Time Out Moscow editor Alexey Kovalev explains the city’s icy charms
A born Muscovite is a rare bird in this growing, cosmopolitan city, and a moskovskaya propiska (the passport mark used in Soviet times to control population movement) is still a prized possession. Though natives are often snobbish towards ‘first-generation Muscovites’, they are also less prone to the bouts of shameless breast-beating consumerism that are often characteristic of ambitious provincials who came to the capital to seek success and found some. The latter are responsible for the fact that in the centre of town it’s easier to buy a pair of Prada shoes than a sandwich, and the 3am traffic jams of pimp-style Hummers and Lamborghinis that clog Tverskaya, the city’s main street and shopping artery.
It is duly noted that, in general, the people of Moscow are rude and unfriendly. Indeed, the sea of grey and black clothes and unsmiling faces on a cold winter day can be quite depressing, and a single encounter with the dreaded Sphinx of every official institution – usually an elderly woman with microscopic power that she likes to abuse at every little opportunity – can turn an unprepared visitor from our city forever.
This is a very fast, tough and demanding city, and in order to cope it is necessary to shut oneself in an emotional shell. In fairness to Muscovites, the lack of smiles on the street is understandable. But inside these shells are some of the nicest people you’ll ever meet. Likewise, the city itself can seem inhospitable: insane traffic, bad air, architectural styles that range from boring to kitsch. But again, behind its official façade, the city reveals its true charm and beauty.
Everyone knows the tourist favourites such as Red Square, St Basil’s Church and the Kremlin, but what about the things that really inspire affection for the city? From the Sparrow Hills (Vorobyovi Gori) viewpoint you can play a game of ‘spot all seven of Stalin’s wedding cakes’ – the nickname given to seven skyscrapers commissioned by Stalin and built in a very recognisable style of totalitarian gothic/baroque. You may, however, miss the most dramatic, although it’s right behind you – the majestic Moscow State University’s main building, one of the tallest academic buildings in the world. From here, the maze of footpaths that run down the steep slope provide immediate relief from the intimidating grandeur of Moscow’s landmarks, offering the friendship of landscape on a more human scale.
In spite of its reputation for drabness, Moscow does offer the odd splash of colour and ornamentation. The Central Palace of Young Pioneers, now a youth centre, is adorned with giant mosaics intended to inspire younger Soviet generations. You’ll find them even in the most unpromising places, such as artist Alexander Deyneka’s 34 mosaics on the ceiling of Mayakovskaya metro station. A sign of the city granting a reluctant smile.
Getting there Emirates Airlines flies daily to Moscow from Dhs3,825 (including tax). See www.emirates.com.
Where is it? On the banks of the Moskva River in the Central Federal District of Russia.
Climate Continental: Moscow is on the same latitude as Edinburgh and Toronto. Winters are long, with February the coldest month, but temperatures rarely drop below -15°C. The best months are May and September.
Ethnic mix The population comprises Russians, Ukrainians, Belarussians, Azeris, Armenians, peoples of Northern Caucasus and Middle Asia (Chechens, Tadjiks, Uzbeks), Jews, gypsies and many others.
Major sights St Basil’s Cathedral, Tretyakov Gallery, Red Square, Kremlin, Moscow State University.
Insiders’ tips The central Moscow metro stations are universally recognised as architectural masterpieces. Try vodka drunk the traditional way, with a hot, rich soup such as borsch or Caucasian hartscho, at U Nikitskikh Vorot, a cult Soviet-style boozer. And don’t miss a sweaty banya (a Russian steam bath) at the Krasnopresnenskie.
Where’s the buzz? Tverskaya Street, Tretyakovsky Proyezd, Volts, Tons, Jazztown.
A brief history of communist Russia The Communist Manifesto was published in 1848 in London (in German), followed by the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917. In 1918, Moscow was named capital of Soviet Russia. The Battle of Moscow took place in 1941-42, with perestroika (political and economic restructuring) in 1986. The Soviet Union finally collapsed in 1991.
Coldest recorded temperature -42.2°C in January 1940.
Heaviest snowfall January 2005, with 9.4mm of snow.
Earliest reference 1147 in the Ipatievskaya Chronicle.
Tallest building Naberezhnaya Tower C, 268m (59 floors).
Vodka consumption Vodka accounts for 70 per cent of total alcohol consumed in Russia.
Famous writers Alexander Pushkin, Leo Tolstoy, Fyodor Dostoevsky.
Immortalised in War and Peace, Andrei Bely’s Moscow trilogy, The Master and Margarita, Gorky Park, Red Heat, Boris Akunin’s Erast Fandorin novels.