Moscow— Serious Style, wrapped in a Steel Suit
One of the greatest and mostly imperceptible differences one might experience in Moscow, as opposed to other Russian cities, is its unique, though perhaps curt, atmosphere. The two kinds of men you’ll encounter walking along Moscow’s gargantuan maze of streets are doe-eyed tourists (perhaps like myself), and those who absolutely do not wish to be disturbed by them. Though, this seems to be a symptom of life in a capital city, the intensity and complexity of Russian traditions and culture bleed through in every interaction you might experience here. Pride, nationalism, and a distinct, though not necessarily discouraging, arrogance are commonplace.
We spent just under a week in Moscow, which despite my lukewarm opinion of the interactions I’ve shared there, isn’t nearly enough. Moscow is, first and foremost, a very old and very beautiful city. Rushing and racing commerce is built upon the sleeping bones of grand and swooping architecture. Though, as you navigate the city’s core, ducking in and around side-alleys and causeways, the sheer magnitude of the buildings, and their monstrous height leaves you wondering if there’s a second, higher tier of life to be led in Moscow, one, perhaps, only the CEOs of banks and millionaire hotel visitors can experience. One need only watch the comings and goings of traffic into the city to see that there’s an obscene amount of money to be made here—the latest model Mercedes Benz, Audi, BMW, and even Lamborghini, Ferrari, etc. can all be found bogged down in traffic, both leaving or entering the city, like Olympian Gods in line at the grocery store.
We were blessed enough to stay at a hostel located in the literal center of Moscow’s Arbat (Russian: Арба́т) which is one of the oldest pedestrian streets in Moscow, nearly 600 years old, famous for the overwhelming number of famous historical buildings and artists, it is the de-facto cultural heart of the city.
Along the Arbat was an absolutely staggering number of street performers, artists, dancers, musicians, magicians, even poetry reciters. From dawn till dusk the Arbat would glow with music of all genres, as their groupies danced and flitted between the crowds requesting payment if you’d enjoyed the tune.
Naturally, with such a rich and active heritage site, came its commercialization. Incredible 5-star jazz restaurants stood beside KFC, Dunkin’ Donuts and Krispy Kreme, and among the genuine artists and musicians were slimy watch salesmen, scammers looking for an easy mark, and human directionals begging you to sign up for their boat tours. Every hour on the hour a speaker would caterwaul that their souvenirs were the best, and the most discounted.
Though, I don’t blame them. Life in Moscow can be significantly expensive, and it was the first place I’ve seen in Russia with a visible division of class. Tinted limousines ferried persons of importance through, and away from, the peons piling up the streets. However, I found myself intoxicated by the vibrancy of it all. Swept away by the seas of crowds pouring over every merchant, every performer. Some of which were actually seriously talented, for example, we saw a group of young, very fit men break-dancing on what appeared to be a purposefully built dance stage in the center of the Arbat.
Other, more curious performers engaged only a small, but dedicated crowd. A magician along the Arbat dazzled the dozen gathered around him, and even appeared to hypnotize a woman into sleeping.
Perhaps the best experience to be found in Moscow, if you’re so inclined, is the Pushkin Gallery and Museum. While the museum side is rather lackluster, especially if you’ve visited any of the other great museums of Europe, as a great deal of the statues are plaster casts. The gallery, however, is splendid. Featuring some of the best works of Claude Monet, such as Boulevar des Capucines (1873) and while I do not believe they are permanent fixtures of the gallery, we were also able to view quite a number of Vincent van Gogh’s works, such as the Prisoner’s Round (1890).
One thing I never expected, however, is when we were visiting the Kremlin (Russian: Кремль) the street we were attempting to cross was abruptly cordoned off, the armies of advancing traffic entirely halted, as dozens of members of the Moscow military police divided the traffic in an almost biblical way to allow a motorcade of motorbikes and limousines to shuttle, what we believed to be Russian President Vladimir Putin, into the Kremlin proper.
The thing I was never expecting, however, is that nestled within Moscow’s lifeless walls of steel and concrete is Gorky Park (Russian:
Центральный парк культуры и отдыха (ЦПКиО) имени Горького, “Gorky Central Park of Culture and Leisure”) an absolutely marvelous and massive garden bordering the Moscow River. Hidden away from the otherwise harsh winds, this beautiful terrace has a bounty of attractions for tourists and locals alike. Duck ponds with love-boats, fine dining, long bike lanes and even rental services for any kind of transport. Walking through Gorky Park was an absolute delight, and it reminded me so fondly of home.
In conclusion, Moscow, in comparison to other Russian cities, was simply more intense. In both good, and bad ways. The residents of Moscow are dragons, locked in their unwavering traditions, sat atop a pile of gold. Visiting the city may require you to contribute to their horde, but wonder and beauty are things the city will never lack, though they know that, and aren’t afraid to say as much.
On every corner, and down every road, Moscow has a building with a story, most of which are half a millennia old, and a man who probably thinks he’s still writing it.