While attending the World Championships, James Sullivan took some time away from athletics to discover Moscow, a misinterpreted city full of immense architecture, deep history, fascinating culture, and the absolutely absurd.

Red Square by night

While the greatest athletes on Earth attempted to run faster, jump higher and throw further than each other inside the Luzhniki Stadium, a city existed on the outside, so very weird and wonderful, dark and upbeat, jaw-droppingly beautiful and disturbingly ugly. Going about its daily business in the unique manner that only it knows how, Moscow is a truly remarkable city of extreme contrasts, and one which simply could not be overlooked in the midst of a sporting spectacular.

Red Square

The first port of call for most tourists arriving in the Russian capital is the iconic Red Square, the historical, political and cultural centre of Moscow, and the symbolic core of the nation. This grand vast plaza contains deep historical significance and an array of unique Russian architecture. Stretching along its west side are the walls of the Kremlin, and its overbearing towers. To the east lies the GUM Department Store, built in the late 19th century, an ideal location for a foreigner to divide his financial worth in half. In between is the often overlooked but charming red-bricked State Historical Museum, with the Kazan Cathedral cuddled in cosily beside it.

Saint Basil’s Cathedral

Directly facing this, on the other end of the square, is the picture of Russia, one of the greatest examples of dramatic architectural beauty to be found anywhere in the world, the splendid multi-coloured, onion-shaped domed church, Saint Basil’s Cathedral. This was constructed between 1555 and 1561 at the orders of the infamous Tsar, Ivan the Terrible, to commemorate Russia’s successful siege of the city of Kazan. During communist rule, this house of worship was confiscated from the Russian Orthodox Church as part of a state atheism programme, and came dangerously close to complete destruction, as long standing dictator, Joseph Stalin, viewed this eccentric marvel as a hindrance to a potentially larger Red Square. Fortunately, the infamous tyrant had a change of heart, and the church survived unscathed.

Red Square is certainly a symbol of a traumatic past for Russia, with Ivan the Terrible conducting public executions on its cobbled stones during his reign of torture, while it was the site of countless military parades during communist rule. The Lenin Mausoleum, situated in front of the Kremlin walls, is a stark and permanent reminder of a more troubled time, as the body of political revolutionary Vladimir Lenin, the first dictator of the Soviet Union, lies preserved, drawing hundreds of visitors each day. But somehow Red Square has withstood the trauma of years gone by, and is now the face of a new Russia, one with growing freedom and opportunity.

The Kremlin

Ivan the Great Bell Tower, inside the Kremlin

Seated comfortably beside Red Square is the remarkable Kremlin, a fortified complex which overlooks the Moscow River. In existence for over 800 years, the current walls were built in the late 15th century, run in a triangular manner for approximately 2.2 kilometres, are as high as 19 metres, as thick as 6 metres, and contains twenty pompous towers. This setting is the main political centre of Russia, both historically and presently. It was the residence of the Russian Tsar for centuries until Peter the Great moved the capital to Saint Petersburg. After the Russian Revolution, Moscow was reinstated as the nation’s capital, and it was the dwelling for numerous Soviet dictators, and today, the President of Russia, Vladimir Putin, lives inside these much photographed walls.

The Kremlin’s Cathedral Square

Within this historic fort lies 68 acres of historic palaces, cathedrals, churches, cannons and the Ivan the Great Bell Tower, which provides an astonishing view of the exceptional architecture which exists here. I have travelled far and wide and have never seen constructions so beautiful in all my life, with Cathedral Square being the climax, with several typical Russian style onion shaped domed churches socialising together. The interior of each is remarkable, with every wall, ceiling, pillar and alter painted with artistic religious imagery, and decorated with gold coloured ornaments. It truly is a sight to behold and it is not surprising that, together with Red Square, the Kremlin was enlisted as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1990.

Hidden treasures

Novodevichy Convent

However, it’s the lesser known gems which set Moscow apart. Right beside the thronged Red Square is the small district of Kitay Gorod, an area containing a countless number of picturesque Russian churches and other historic constructions, situated on almost every corner. With architecture nearly as magnificent as the aforementioned Saint Basil’s Cathedral, this little inner suburb, curiously devoid of tourists, is the forgotten, but no less noteworthy, part of Moscow’s historic centre. Closer to the Luzhniki Stadium, another UNESCO World Heritage Site stands proudly, the charming Novodevichy Convent, the city’s best known cloister, with several churches and towers within its ancient walls. Further south is the capital’s final UNESCO approved attraction, the remarkable white columned Church of the Ascension, in the former royal estate of Kolomenskoye, constructed in distinctive white stone to commemorate the birth of a boy who would later become known as Ivan the Terrible. If awe-inspiring architecture is not your thing, then there is the bustling Izmailova Market to satisfy your cultural needs, with an overwhelming number of stalls selling all kinds of traditional or communist influenced matryoshka dolls, crafts and other peculiar paraphernalia. Generally I find markets to be dull, repetitive and uninspiring, but every rule has its exception, and I was quite captivated by the vast array of eccentric goods which were on offer.

The marvellous metro

The Moscow Metro

Nowhere portrays the uniqueness of this city more than the metro. Each day this extensive, efficient and timely rail network transports nine million Muscovites, more than that of London and New York City combined. What makes Moscow’s system stand out, however, is that it doubles up as a sort of art gallery. Many stations contain a stunning range of detailed paintings, sculptors, marble walls, stained glass, chandeliers, high ceilings and mosaics, with each platform a completely different style to the next. It truly is a site which needs to be seen to be fully appreciated and is one of the positive attributes that came out of Joseph Stalin’s totalitarian regime, even if the paintings depict such blatant Soviet propaganda. How much easier would the daily grind to the office be if one had such magnificent artwork to marvel at?!

Variety is the spice of life

What is most endearing about a city so incredibly alternative as Moscow are the little peculiarities one encounters just from roaming the city streets. The following are some of the odd and fascinating things I have come across during my brief stay in this bustling metropolis:

1) Being world renowned for its vodka, I expected each bar to provide an unending list of various options for one looking to dabble in this very harsh spirit. However all that seemed to be available were brands such as Smirnoff, known the world over, or foreign produced product. Searching for craft, or even mainstream, Russian beer proved even more problematic, with most restaurants offering a wide range of Czech, German, and occasionally Irish alcoholic beverages only. You would be forgiven for thinking that the locals are rather ashamed of their home produced equivalent.

2) Being from a western nation, I have become very familiar with tobacco free bars and restaurants. A trip to Moscow is like being warped back into a cloudy and polluted 1980s. Bring your inhaler.

3) On each and every visit to a famous tourist attraction, I encountered multiple newlyweds being dramatically photographed in front of a historical backdrop, a habit which I can only assume is a local tradition. It did not matter what day of the week it was, you did not have to walk far to find the latest happy couple. I have come to the presumptuous conclusions that each Russian must marry at least three times on average throughout a lifetime. How else can so many weddings be explained!

Changing of the Guard

4) While strolling down a narrow footpath, it is not uncommon to encounter a manufactured dead end, with labourers drilling holes into the sidewalk in theatrical fashion, thus subjecting pedestrians to side-step out onto the chaotic and treacherous road to continue their two-legged transport.

5) Outside the sturdy walls of the Kremlin stand expressionless security guards. With a machine gun in hand, each soldier performs a highly commendable impersonation of a statue, until the big hand strokes twelve, and the changing of the guard takes place, an intimidating march marking an epic transformation. Legs locked impossibly straight, reaching angles greater than 90 degrees, these grim officials do their best to cause themselves long term Achilles damage. Protecting the Kremlin seems like more of a historical tradition than a necessity, as the guards completely disappear at night anyway, and the walls are so high and thick, that no lunatic would remotely consider climbing over.

6) Do not attempt to enter a metro station having forgotten to swipe your ticket first. The gates will close in epic fashion, punching you furiously on both hips, accompanied by a loud siren to make yourself the centre of attention. Honestly, do not do this.

7) The Moscow metro may be highly efficient for locals, but a first time tourist is likely to encounter an induction phase incorporating steady laps of the station, leading to a range of emotions including frustration and heartache. At the main entrance of each station, its name is publicised in both the alien Cyrillic and familiar roman form. However, once you enter, it becomes an exclusive Cyrillic affair, and due to many of the inadequate metro maps having solely the roman names listed, you are very much on your own, leading to educated guesses as to what a backwards ‘R’ may represent.

8) While the centre of Moscow contains structures so unimaginably striking, if you venture out into the suburbs you gain a haunting glimpse of a troubled and unforgotten past. The outskirts of the city are littered with mass produced hideous run down 1960s apartment blocks, eyesore’s which would make the thankfully demolished Ballymun flats in Dublin seem like Notre Dame Cathedral in comparison.

Crossing at Zebra-crossings only

9) Talking to a Russian security guard may be the equivalent of drawing banter from a rock, but when on duty, there can be no denying that they are the best in the business, the finest enforcers of strict rules, pedantic or otherwise. Inside the Kremlin, despite the fact there is less traffic there than on the Gibb River Road in remote Western Australia, one is only allowed to cross at zebra crossings, which are quite rare in frequency. Should you feel adventurous and opt to engage in a bit of jay-walking, the attentive official blows his whistle sharply. Do not attempt to enter through open gates into eye-catching palaces either as this leads to the same result. These men are very much on the ball.

10) As a general rule, if there is a choice between a simple way of doing something or a more complex alternative, then rest assured in Russia the more difficult option will generally be considered. Whether it is the excruciating visa process, or something as simple as purchasing a ticket to enter a tourist attraction, everything involves a level of exhausting and unnecessary bureaucracy. Making things more problematic for no other reason but for the pure sake of it is one of Russia’s finest traits.

11) In Moscow Vladimir Lenin is a revered man. Wherever you walk you encounter reminders of how mighty the founder of the Bolshevik revolutionary group was. There is a statue outside the Luzhniki Stadium dedicated to him, metro stations called after his name, countless paintings on the platforms portraying his glory and power. At the markets, his face appears on postcards, playing cards, posters and even traditional matryoshka dolls. Buenos Aires worships Diego Maradona. In Moscow, it is all about Lenin.

Vladimir Lenin doll

12) I had been warned that Moscow can be quite dangerous at night, but thankfully I did not witness anything remotely unsettling, with the exception of one incident. Walking back to my accommodation after several drinks late one night, a crazy local wearing a mask from the movie “Scream” opted to jump in front of me for no other reason but the pure hilarity of it. If that is not creepy then I do not know what is.

Moscow is a city filled with the unusual and unpredictable. It is a place completely misjudged. For those who have yet to visit, I can safely say that most of what you believe about this weird and wonderful city is wrong. The local people DO smile. They ARE friendly, good fun and helpful. The weather is NOT minus thirty degrees all year around. And notwithstanding the curious tale above, this metropolis IS perfectly safe, if one engages in the principle of common sense. I would highly recommend grinding out the torture that is the visa process, because once you set foot in this beautiful and captivating capital you will simply wonder why you had never visited before.

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