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The centre of Mother Russia, politically and financially if not geographically, Moscow lies as far north as Edinburgh and further east than Jerusalem. It has not always been the capital of Russia, that status has belonged to St Petersburg for a considerable time, but it is now one of the largest cities in Europe with around ten million inhabitants, and more billionnaires than Manhattan. Whereas St Petersburg is known as the most "European" of the Russian cities, Mosocw feels much more Soviet. However, since the fall of the Soviet Union, things in Moscow have improved a lot for some people, and got considerably worse for others.

We visited Moscow as part of our Baltic tour in 2004, staying for three nights at the Traveller's Guest House near Prospekt Mira in the north of the city. The hostel was part of an old Soviet hotel in a non-descript block on a street of non-descript blocks. As we were there over a weekend that allowed us to take advantage of a loophole and to not get visa registration for Moscow, as we were already registered in St Petersburg.

St Basil's Cathedral

There is no other building that says "Russia" more than St Basil's Cathedral, at the south end of Red Square. It is a cacophony of domes and colours and I was surprised when I learned that it is more than 450 years old. It was built by decree of Ivan the Terrible in the mid-16th century, and has nine seperate churches inside, each with its own dome.

Lenin, one of the great Russian leaders, siezed power in 1917 during the revolution, died in 1924 and lies within this mausoleum by the Kremlin wall on Red Square. He has been chemically preserved and lies in a glass case on display to the people. Unfortunately Lenin is closed after lunch, so we missed out seeing him in the flesh, in much the same way as we were denied a glimpse of Ho Chi Minh in Hanoi a couple of years later.

Lenin's Tomb

Red Square

The State Historical Museum on the north end of Red Square, which like the walls of the Kremlin is painted red. It is the colour of the walls that gives the name to the square, as opposed to the amout of blood that has been spilled there over the centuries.

GUM or the State Department Store is perhaps Moscow's counterpart to Harrods of London. It lines the east side of Red Square, and has a continuous glass roof along the interior, not unlike a similar arcade in Milan.


Kremlin walls

The south wall of the Kremlin, facing onto the Moscow River. The Kremlin is a roughly triangular enclosure housing the official and residential buildings of the Russian government. In the distance you can see Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

There are a great many churches within the walls of the Kremlin, dating back hundreds of years. They are all Russian Orthodox, and are topped with gold-plated onion-shaped domes.

Churches in the Kremlin

Giant cannon

The Tsar Cannon, reputedly the world's largest at sixteen feet long, almost forty tonnes and built in 1586 by a commission of Ivan the Terrible's son. It is aimed at some buildings across the courtyard which are off-limits to tourists. There were no barriers to stop me walking over to those buildings, but there were certainly guards to shout at me when I tried.

The Tsar Bell is cast from two hundred tonnes of bronze, and sits at the foot of the Ivan the Great Bell Tower, a relic from the Romanov Dynasty. It has never been rung as shortly after its commissioning in 1734 it was cracked in a fire, chipping off an 11 tonne chunk.

Giant bell

Grand Kremlin Palace

The Grand Kremlin Palace is where Putin resided during my visit, although I am not sure whether other Russian presidents in recent times have lived here. Occasionally a black car would sweep in or out of the courtyard.

The Faberge company of St Petersburg created the world-famous Faberge eggs, and one of the best known is seen here. This is the Trans-Siberian Railway egg, featuring a solid gold and platinum model of the train itself.

Trans-Siberian Faberge egg

Deep Moscow Metro escalator

We used the Moscow metro for all our journeys across town, it is the world's busiest. Operations must be very well orchestrated, as there are no more than thirty seconds between trains on the circular line. It is also one of the world's deepest metro systems, with creaking wooden escalators descending hellward. Many stations were built hundreds of feet down so that they could double as nuclear shelters.

One of Stalin's more popular legacies on Moscow was his construction of the splendiferous metro stations around the city centre. Statues, mosaics, chandeliers and stained glass abound in these underground palaces of urban transport, which are a tourist attraction in themselves. This was our local station, Prospekt Mira, on the Koltsevaya circle line, which hosts the most splendid examples.

Moscow Metro

Ostankino Tower

The Ostankino Tower was at the time of my visit the second-tallest freestanding structure in the world, after Toronto's CN Tower. Built in 1967, it is 540 metres to the top. There was a fire in 2000 in the large pod towards the summit, damaging it to such an extent that demolition was considered. It still stands today, but tourists have not been allowed inside since the fire.

Stalin's final architectural legacy on Moscow was his "Seven Sisters", a series of buildings resembling wedding cakes or hypodermic syringes, depending on your take. This picture of the Hotel Ukraina was taken from inside the Kremlin walls. The hotel has since been bought and renovated into a five-star Radisson property.

Hotel Ukraina

Moscow State University

Moscow State University is the largest of Stalin's "Seven Sisters", built in the early 1950s in the art-deco style of the 1930s. The architect is the very same who worked on many of the buildings of the 1930s in New York. It stands 240 metres tall, and has over six thousand rooms. Seen here is only the central section, there are four gigantic wings spanning off in each direction out of the shot.

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Copyright © Ross Wattie 2004-2015