Moscow: The Russian Federation Capital

We arrive in Russia after a 3-hour flight from Yerevan, and after a surprisingly quick process at the immigration counter and a lengthy walk from the arrival area to the express train, we’re in the city center just after lunch. We reach our hotel about a 15-minute walk from the Belorusskaya station, and have lunch in a nearby Asian restaurant. Drained from staying up until 3 am exploring Yerevan’s (relatively tame) nightlife scene, I spend the rest of the afternoon sleeping.

I wake up just in time for dinner, and four of us – Yanyan, Joseph, Jay-R, and I – decide to venture into the city center, explore a bit, and have dinner there. Aided by Google Maps, we board the metro station (in itself a tourist attraction as well) to Teatralnaya and exit near the northern end of the Red Square.

And here for the first time we see the St. Basil Cathedral with its colorful facade lit, standing majestically in the southern part of Red Square, looming in the distance like a divine apparition. It’s exciting and touching at the same time, evoking the country’s rich history.

The colorful onion-domed St. Basil Cathedral is a Russian icon.
Kremlin forms the political center of Russia, with the parliament housed within its walls.
The red-bricked State Historical Museum anchors the northern end of the Red Square.
The GUM’s neoclassical architecture is a testament of the opulence of the Russian monarchs before the revolution. Today, the store is home to high-end boutiques and shops.
The large marble arch of the Gorky Park Museum towers above Gorky Park.
Regular ballet and opera performances are held in the historic Bolshoi Theatre.
The elegant facade of the Sanduny Baths’ main building serves as an introduction to the luxurious experience of banya (Russian hot bath).
The Arbat District has been undergoing transformation in recent years and is becoming a more popular tourist destination within Moscow.

Established in 1147 as a minor town in Vladimir-Suzdal Principality, Moscow  has grown to become a global city, playing key roles in world history as the capital of the Russian Empire, the Soviet Union, and eventually the Russian Federation. As with any capital city, Moscow is teeming with life, culture, and traffic. Traditional Orthodox architecture dot the cityscape along with Neoclassical buildings and modern skyscrapers, reflecting the numerous influences on Russian culture. The metropolitan area’s 20 million inhabitants range from the broke and anonymous to the well-heeled and popular.

The next day, after another visit to the Red Square (the Kremlin is closed because of some military program), we avail of a hop-on-hop-off bus tour in an attempt to maximize our limited time in the city, since we intended Russia to be just an extension to our Georgia-Armenia trip. We thus hit some of the key sites like the Bolshoi Theater and the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour but never really get down and explore them. Our main destination is a building in the western reaches of the city center to get to the top of a building with supposedly great panoramic views of the city at sunset. Whether it’s true, we never really learn, since the building’s elevator turns out to be under construction.

Frustrated and exhausted, we return to our hotel, rest for the evening, and prepare for our flight to Saint Petersburg.

Park Pobedy (Victory Park) features statues commemorating Soviet victory in World War II, known in Russia as the Great Patriotic War.
The Cathedral of Christ the Saviour is the tallest Orthodox church in the world, standing at 103 meters.
Art installations decorate the Sparrow Hills observation platform. Panoramic views of the city can be seen here.
The Luzhniki Stadium served as the main venue during the 1980 Olympics.
The Hotel Ukraina is one of Stalin’s Seven Sisters, a group of skyscrapers in Moscow designed in the Stalinist style.
Skyscrapers with modern design soar above the upscale Presnensky District.
An Orthodox church share space with modern buildings in central Moscow.
An “I Heart Moscow” graffiti adorns a building near the Teatralnaya Square.

We return to Moscow two days later, and with a whole day left, we again tour the city center. The Kremlin is still closed for a military event, so we content ourselves eating ice cream in the GUM, a large ostentatious-looking department store at the eastern end of the Red Square. The building was commissioned by Catherine the Great in the 1800s to replace what were once the Upper Trading Rows. After the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917, the government nationalized the building and used it in various periods as a department store, an office space, and a retail store aiming to promote communist consumerism. Today, the building has been privatized and functions as a shopping mall, with high-end boutiques and stores housed inside.

In the afternoon, the rest of the group ride the metro to Arbat, a gentrified district in western Moscow known for its hipster vibe, while I go separately to Gorky Park. The park is Moscow’s main park, a somewhat smaller-scale Central Park where locals converge to stroll, bike, watch cultural events, or just hang around.

A few hours later, I’m back with the others at the hotel lobby, talking about how Russia defied our expectations of a country. The people are surprisingly friendly, down-to-earth, and warm, contrary to the Hollywood stereotype of staid and snobbish oligarchs. Sure, the smiles don’t come easily, but it just takes a few moments of conversation before the initial barriers break down and the dynamics become less formal. Winston Churchill once said that Russia is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma. Here’s to uncovering a layer of that.

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