Moscow

Soaring spiral towers and fire-tongued domes pointing to the sky once focused all eyes on God. When they vanished, heads bowed and vertical quests gave way to observations in the horizontal direction.

An old Russian legend also quoted in Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamazov describes how the Virgin Mary held out an onion to sinners burning in hell so they could catch hold of it and escape. Other sinners noticed and also grabbed for the onion. As its stem snapped, it was transformed into a dome and all the sinners were plunged back into the inferno. Onion domes are gilded to reflect the pale rays of the northern sun. On dark winter days, Moscovites take comfort in these domes, which they imagine rise to the sky like tongues of fire.

Squares and Towers
A Moscow icon, St. Basil’s Cathedral boasted eight solid gold domes when it was first built. After 1670, they were painted in different colors to commemorate Tsar Ivan the Terrible’s eight separate victories against the Khanate of Kazan (1555-61). The cathedral stands at the south end of Red Square, scene of some of the most dramatic events in Russian history. Red Square and the Kremlin Complex are where the heart of Moscow beats, and all city tours commence here from the Kremlin, meaning ‘fortress’. The walls encircling this approximately 73,000 square-meter area are 2,235 meters long and 6.5 meters thick in places. The Kremlin’s southern facade meanwhile overlooks the Moskva River, while the eastern facade fronts Red Square and the western facade extends along the length of the Alexander Gardens.

When Moscow was founded as a sentry post in 1147, these defense walls consisted of reinforced timbers. After a fire devastated the city in 1365, they were rebuilt using limestock blocks transported to the town on sleds. The oldest of the twenty-some observation towers that were added over time is the Tainitskaya, built in 1485, and the most famous, the 1491-built Spasskaya, whose doors are only opened on official holidays. Legend has it that this sacred tower is enchanted and protects the Kremlin from enemy attack. It is customary to bow one’s head and cross oneself upon entering. Napoleon’s horse is said to have shied and his magnificent hat to have flown off his head when the French general failed to pay the Spasskaya proper respect. The tower’s famous clock, which took a hit in the October Revolution of 1917, was repaired at Lenin’s behest and its bells were modified to play the Communist Internationale. Today, as a hundred years ago (and despite the horrendous roar of Moscow’s traffic), the bells of the Spasskaya can still be heard far beyond the Kremlin.

Half Oriental, Half European
Red Square and the Kremlin form a striking Russian-cum-western style mix of church and state, ancient and modern. Opposite the 1930-built, octagonal mausoleum where Lenin’s embalmed body lies, the ornate facade of the 1893-built Government Shopping Center GUM fronts the eastern side of Red Square in all its glory.  An example of medieval Russian religious architecture in which a glass ceiling complements a delicate steel frame, this building is said to have housed some 1,200 bustling shops before the 1917 Revolution. Closed by Stalin in 1928, it was allocated for the use of the economists and other experts who framed the First Five-Year Plan. Restored in a privatization movement in the 1990’s, GUM today offers the West’s most illustrious brands.

Another magnificent building on Red Square is the State Historical Museum, which embodies the struggle between the ‘Slavophiles’, who wanted to develop national consciousness by popularizing the Russian identity, and the westernizing ‘Zapadniks’. A city of close to 300,000 people in 1780 and the center of Russia’s domestic trade, it was a cosmopolitan city populated by English, French, Germans, Greeks and Italians, as well as an assortment of Central Asians. Europe’s most populous capital city, it was nevertheless regarded as a ‘semi-oriental’ Russian nationalist in comparison with St. Petersburg.

Fire was old Moscow’s greatest fear. During the reign of Tsarina Catherine the Great, the boldest westernizer of all time, close to five hundred wooden churches and upwards of a hundred wooden palaces stood in the city’s narrow streets and lanes. The Tsarina, who wanted to bring light to Russian architecture and enlightenment to Russian thought and make the gloomy city of Moscow gleam like gold, razed the old wooden churches and erected in their place neo-classical stone-built palaces with Doric columns. Not inappropriately, Catherine is known as ‘Lenin the First’ among the common people, who say that while she largely eliminated the fear of fire, she destroyed Moscow’s cosy, homey atmosphere in the process and threw the physical and philosophical climate of Russian culture off balance.

Built in 1872 by the period’s prominent Slavophiles, the State Historical Museum houses millions of artifacts all the way from objects belonging to the pre-historic tribes that still inhabit Russia today to the priceless works of art purchased at various times by the Romanovs.  They include solid gold Scythian treasures, sixth-century manuscripts, and the famous Novgorod letters written on birch bark. Among them are wall paintings and decorations made by members of the ‘Russian Revival’ school, which numbered the painter Aivazovsky among its members. All of them were meticulously restored in a project carried out between 1986 and 1997.

The New Moscow
Moscow is the world’s third most expensive and seventh most populous city with ten and a half million inhabitants as of June 2009. Home to dozens of internationally respected scientific and academic institutions, it boasts three airports, nine railroad stations and the world’s busiest subway system after Tokyo. The Moscow Metro is also a work of art and architecture. The Russian President’s residence is here, the Russian Government is here, and the two houses of the Russian Parliament, the State Duma and the Federation Council, are here. As the old political adage has it, ‘Whoever takes Moscow, takes Russia’.

Capital first of the Grand Duchy of Moscow and then of the Russian Tsars, Moscow was also the capital of the Soviet Union. Its other names include The Third Rome, the White Stone, the First Throne and the City of Forty Churches.

Moscow is the heart of Russia. As one of the country’s two federal cities (the other is St. Petersburg), it has the right to representation in the State Duma and the Federation Council and is the political equal in this sense of the other republics that make up the Russian Federation. Moscow also has its own government and 35-seat local Duma. The administration of the city today lies in the hands of Metropolitan Mayor Yuri Lujkov. In office since 1991, Lujkov is also president of the Moscow Government and a man who has left his mark on post-Soviet Moscow. The Moscow flag, which was adopted on 1 February 1995, was President Lujkov’s personal choice.  A dark red field with the arms of the city in the center, it also shows St. George stabbing a dragon. The oldest depiction of St. George slaying the dragon meanwhile is in Turkey, in the Yılanlı, or ‘Snake’, Church at Göreme in Cappadocia.

WHAT TO EAT
From hamburgers to sushi, the city offers something to please every palate. In addition to restaurants serving world cuisines such as Mexican and Georgian, you can also sample the local fare in the halls of 19th century mansions graced with crystal chandeliers.

WHAT TO BUY
You can find everything from Matroushka dolls, samovars and icons to kalpaks and Central Asian carpets. And a wide range of items from hand-worked boxes to valuable jewelry is sold in the city’s handicraft shops. Caviar is another product unique to Russia.

HOW TO GET THERE
Turkish Airlines has three flights to and from Moscow every day of the week.