A century after the Russian Revolution, Laura Millar visits Moscow to find a city where magnificent landmarks and evidence of its turbulent history are never far from view
It’s an odd feeling, gazing at the trappings of a royal family whose 300 year reign ended in bloodshed, and gave birth to the rise of a new regime. It happened in France in 1789, but in Russia, it was one of the biggest events of the 20th century. In 1917, in February and again in October, the Bolshevik Party, led by one Vladimir Lenin, led an uprising against the Russian Imperial Romanov dynasty, which subsequently resulted in the execution of Tsar Nicholas II, and the forming of the new, Communist, Soviet Union.
It makes browsing through the mementoes of Nicholas and his ancestors all the more poignant. I’m in the Armoury Chamber Museum in the grounds of the Kremlin, Moscow’s legendary fortified complex which sits behind the vast Red Square. It sits across from the grandiose cream and yellow façade of the verdigris-roofed Grand Kremlin Palace, which the Romanovs had built in the 1830s. As well as weaponry dating back from several centuries, there are plenty of state regalia, including the thrones on which the Tsars sat, coronation clothes, crowns and coaches. There are the thigh-high riding boots which belonged to Peter the Great – despite being nearly 6ft 6in tall, his feet were only a size six. You can also see the wedding dress of Princess Sophia Augusta, later Catherine the Great; its corseted, 18 inch waist is so tiny she fainted six times during her wedding ceremony in 1745.
Everything is encrusted with gold, silver and jewels, or sewn with precious metallic thread. The famous Crown of Monomakh, created in the 13th century, and which was worn at every Russian coronation until the 18th century, is trimmed with sable and pearls, while the Diamond Throne, made by Persians for Tsar Alexei Mikhailovich in 1660, is studded with the stones for which it is named. So perhaps it is no small wonder that Lenin and his supporters became disillusioned with the vast gulf between rich and poor, between princes and peasants.
The Moscow of today is a sprawling metropolis of nearly 12 million inhabitants, teeming with alluring onion-domed churches, candy-coloured Baroque buildings, compelling, clean-lined, Stalin-era skyscrapers, pretty parks (such as the vast, green Gorky Park), and, at its heart, the imposing plaza of Red Square, home to the showpiece cathedral of St Basil, Lenin’s mausoleum and the state-owned department store, GUM. Now populated by more affluent, and egalitarian, capitalist classes (from stocking mainly brandless essential consumer goods in the 30s, 40s and 50s, for example, GUM is now filled with international designer labels from Gucci to Prada, caviar and electronics), the city is able to show off its past.
Any visit to Moscow should definitely start at the red brick, turreted gates of the Kremlin, which was originally built in the 15th century as the nerve centre and seat of power of the city; the gates’ towers used to be crowned with the double-headed eagle, symbol of Imperial Russia, but these were replaced with illuminated red Communist stars in 1937. As well as the Armoury, the Kremlin contains several other buildings which are now fascinating museums, including three main cathedrals – the Assumption, Annunciation and the Archangel’s. The Assumption is one of the most magnificent, with its interiors covered in 16th and 17th-century handpainted frescoes and icons, their colours still rich today: dark greens, deep saffrons, ruby reds, intense blues, and shimmering golds.
Within the Kremlin’s extensive grounds, covered, on my visit in December, in a light dusting of snow, you’ll also see cannons and ammunition. Some are trophies from the war against Napoleon, but there’s one which looms above all the others. This is the elaborately carved, bronze Tsar Cannon, which is almost six metres long, and weighs nearly 40 tonnes. It was never actually used in battle, but fulfilled more of a symbolic function; it is located close to the bronze Tsar Bell, the biggest bell in the world, which, at six metres tall, with a 6.6 metre diameter, sadly cracked during its casting and has therefore never been rung.
Once back outside, take time to stroll around Red Square. It used to function as a market place, then as a site for public ceremonies and coronations. Today, the extravagant, Harrods-like edifice which is GUM lines one side of it, while at one end lies the vibrant red façade of the State Historical Museum, and at the other, St Basil’s Cathedral. Like a 16th century Disneyland castle, its striking, multi-coloured domes, in a range of lollipop hues and Willy Wonka patterns, dominate the skyline. Officially titled the Cathedral of Vasily the Blessed, legend has it that Ivan the Terrible, who had it built, ordered the architect Postnik Yakolev to be blinded after he had finished it, so he would never build anything that beautiful again. Its interiors are almost as fabulous, covered in paintings and more frescoes depicting religious scenes, flowers and patterns.
Nearby is a piece of more recent history: the black marble tomb of Vladimir Lenin himself. Entering the somewhat forbidding-looking doorway, guarded by men in furry hats with guns, I walk down into the gloom and past a glass case on a raised platform, which contains – supposedly – the preserved remains of the Bolshevik leader. To my cynical eye, he looks somewhat shrunken, and, dare I say it, waxy; but his legacy still attracts thousands of people who queue up to pay their respects.
One thing which is definitely worth doing here is taking the Metro. Under Stalin’s rule, his ambitious vision for a modern, sophisticated underground transport network has left Muscovites with one of the most breathtaking subway systems in the world. Getting around it is somewhat confusing – thanks to all station names being written in the Cyrillic alphabet – but you’ll be too busy staring at the exquisitely decorated stations to care. Many are hung with crystal chandeliers, and feature marble walls, elaborate ceilings and pillars, paintings and mosaics (some of the finest include Mayakovskaya, on the Zamoskvoretskaya Line, with its shimmering stainless steel and pink rhodonite columns, and Dostoyevskaya, on the Lyublinsko-Dmitrovskaya Line, which features scenes from author Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s works, such as Crime and Punishment).
I take the Metro a couple of stops from my hotel, the Swissôtel Krasnye Holmy, once the city’s tallest building, to Teatralnaya, named for Moscow’s theatre district. The best known is, of course, the Bolshoi, home to the world-famous ballet company, which was originally founded in 1776. Alas, tickets for performances are like gold dust, and required a level of advance planning that I didn’t possess. However, with an innovative programme of cinema screenings across the UK, which broadcast ballets live, you don’t even need to travel that far to see them. But then you’d miss out on the sumptuous red velvet and gilt interior (I had a peek inside), and the Grecian, colonnaded façade. The pre-revolutionary Russians left behind so many beautiful things; we should be very glad they did.
Lufthansa flies from Edinburgh to Moscow via Frankfurt from £180 return; to book, visit Lufthansa.com
Doubles at Swissôtel Krasnye Holmy start at £192 per night; book via swissotel.com or tel: +7 (495) 7879881.
To see a Bolshoi Ballet performance on screen near you on 9 April, visit www.bolshoiballetcinema.co.uk