Discovering Hidden Haunts in Moscow

Past and future collide in a city with indomitable spirit.  
Supersize matryoshka dolls Afimall shopping centre
Supersize matryoshka dolls at Afimall shopping centre are an example of the role art and design play in this historic city. Photo by Jeremy Nicholl Photography.

Seeing the Kremlin at night always enthralls me, even after my 23 years in Moscow. The vista of brick towers and crenellated ramparts, so magnificent as to appear unreal, calls to mind an illuminated print from an old book of fairy tales.

My sighting of Russia’s most famous (or infamous) fortress comes as my cab trundles over the Bolshoy Kamenny Bridge, through air shimmering with a fierce frost. Gusts of wind stir snowdrifts along the banks of the Moskva River below us. No less the seat of power now, during the era of Vladimir Putin, than it was in Ivan the Terrible’s day (or Stalin’s), the Kremlin evokes, for me, a mix of dread and majesty—the emotions I experienced as a child of the Cold War when I both feared Russia (I lived in Washington, D.C., aka ground zero) and marvelled at it. My fascination led to graduate studies in Russian and East European history, to my first visit in 1985, and to a move here for good in the summer of 1993. In 1999 I married a Russian. Moscow is the city I call home.

ST. Basil's Cathedral, Moscow

Built in the mid-1500s, St. Basil’s Cathedral in Red Square is one of Moscow’s most iconic structures.
Photo by Nadia Isakova/ AWL Images.

The Kremlin, a walled citadel with five palaces and five churches, looms on my right as we shoot past vast Red Square, presided over by St. Basil’s Cathedral, with its candy cane cupolas. We drive by the State Duma (parliament), faceless and modern (and totally subservient to President Putin). Then comes Lubyanka Square and another bunker of a building, today housing the KGB’s successor, the FSB. Here one August night in 1991, crowds of Russians cheered as cranes dismantled the statue of Felix Dzerzhinsky, the blood-soaked founder of the Soviet secret police.

Those were promising days, when real democratic change in Russia seemed possible. These days, Western sanctions threaten the highest living standard Russians have ever known. For all but dollar- and euro-bearing travellers (feeling blessed by the rouble’s devaluation), now should be a cheerless time in Moscow. But it’s not.

My cab leaves me at a restaurant near Lubyanka, Ekspeditsiya (expedition). It’s crowded, loud with folk songs sung by a group of musicians and customers clinking glasses and toasting. I have come for lively conversation and traditional Russian cuisine; since the fall of the Soviet Union more than two decades ago, Russian cooking has become something of a rarity in Moscow, at least outside people’s homes. (Most top restaurants are international.)

I’m joined by Irina, a Muscovite friend who staunchly defends Putin. The evening promises to be interesting. Over drinks and cedar nuts, Irina enlightens me.

“Russians,” she says, “have always been conquering wild country. We are always ready to light out for the wilderness, even in subzero frosts. We need difficulties to thrive. That is just who we are.”

Settling wildernesses also meant eating unpalatable things, including some “delicacies” on our menus—marinated moose with cabbage, grilled reindeer tongue with cowberry sauce. I choose a safe favourite, pelmeni (dumplings), specifically Siberian pelmeni stuffed with deer meat and smothered in delicious smetana, or sour cream. We wash the meal down with a half litre of vodka, which we drink straight, the Russian way.

Eliseevsky emporium, Moscow

A temple to gourmet foods since 1901 (and renovated in 2004), the neo-baroque Eliseevsky emporium specializes in caviar and other delicacies. Photo by Frank Heuer/ Laif/ Redux.

The next time we meet, it is at Club Mayak, a restaurant in the middle of “Old Moscow,” a web of lanes winding between low stucco houses dating from a century or two ago. Once the dining area of the Mayakovsky theatre next door, Club Mayak now serves as a low-key gathering place for some of Moscow’s best known actors, writers, and journalists. With a red-walled interior, careworn furniture, and sepia-tinted lighting, there are no pretensions here (www.clubmayak.ru; glass of wine from RUB 200/Rs 230)

Over some wine and a plate of European cheeses, served despite an official ban on such goods, I ask Irina what the future holds.

“We went through World War II and we won,” she replies. “I am not worried.”

I’m feeling a bit less sanguine. But I do know this: Whatever happens in Russia, its fate will be decided, one way or another, here in Moscow—a fact that continues to fuel this city’s indomitable spirit.

  • Jeffrey Tayler 's most recent book is "Topless Jihadis: Inside Femen, the World’s Most Provocative Activist Group" (Atlantic ebooks, 2013).

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