A Moment in Moscow - Part I


If you walked into My Guide’s London office at this precise moment, you would find not a single speck of dust on my desk.  I know, because I’ve cleaned it myself.  I also know that you would not find a single unanswered email in my inbox, nor an office plant that has not been watered lavishly and at regular intervals, and that you’d struggle to locate a clean mug in the kitchen because I’ve used them all already.

What you would find is a writer who’s just finished organising, stapling, labelling and sorting into plastic wallets a stack of notes that look like they’ve been made on a Bucking Bronco, and is now staring at the wall beyond his computer with an expression somewhere between gormlessness and desperation.

All of which means that I’ve got a big article to write, and I am putting it off.

Had you wandered in a couple of months ago, you’d have found my face in a far more affable arrangement, for I had just been told that My Guide wanted to send me to Moscow, a city that’s topped my must-visit-even-if-it-means-some-kind-of-fraud list for as long as I can remember.  Things I’d spent years reading about – the Kremlin, Communism, Cossack hats – were suddenly within touching distance, and I hadn’t done anything disingenuous to make it happen.

Except it wasn’t quite that simple.  It was never going to be quite that simple.

I was to make as much of my visit as wacky as possible, meaning I should spend a good portion of the weekend I had with a face contorted and stunned like someone who’s just been sneezed upon and suffered a sudden bout of incontinence in the same moment.  I was to eat the most adventurous cuisine I could eat, do the most daring things I could do, and cram as much activity and experience as possible into 72 relentless hours.  And I was to do it all with Katya, our local expert who calls Moscow home.

Which brings me to the here and now, nursing a brain so saturated with memories and information that it has defaulted to making inane jokes about going around Russia in a rush.  It seems impossible to believe that so much could have happened in just three days, that I could have acquainted myself so intimately with Moscow; on its surface, underground and upside down.  The whole thing seems like a hazy night before the morning after.

So I’ve simplified it.  I’ve boiled 72 hours down to 10 single words (5 here, and another 5 in Part II) that summarise my whirlwind weekend in a cinch, and give those of you with the attention span of a hungry gnat something easy to digest.  For those equipped with more reputable powers of concentration, there are a few elaborative words to chew on, and for those whose appetite is utterly insatiable (my parents, principally), there’ll be a surfeit of even more elaborative articles to follow.

As the Russians somehow say: naslazhdat’sya!

5 words...

It is difficult to imagine a city more absorbing upon first glimpse than Moscow at night, which is exactly why I announced myself with a lax jaw and greedy eyes, captivated by dramatically lit buildings that have been laid out and constructed on a scale beyond ordinary conception.  Oddly, it was the city’s abundance of asphalt that struck me most; I counted 14 lanes spanning one thoroughfare, while another, Leninsky Avenue, has a width that varies between 108 and 120 meters.  Astounding.

For much of this we have Stalin to thank, of course, whose desire it was to drastically revise the capital’s cityscape in accordance with his socialist realist visions of grandeur and might, in doing so transforming the whole city into a monument to the Soviet age.  Among his intentions were to quadruple city block size and to make every building at least 6 stories high (10-14 on main roads), which helps explain much of Moscow’s chunk today.  Indeed, the grubby fingerprints of Uncle Joe can be traced from the peaks of the Seven Sisters that he built as a signal of communist pre-eminence, all the way down to a resplendent metro system that we’ll come to a little later.

Moscow is Monumental

Any city that gives a Nintendo employee an ice cream and asks him to design its main cathedral deserves to be distinguished in the memories of its visitors.  The result – Saint Basil’s (or Cathedral of the Protection of Most Holy Theotokos on the Moat, to use its cumbersome full name) – is an architectural marvel quite beyond compare, the only place that it might possibly find congruence being Disneyland, though that would be akin to putting a peacock in a pigeon pen.  The overall effect is dazzling, which is why if aliens do ever visit planet Earth, this is where I’d like them to be taken first.

And what a parking space they would have!  Red Square offers 23,100 square metres to prospective intergalactic cruisers, and would gladly add their arrival to the long list of historic events that have taken place here, while also enjoying a fortuitous last laugh in the Space Race.  The square is backed onto by the steadfast walls of the Kremlin, the nucleus around which Moscow has formed, and is central to the plethora of structures and sights that make Moscow one of the most recognisable cities in the world, which should be of particular note to Homo sapiens and aliens alike.

Moscow is Memorable

Because it’s all in Cyrillic.  The nearest I could get to comprehension was by using words that had been Romanised (i.e. translated into the letterforms that you’re reading now), yet they still looked as if they’d been written by an absent-minded four year old.  The bulk of the problem is word-length; the longest I found, a little ironically considering how much it must have been used over the years, was ‘unauthorised’, measuring 19 characters in its Cyrillic form, 21 when Romanised: nesanktsionirovannaya.  Try saying that after three shots of Vodka…

It is largely thanks to Cyrillic that tourists are so easy to spot in Moscow – they’re the ones squinting at everything while making hesitant phonetic shapes with their lips.  Indeed, the whole country is rendered widely inaccessible by its language, even more so by its lack of English translations, which hardly comes as a surprise considering the tempestuous history between Russia and the West.  Nevertheless, one wonders how the course of history may have digressed if the Cyrillic word for ‘sorry’ didn’t include a number 3 and some back-to-front Ns…

A Moment in Moscow - Part I

At least it is when you look at it from below, which is exactly what 6.55 million people do every day in Russia’s capital city.  The Moscow metro was built under Stalin’s moustachioed gaze, a glowing tribute to the guiding principles of the Soviet Union: industrialisation, mobilisation, and the march towards a future of prosperity.  That future would, of course, be blighted by wars against Hitler and the West respectively, not to mention the monstrous acts carried out by Stalin himself, but the metro meant Moscow could travel toward it in comfort nonetheless.

Which brought us, in a roundabout if not literal way, to the nuclear war bunkers that are hidden 65 metres beneath the city’s leafy suburban streets.  Not even the locals knew of their existence when they were operational, which surprises me not one bit considering the length of time it took us to find the entrance.  The tunnels cover some 7000 m2, and would have been the safest place to be in the event of a nuclear attack from the West.  The attack never came, of course, which meant the shelters never had to perform their elemental function, and no one was ever blasted into a wobbly puddle of custard.

Moscow is Murky

Which is why many Muscovites own a dacha (or second home) out in the pine forests that swathe the city’s perimeter, effecting a collective exodus each weekend as they exchange the fumes of the city for the perfume of Mother Nature.  Introduced during the reign of Peter the Great (amongst a surfeit of other vital commodities such as newspapers, coffee and the beardless face), dachas are considered to be a fundamental part of Russian life, especially now that the various restrictions placed upon them during Soviet rule (understandable, really, when you consider how compact a country Russia is) have been rescinded.

All of which explains why we found ourselves inert at the heart of a glistening snake of traffic with our backs toward Moscow, the only manic thing being our contribution to the symphony of car horns winding its way into the countryside.  Thankfully, we were heading to just the place you’d want to be after spending over an hour like exasperated chips waiting for vinegar, a picturesque retreat where guests are given a lavish environment in which to enjoy the serenity of Russian nature, along with the opportunity to take up a shotgun and unleash hell on some drifting plates of clay.  That place was called Fox Lodge, and we left it feeling peaceful and replenished.


Which is exactly how I hope you feel after bathing your eyeballs in Part I of my Muscovite adventure.  The next instalment will be published soon, so be sure to keep those eyeballs peeled in preparation.

Moscow is Manic