Bristling with energy and urgency, Moscow is undoubtedly the center of the Russian world. There is an indiscernible intensity felt in walking the busy streets of this city of thirteen million. I was surprised by how young its population was and it left me unequivocally impressed with the Russian civilization and convinced me that it is a power not going anywhere anytime soon. We only had two days to spend in this large city so our time here was incredibly short. We undoubtedly plan on returning to this impressive place as we were only able to hit the highlights.
We stayed close to the center of town in a hostel situated a floor above a brothel which drew some quizzical looks from our taxi driver upon arriving that evening. On our first full day in, we decided to see the major sites. After a quick bite, we walked a short distance to the impressive Red Square where we saw the iconic St. Basil’s Cathedral. This whimsical looking church is likely the most iconic symbol of Russian society and possibly one of the most iconic buildings in the modern world. This cathedral was built by Ivan the Terrible in the mid 1500’s and is shaped as the flame of a bonfire rising to the sky. It was revolutionary from an architectural perspective as there was no architecture of a similar nature whatsoever at that time or before in history. This colorful UNESCO World Heritage Site resembles a candy land castle and takes your imagination to another world.
We then decided to explore the Kremlin, as its reputation precedes it for being the center of government and power in Russia. The Kremlin is a fortified complex that includes five palaces, four cathedrals and the prominent enclosing Kremlin walls with large towers. The complex also contains the Grand Kremlin palace. This complex serves as the official residence of the President of the Russian Federation. The term Kremlin means fortress inside a city and was originally built in the late 1400’s and was improved and expanded over the years. The word Kremlin is used in very much the same way as Americans use the word “White House” to refer to the national executive branch of government. The facility is vast and impressive. The complex sits atop Moscow and offers an unparalleled view of the surrounding city. While walking the grounds I was struck as to how much influence the Middle East had on Russian history and architecture. One can see crescent moons in the spires above the cathedrals, and onion shaped domes of the churches resemble mosques. The Russian history not only intersects with Europe but also with the Middle East to its south. The Kremlin in its sheer size and scale serves to impress and leave you in awe. In many ways that is what Moscow does. While walking through the city near the Kremlin you can see down the Moskva river and the myriad of gargantuan buildings and monuments line the streetscape almost as far as the eye can see. We spent the rest of our time in Moscow walking the city and exploring the neighborhoods of the city center. We probably only saw a tenth of the major sites but it left us with a strong and lasting impression.
Growing up American, Moscow is in many ways the embodiment of the antihero. In focusing on the threat of the Russian Federation which Moscow leads, we lose sight of the achievements, culture, and attributes of this great city that deserves far more recognition than Americans give it. The restaurants are varied, multicultural and high quality. The people are kind, respectful and friendly. The architecture and streetscapes possess a great deal of appeal – counter to the impression you get of the never ending nondescript Soviet Style buildings that occupy the suburbs – not the reality in the city center. There is a concrete prosperous and upwardly mobile feeling in the air. A city on the rise housing a population that is living a high quality of life. Perhaps my fondness for Moscow stems from the stark contrast between expectations and reality, but my gut tells me it is due more in part to its objective greatness. I plan on learning a lot more about Moscow in the years to come. // Jeff