My Moscow 1 (Photo-Essay)

Moscow is a city I have come to know well over the years. Like so much about Russia, I find it fascinating and frustrating in equal measure, but I feel very much at home there. It is a city of great contrasts, be it in social conditions or weather; and yet in places it feels as if there is strong continuity with Russia's past. Unlike many foreigners, I have always preferred Moscow to St Petersburg (or Leningrad as it was when I first visited both cities in 1974). Moscow is much more Russian than St Petersburg, which is a 'new town' created 300 years ago on totally unsuitable territory and designed and built mainly by foreign architects. Photographs from St Petersburg will follow in due course; but for now this photo-essay, a dreamt-up wander around the Russian capital, is my first homage to Moscow.




The morning sun burns its way through the mist and the steam of a freezing Moscow morning. The Foreign Ministry - one of Stalin's so-called 'wedding cakes' - appears like a ghost through the gloom. Soon the mist will disperse; but as the temperature on this day won't rise above -10 degrees Celsius, the snow on the rooftops won't even begin to melt.



A worker comes out onto the roof of one building to clear some of the snow, knocking it down into the courtyard below. Being hit by a lump of snow may give you a shock, but probably no more than that. Icicles are a different matter. Every winter there are reports of people being killed when they walk too close to buildings as long icicles begin to melt and crash to the pavements below.


Looking further, the classic onion dome of a Russian Orthodox Church stands out. These domes are considered traditional for Russian churches, but there is no theological reason for them. They are another product of Russia's extreme climate. The design of the dome is optimal for helping the snow to slide off, thus preventing damage to the building. This was particularly important when the early churches were built of wood.

The Russian Orthodox cross atop the dome, is theological, however. The small bar across the top represents the notice which Pontius Pilate supposedly ordered to be nailed above Christ on the cross, usually depicted in the Western church as a scroll with the letters 'I.N.R.I.', the abbreviation for the Latin phrase, 'Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews'. The third bar, slanting across the bottom of the cross, is a depiction of the footrest which allegedly was provided for the victim to rest on (now believed to be a myth; no such comfort was provided). And the upturned crescent moon below the cross signifies 'the victory of Christianity over Islam' - perhaps not the most constructive message to broadcast in this day and age. But one is often tempted to ask: does the Russian Orthodox Church live in this day and age?



A little to the left of the onion dome, and past one of the huge advertisements adorning many tall Moscow buildings now, we see the dome of the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour. We'll come back to that on another 'trip to Moscow'.



As the morning mist begins to clear, the Foreign Ministry building becomes clearer - as does the plume of steam rising from factories behind it. Moscow has yet to solve finally the problem of the industrial legacy polluting the air in the capital. Back in 1979 I went cross-country skiing in Losiny Ostrov, a huge park in the north of Moscow. I was horrified to read a sign on entering the park that the air in the park was 90 times cleaner than the air in the city...I understood it as the air in the city being 90 times dirtier...



As the rising sun falls on the windows of the featureless blocks on Novy Arbat, it looks as if the buildings are on fire; an impression intensified as the sun rises higher.



Out on the street - Tverskaya, the city's main thoroughfare heading north - in a magical way that could happen only in fiction (or a photo essay) Winter has disappeared and it's now a hot Summer's day. It's hardly surprising that in a country where over the course of a few months the temperature can vary from an extreme of -35 degrees to +35 degrees, that the people describe themselves as 'a people of extremes'. We're heading for the Kremlin, the geographical heart of the city and the heart of power in the country, but on the way we cross Manezh Square, where the fountains are flowing...




Also on Manezh Square is the Hotel Moskva. In recent years this 1930's construction was taken down...and re-built in exactly the same style; or rather, styles. Apparently, Stalin was presented with two designs for the hotel, and signed off on both of them. No-one dared to go back to Stalin to ask which one he favoured, as this might suggest that 'the Great Leader' had made a mistake. So they decided to amalgamate the two styles. One side forms a right-angle with the ends; the other goes off at an angle. And, as can be seen below, the designs for the windows differ from one side to the other, with curved arches on the left and straight lintels on the right.



We carry on, across Red Square, and walk onto the Bolshoi Moskvorestsky Bridge. Looking back, we have a classic view of the Kremlin.



If we turn the other way, we see another of Stalin's 'wedding cakes' further down the river, occupied by offices on the lower part and apartments higher up.



With the historic cathedrals of the Kremlin in mind, we continue south to an area which was considered by Ivan the Terrible in the seventeenth century as a place where he could 'escape' from Moscow, Kolomenskoe. Now, this former royal estate is simply considered to be one of Moscow's larger parks, with its ancient church as the defining feature.



Just south of Kolomenskoe, an exact replica has been built of the palace of one of Ivan's successors, Tsar Alexei Mikhailovich, father of Peter the Great. As you stroll through the park towards the 'palace' it is easy to imagine that you are on your way to pay homage to the Tsar...



Still further south, there is another former royal palace, in the Tsaritsyno Park (where the series of photos 'Meringues in the Park' were taken). In post-Soviet Russia the Moscow City Government spent millions refurbishing the palace and grounds, making it now (as 'Meringues' shows) a popular place for walks in the Summer, and also cross-country skiing in the Winter. Historic buildings, fountains and beautiful flowers are all part of the attraction.









Still in the south of Moscow, let's swing by the suburb of Biryulovo. This has been a rather neglected corner of Moscow. In recent years it has gained a certain notoriety as a place of marches by Russian nationalists, and a near-pogrom against immigrants from Azerbaijan. Much of the housing is rather run-down blocks of flats from Soviet times, including those ironically nicknamed 'Khrushchoby'.



This is a play on words, combining the surname of Nikita Khrushchev, the erratic Soviet leader from 1956 to 1964, and the word for slums. At one point Khrushchev made much capital over an announcement that all apartment blocks with six storeys or more would be provided with lifts - supposedly another step forward on the path to building Communism. The state then proceeded to build many five-storey blocks of flats (without lifts)... Attempts are being made to improve Biryulovo, including an impressive modern complex, seen here:



One of the area's problems, though, is that there is no metro line, only a local railway. The express train to Domodedovo Airport passes through here...but as the train is travelling at around 100km per hour at this point, if you want to catch it you have to travel into central Moscow first. So if we want to avoid the storm clouds gathering in these two pictures, we need to take a marshrutka (local mini-bus) to get on the metro at Prazhskaya.



The metro, of course, is part of Moscow's pride and joy, with stations which look like museums and trains which run regularly and rapidly. In fact, it would be the perfect transport system if it were not for the people! Or, to be more accurate, if the Russians' appreciation (or rather lack of it) of personal space were more like the British way. The Moscow Metro at rush-hour can be a shock to the British system. Whereas we're used to saying 'sorry!' when someone knocks into us, in Moscow even the most educated and cultured citizens take no prisoners when it comes to getting on and off the metro.

But let us suppose we have made a swift journey on an uncrowded metro across Moscow and now find ourselves in the north of the city. We emerge from the metro to see a monument which has captivated me ever since I saw it on my first visit: the Monument to the Space Conquerors - worth seeing from every angle - 



The murals on the base are interesting, too. Yury Gagarin I can understand...



But Lenin? It's an illustration of one of the weaknesses of the Soviet system that every achievement had to be drawn back to the Father of the 1917 Revolution.



The Soviet achievement of putting the first satellite and the first man in space (see Cosmonauts Revisited elsewhere on this website for a fuller description of the USSR's amazing achievements and 'firsts' in Space exploration) have far more to do with Konstantin Tsiolkovsky and Sergei Korolev than Lenin. Whilst the prison camps of the GULAG and the millions who perished there have everything to do with Lenin's ideology and its implementation by his henchman, Stalin. But too little is said about this to this day in Russia.


It's a short distance from this monument to another towering landmark, the Moscow Television Tower. At 540.1 metres, when it was completed in 1967, it was the tallest free-standing structure in the world (a record it held for eight years, until beaten in 1975 by the CN Tower in Toronto, which is 13 metres higher. TV towers were built in a number of the other Soviet republics and also in the satellite states of Eastern Europe, notably East Germany; but none was allowed to be as tall as the Moscow Tower.) A serious fire in 2000 raised questions about the Tower's future. But once again it is a major tourist attraction, and the place from where you can have the highest and - on a clear day - the best views of Moscow and its environs, both near...



...such as the Space Conquerors' Monument and the Kosmos Hotel (above) and the Exhibition of Economic Achievements (below);



and far (below). Even on a misty day, the golden domes of the Kremlin stand out.



Suppose we now head back towards the city centre; maybe by car. We might see an example of appalling driving (actually, we probably will see examples of appalling driving, especially by those who own a large four-by-four and think that this gives them the right to break all the rules of the road, even if this endangers other road users):



Just one reason (the constant traffic jams themselves being another) why the metro is the most reliable form of transport in Moscow.

Maybe the traffic has caused us to take a detour away from the centre on our way back to the Kremlin. Just south of the Moskva River we may be lucky enough to catch a spectacular sunset.



The skyscrapers on the right are the Moscow City - the relatively new business district, so called to try to mirror 'the City of London' (that is, London's business district).



Moscow City is rather more complete now than when I took this photo, but some believe that it will never really be fully finished!

The sunset on this evening in August 2014 was particularly spectacular and varied. Just a couple of minutes after I took the photo above, slightly to the west where the sun was going down the sky was a blaze of colour.



And yet just four minutes later, moving my camera back towards the east, the TV Tower was a silhouette on an almost grey background.



Moscow is on a similar longitude to Edinburgh, so significantly north of London. This can lead to sustained and impressive sunsets. One hour later, this was the sky.



If, at this point, we were to rush back to the centre and the Kremlin, we may see a sight such as this - 



And if we're lucky enough to catch the full moon, the sight of it risen over the Kremlin is awe-inspiring, both as darkness falls...



...and when it is already nighttime.



More shots of 'My Moscow' to follow!

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