Back in the USSR

Red Square. It’s neither red, nor square. But nowhere conjures the image of Moscow, Russia’s absolutely vast capital, quite like it. Red Square is literally at the heart of Moscow – all roads lead toward it and the Kremlin – and around its four sides stand the Kremlin, the GUM Department Store, the State Historical museum and St. Basil’s Catherdral. Government, commerce, history and religion all cheek by jowel. The square is also home to Lenin’s Tomb, but sadly it’s closed for…cleaning? wax touch up? dusting? on Fridays. So we’ll have to shuffle by and stare at him tomorrow, before we spend the day exploring the Kremlin and the Diamond Fund. Must think about the appropriate accessories to wear to the Diamond Fund…what does one wear to view the crown jewels???

Red Square. Neither square, nor red.

Red Square. Neither square, nor red.

Today we braved the metro system. And let me tell you, it was a feat! Regardless of the time of day, the subway is PACKED. The good news is that a subway arrives every one to two minutes. The even better news is that a subway ride costs about $1. There are 11 lines crisscrossing, and one that actually circles, the city. The stations are located deep below the streets of Moscow – the escalators are long and very steep. (There is, however, only a nod to wheelchair accessibility…basically a ski track affair where you place the wheels into the metal track and I don’t know…let go??? Safety helmets not included.)

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Subway statuary

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Subway statuary

The bad news is that, despite what the guidebook purports, every single sign in the metro is written ONLY in Cyrillic. Which renders the lovely coloured map in my guidebook, written only in Latin letters, absolutely useless. Pretty, but totally ineffective. Thank god for my Moscow Metro phone app that has the station map in both Latin characters AND Cyrillic. Without that we would have been riding aimlessly up and down the blue line never to be seen again. As it is we haven’t yet mastered changing subway lines…that’s like advanced math that we’ll tackle tomorrow.

Looking at Cyrillic is like looking at the functions on a calculus calculator. You know they mean something, you just haven’t got the foggiest clue what to do about it…

Today though the thing that left the most lasting impression on me was not a building or a piece of art. It was a line. An endless line of humanity snaking around and through Revolution Square. And what were they waiting so patiently for? To get into a museum. Yes. For a cultural experience. They were waiting in line to see an exhibit on the Romanov Dynasty. Apparently about 13,000 people PER DAY have been visiting the exhibit, which has been, I’m sure to the absolute delight of the curator, held over by a week. In fact to accommodate the hordes of visitors, the museum is staying open until midnight! Today it was cold. It rained. Dark clouds persisted throughout the day. And yet, that line never got shorter. And no one pushed, complained or butted in line…they just patiently waited. (Of course waiting in lines has been part of the Russian psyche for generations….)

Speaking of waiting in line…the new Russia isn’t the Russia of even 20 years ago where blue jeans were a luxury purchased furtively on the black market. Oh no. The GUM Department Store, formerly Soviet Department Store No. 1 and the place Moscovites flocked to when there were shortages, is the most glamorous shopping arcade I’ve ever visited. It’s grand and gilded. And except for the cold weather and the abundance of fur for sale, I could have been shopping in Dubai. Hermes. Burberry. Valentino. Versace. A Bentley store…in the MALL!… No, there are not shortages, and no luxury that can’t be obtained in the new Moscow (provided of course you have the rubles to back it up).

GUM Department Store #1 preparing for Christmas

GUM Department Store #1 preparing for Christmas

The new Russia is absolutely a melting pot of the ancient and uber modern, of Soviet grey and capitalist shimmer. Too bad I can’t read any of the signs!

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