Last year while I was organising my Year Abroad I was faced with a choice for my second semester: studying in St. Petersburg or studying in Moscow? Five months in the cultural capital or five months in the official capital? At the beginning I was convinced that Moscow was for me. I wanted to live in the bustling heart of Russia and somehow become one with the people and language there. However after speaking with some older students they confessed that at times Moscow was a lonely place to live and was full of business-types trying to work their way up their corporate ladder. So in the end I chose St. Petersburg – a more Western-styled city which was full of students. I certainly do not regret my choice and have absolutely fallen in love with St. Petersburg. However I was curious to see what life in Moscow was like, and so with a group of English students we headed there to find out for ourselves.
Friday 5th May
After attending our lectures and printing our train tickets we arrived at the train station for our 1am train. We hopped in the carriage just in time and tried to set up our beds. I was sleeping in a section with Issy and we tried to stifle our sleep-deprived hysterics as we writhed on our upper bunks and repeatedly hit our heads on the low ceiling above us. Despite our initial faff we soon settled down and I had the best night’s sleep I have ever had on an overnight train – hopefully I’ve got the hang of it now!
Saturday 6th May
We arrived in Moscow towards 11am and were met from the train by Will, a Cambridge student who is currently studying at MGU (Moscow State University). First we dropped our bags at our airbnb before setting out into sunny Moscow. We were blown away by the weather – St. Petersburg is still reluctant to show any signs of spring, whereas Moscow had sunshine and blossoming flowers. We walked through the recently revamped Gorky Park and enjoyed a leisurely lunch at one of the numerous cafés there.
We continued to walk about and reached the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour. This church has a rather unusual history. Originally there was a cathedral here which was destroyed in 1931 on Stalin’s orders. Stalin had hoped to use the site to build the Palace of the Soviets, a huge and monstrous construction which would have been the tallest building in the world had it been built. Unfortunately the Great Patriotic War (a.k.a. WWII) halted construction and it was never built. However under Khrushchev the site was transformed into the world’s largest outdoor pool! Eventually in 1990 the Russian Orthodox Church received permission to rebuild the original cathedral.
The next main site we found was the Kremlin. We wandered around the outside walls and saw the changing of the guard by the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, which is dedicated to the Soviet soldiers that died in the Great Patriotic War. Sadly Red Square was closed because they were preparing for the Victory Day parade that would take place on the 9th May. However we did make it into GUM which is a huge luxury department store. We tried some sickly sweet lemonade and admired the fancy shops around us before going for dinner with another friend from Cambridge who was studying in Moscow.
Sunday 7th May
Thankfully I got a decent night’s sleep at our rented apartment which all seven of us just about squeezed into. The glorious weather continued and we travelled to a market on the outskirts of Moscow called Izmaylovsky Market. Despite getting a little lost and enjoying an impromptu walk around a lake we eventually snuck in the back entrance of the market square. It was an extremely unusual market full of wooden buildings and there was a random boat positioned on the middle of a vibrantly blue central staircase. We rummaged through the usual tourist tat, but the more interesting items were found within the buildings which were more like a car boot sale. People were selling all kinds of knick-knacks which were spread out on tables. I flicked through some interesting postcards and was shocked to find that three would cost £10 because apparently I had chosen ‘particularly rare’ postcards. Some postcards just aren’t worth it and we shuffled off to find lunch. The gang gathered in a wooden dining room which was positioned above lots of grills where vendors were selling shashliki (meat and vegetables cooked on a stake, similar to a kebab). In the smoky interior we devoured our food and showed each other our purchases. Then to our surprise we heard someone call out Issy’s name – it just so happened that another student who had been studying with us in Kazan and was now working in Moscow, was visiting the market with his friend. It really is a small world!
Next on our list was VDNKh, an acronym for ‘Exhibition of Achievements of National Economy’. This place is extremely Soviet and was intended to be a place for trade shows and to exhibit the diversity and wealth of Soviet countries. We admired the fountains and pavilions there which were dedicated to these countries.
We took a detour to visit the ‘Worker and Kolkhoz Woman’ statue, which is better known for being the symbol for Mosfilm which is one of the oldest and largest Russian film studies. Many Soviet films being with the Mosfilm logo and seeing it in person was surreal. Nowadays it is positioned around a rather awkward cross-roads and it was tricky to get a good photo…
Our last stop was the Space Museum. It wasn’t too hard to find given the enormous rocket statue outside! We were pretty shattered by this point but managed to enjoy the exhibitions and watched an inspirational film about how anyone can become an astronaut. I also particularly enjoyed seeing the stuffed figures of Belka and Strelka, the first dogs to go to space and safely return.
Monday 8th May
Our luck with the weather ran out on Monday. Bitter winds and snow stuck Moscow and we had a somewhat less productive day. We made our way around the Kremlin and the Kremlin Armoury but in all honesty the awful weather hampered our enthusiasm.
In the evening Issy and I made a whistle-stop tour around some of the more interesting Moscow Metro stations. The Moscow Metro is famous for its beautifully designed stations and we wanted a piece of the action. Our favourite was Ploshchad Revolyutsii which has many bronze statues dedicated to the people of the Soviet Union. I made sure to rub the dog’s nose for good luck (or so I’ve been told) and Issy got up close and personal with another animal statue.
Tuesday 9th May – Victory Day!
Our final day was Victory Day, which commemorates the Soviet defeat of Nazi forces in 1945. In Moscow there is a grand military parade which culminates in a ceremony held in Red Square. Despite our good intentions the wine consumed the evening before meant that we were unable to get up early enough to find a spot where we could try and catch sight of the parade. We watched the beginning of the ceremony on television before leaving our apartment to see what we could find. The procession proved elusive and we bumped into two other groups of people we knew from St. Petersburg who told us that they saw little to nothing of the parade despite waking up at 6am to find a spot on the street!
We decided to escape the cold weather and opted to visit the nearby Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts. We happened to visit when there was a particularly interesting exhibition taking place which demonstrated how abstract forms of art managed to flourish in Soviet republics despite the dominance of Socialist Realism. Also there was a random cast of Michelangelo’s David!
Given our failure to get into the Victory Day spirit we attempted to see another one of the Victory Day events: Бессмертный полк (The Immortal Regiment). This begun as a non-state-sponsored march where people walk with pictures of their relatives and loved-ones who perished during the Great Patriotic War. We followed people we saw who were carrying their placards and eventually found the march. Thousands of people were there to honour those who had died for their country. Every few minutes a loud ‘Hurrah!’ would swell as the paraders walked past and cheered. It was an incredibly moving sight. The march seemed not only immortal but also eternal as people walked past continuously for nearly half an hour. Even when we left there were still new groups of people walking past.
Leaving behind the march we sought out a site of literary pilgrimage. Patriarch Ponds in Moscow is the location of the opening chapter of Bulgakov’s ‘Master and Margarita’. Many of us had studied the text last year and wanted to to visit. Not far away was the Bulgakov Museum which had a statue of two characters from ‘Master and Margarita’.
At this point we received some last-minute news that Red Square had been opened. Issy and I were booked onto an earlier train and so we made a mad dash to try and get there in time. However we were thwarted by several closed metro stations and security guards positioned all over the city streets. The rest of our group did make it in later but only after they had been through three security check points.
I have visited Moscow once before on a school trip for a couple of days and although I saw many amazing tourist sites I didn’t really get an impression of the city itself. This time around I got a much better feel for the city. It definitely has the atmosphere of a capital city and reminded me of London at certain points. It was also a lot more welcoming than I had imagined: in my mind I had conjured images of a cold, grey, Soviet city which chewed up and spat out unwitting tourists and foreigners. In reality it is a bustling modern city full of life and interesting sites. However I was glad to return to St. Petersburg nonetheless – Moscow was incredible, but St. Petersburg is now home.
~ I’d like to say thank you to Will who shepherded us hapless Peterburgians around Moscow. You were a wonderful tour guide and I really appreciated your excellent organisation – спасибо большое! ~