We had relatively low expectations of Moscow as other travellers had recommended less time there than in St Petersburg. But from the moment we got off the train, we knew we would like this city.
So with 2.5 days here, this is what we got up to:
Museum of Soviet Arcade Machines
A bit of a random tourist attraction but certainly one worth visiting for the geeks. For 450 rubles you get 15 tokens to play on over 30 refurbished Soviet arcade machines. Of course all the games were in Russian but thankfully there was an English pamphlet which had all the instructions to each game. We surprisingly enjoyed the Russian arcade experience and were amazed at how much fun we could have with such old machines.
We decided to take this tour having been to a few Communist and post-communist countries and wanted to see how Russia compared to them. We were led by our fantastic guide Marina who was able to give us a lot of insight into what happened as she actually grew up during this time. Russia was the first country to establish communism and paved the way for other countries such as China and Vietnam. Going on the tour we felt excited to learn if the experience of Communism was the same as through Eastern Europe after the war. What we learnt was that in Moscow conditions were much better, people were looking for a new form of government that would allow them to have a greater say in local policies as opposed to the harsh unsympathetic rule of the monarch at the time. This lead to eventual revolution and the installation of Lenin who was widely popular before he died, however was then replaced by Joseph Stalin and the rest is history.
The tour started outside the former KGB (secret service) headquarters (now FSB office) which dealt with counter revolutionists within the communist party. Even today if you walk near the building your phone signal dies and you can only tour the museum inside if you work within the FSB organisation.
Some of the interesting facts about the tour other than the negatives about political repression under Stalin was the fact that the communist era did provide many mechanical and technological advancements to a country that was largely farmer and produce orientated. Moscow infrastructure was completely revitalised, Russians were technologically on par with US during the space race and in the 50s and 60s Moscow particularly was seen as a flourishing city by visitors from abroad. However with ensuing costs of prolonged military operatings during the Cold War, losing out on the space race and with poor streams of foreign investment with it’s closed market. Russia soon started to experience economic depression and suffered food shortages during the 80s which ultimately lead to their demise and the collapse of the USSR.
We mistakenly thought the Kremlin was Parliament House, but in fact it is actually a fortress with many important buildings enclosed within it. Nowadays the buildings are mostly museums and places of work for the President, Vladimir Putin. We were taken around the site by our little guide (literally) Irinia who was able to highlight the main purposes of each of the buildings. We passed by the Palace of Congress, The Armoury, Senate and Cathedral Square. Now this square, as the name suggests is full of Cathedrals, each one built for its own specific purpose. For example the most important one, Assumption Cathedral, was built to house the coronation ceremonies of any Princes or Tsars. Interestingly after the great fire of Moscow (where it is believed the citizens of Moscow burnt down 70% of the town to reduce habitability for when Napolean invaded and the town was surrended), French troops made the Kremlin their home for 5 weeks and disrespectfully used the Assumption Cathedral as a horse stable.
Mystical Moscow Tour
We decided to take an ‘off the beaten track’ tour of Moscow to see parts of the city that most tourists wouldn’t normally.Our guide Elena took us to a variety of sites each with their own little story. This is what we saw.
Church of All Saints on Kolinsky
This is an old Russian orthodox church which has remained the same since the 17 the century. Looking at the tower in the right, you can see that it is slightly tilted and of course there are a few theories regarding this:
1) It was built on a swamp so naturally the foundation was unstable (Kolinsky meaning swamp)
2) A demon used to sit on top of the tower and ring the bell violently which eventually caused the whole tower to lean
St John’s Convent
The original building was destroyed by the Moscow fires in 1812. When Lenin came into power in 1918 the convent became a concentration camp as no practice of religion was allowed during this time. Over time it was converted into a women’s prison and housed one of the most notorious criminals nicknamed ‘Salta Chika’ who killed 128 people by different means of torture (Starvation, Brutal beatings, hanging them off trees during the freezing Winter). Her trial took 6 years and she was eventually sentenced to 3 years imprisonment and was publicly shamed in the Red Square and also lost her right to be known as a human.
This is a group of small buildings that were originally owned by the biggest printing company that produced sheet music for the famous composers such as Tchaikovsky. During the Soviet era it was taken over by the state and built up for Ukrainian housing similar to a ghetto. Following the fall of the USSR in the 1990’s it was completely abandoned and eventually taken over by squatters who have now turned it into a hipster centre full of different business ranging from independent clothing label stores, dance classes and coffee shops.
This was considered to previously be one of the most dangerous parts of the city. It had a large communal square and a market owned by a merchant but when he died everything started to fall apart. The area slowly became inundated with homeless people, drug addicts, alcoholics and of course criminals. All the residents in this area were given an ID card that stated they were from this area and if caught leaving the area they would be sent off to Siberia. In 1923, under Lenin, the Moscow police made everyone leave the area (under threat of disappearence) and eventually managed to revamp it, making it a much more attractive place to live.
The Moscow Metro is one of the most famous underground train lines in the world, not only for its cleanliness, efficiency and low price but for its incredible beauty. We took the tour with Elena again and covered 7 of the most beautiful stations.
The Moscow Metro opened in the 20th century under the communist rule of Stalin to be able to keep up with the fast growing population of the city. The metro itself is now 84 years old, has 12 lines and 200 stations (which grows every year). The population of Moscow is approximately 15 million and the Metro system is used by 9 million people EVERY DAY!
The stations we visited were stunning and decorated with many sculptures and murals which had been changed to remove images of Stalin that were previously there. No visit to Moscow is complete without seeing their main transport hubs.
The International Military Tattoo
We had no intention of coming here but after meeting another traveller who raved about it, we decided to go. For 1800 rubles per person, we can definitely say it was well worth it. This festival runs for approximately 2 weeks every year and is attended by both tourists and locals alike. This time round there were 10 countries involved each showcasing what their military had to offer in the the form of a marching band, synchronized military choreography and dancers. It is a 2 hour showcase starting at 8pm and ends with a spectacular dispay of fireworks each night. It was certainly a site and a real highlight of our trip so far.
Teremok – This is Russia’s answer to fast food, except they sell Russian pancakes with a multitude of sweet and savoury fillings. When we say pancakes, we really mean crepes and they are FREAKIN DELICIOUS! We also had a taste of Kvass which is a traditional wheat drink which is like a combination of Coke and beer but non-alcoholic – very tasty!
Lepim i Varim– These dumplings are to die for and come in a variety of different fillings and skins. They are all made to order and when you visit the store you can even see the grandmas preparing them at the front.Our favourite was the chicken and parmesan filling!
So that’s a wrap on our time in Russia. We would award the title of our favourite Russian city to Moscow. The people are a bit more relaxed and friendly, it is much more tourist friendly in terms of signage in English and it seems to be adapting more with the times.
Coming to Russia for this short period has certainly opened up our eyes to what the country and people are like and has definitely quashed the preconceived ideas we may have had.
Despite the negative press we so regularly hear on the news about the Russians, this country is a must visit for travellers. Not only is it affordable with plenty of activities to do, you will leave with a lot more knowledge about a country, their history and their people than you could have ever expected.
Next stop… Zagreb, Croatia!
Til next time
Ann & Jason xo