Stranger in Moscow

In Siberia, they call Moscow “the West”, with a note of scorn for its bureaucrats and politicians. To Westerners, the city looks European, but its unruly spirit seems closer to Central Asia. For Muscovites, Moscow is both a “Mother City” and a “big village”, a tumultuous community with an underlying collective instinct that shows itself in times of trouble. Nowhere else reflects the contradictions and ambiguities of the Russian people as Moscow does – nor the stresses of a country undergoing meltdown and renewal.

The city is huge, surreal and exciting. After a few weeks here, the bizarre becomes normal and you realize that life is – as Russians say – bespredel (without limits). Traditionally a place for strangers to throw themselves into debauchery, leaving poorer and wiser, Moscow’s puritan stance in Soviet times was seldom heartfelt, and with the fall of Communism it has reverted to the lusty, violent ways that foreigners have noted with amazement over the centuries. No excess is too much for Moscow’s new rich, or novye bogaty – the butt of countless “New Russian” jokes.

As the nation’s largest city, with some twelve million inhabitants (one in fifteen Russians lives there), Moscow exemplifies the best and worst of Russia. Its beauty and ugliness are inseparable, its sentimentality the obverse of a brutality rooted in centuries of despotism and fear of anarchy. Private and cultural life is as passionate as business and politics are cynical. The irony and resilience honed by decades of propaganda and shortages now help Muscovites to cope with “wild” capitalism. Yet, for all its assertiveness, Moscow’s essence is moody and elusive, and uncovering it is like opening an endless series of Matryoshka dolls, or peeling an onion down to its core.

Every visitor to Moscow is irresistibly drawn to Red Square and the Kremlin, the historic and spiritual heart of the city, so loaded with associations and drama that they seem to embody all of Russia’s triumphs and tragedies. Exalted by the poet Mayakovsky as the centre of the world, the vast square has a slight curvature that seems to follow that of the earth’s surface. On one side, theLenin Mausoleum squats beneath the ramparts and towers of the Kremlin, confronted by the long facade of GUM, while St Basil’s Cathedral erupts in a profusion of onion domes and spires at the far end. For sheer theatricality, Red Square is only surpassed by the Kremlin itself, whose fortifications, palaces and cathedrals are an amalgam of European and Asiatic splendour, redolent of the Italian Renaissance and the court of Genghis Khan alike. While the treasures of its Armoury Palace and other museums are a must for visitors, it’s the frisson of proximity to power and the sense that history is being made here that sets the Kremlin apart from other palatial citadels the world over.

Brooding and glittering in the heart of Moscow, the Kremlin thrills and tantalizes whenever you see its towers stabbing the skyline, or its cathedrals and palaces arrayed above the Moskva River. Its name is synonymous with Russia’s government, and in modern times assumed connotations of a Mecca for believers, and the seat of the Antichrist for foes of Communism. Unsurprisingly, Russians generally feel more respectful than paranoid, being inclined to agree with Lermontov, who rhapsodized: “What can compare to the Kremlin which, having ringed itself with crenelated walls and adorned itself with the golden domes of cathedrals, sits on a high hill like the crown of sovereignty on the brow of an awesome ruler.”

Photo by ranopamas on Flickr