Formerly the centre of one of the world’s two superpowers, Moscow (Moskva) is still reeling from the speedy pace of change that the past decade has wrought. Situated in the centre of the East-European plain, with its major part occupying the valley of the Moskva River, it is a brash city with pockets of ostentatious new-found (and often ill-gotten) wealth surrounded by the vast majority struggling to live on their not enough salaries or pensions. The political, economic and spiritual capital of the world’s largest country, Moscow is somewhat different from the rest of the Russian Federation and the worst ravages of industrial decline have bypassed the city, as it is more focused on the administrative and service sectors. It is a magnet, not only for the entrepreneurs of new Russia but also for some of the most destitute from the far reaches of the country.
For most of eight centuries, the Kremlin, at the very heart of Moscow, has been the seat of power for the grand princes, tsars and, most recently, presidents, as well as a significant religious site. For Westerners, the adjacent Red Square, especially the bulbous, multicoloured domes of St Basil’s Cathedral, have been an image synonymous with the Soviet Union and Russian state since the arrival of television. Surrounding this centre, Stalin’s so-called Seven Sisters – Gothic-looking Socialist Realist skyscrapers – humble the individual as they appear large from the outskirts of central Moscow. On the approach to the Kremlin, along Novy Arbat, high-rises are lined up like giant dominoes waiting to stumble. However, tucked away are the bits and pieces of the older city – beautiful neo-classical houses and impressive structures, such as the Bolshoi Theatre. Most surprisingly of all, there are the underground palaces of the Metro system, the biggest and probably the most efficient in the world.
Nowadays, the posturing Soviet military driving their tanks through Red Square for the October Revolution Parades have been replaced by the posing of well-off Muscovites with their shiny new Mercedes Benz. The impressive Stalinist buildings along Tverskaya ulitsa, the main drag leading up to Red Square, now houses the extravagant Western franchises, while providing the incompatible backdrop for the babushkas who sell anything from dishcloths to kittens, in order to make ends meet. The well-heeled New Muscovites may have greeted capitalism with open arms but after 74 years of Communist-imposed agnosticism, many in the Russian capital have enthusiastically embraced their once-banned Orthodox faith. This is reflected in renovation of the old churches, the rapid construction of new ones and the decision to give the remains of Russia’s last tsar, Nicholas II, a Christian burial.
As the second democratically elected President of Russia, Vladimir Putin is the youngest and perhaps the most energetic leader the Kremlin has seen. At home, Putin has drawn admiration for his management of the economy and criticism for his dawdling response to the Kursk submarine tragedy in 2001. Internationally, Putin has astutely used the ‘war on terrorism’ as a perfect opportunity to melt the last ice of the Cold War once and for all, culminating in the Russian president’s visit to George Bush’s Texas ranch in November 2001. Closer economic ties and political empathy in conflict areas such as Chechnya are likely to result from Russia’s loyalty to the USA and its pivotal role in Afghanistan.
One aspect of the city remains invariable and that is the harshness of the Moscow winter. Despite the bitter cold, there is nothing as beautiful as seeing St Basil’s Cathedral in the falling snow. In contrast, summer temperatures over 30°C are not unusual.