Maybe, said Putin when asked whether Russia would go to war against the United States, to Charlie Rose on the prime time show of 60 minutes. Marked by unabashed confidence and an unflinching nerve he may well be an embodiment of the steely resolve of his fatherland. Lugging a treasure-trove of history and an even more remarkable collection of geography the country is an enigma unfolding every step of the way. Once ruled by Czars, or Tsars as some may like, the world’s biggest country also has one of the sparsest population densities, a statistic that doesn’t apply to its capital Moscow. From wealthy autocratic Czars to people-minded Communists and now well-intended democracy inspired Putinism Russia has seen it all. While the breadth of the country has been home to literary geniuses like Leo Tolstoy, Alexander Pushkin, not to forget my personal favorite, Anton Chekhov; the Kremlin has played host to several eccentric figures, be it the Tsars Ivan, the Terrible, Peter, the Great, the communists who led the Russian Revolution Lenin, Stalin, the Soviet leader Gorbachev or even the ex-KGB spy and the second and fourth President Vladimir Putin. When the Union of Soviet Socialist Republic collapsed in the early 90s the iron-clad Kremlin lowered the sickle and hammer as Gorbachev made way to the more dynamic Yeltin. And testimony to their times the architecture and urbanscapes seen in Russia are as scintillating as the history that was once played out in them. The extravagant palaces, the onion-domed and brilliantly gilded cathedrals, the huge public squares, the changing face of the Kremlin are all remnants of the past that also showcase a culture that is both vast and deep. Playing host to the dire aspects of life even today the Moscow trundles on towards dynamic action and reaction to the world at large. Though an active member of the United Nations, Russia has always maintained its own unique stance on world affairs hardly ever influenced by bigger bullies in the world market, a trait inherited from the past!
Landing in Moscow, Indians may well be introduced to the workings of the spy-country! But do not take the treatment to heart as Russians in general love Indians and are more than ready to help out at every instance or greet the average looking Indian on the street with disarming smiles and warm welcomes! Succulently testing even a well-seasoned traveler’s patience a two-hour wait at immigration leaves one sufficiently embarrassed and travel-worn with suspense on imminent deportment. After thorough police verification of the passports and several hours added to the already long journey, Moscow all with it’s Stalin’s seven sisters and Lenin’s grand squares lends a warm welcome to the weary traveler. The ride from the Sheremetyevo International airport to the effervescent Arbat Street covers quite a distance and passes by the popular Moscow Zoo. Though hostels and star hotels are the most popular locations for the stay in Moscow, the city also does offer a range of boutique hotels, mostly the 17th century apartment or residential buildings converted to quaint properties hosting tourists with the essential heating and cooling(oh yes!) devices in place.
Architecture is but the mark of a civilization, the setting against which life happens and a testimony to the times, it makes for the best study of history, human behavior, besides shaping our own lives. The rather grim and eventful past of the Moscow and in effect Russia is exhibited through the stone, concrete, brick and steel structures that stand across the city in indication to its times. Stalin’s skyscrapers for one, stand out defining the skyline quite distinctively. Announced in 1948, and popularly called the seven sisters, the seven skyscrapers placed around Moscow are imposing and important buildings today housing the Moscow State University in Sparrow Hills, the Ukraine Hotel, now a Radisson hotel, the Ministry of foreign affairs, the Hilton Leningradskaya and other administrative building. Stalin commissioned architects to build towering skyscrapers on the likes of the New York giants, mainly inspired by the glorious Empire State building in NYC. The seven sisters therefore bear a massive imprint in terms of massing from the Empire State. On the outside of the walls of Kremlin the brutalism in architecture is exacerbated in not just the buildings but also the urban-scape of the city. Wide avenues marked by high modeled stone structures are crowned up intimidating sidewalks. The Soviet regime in all its Communist glory ensures to dictate even through it’s architecture on how the state is bigger than the individual, on all counts.
On the insides, these buildings are gilded with golden frames, Russian art, warm carpets and cheery wall-papers. Grand stairways or hallways with dog-legged staircases lead one onto the upper levels of the magnificent buildings. A Stalin building that is now the Four Seasons, closer to the Kremlin, bears an elevation with distinctly different sides on the same façade. Legend holds that the architect drew up two different styles on the same façade to understand from his client Stalin, which one he like better, Stalin on his part signed in the middle, afraid to ask him which did he like the construction team built both on either side. It is therefore strange to note the irony of fear in the limits of communism. What is the point of communism that instills fear in people? What is the point of anything that instills fear in people! Apparently the Russians saw that too, and hence embraced a democracy, even if a tad hesitantly as the State Duma is continued to be dominated by the United Russia party, the stronghold of the current President and Russia’s frontman Vladimir Putin. For he is one who cannot be missed in the extents of the country, even souvenirs hold his presence with smart sunglasses, on mugs, badges, fridge-magnets and scarves. He may well be Russia’s most popular export today! Once queuing up for even a loaf of bread or rations from the state, Russia has come a long way with people engaging in dacha as they lovingly call organic farming on country estates in the weekend, buying Starbucks, right around every corner, or grabbing the quintessential American food, the burgers, fries and steaks off Burger Kings, Shake Shacks and cheery Mac Donalds. When the first Mac Donald opened in Russia the queues lasted remarkably long.
Despite the immense globalization in Russia since the 1990s, no one can discredit the comfort of MacDonalds across the world, the at-home feel it gives the world, the most endearing part of Moscow is its old architecture, its quirky locals, the well-laid out infrastructure, its fallen rouble, but ofcourse and the radial city planning that emerges from the Kremlin quarters. Kremlin is often called the Eighth wonder of the world and quite rightly so. The crucible of Moscow, the Kremlin is where Moscow had its initial beginnings, the walls of the Kremlin now symbolic is red were not always red in color, they were initially and until recently white, the Red Square bears the name not for it’s color, not even as tribute to the blood of the people but instead it is called so because red means beautiful in Russian and indeed it is beautiful. White stone readily available around Moscow caused all the buildings to have white facades and hence Moscow is even addressed to as the White City. The walls of the Kremlin have only recently been painted red. As for the Red Square, the large public plaza sets a frontage for an entry into the Kremlin, is home to the oddly-beautiful St Basil’s cathedral and is flanked by the vintage GUM shopping mall. The immaculately maintained Kremlin is lined by the tombs of Lenin and the unknown soldier while its walls are where several communist leaders were once buried in patronage! The Kremlin in Moscow is the most popular of all the kremlins, a term used to describe the Russian citadels, once fortified the residence of the Tsars, the royal Bayors, once included five Royal palaces, four cathedrals and the towers of the Kremlin. Today the complex is home to the armory, the State offices, the cathedrals and draws in major tourists visiting the country. The Russian guards watch over intently as tourists are restricted to only a few zones inside and are quick enough to detect even the slightest movement into the restricted areas. The four cathedrals are crowned by the famous Onion domes, glistening in gold and capped by crosses. Russian orthodoxy is the major religion followed in Russia and the Byzantine interiors are modeled on their counterparts in erstwhile Constantinople. As Islam gained popularity in Constantinople and the religious atmospheres were undergoing a major overhaul in Istanbul, many Byzantine Christian leaders fled towards Moscow. It is however interesting to note that the Imperial family in Russia never did patronize any religion, calling avid followers fools. (!)
As a radial city, all roads lead either to the Kremlin or around the Kremlin, the citadel being the major centre-point. A tour of the inner complex of cathedrals and the Armory museum provide a significant insight into the making of Russia, its glorious past and its autocratic Tsars. Contrary to the proverb history does not repeat itself. It hardly ever does. The richness of the past, the jeweled and furred crowns, the steely arms, silk-gowns, golden table-ware, sapphires and rubies set in gold tell a wonderful story of the different times and the visual encyclopedia demonstrates how a civilization evolves sometimes never to look back. The memorabilia however are spell-binding much the same. A glimpse into the world of the Tsars, Peters, Ivan, Catherine, Anna and all the many dukes and duchesses is one large spectacle. Their times and lives were mostly inspired by the French, the German, the Scandinavians and all the others in the region in the past. Many duchesses took to the nunneries turning to religion and God more often than not. The Novodevichy convent patronized by the imperial family holds fort beautiful premises by the lake and the best in terms of the Byzantine domes, gilded and decorated with a great deal of detailing. The Church of our savior Christ across the Kremlin is one more of the many orthodox churches in Moscow.
Set within these extremities of religion, art and literature blossomed in Russia, the rigors and capacity of the Russians to wield the human will to unbelievable limits blossomed the average French ballet into the finest of them all, the Russian Ballet. A show at the highly acclaimed and well-designed Bolshoi theatre is a treat to the senses. As the ballerina weightlessly struts around the stage flying like a butterfly albeit without wings, the orchestra plays the tune to administer a huge dose of culture. The lives of the performers are governed by the thrill of performance, the high of creativity and also once offered an opportunity to get out of the country to mostly greener pastures, considering the difficulty in staging an exit. Performers however were allowed to travel to learn and showcase their skills in dance and music. In the same locales the literature of Tolstoy, Pushkin, Chekov exhibit the layers and complexities of human nature thrived. War and Peace by Tolstoy is considered the best book to ever read and figures in the list of the major rankings. It mirrors the complex world we live in today with depth and alacrity like few other pieces of fiction. In any civilization, culture, art and literature were patronized by the rich, sometimes the church or mostly the royalty. Art works at the various museums of art in Russia are dotted by figures and paintings of baby Jesus in the arms of the Virgin Mary crowned and clothed in beaten and embellished gold with the faces painted in clarity. In modern times most Russian jewelry is inspired by nature and architecture is modeled on sustaining the earth by consuming lesser energy.
When backed by a multitude of history and a glorious past, modern new-age Russians are anything but grim, hardly mysterious and completely high-spirited. In Arbat street, a safe distance from the Kremlin, the quirks of the city are out in full display. A topsy-turvy house, crazy glass and mirror mazes, street artists enliven the atmosphere of the city, while restaurants serve up cuisine from across the world and one can relish a Soviet-style ice-cream, basically an ice-cream in a flat cone. The Louis Vuittons and Manolo Blahniks have easily made their way into the main street as the tall Russian women strut around flicking the goldilocks more than once. The Moscow metro stations much like their counterpart in St Petersburg are decorated in great luxury, mostly a visual treat. They were redesigned to boost the morale of the urban populace who had enough of being treated poorly and in an economy that did not supply them with even the most basic necessities. Today’s Russia wears its past quite proudly and bravely looking out to a new horizon with great zest and mostly a greater sense of humor. When the wives of the officers saved the GUM shopping mall opposite the Kremlin, not allowing their only place of leisure from turning into the department of Heavy Industries little did they know of the favor they were doing to their country. Even the Red Square once the address to public prosecutions or public outcries now is venue for various Rock concerts and musical shows. The festivities run far close to the Kremlin, setting a stark contrast to the dapper guards keeping a strong vigil over time. Though the various streets, maps are not mentioned in the global language of English, it helps that Cyrillic, the script of the Russian, resembles most of the English alphabets, causing one to play match-the-following to get the bearings right! Helpful faces come forward ever so often volunteering information mostly displacing the prejudice. The love for India is also clearly visible apartment from the fact that them Russians are now heartily laughing. Just as she finished her tour with us, our guide peppered her stories with genial jokes on the Russians, the Soviets and even the current affairs in the country, stating that’s something she wouldn’t be caught dead sharing at the red square a couple of decades ago!
The St Basil’s cathedral is mostly the mouth-piece for Russia today, a visual metonym, almost a mascot for the country. The colorful turrets and buffoonish structure cannot help but make the happy-go-lucky ones laugh and the serious wince in delight. The friendly vibe coupled with the need to lift the iron veil has had a lot of the citizens bounce out, opening up to visitors, letting go of the need for the infamous mystery and secrecy. A walk on Traversky could have been anywhere in Europe, munching Spanish Churros or buying a LongChamp from Paris. As the world is increasingly made flat Moscow is breaking bad and more often than not moving with the times. They even have curated a love-lock brick all equipped with flower arches and lock trees! While exhibitions in parks have budding artists use cheery oranges and bright pinks adding cheer to the atmosphere and good-natured Russians getting in a huddle while hopping and singing along just as actively. With the world becoming flat come other environmental disasters like inconsistent temperatures, precipitation and global warming, well in case of Russia, global cooling!