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Moscow Sightseeing

Impressions of Moscow ...a survival guide by one of our recent teachers


Moscow is an enormous city. Its size is utterly incomprehensible to the first time visitor. But with a little time and effort you come to realize that the city is perfectly manageable. You get what you give in this city. It doesn't hand you cultural delights on a plate, rather you have to go out and find them. Moscow isn't a city designed for tourists - there is very little visible English on the streets, but this just adds to the charm of the place. There is an endless amount of things to see and do here. It is a city of contrasts, where old, crumbling, Soviet architecture and ultra modern monoliths stand side by side. Moscow is currently in a bewildered state of change and this makes the atmosphere electric. The Soviet Union may have long gone, but evidence of its existence is literally everywhere, from hammer and sickles, to iconic statues of Stalin and Zhukov. Stalinist architecture dominates the skyline, an eerie reminder of a past which ironically co-exists with a new Russian hell-bent on Europeanisation.

The heart of the city undoubtedly lies around Teatralnaya Ploschad. The infamous Red Square is every bit as beautiful as its pictures. It is home to the stunning St.Basil's Cathedral, and of course the embalmed body of a leader who began the Soviet onslaught in 1917, Vladimir Ilich Lenin. It is an awe-inspiring place. A place which never loses its novelty or charm, no matter how long you decide to stay in Moscow. Day or night it is simply breath-taking. On the Eastern side of the square is GUM, a magnificent shopping centre which once symbolized everything bad about Soviet shopping - long queues, and rations not big enough to feed one person, let alone an entire family. But now it houses an array of beautifully crafted designer shops. Behind the square are the gargantuan walls of the Kremlin, the apex of Russian political power. It was here that Lenin designed the proletarian revolution, where Stalin unleashed terror on millions, where Gorbachev fought with the strains of Perestroika and where Yeltsin ultimately brought the Soviet Union to its knees. Its magnitude is stunning, and a trip inside is certainly a highlight.

Tverskaya Ulitsa has often been referred to as the hub of the city. It is a wonderful place to sit, relax and to watch people. It is here you are presented with more contrasts. Ultra-modern, high fashion females walk gracefully beside poverty stricken pensioners and beggars. People at both ends of the salary spectrum walk the same streets in a city where money is everything.

Moscow's architecture is utterly unique and a highlight in itself. The Christ the Saviour Church, demolished by Stalin in his revolt against religion and replaced by the world's largest swimming pool, was reconstructed in the 1990's- its gargantuan walls and onion domes are spectacular. For a purely Soviet architectural experience, try VDNKh- a memorial to the successes of the Industrial Revolution. The atmosphere here is eerily socialist, statues and fountains peering down at you from an unbelievable height. Kolomenskoye is a wonderful countryside retreat, ideal for a day trip and picnic. This beautiful park is full of ancient monasteries from the Tsarist years and makes a welcome break from city life. Equally beautiful is Novedevich Monastery, neatly placed high on the banks of the Moscow River. Khrushchev, Gogol and Chekhov are a few amongst many that are buried here.

Many a wise man has said that Moscow is not a place that can be understood with any kind of logic or reason. I would certainly agree with that. I find myself constantly amazed by the insanity that surrounds me everyday. To truly understand Russian culture, one has to look beyond the impressive buildings which tell the stories of days gone by. You have to talk to the people. One of the best ways to do this is shopping. Russians love to shop. It is not merely the result, but the process that is important. Ismailovsky market is a perfect place to barter, banter and chat with Russians. You may end up having to buy something but that's just part of the fun.

A truly Russian experience is Banya. There is no better way to get rid of that city smut than to have it steamed, sweated and beaten out of you. The process is simple and has been enjoyed for generations. First of all, you sweat, infact you get so hot that you can barely stand up. Then comes the beating - traditionally with birch tree branches, which apparently opens the pores and intensifies stage three, which is, I think, the most exciting stage. This involves running out of the banya and plunging into a barrel of icy-cold water. Fantastic. Throw in a few vodkas mid-circuit and you're got yourself the perfect Friday afternoons entertainment.

The Moscow Metro is one of the undisputed champions when it comes to seeing the sights. It is magnificent. An underground palace for the people. Not only does it transport over 9 million people a day, but its exquisite designs make it a museum in its own right. Each station has its own unique design, an oasis of statues, memorials, plaques, stain-glass windows and mosaics. Built in the mid 1930's, each station reveals a particular element of communist culture. Muscovites are extremely proud of their metro system, and so they should be.

All of these cultural delights give the visitor an insight into what makes Russian culture so unique. But to understand the essence of the Russians, you ultimately have to become one. You have to live like they do, eat what they eat, and match them drink for drink. Russian culture is full of contradictions, and this is what makes it so mysterious. Moscow is anything you want it to be. Discover all the angles and it will have a place in your heart forever.