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Travel and retreats: A cultural rival to St Petersburg

24 January 2020

Moscow has been rebuilding its churches — and its attraction with tourists, Diana Bentley discovered


St Basil’s Cathedral in Red Square

St Basil’s Cathedral in Red Square

SILHOUETTED against a deep blue sky, the multi-coloured domes of St Basil’s Cathedral shimmer in the afternoon sun. The Red Square, in Moscow, is humming with life, and the city’s most-renowned emblem has a host of visitors waiting to explore its labyrinth of jewel-like chapels, and to gaze out over the city from its towers.

Inside, the cathedral is as enchant­ing as it promises on the outside: each of its nine chapels lavishing its own col­lec­tion of glittering icons, paintings, and frescos on its visitors. Hal­lowed ground for tour­ists it may now be, but the cathedral had an unholy beginning. Built by Ivan the Terrible, it commemo­rates his cap­ture of the far-distant Tatar strong­­hold of Kazan in 1552, during which most of its inhabitants were mas­sacred.

This “holy Aladdin’s cave” is a true survivor: Napoleon wanted to destroy it, but failed; Stalin set about to demolish it, but was stopped by an outraged architect who was incarcerated for his trouble. Confiscated from the Russian Ortho­dox Church in the 1920s, St Basil’s was turned into a museum, and, in 1929, fully secularised, its sacred service over until 1997, when services resumed at St Basil’s Church. It now lives on, secure, as part of the Moscow Kremlin and Red Square UNESCO World Herit­age Site.

THE cathedral’s near neighbour has a troubled history, too. Across the Square, Kazan Cathedral, first built in the 17th century, was demolished by Stalin in 1936, but rebuilt in 1990-93, and today catches the eye with a multicoloured façade and golden dome (Orthodox services run morning and evening). On the other side of the Square, under the loom­ing walls of the Kremlin, visitors queue to visit Lenin’s Mausoleum and an array of rulers who lie buried near by.

The Kremlin itself, approached through the 15th-century Trinity Gate, stretches out before visitors like a vast city. The hub of political power for more than 800 years, it has been the home of tsars, nobles, and presidents.

Now, vast 17th-century palaces stand alongside 20th-century offices, its gardens carpeted with flowers and shaded by lofty trees. It presents such a peaceful sight that it is hard to imagine that Stalin, responsible for millions of Soviet deaths, reigned supreme here from 1927-53.

istockThe Kremlin

But it is the Kremlin’s royal and religious heritage that makes an unforgettable impression on me: Ivan the Great’s bell-tower presides over the Kremlin’s trove of cathed­rals and churches, largely built in the 15th and 16th century, each ablaze with glorious icons and shrines. Three centuries of tsars and tsarinas are buried in the Archangel Cathed­ral, and were crowned in the Assumption Cathedral next door, while the Annunciation Cathedral was their private church. Visiting them proves almost overwhelming: the visual richness is intense and awe-inspiring, unmatched by any­thing I have ever seen.

I take a spell in the gardens after­wards for a moment of serenity, before venturing into the Kremlin’s Armoury, where a host of weaponry vies for attention with fairy-tale costumes, carriages, and sleighs that once belonged to the tsars, and such vast amounts of gold and silver that it’s impossible to reconcile with the extremes of poverty endured by ordinary Russians at the time.

DESPITE Moscow’s heavyweight polit­ical credentials as Russia’s capi­tal, the city offers much to rival its glamorous counterpart, St Peters­burg, to the north. Its old reputation as a grim Communist metropolis vanishes as I stroll the city’s now elegant squares and boulevards. De­­spite Stalin’s demolition of a host of the city’s architectural heritage, much rebuilding has been done and Moscow’s centre presents an elegant cityscape.

Near to Red Square, the Alex­ander Gardens — one of Moscow’s now many green spaces — are a picture of floral loveliness and strolling families. As well as public gardens and parks, the city is unique among the world’s capitals for having established a national park within its limits, and many former estates of Russian tsars and nobility are located within the city and are now open to the public.

Many churches were destroyed after the 1917 Revolution and dur­ing Stalin’s time, but church build­ing, too, has experienced a robust revival, and now Moscow is home to more than 1200 churches. Sitting on a broad square, and rising maj­estically skywards, the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour is one such holy place that has risen from the ashes during Moscow’s redevelop­ment.

istockThe Cathedral of Christ the Saviour

The largest Orthodox cathedral in Russia was commissioned by Tsar Alexander I to celebrate the defeat of Napoleon in 1812, and demolished in 1931. What stands today was completed in 2000: a celebration of lavish opulence — marble floors, frescoes, iconostatis, crosses, altars, and magnificent light-filled domes. The cathedral, a popular place of pilgrimage, is open daily; services take place morning and evening.


POPULAR with tourists, too, archi­tecturally and as the font of con­sumerism, is the shopping mecca GUM, elaborately housed in 19th-
century splendour on the eastern side of Red Square the TsUM de­­part­­ment store, located east of the Bolshoi Theatre (which plays host to both ballet and opera), is also ele­gantly located in a six-storey Gothic Revival-style building. Many re­­main­­­ing Soviet-era buildings now draw their own crowds of onlookers, too, such as the the Sovietsky Hotel on Leningradsky Prospekt; adding to the richness of Moscow’s architec­tural history.

Other cultural treasures play rival to those in St Petersburg. The Push­kin Museum of Fine Arts has a wealth of antiquities (including the “Golden Hoard” uncovered in 1870 by the archaeologist Heinrich Schlie­mann, at the site believed to be Troy, in north-western Turkey), and one of the world’s great collections of Impressionist art.

Across the Moskva River, only a short walk from Red Square, the Tretyakov Gallery’s collection of Russian art mirrors the history of the country: watch out for the portraits of locals such as Ivan the Terrible, Dostoevsky, and Tolstoy, and great works that chronicle the country’s social history.

Newest of the city’s museums is the Museum of the Patriotic War of 1812, where the history of the Napoleonic invasion is traced with a superb collection. I gaze at the sleigh which helped to spirit Napoleon out of the country during his ignom­inious retreat, and paintings that record the tumultuous events so in­­delibly marked on the imagination by Tolstoy in War and Peace.


THE home of the great man himself is not far away. As one of the intellectual centres of the country, a host of writers and artists lived in Moscow, whose homes are some of the city’s best attractions.

Only a few stops on the Metro takes you to the Tolstoy House Museum, the winter residence of the Tolstoys. This comfortable, spacious home features the family’s actual belongings, and, as such, imbibes it with a sense that they have only just left.

On the busy, pedes­trianised Arbat Street (some say the social hub of the city, now housing bars and restaur­ants largely fre­­quented by tourists), the house of Russia’s poetic genius, Alexander Pushkin, makes a de­­lightful contrast with its sumptuous rooms.

istockThe Komsomolskaya Metro Station in Moscow

Getting around Moscow could not be easier, cheaper, or more pleas­ant (a ticket costs about 70p). Built as a showcase for the Soviet regime, many of the Metro stations are spec­tacularly embellished with marble and lavish artworks, and have spawned dedicated tourist tours. It’s easy to do your own, though, and the Moscovites could not be friend­lier if you need a helping hand.

Sated with churches and culture, I ride the Metro to the Izmaylovsky Market, a sprawling complex of souvenir, bric-a-brac and antique stalls which has the feel of a country fair. I end my stay bargaining with the locals in the sunlight, knowing that there is still much more of Moscow to see. I’ll need to visit again: next year, perhaps.

Travel details

The best time to visit is from May to September (May and June the most pleasant). For most visitors, the 30-day tourist visa will be adequate. Visas can be applied for directly through the Russian Visa Application Centre in London (Helpline: 0905 889 0149; email: info.ruuk@vfshelpline.com; www.ru.vfsglobal.co.uk). Visas can also be obtained through travel agents and tour operators (normally taking 20 business days to process). British Airways flies from London to Moscow, from £286 return. Alternatively, travel via Eurostar to Paris, then by direct train to Moscow (trains leave Paris on Thursdays, and Moscow on Tuesdays). For general tourist information see Discover Moscow: www.discovermoscow.

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