint perfumes.  Only the occasional onion dome reminded us that we were really in Russia.

History & Literature 

While the buildings were distinctively European, the city practically reverberated with echoes of Russian history.  Standing in the middle of Palace Square gazing up the Winter Palace, I imagined Tsar Nicholas II addressing the masses from the balcony on the eve of World War I.  Walking up Nevsky Prospekt, my mother and I discussed what it would have been like to see it filled with protestors demanding an end to the war and to the monarchy.  

During the car journey between St. Petersburg and Tsarskoe Selo, we passed an immense, poignant, monument to the siege of Leningrad on Moskovsky Prospekt.  Our guide told us about the horrors that the city’s inhabitants had suffered during the Germans’ 900 day siege – these stories were shocking and incredibly moving.  Every British primary school student learns about World War II but we learn almost nothing about the Russian contribution to victory.  As far as I learnt at primary school, Britain won the war almost single-handedly with, perhaps, a little help from the Americans.  Wrongly, in my opinion, we learn little about the immense losses sustained by the Russians, especially those in the sieges of Stalingrad and Leningrad.  Visiting Russia in the wake of Victory Day and seeing the numerous monuments to World War II really brought home how much Russia had suffered.  In the Hermitage, a bullet hole in a mirror in the ‘Loggia’ gallery from German artillery fire has been preserved – it was the most moving thing I saw that day.

For a lover of Russian literature, walking through St. Petersburg is like walking through a Russian novel.  As we explored the city, my mother imagined she was in the world of Raskolnikov in Crime & Punishment, while I imagined the lives of the noble families Tolstoy describes in War & Peace and Anna Karenina.  On the second day, we were lucky enough to have tickets to see Madam Butterfly at the Mariinsky Theatre.  With its gilt interiors, plush blue velvet seats, and impressive Imperial Box, it was easy to imagine ourselves surrounded by the cream of nineteenth-century Russian society.

On foot 

We used the metro a lot less in St. Petersburg than we did in Moscow, and so managed to get more of a feel of the city on foot.   What struck me most, was the jarring contrast between opulence and seediness.  One moment, we would be passing a former noble palace, the next we would find ourselves surrounded by run-down looking shops and suspicious looking clubs.  On our first night, we walked from the Winter Palace to our hotel, which was near Chernishevskaya metro station, and found ourselves constantly moving between these two extremes. Often, we would pass huge former palaces with white stucco ornamentation and baroque facades and see that the bottom floor had become a betting shop, a McDonald’s, or even a Dunkin’ Donuts.  We did wonder whether the Counts and Princes of old would ever have expected this to be the ultimate fate of their homes!

St. Petersburg Syndrome 

On the morning of our second day, we visited the immense cultural treasure troves that are the Winter Palace and Hermitage.  We spent four hours inside but could well imagine spending a year there without managing to see everything.  Each room was grander than the next. While the Hermitage’s collection is arguably the best in the world, the art had to compete with the sheer beauty of the interiors.  In the UK, we have no buildings that approach the grandeur of the Winter Palace.  Buckingham Palace is, of course, extremely impressive but lacks the ‘awe’ factor of its Russian counterpart.  When I visited Florence two years ago, I read about ‘Florence Syndrome’: a supposed ‘disease’ that a person suffers if they encounter places or things of overwhelming beauty.  My mother and I were, I think, acute sufferers of ‘St. Petersburg Syndrome’.  As first time tourists, we saw the grandest palaces the city had to offer including Peterhoff and the Catherine Palace. Nothing quite prepares you for the amount of gilt, velvet, marble, and renowned works of art.  All were fascinating, but  seeing room upon room of beautiful things was a bit like gorging on sweets.  Each one is rich and delicious but, after a while, you just want to eat a piece of bread.  The only negative aspect to the Winter Palace and Hermitage was the huge number of visitors, nearly all of whom seemed to think it their duty to photograph every single painting, sconce and floor board.  The rooms containing Da Vincis and Rembrandts were particularly crowded.  A word of advice to future visitors – if you want to see the paintings in these rooms prepare to be extremely patient or to use your elbows! 

Preconceptions shattered

As first-time Western visitors to Russia, my mother and I inevitably arrived with some preconceptions about the country and its people.  Here are some examples of our assumptions that turned out to be unfounded: 

1)Russian people are cold and distant:  ‘Don’t smile’, a Russian acquaintance of mine warned me, ‘Or people will think you’re weird.’  This made me a little apprehensive, but my fears were completely unfounded.  Of course, people in Moscow and St. Petersburg didn’t walk around with huge grins on their faces but then, Londoners don’t either!  Everyone we encountered, not just those in the tourist industry, was friendly and polite – especially when we attempted to speak some Russian.

2)Moscow is a grim city consisting only of concrete high rises: This was more my mother’s assumption than mine, but she and I were both surprised by how green the city was.   From the top of Sparrow Hill (where the main building of MGU, another of the Seven Sisters, is located) we could see trees and parks everywhere.

3)Russia is expensive: As in any city, we did, of course, come across expensive shops but, in general, the food we had was remarkably cheap compared to London.  We could get a large bowl of pelmeni (more than enough to fill up on) for around 300 roubles (just over £3) in most restaurants and cafes that we went to.   In London, it’s hard to find a small coffee for this price.  Even in the more ‘upmarket’ restaurants such as Café Pushkin (Moscow) and the Literary Café (St. Petersburg), the prices were far lower than in places of a similar standard in London.

Some surprises 

1)Religiosity:  In the UK, many people are Christian but few display their piety openly.  The overt Orthodox faith of the Russian people we saw in churches and cathedrals surprised me: all crossed themselves several times, and often bowed, and kissed the icons.  As someone who isn’t Christian, it sometimes felt a little awkward entering these sacred spaces – I felt I might be insulting those with faith.  My mother and I soon learnt to carry a scarf with us at all times so we could cover our heads before entering churches.  

2)Very few Anglophone tourists:  In major European capitals, I have often found myself surrounded by English-speaking people.  Not so in Moscow and St. Petersburg.  There were far more Russian-speaking tourists than English-speaking ones in the locations we visited.

3)Security everywhere:  Living in London, I’ve noticed the increased police presence in the city following the recent terrorist attacks in France and Belgium.  Bag searches are now relatively common for museums.  I encountered far more security in Moscow and St Petersburg: every metro station required passengers to pass through metal-detecting arches, and there were bag searches at many more locations than in London. 

‘Viy gavaritye pa russkiy?’: A note on language 

I have been learning Russian for two years, and so have managed to achieve basic speaking and comprehension ability.  I can read Cyrillic without a problem.  While I wouldn’t say that you need to know some Russian to visit Moscow and St. Petersburg, I found that my elementary skills (however basic) were extremely useful, especially when using the metro and ordering food.  In some European cities I have been too, many native people have simply spoken to me in English.  This was not the case in Russia where almost everyone spoke their native language to us.  This gave me some good opportunities to practice my speaking skills!  For any future visitors, I would suggest trying to learn a few words of Russian as everyone with whom I (tried) to talk seemed to genuinely appreciate my efforts.

Conclusion 

Everyone I know who has visited both Moscow and St. Petersburg inevitably has a favourite.  Most of them come down on the side of St. Petersburg thanks to its stunning canals and palaces.  Before I experienced them both, I assumed that I would be the same but, in the end, Moscow won the day.  Even my mother, in whom the idea of the capital used to inspire Cold War era apprehensions, was won over.  St. Petersburg is indeed beautiful, but I found Moscow to have more character and a greater sense of dynamism.  Perhaps this is because St. Petersburg (or at least its centre) feels like a place where time stood still after 1918 whereas Moscow feels much more ‘present’.  I have been told, however, that St. Petersburg often wins people over in the end.  Perhaps my opinion will change when I visit the cities again. 

While our whirlwind eight days was the holiday of a lifetime, I can’t wait to return to the cities and experience them beyond their touristic centres.  I am also keen to explore beyond Moscow and St. Petersburg since they are, after all, only the tip of the iceberg when it comes the immensity of the country as a whole. 

So, it’s ‘Da svidanya’ for now, Russia, but I will definitely be coming back!