Moscow, Russia

Trip Start Mar 13, 2007
Trip End Aug 10, 2007

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Flag of Russia  , Central Russia,
Saturday, April 28, 2007

The last 50 miles or so into Moscow were on a true expressway, from which we exited on to the city's outer ring road.  This must be where most of the new development is taking place, since the eight lane Beltway was clogged with nice western cars and sided by huge new shopping centers and swish-looking new residential and office high rises, not so unlike the capital city of the other Cold War Superpower.  Not far inside the Beltway, though, the scenery quickly changed to drab Soviet-era housing estates and ugly industrial zones.

Wow!  I'm actually now in the command center of what we used to call "The Evil Empire" when I was growing up.  Beyond the Kremlin and a number of rather widely dispersed churches, mansions, and monasteries, Moscow's mostly a sprawling traffic-clogged sea of highrise modernity.  By and large, I find it to be rather ugly as far as cities go; if Saint Petersburg is a faded beauty, Moscow's definitely a beast

The Kremlin's quite interesting as seat of government and former center of the Russian Orthodox church, and seeing Red Square in person after watching so many TV news snippets of May Day parades held there during the Soviet years was a bit of a thrill.  When I was a kid I always thought Saint Basil's, the onion domed church on one side of the square was the most beautiful building in the world.  They probably wouldn't be able to reenact those May Day parades with tanks and ICBMs, though, since several historic buildings at the entrance to the square that Stalin had torn down to make for a better parades have been reconstructed since the 1990s.  Probably the most impressive 1990s reconstruction of a building destroyed by the Communists is the Cathedral of Christ the Savior, an exact replica of the church on the other side of the Kremlin from Red Square that Stalin had torn down to make way for a 1,000 foot tall Palace of the Soviets that never got built.  We toured it three days after Boris Yeltsin's funeral took place in the church he was so instrumental in having rebuilt.  Another highlight of Moscow for me was the Tretyakov Gallery, which I thought was an even better collection of Russian Art than Saint Petersburg's Russian Museum.  No photos allowed, though.

To the Southeast of Moscow are a few low hills named the Sparrow Hills which provide the best overall view of what's generally a not very pretty city.  They are far enough away from the center of the city that the view of the Kremlin and other historic buildings in poor but the larger later buildings are prominent, most notably the "Seven Sisters", the seven gigantic wedding cake like skyscrapers built during the Stalin years to keep up with skyscrapers being built in the U.S.  They are completely dwarfed, however, by the numerous new glass and steel skyscrapers and construction projects further out, quite symbolic of capitalism's triumph over Communism.

Russian wedding parties usually travel around to major sights in their locales to have wedding photos taken, so on Saturdays there are numerous newlyweds with their entourages at sights like Sparrow Hills.  One of the funniest things I observed was a bride in full wedding attire trying to enter one of the port-a-potties lined up at the Sparrow Hills overlook without getting her dress dirty.  Meanwhile, the groom wandered off to a stand to wolf down a hot dog and guzzle a beer.  We all felt like a bunch of paparazzi trying to capture the moment.

Russian girls all seem to wear the highest heels, tallest boots, tightest jeans, and shortest skirts working hard in pursuit of that desirable hooker look.  Almost every overlook or sight is filled with young women dressed as such and posing as models while thier friends take pictures.  It all looks like a big competition, the winners of which eventually get to wear a ring with a big rock on it and hang onto the arm of a burly older "beeeziness man" who wears a leather coat and drives a Mercedes.

The real stars of Russian style, though, are not the pretty young things in stiletto heels, mini-skirts and bleached hair but those middle-aged archtypes of an alternative form of glamour that dates from the Soviet era - the floor ladies at the old Intourist hotels, the women behind the counters at the rather few remaining three-queue producty (neighborhood food shops), the token sellers at the Metro stations.  They may wear dowdy dresses and sensible shoes but these may be accompanied by either well-coiffed short hair in the wildest shades of pink, blue, orange, and magenta that would be inspirational to even the most hardcore punks or some of the wickedest big hair doos you'd see anywhere outside a drag queen convention.

Many of the worst features associated with contemporary Russia are still not very evident to me in Moscow.  Yes, it's mostly rather ugly, the elite flaunt their wealth with conspicuous consumption, the traffic is bad, and there's quite a bit of pollution, but that's not much different from most of the world's megacities.  Moscow has been quite cleaned up in the Putin years, and the government appears to have enough revenue to pay the small pensions that keep old ladies from begging in the streets.

One Russian stereotype that still has great validity, though, involves alcohol. Our Russian guide, Sasha, usually drinks about a liter of beer for breakfast, but Russians have taken to heart the saying of "beer, it's not just for breakfast anymore".  Most European countries don't have the strange laws against public alcohol consumption that we have in English speaking countries, so seeing people walking around with beer is not that unusual.  Russian drinking, though, is in an entirely different realm.  Depending on location and time of day, it sometimes seems like half the men and and a good percentage of women are wandering around with a bottle of beer (and a few with something stronger).  As they say, "When in Rome......", so I thought I'd give it a try and experience a freedom in Russia that I can't enjoy back home.  Walking down the Arbat pedestrian street with an open beer bottle was slightly liberating but also felt somewhat naughty, even though everyone else was doing it too.  The down side of this freedom, however, is that the empty beer bottles left all over the place create an enormous litter mess in Russian cities that I haven't seen in other countries.

I've also been experiencing lots of legendary Russian service with a scowl.  The floor ladies at our hotel behave as if they've never had anyone stay there before, while the widespread level of competency in services suggests that it's everyone's first day on the job every day.  The modus operendi is when in doubt say "Nyet!", or just yell at the customer for not understanding the multiple layers of bureaucracy he must deal with.  I feel very tempted to say, "Smile, it's OK; it won't permanently warp your face". 

For me Moscow is one of those world mega-cities like Beijing, London, Mexico City, Cairo, and New York that's simultaneously a bit frightening because of its scale but also extremely intriguing.  I only scratched the surface and could definitely have used more time there than the two days/three nights we had to explore this multifaceted city.

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