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Longer Latitude Journey behind the Ironic Curtain

Moscow: Riding the Sapsan, Marvelling at Metro Art & In & around Krasnaya Ploshchad

RUSSIAN FEDERATION | Wednesday, 16 September 2015 | Views [372]

Facade, St Vasily's

Facade, St Vasily's

Moskovsky Station, a large waiting hall, quite a stylish interior with a vast network map of St Petersburg stations embossed on one wall. It was however bereft of seating, most people waited inside the fast food outlets down one side of the hall. It was a long walk down the platform to our carriage, when we got there the gruff, unsmiling uniformed woman who checked our tickets and passports before silently waving us onto the train clearly seemed to be from the Soviet school of public relations. I found out later that these female "little Mussolinis" in the RZD (Russian Railways) 'Army' are called provodnitsas there are two of them "ruling the roost" for each carriage. During the journey, they take turns, one works whilst the other "sergeant-major" rests up and hones her stern, disapproving look! We had been forewarned that luggage space in the car was very limited and worked on a “first come, first served” basis, but as it eventuated, once on board there was plenty of space for the luggage.

The Sapsan seats were comfortable enough and the ride at a cruising 180-200km an hour a smooth one (didn’t feel like we were going that fast!). We passed through several oblasts with some lovely countryside, especially the lakes to the southern side. Until we got to Tver, hardly any people boarded or disembarked at the stations we stopped at (not many people to be seen outside at all during the trip for that matter). The train’s toilets were clean and up to aircraft standard (unfortunately also aircraft size as well). The food they offered up was pretty ordinary, but OK if you like ‘plastic’ food, the time however passed pretty quickly and we arrived at Moscow inside four hours.

We were picked up at the hotel the next morning by our designated, bilingual guide, Julia, a young Moscovite with a strong New York twang in her voice. Before tackling the metropolis she took us for a tour of the Moscow metro stations. We very quickly got a sense that trying to navigate around the Moscow Metro could be is bewildering for new tourists, especially having to contend with signs in the (foreign to non-Russians) Cyrillic script. We had Julia to lead us, but later without her, we would find out just how difficult it is. The train service is very punctual with trains arriving about every minute-and-a-half but the maze of connecting lines (blue, red, grey, etc) takes some figuring out to get to where you want to go. The real pleasure is in visiting the various underground stations to see the art work on the walls and ceilings which varies widely from station to station. Many have stupendous ornate decorations and even grand chandeliers in some. The paintings bordered by beautiful gold-leaved frames and sculptures projected Soviet propagandist aims (eg, Lenin addressing the masses, heroic Soviet soldiers, workers and athletes representing “Homo Sovieticus”, the idealised type of Soviet man). One such 1932 painting in Kiyevskaya Metro that especially caught my eye depicts Trotsky giving a speech with Stalin standing right behind him (greatly ironic given Trotsky’s fate at the hands of Stalin’s henchmen in Mexico some eight years later). It was in the metros, especially at the Ploshchad Revolutsiy Metro where we got our first inkling of how incredibly superstitious Russians are. Moscovite commuter after commuter would walk past the station’s numerous bronze sculptures of heroic Soviet citizens, but most would momentarily halt at the sculptured figure to rub usually either it’s knee or elbow for good luck.

After criss-crossing the city to visit many differently-decorated but equally beautiful metros (almost all Moscow stations are underground), we exited the system at Tetranalnaya and entered Red Square near the Museum of the War of 1812. We learned from the Russian guide that ‘Krasnaya’, ‘Red’ in Russian, originally meant ‘beautiful’ and it is this connotation that the Square’s name derives from. Red Square, a huge cobblestone rectangular square (about 330m x 70m), is the centre and focal point of Moscow. To its immediate west is Lenin Mausoleum and the Kremlin wall, to the north is the State Historical Museum (and to the left of that the entrance gates to the Alexandrovsky Garden), to the east is Kazan Cathedral, the GUM department store and the Kitay-gorod commercial district, and to the south St Vasily’s (Pokrovsky Cathedral). Because of its centrality it is easy to access most of the top tourist spots from here, with people continually dissecting it to get to the next point of interest. Others just hover there taking in the sheer scope and atmosphere of it all. The Square is also regularly invaded by wedding parties with bride and groom photos in front of St Basil’s the mandatory option for newly-weds.

When people outside of Russia conjure up a visual image of Moscow, St Basil’s Cathedral (AKA Church of St Vasily’s the Blessed or Pokrovsky Cathedral) is the icon that most associate with the Russian capital. Architecturally not really like any other structure (arguably St Petersburg’s Cathedral of the Savior of the Spilt Blood approximates its opulent design), St Basil’s is an eclectic mix of Russian, Italian, Byzantine and other Eastern styles, comprises a central chapel flanked by nine distinct onion domes with polygonal towers. The domes present a kaleidoscope of colour with their various combinations. Inside, what caught my eye in particular was the arches and entrance walls with their intricate patterns, blended colours and floral motifs. Upstairs, there is a souvenir shop, as well you can listen to a highly accomplished male quartet perform Russian songs from their CD (which you can purchase on site). NB: do not take the narrow spiralling staircase located to the right UNTIL you have seen all of the ground floor, because you cannot return down these stairs and the only exit from the first floor takes you completely outside of the Cathedral. Entry fee (2015) is 250rbl.

Tags: city tour

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