A walk through Soviet Moscow

Mosselprom

MOSCOW WAS ONCE dubbed, rather gruesomely, a ‘graveyard of ideas’. We will not spend time discussing whether this title is fair, but one can’t deny that every big idea that ever captivated Russia has left a visible imprint on Moscow.

While Kremlin and Bolshoi are must-see, they belong to a country that ceased to exist a hundred years ago. The time that came after it was characterised, first and foremost, with the reign of one big idea. For decades, from 1917 to early 50’s, hundreds of people were captivated with the idea of creating a new, entirely modern country. It involved not only constructing new buildings, but also building new, wide avenues that cut right through the old city. Pandeia took a walk through Soviet Moscow.

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Like many other old cities, Moscow grew from centre outwards in circles. Once in a while bigger radial and circular streets (called ‘rings’ by locals) were added. It has retained this structure until now ‒ so everybody walking in the city is either circling it, or following one of the radiuses.

Walking and viewing

We start from Moscow University (1). The main building, which used to be the highest in Europe until the 80’s, can be seen from many spots in Moscow, and makes a powerful impression. Its iconic silhouette is the emblem of the university, appearing on all the official documents and student ID’s issued by it. Take a walk around the building, and look up at the gigantic blue and gold clocks and barometers on top and statues by the entrance.

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Entering without a student ID can be problematic, unless you know a student or a member of staff or visit it on a day of graduation ceremony in the end of June. Inside it is not that impressive ‒ but still offers one of the best views on Moscow from its windows. If you can’t make it to the top, just walk through the campus to the observation platform by the river and enjoy the view from the highest hill in Moscow.

The University is wrapped in urban legends that change slightly with every generation of students. The most long-lived of these is the one about a gigantic statue of Stalin that was supposed to stand in front of the main entrance. However, the construction of the new campus was finished several years after Stalin’s death, and the statue was left to lie deep under the building in a secret vault. The last time I heard this story, the statue was told to be made of solid gold.

The best way to travel through Moscow is the metro. It is fast, cheap (check the city transportation website for public transport fares), and is itself the biggest site of the Soviet era left in Moscow. Universitet (University ) and Vorobievy Gory (Sparrow Hills) stations are closest to the University. Both are worth seeing: the former for its elegant marble decoration, letter‒ for the the beautiful view on the Moskva river (it is the only station located on a bridge in Moscow).

Head up to Park Kultury (2), and if you’re not in a hurry, get out and look around Frunsenskaya station, which is really dramatic and elegant with red marble panels and steel five-pointed stars.

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Park Kultury station has got its name after Moscow’s best and biggest park just across the river from the station. Now the park is one of the most popular spots for local people. Its huge gate, which resembles Brandenburg gate in Berlin, should not mislead you: it is, probably, the most welcoming spot in the city, full fairy lights and skaters in winter, and music, ice cream stalls and cafes in summer.

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This park was first opened in the 1920’s, and was the first public space of this type in the whole country, used both as recreational spot and showcase of USSR’s best technical achievements. It has fallen into decay in the 1990’s, but was recently reconstructed to resemble its 20’s image, with a few 21st century perks, such as free wifi and skateboarding grounds. Nowadays it hosts, among other things, Garage art centre (check their website for interesting events; and their book shop is worth a visit for those interested in modern art), Pioner summer cinema (one of the few in Moscow that shows films without dubbing and only with subtitles), and three social dancing spots. Such places were very popular in the 20’s and 40’s, and now are gaining back their popularity. They are easy to find ‒ just follow the music ‒ and are occupied almost constantly by different dancing fans. Salsa and hustle are most popular, but sometimes you might stumble upon history nerds reconstructing a 19th century ball, or Irish tap dancers. Feel free to join, or just gawk from a sidewalk, together with local dog walkers.

Centre

From this park, head into the metro, and ride to Kropotkinskaya station (red line). The station itself is the most elegant and simple one in Moscow. As all the other stations that were constructed in the 30’s, it was supposed to be filled with Communist symbols. The architect, however, found a very subtle way of doing it: look up at the ceiling, and you will see that every pillar sprouts a huge five-pointed star.

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As you exit the station, you will see Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, the biggest church in Moscow. It was blown up in the 30’s, to make place for “Palace of Soviets” ‒ but the project was never realised, and the cathedral was rebuilt in the 90’s. Many older people don’t take it seriously: they still remember the swimming pool that occupied its place.

Walk past the cathedral, and enter the bridge. From it, you can see the chaotic mass of red bricks: the former Krasny Oktyabr’ (Red October) (3) chocolate factory, now transformed into Moscow’s most hip spot, full of galleries, showrooms and bars. It is worth a visit any time, beginning from lunch time (nobody here wakes up before that) and into the night.

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If you cross the river back to the cathedral and walk up the street towards Kremlin (easily visible in this part of city), you’ll hardly fail to notice the big white building with black columns ‒  the Russian State Library (former Lenin Library) (4). It makes a very stark contrast to the nearby Kremlin, and shows the Soviet idea of the country’s most important library: something gigantic, essentially constructivist, but reminiscent of the old imperial aesthetics. It’s worth to have a look inside (the entrance is free, but you’ll need to show your passport).

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When you turn your back to the library’s entrance, head up Vozdvizhenka street. On the left side, next to the library, you’ll see a bleak grey building of Architecture Museum. It hosts rather interesting exhibitions (if you go inside, don’t forget to see the ‘Ruin’ hall), and its bookshop offers the best selection of guidebooks to Moscow, along with a very good collection on Constructivism and surprisingly tasteful postcards (a great alternative to the usual eye watering rubbish sold in souvenir shops).

In about 10 minutes’ walk up Vozdvizhenka, you’ll reach a big junction, where two Arbat streets begin. Before going down those, cross the street to the right and have a closer look at a brightly painted Mosselprom building (5). Walk a little into the small alleyway next to it, and you will see the bright 20’s ads of sweets and tobacco painted on its wall.

Mosselprom
Old Arbat (6), on the left, is the most touristy street in Moscow. While it is filled to bursting with tacky ‘Russian souvenir’ shops and chain cafes, it still has a certain charm, provided by street musicians. The old small alleyways next to Arbat should be very interesting to those who like getting lost in unknown cities. If you want to test your mastering of Moscow geography (or the accuracy of your google maps), try and find Melnikov house ‒ a little masterpiece of Constructivist architecture now hidden in its own overgrown garden.

Once you’ve had enough of Arbat, turn right, cross the tangle of tiny old lanes and enter New Arbat (7) ‒ the major avenue lined with skyscrapers constructed in the 60’s.

 

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If you follow Novinskiy Boulevard, another major street that crosses New Arbat, you will reach Narkomfin building (8) ‒ one of the first ‘communal houses’ built in Moscow. It was designed with the idea of a new, communal lifestyle: small flats with no kitchens, and big communal areas for eating, working and socialising. Its inhabitants were not supposed to spend much time alone, dedicating all their time to the community. Traditional families were deemed outdated: in the new world imagined by the Constructivists, children would be brought up in kindergartens, women would be ‘liberated from the kitchen slavery’, and would spend most of their time in the community, just like men. With such a lifestyle, people would never much personal space ‒ they’ll need their privacy only when sleeping and washing.

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The nearest metro station is Smolenskaya. Form it, ride a few stations to the centre, and get out at Ploschad Revolutsii (Revolution Square). This is one of the most impressive, and definitely the most dramatic station in Moscow. Decorated with dark red stone, it is filled with statues of war heroes that crouch around its heavy pillars. If the urban legend is true, ‘Metro-2’ ‒ a secret metro line from Kremlin to the southern part of Moscow, built to evacuate the government in case of a serious threat, should start somewhere here.

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As you exit the station, you will see Tverskaya (9)‒ Moscow’s main street. Unlike New Arbat, it was built in the same place before the Revolution ‒ but was considerably widened to accommodate the annual military parades that would go down this street and straight onto Red Square. If you happen to be in Moscow on the first week of May, you might see parade rehearsal.

For the last leg of this city trip, get on the Teatralnaya (Theatre) metro station, and head north to Mayakovskaya, named after Russia’s most prominent Futurist poet, Mayakovsky.  Don’t forget to look up at the exquisite mosaics decorating the ceiling ‒ and maybe run a coin up one of the metallic ribs.

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Eating

The area around Mayakovskaya (10) is a good place to eat ‒ feel free to explore small streets nearby, heading away from Kremlin, and pop into one of the many cafes, put up your tired feet and enjoy a coffee. Eating in Moscow is a good chance to explore not only traditional Russian cuisine, but Ukrainian, Caucasian and Central Asian, too. If you’re on a tight budget, we would suggest Karavayev Brothers and Prime chains (another good thing about those is that they keep their products in open display, like supermarkets ‒ so you won’t have any language problems). Some of the bars in Krasny Oktyabr’ also have good day menus.

Practical:

Don’t trust the stereotype of Russians being grim and unfriendly. Keeping a smile on one’s face in public is indeed not that common — but once you start talking, you’ll be surprised with the change. Learning a few Russian words, like ‘Hi’ or ‘Thank you’ will make things even easier.

The best time to visit Moscow is between May and September. Winter can be good, too  — but March and November best be avoided — unless you want to feel wet, cold and miserable.

Public transport in Moscow is far from perfect — with the only exception of metro, that is fast and reliable — altough crowded at rush hours. Buying a multi-ride transport card is a good idea. Checking this public transport website beforehand is a good idea, since cashiers don’t normally speak English.

 

By Daria Sukharchuk

Image Credit:

Map:  Anastasiya Shentseva

Photos: Daria Sukharchuk, WikiMedia , https://www.flickr.com/photos/crlsblnc/ , https://www.flickr.com/photos/gromozzzeka/ https://www.flickr.com/photos/chaoticmind75/

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