Half past midnight, the early hours of Monday morning, and the motorway from Moscow’s Domodedovo Airport into the city is gridlocked. Five lanes of traffic occasionally judder forward a few yards in chaotic peristalsis. There are ancient, lumbering trucks, motorcycles with over-laden sidecars and a ubiquitous collection of Soviet era Volgas and Ladas. Of course there are also gleaming new Mercedes and Audis with blacked out windows, but the humid night air is choked with fumes, to which the catalytic converter is uncharted territory.
We are in the back of an early 90s Lada Riva, driven by a youngish woman who sits beside her mother, neither of whom speak more than a word or two of English. Still, they had been waiting in the arrivals hall of the airport with a large sign bearing my name and my girlfriend and I had been very grateful to see them. Now I am simply hoping that the pervasive smell of overheating engine is emitting from an ancient Latvian truck which sits stationary to our right hand side, rather than the Lada. Neither of the two Russian women seems overly concerned, so I attempt to relax and elicit the result of the European Championship final by text message.
Arriving in Moscow, so late at night, after a full day travelling, is a somewhat disorientating experience. Russia’s capital is after all Europe’s largest city. Its main roads are constantly choked with traffic and the industrial complexes which mark the city’s outer limits take on a fantastical, nightmarish quality to a frayed mind. Wreathed in smoke and smouldering with flame, they loom with preternatural immensity, as if they have escaped from a cinema screen showing a particularly brooding piece of apocalyptic science fiction.
When the traffic finally compresses excruciatingly slowly into two lanes, which pass resurfacing work separated from the open part of the road in nugatory fashion, and the little car is then spat into a reasonably free flow of traffic, it feels like the end of a purgatorial ordeal. We putter through quieter streets and enter the car park of one of a series of high rise Brezhnev era tower blocks. We must initially look confused, because our driver utters a few encouraging words, one of which is ‘gastineetsa’ (Russian for hotel) and points around the corner.
Although I am initially doubtful, it transpires that the building does house a shabby hotel lobby, whose desk is surrounded by a group of three rather drunk men of Central Asian appearance. They are engaged in a long and fractious wrangle with the hotel receptionist. It appears that one of the men is unable to produce a passport and the woman staffing the desk is adamant that he is not entitled to stay unless he can conjure up the document. Any of these men would instantly acquire a bouncer’s job if they were resident in Belfast and they are drunk and angry. Or rather their ire is periodic and subsides every once in a while into a fit of drunken giggles prompted by a remark by one of their number. Two security guards begin to circle watchfully and just as the incident looks likely to reach an unpleasant conclusion the three men decide to leave, lurching unsteadily out the door in a jumble of imprecations and hoots of mirth.
Such was our introduction to Moscow, one which saw us crawl into bed after 2 A.M. with a rather chaotic taste of the city in which we were beginning our Russian adventure. Naturally daylight lends anywhere a less foreboding appearance and the next morning revealed that our accommodation was basic, but perfectly adequate and was situated beside one of the main arteries into the city. It also sat adjacent to Ryazansky Prospeky metro station which formed the epicentre of an extensive warren of kiosks. This pre-fabricated market included a range of services, stretching from serving fast food to servicing computers. There were also a scattering of typical Russian ‘café-bars’ and ‘sveti’ stalls selling flowers. For a few roubles at the start of each day, it was possible to equip ourselves with food and drink which was vastly less expensive than in supermarkets or in the city centre. Despite our limited Russian, and their lack of English, the kiosk holders were patient and helpful as we indicated in broken sentences, pointing and sign language, what it was that we wanted.
Through the metro station we had access, for 19 roubles a trip (about 41p), to an extensive underground system which comprehensively covers the whole of Moscow’s municipality. Kitay-Gorod station, on the same line, is close to many of the central attractions and more often than not, we found ourselves emerging in this area (the name literally means ‘China town’). In actual fact the sobriquet is misleading – the area has no particular connection with China or a Chinese community and its derivation is said to come from the original wall of wooden stakes which once designated this ancient trading area’s borders. It does however comprise a series of historic streets which slope away from the eastern side of Red Square.
I have already waxed lyrical about the impact which Red Square has on the visitor. For someone with an interest in Russian history, the effect is magnified. The square is actually more of a rectangle if my sense of geometry is in any respect accurate. Its long flanks are framed by the neo-classical façade of GUM shopping arcade and the east wall of the Kremlin. It is book-ended on the north by the magnificently intricate red brick of the State Historical Museum and to the south by the iconic onion domes of St Basil’s. Along the Kremlin’s wall sits the squat, tapered mausoleum of Lenin and alongside it, a garden containing the grave of Stalin, amongst others.
The Kremlin and the Square sit above their immediate surroundings and with the main routes out of Moscow radiating from this area like the spokes of a wheel, the psychological feeling of being at the very heart of this vast, diverse country is exacerbated by the physical geography of the place. Manifestations of Russia’s cultural and historical past converge in Krasnaya Ploschad and the adjacent Kremlin. The Orthodox Church, whose spiritual influence has shaped Russian character and politics since Vladimir adopted the religion for his Kievan Rus state in 988, demonstrates its centrality with the square’s most eye-catching attraction, St Basil’s, as well as rebuilt Kazan Cathedral and the various churches which lie inside the Kremlin itself.
The church’s tyrannical grip on Russia’s peasantry predates tsarism and the events which forged Russia into a unitary state after the Tartar yoke was lifted. However a symbiotic relationship existed between the two institutions long before Peter I brought the church to heal in the 18th century, firmly subjugating its power to that of his own autocracy. Until 1917 and the fall of the Romanov dynasty the church continued to underpin the monarchy’s despotism as loyal functionary rather than equal partner. Its influence did not end there. Alexsandr Solzhenitsyn, the Nobel laureate who wrote Gulag Archipelago, argued that Orthodoxy played a formative role in creating a spiritual vacuum and shaping a mentality receptive to authoritarian absolutes, which made Russia particularly susceptible to the Bolshevik credo.
Today the Orthodox faith is enjoying resurgence. In the fragrant gloom of Kazan Cathedral a constant stream of pilgrims light candles and pray in front of icons. Wherever we find churches, in all three of our destinations, there seem to be plentiful young recruits to the priesthood. In Kazan Cathedral, whilst I am studying the repainted frescoes (the church has been rebuilt to its former specifications since 1991), a young skinhead who looks for all the world like he might be more at home with a football firm, enters the church, crosses himself profusely, lights a number of candles and murmurs a prayer in front of an icon. The juxtaposition is not entirely fanciful, nor may it be a figment of my imagination, Orthodoxy has strong attractions for the nationalist right. In addition, under Vladimir Putin, something of the symbiosis between church and state began to be rekindled.
Although the Kremlin was usurped as the seat of Russian tsars when Peter built his city to the north, the place formed the citadel from which the Russian principalities were forged into a unitary state under Ivan the Great. Its mighty bell-tower was built in his honour. The place is perhaps most redolent, to the modern imagination, of the Soviet Empire. Lenin’s mausoleum lies alongside its eastern wall and Khrushchev’s State Kremlin Palace is the first prominent building which one encounters having entered by the western gate.
Outside that gate lie Alexander Gardens, an oasis from Muscovite hustle and bustle. The gardens run from Okhotny Ryad shopping centre, close to Red Square, along the length of the Kremlin walls, down to the Moskva River. They host the eternal flame, the tomb of the Unknown Soldier and a series of monuments to Russia’s hero cities of the Great Patriotic War (WW2). Principally though the gardens offer a place for Muscovites to unwind, allowing them to sip beer or kvas and guzzle ice cream amongst flowers and fountains. In the heat of late afternoon, if the rumbling thunder showers which seem relentlessly to prowl Moscow’s skies have abated, enjoying a Baltika here whilst deciding what to do about dinner affords some much needed relaxation after endlessly pounding city streets.
The gardens are a short stroll away from Teatralny Square, where the Bolshoi Theatre hides behind renovation work and an immense portrait of a Samsung television. Opposite this conjunction of modern and traditional entertainment broods a seated statue of Marx, perhaps aghast at the fashion in which communist past and capitalist present rub shoulders so casually in modern Moscow. Teatralny Prospekt leads up the hill to the Lubyanka, where Dzerzhinsky’s Cheka once presided and where to this day Russia’s secret police has its headquarters. I couldn’t help but experience a moment of disillusionment in Lubyanka Ploschad when we sought out the Memorial to Victims of Totalitarianism and found merely a building site. The prominence of Soviet symbols and memorials and the insouciance displayed towards memorials to the victims of that regime was something I found troubling. Whilst this modest place to remember the state’s victims may well be reinstated, to find no notice as to the reasons for its disruption and no alternative place of remembrance was dispiriting.
In contrast the Central Park of Culture and Leisure, or Gorky Park as it is more commonly known, retains its enormous Leninist gates, which date from 1955. Opposite, in the melancholy Sculpture Park, we sheltered from monsoon rain in a long rickety corrugated iron shed which housed an ad hoc art market. About half a dozen people were doing likewise, sauntering amongst the paintings of rather variable quality which were hung haphazardly along several hundred yards of leaky shack. The afternoon was to continue in this vein. Deluges of thundery rain would be interspersed with periods of gloriously warm sunshine. When eventually we managed to peruse the sculptures, they proved to be a charmingly idiosyncratic mixture of displaced Soviet monoliths and whimsical modern creations.
In Gorky Park later, with the sun raising steam from the pathways, we sipped beer and kvas respectively and the fountains exploded in a spectacular show of water and music. Some young Russians capered and laughed, jumping in and out of the water and I experienced one of those blissful moments that occur on holiday. Here I was in Gorky Park, somewhere I’d always dreamt of visiting, drinking an ice cold beer and watching this display. Life was becoming more joyful, comrade.