Monday, October 22, 2012

A Tale of Two Cities

 I suppose this church, St Basil's in Red Square, Moscow, is what I perhaps thought of seeing when I was in Russia. And indeed, when I emerged from the underpass that had taken us safely from the coach  park, I almost couldn't believe I was actually standing in front of such an iconic building. But what I want to explore in this post is the different way I felt about Moscow from my feelings in St Petersburg, where, if I'm honest, I'd already seen as dazzling an onion-domed church, as well as all the others seen on our long sail.

Primarily, I felt disbelief in Moscow. Disbelief that I was actually there, in the place that for all of my life had been synonymous with Soviet rule, used as a symbol for The Other Side in the Cold War, a backdrop for missiles, marching and fur-hatted rulers on Lenin's tomb (left). It seemed hardly credible that we could take photos unhindered, that the guide was talking about where "Our President" worked hard in his nearby office, that I was really in the heart of the Moscow Kremlin and could see the long street which forms the background for foreign news editors on the ten o'clock news on the BBC.

It became apparent to me in Moscow that this was where 'my' history lay, rather than in the more European splendours of St Petersburg. Look at the picture on the right: St Isaac's Cathedral in the heart of St Petersburg is one of the world's largest cathedrals (and is still a museum, as it was in Soviet times). It was designed by Auguste de Montferrand and opened in 1858, and it could be in Paris. The wide square in front of it is flanked by the Astoria hotel, and there are large foreign cars parked at the kerb. It felt like Europe. Peter the Great would have been pleased, but I realised that I was looking for a Russia defined last century.

Actually, Moscow doesn't really work very well right now. The picture on the left was taken from a bus, at teatime. The traffic was already heavy, but fortunately the Northern River Terminal was on the same side of the city centre, which is surrounded by three concentric roads linked by radiating highways like the spokes of a wheel. On our last day, we had to travel back across the city, from Sparrow Hills, and the drive, at snail's pace, took us 90 minutes. We watched as ambulances wormed their way past queuing cars, and noted which siren seemed more effective.  It was hard to imagine doing this daily, and we saw the power of the Metro. But the new Russia means that people want cars, and that desire is paralysing the city.

In contrast, St Petersburg seemed spacious and wide-skied. This could have been attributed to the weather, or to the fact that much of our travelling was done by river. We did see one or two examples of grim "Khruschev" architecture (building styles are designated by the era in which they were built), but far less than in Moscow. Perhaps we were visiting palaces more than housing schemes and universities; there seemed less of the ordinary in the places we saw, and the most mundane was probably the area where we were docked during our stay there.

In Moscow, we caught a glimpse of the Presidential motorcade as it swept over the cobbles of the Kremlin. We travelled on the Metro (train every minute) and made an unscheduled stop in a cafe because of the rain. We visited a beautiful lake by a convent and thought of Tchaikovsky, and we saw the Israeli ambassador laying a wreath at the eternal flame round the corner from Red Square (Rachmaninov this time, and much goose-stepping). We bought chocolate in GUM and saw a rainbow over the city from the amazing Victory Park. We saw a Lenin lookalike street performer in Red Square, and didn't buy a Marshal Zhukov cap from a street stall. I had loved my time in St Petersburg, but in Moscow I felt I had arrived in a bit of history I knew. The final photo shows the decrepit Northern River Terminal building - fenced off, riddled with concrete cancer, but still illuminated every night. It was directly opposite our balcony. It had a revolving red star on the top of it. It was Russia.


  1. I love the compare and contrast of two very different cities, Christine, and understand very well what you mean about standing in your history in Moscow. With all its problems it's a very much more open place than when my husband visited it in 1965, when he almost had his camera confiscated for apparent spying and only managed to keep it because he was only 19 and looked younger. He also had lots of offers to buy the tatty denim jeans he was wearing.

  2. Fascinating. I felt a bit like this in Berlin - that it was part of MY history..