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Two days in Moscow

Author: RichardNika (More Trip Reviews by RichardNika)
Date of Trip: August 2008

On to Red Square. There was some sort of museum with two characters in front of it, made up to look like Stalin and Brezhnev. I took their picture, thinking they were officers or security guards. Then I realized they were impersonators, and my wife reminded me that I had broken my rule about not photographing performers without tipping them, but by then, it was too late.

Through a large decorative archway, we saw the Square, complete with the famed domes and towers at the far end. We went through it. Red Square is a huge paved area, wide and even longer, with all the famed domes at the other end. It was crowded with visitors, befitting a summer day. Our immediate goal was to check out Lenin's tomb, which closes at 1:00 PM and requires some preparation.

First, you have to get in a line to check your camera. That includes any cell phones with cameras (are there any left without?) You get a metal ticket, then get in another line off to the side for the metal detectors. One through that, things open up, and you walk along a wide path, overlooking the Square from the side, towards the tomb, over which is the name LENIN in Cyrillic letters. And down into a dark passageway.

It was almost totally dark; we could barely see a Russian soldier, standing stock still, pointing to his left by way of direction. I stayed on my left; my wife, Ellen, stayed to the right, stepped up onto a small rise in the black marble and stepped off into space - landing on her head and her shoulder. In this place where even whispering is strictly prohibited, I screamed "Oh My God!" Instantly, 7 or 8 Russian soldiers appeared out of nowhere to assist her. One of them wanted to escort her back outside. "No, I want to see it," she said. After what she'd gone been through, I could hardly blame her!

Lenin's body, which has been worked on repeatedly by experts in the field - whatever you call that field, it's definitely a cut above what is normally referred to as mortuary science - was in the center of a room, in a transparent container on a pedestal, with a sunken area around it and a path around it. He's on his back, facing upwards. My daughter's friend who had once lived in Moscow had said to watch his left thumb, because it had supposedly once been broken off and reattached. I looked. It was tucked under his left hand. What did he look like? Waxy.

kremlin wall moscowI walked, and Ellen staggered, out into the light. We were back alongside but not in Red Square, with graves and monuments, mostly to our left, a few to our right. Some were buried in the famed Kremlin wall; others had more conventional graves, complete with busts on pedestals. One of them was Stalin. There was no mistaking that face. Another was Mikhail Suslov, who I recalled as the Soviet Union's chief communist "theoretician." We finally reached an exit into the square, and turned left to go retrieve our camera and phones.

As we walked back whence we'd come, we came upon what was a pitiable sight - the last gasp of Soviet communism. To be specific, it was a group of perhaps 100 to 150 old communists, slowly marching down Red Square, carrying old Soviet flags and banners featuring Lenin and Marx. It would be fair to say that their average age was in the 70s. I felt sad for them, not out of any nostalgia for the USSR, but because I suspected that most of them were World War II veterans - our allies - and they simply couldn't comprehend the overthrow of the old order. And it is a fact that many if not most of Soviet WW2 vets have been shabbily treated since their old regime collapsed on Christmas Day, 199, and are barely surviving on meager pensions.

tomb of unknown soldier moscow red squareOn the side of the Square - really a huge rectangle - opposite all the tombs was a set off area where there was some sort of a commotion going on. Edging close, I realized that I was looking at the Russian tomb of the unknown soldier, and that a changing of the guard was taking place, as it does throughout the day. The tomb is marked by an eternal flame and by two narrow shelters. A soldier stands, still as a statue, in each one.

soldiers tomb of unknown soldier red square moscowSomewhat disconcertingly, Russian soldiers march by goose stepping, just as their Nazi enemies did. Later, following another guard changing, I was able to get closeup photos of three of them goose stepping away from the tomb. Towards the end of their short route, one of them barked a command, and they were quickly at ease and walked the rest of the way. I reflected that the United States has reached the end of its cycle of tombs of unknowns. The reason, of course, is DNA identification. The last of our unknowns was finally identified by DNA and, much belatedly, returned to his family.

The Square borders several museums, none of which we patronized. We had limited time, and had to prioritize. There were none that I'd ever heard of, and I had been through numerous guidebooks and websites. As part of the process of prioritization, we had to choose among Moscow's many better known museums. Knowing that we would be spending four days in St. Petersburg, one of the world's museum capitals, we decided to pick one that was unique to Russia, and that was the Armoury. Yes, spelled with a 'u,' British and American-snob-faux-British style. This museum, built into the outer Kremlin wall, contains the greatest of all Russian treasures - Czarist thrones - including the ivory one of Ivan the Terrible - and crowns, bejeweled and ornately carved carriages, extraordinary works in silver and gold, royal dresses and uniforms. There was no catalog, and photography was strictly forbidden- I was snapped at for even daring to ask about it. I ended up ordering a beautifully illustrated catalog online after returning home.

Getting into the Armoury was a long and difficult process, made more so by the second long and intense rainstorm of our Moscow visit. First, we had to stand in line, in the rain, for over an hour to buy the tickets. Then we had to stand in another line for about an hour, also in the rain, to gain entry. An attractive unattended dog hung about the line; naturally, I took a few more photos. Once inside, we hiked upstairs to the treasure-laden chambers. Not just the splendor and value, but also the artistry and designs were overwhelming.

Back into the rain. There was a small overpriced cafe halfway back along the Kremlin wall towards the Tomb of the Unknown; we retreated to its shelter for much-needed hot tea.

gum moscowAfterwards, still in the rain, we wandered back into and then out of Red Square and then, after asking directions several times, to the nearby famous GUM indoor mall. Dating from the 1890s, this glassy multi-tiered structure was once a much-questioned showpiece for Soviet consumerism; now it's a high-end mall with many if not most of the world's luxury chains represented. It was worth a glimpse, but my main interest in it was my hope, in vain throughout our stay in that city, of finding an internet cafe. A search in a multi-level underground less luxurious mall proved equally fruitless, with us being directed from floor to floor only to be told that this one and that one had been closed.

Finally, we reboarded the Green line and returned to the Novokuznetzskaya station and the restaurant we'd planned on visiting for dinner. It was a cafeteria setup; the choices were varied, reasonably priced and tasty. We ate in a sort of screened-in porch-like area. It was a pleasant interlude. Then it was the Metro again, getting outside at the wrong exit again, saying a final goodbye to the station's resident dog, finding our way back to our building, and buying beer at a kiosk to bring to our room.

Since leaving the hotel the previous day on our way to Kolomenskoye, we had not seen the extortionist hotel clerk; in her place was a younger, more attractive and far nicer blonde lady. Because of the need to board an 8:15 flight to St. Petersburg the following morning, using public transit to return to the airport was out of the question. The new desk clerk ordered us a cab for the wee hours, and provided us with a wakeup call. It had been a hard day. we packed in advance and quickly slept. We were downstairs before the cab came, with a pre-set price - I think it amounted to about $50. Not peanuts, but reasonable for such a long and distant ride. Traveling through the center of a deserted Moscow in the early morning darkness was an eerie experience. Back at domestic Terminal One, we dragged our bags up several flights of stairs - and then down a few more to get to our Aeroflot "Moscow-St. Petersburg Shuttle."

Our Moscow stay was a mixed bag. The weather, quite frankly, stank. A hotel clerk tried to rob and cheat us, and Ellen's shoulder still occasionally aches from the fall. But using the Metro was an experience, the Armoury was special, the Novokuznetzskaya station area was pleasant, and there's no place quite like Red Square and the sights surrounding it. The guide books were filled with accounts of museums and monuments that I'd have loved to have visited. I can't help thinking that we didn't give Moscow a fair shake. But we had only so much time, and our decision to give greater priority to St. Petersburg over Moscow was a carefully considered one.

A word about the many stories about Moscow being ultra-expensive. It's not. The Metro, as in Novosibirsk and St. Petersburg, runs about 70 cents per ride, as do the public buses. Entering the Armoury was not cheap, but far less than many big-city U.S. museums. The restaurants are medium-priced, and there are all those wonderful kiosks. Supermarket prices were about on a par with those in the U.S. Not surprisingly, vodka is cheap, and sold in all grocery stores. The ruble, thankfully not linked to the euro, is a bargain at around 4 cents. Our hotel room was not overly expensive by European big-city standards, but that experience was largely spoiled by its being hard to find and out of the central area, and of course by the extortion attempt.

Hints if you're Moscow-bound If you'll be using Sheremetyevo Airport, as most international travelers do, allow plenty of time to clear passport control. Use the cheap shuttles or the free Intourist buses between the domestic Terminal 1 and international Terminal 2. Make sure to change some money before you leave the airport. You can use credit and debit cards at many stores, restaurants and ATMs, but the only cash accepted is rubles. Make sure to stay at a hotel that offers visa registration. And, oh yeah. Make sure it's not the Sevastopol!

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