Inside the moodily lit Moskovsky Bar in the Four Seasons hotel, Ilya, the barman, is making me a Moscow Mule. It’s a quiet evening and the ground-floor watering hole is almost empty, but Ilya is performing with a panache that suggests an audience. In goes the vodka with an arc of the arm, lifting the bottle like a ballerina in flight. The ginger beer is added with a splash. Then, like a magician unveiling an assistant who, it transpires, has not been sawn in half, he reveals the secret ingredient: kvas, the Russian version of coca cola, glugged from St Petersburg to Vladivostok in the Soviet era. The final touch has come from just as far. “The ice is from Lake Baikal, in Siberia,” he tells me, producing a cube the size of a brick. As he hands me the copper mug I half expect him to say “ta-dah!”
I take the cocktail from him, noticing his tattoos as I do so. Snakes coil their way around his wrist, poking out from underneath his crisp white shirt. For a moment, they throw me, seeming to posit this cool cat of a cocktail maker in Shoreditch, Brooklyn, Kreuzberg or some other hip area of a city that has embraced the 21st century. Not in the Russian capital, where, some might argue, the 20th century is still alive and glowering.
Outside, Moscow is keeping up appearances. Two minutes walk south west, the soldiers who protect the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier — the monument dedicated to Russia’s dead from the Second World War — are ending the day in a choreographed march back to barracks. Above them, the wall of the Kremlin looms. Behind this stark red barrier, the lights are on in the Senate building where the Russian president has his office. There’s rain on the breeze, and the city is lost in a gloom redolent of Bond films and Le Carré novels. Back in Moskovsky Bar, Ilya reaches for the apricot brandy and asks: “How about a Pavlovan Mystery?” There’ll be no frosty relations tonight. At least, not in here.
Despite its old-fashioned elements, however, in Moscow old and new are starting to dance — and it’s fascinating to watch the show. On a Saturday morning I glimpse their faltering steps, their unsure foxtrot. It’s 22 April, Lenin’s birthday and a fortuitous time to be in Red Square. A crowd of well-wishers has congregated at the revolutionary icon’s tomb to mark the anniversary. The red flags of the Russian Communist Party are waved in the misty air. Three elderly gentlemen, stooped and frail, are assisted by a son or daughter towards the tomb. Adjacent on the slippery cobbles, millennial Moscow looks on in bemusement and then passes by. There are selfies to be taken, smartphone conversations to be had and trainers to be bought in GUM, a department store that faces the mausoleum. Mirroring the trio of septuagenarian soldiers saluting their hero, metres away three teenage girls skip through the shop’s giant entrance, arms linked, giggling in unison.
But it’s too simplistic to say that Russia in 2017 is witnessing a schism between yesterday and tomorrow. Moscow is being pulled slowly and subtly in all manner of directions — by financial changes; by a glacial infrastructure overhaul; by cultural undercurrents; by the motion of youth and social media. Each tugs at the moorings of tradition, politics and ingrained attitudes. The process isn’t tearing the city apart, but it’s certainly stretching the stitches.
Some of the signs are obvious. Moya Ulitsa (‘My Street’) is an ambitious, overdue programme that began in 2014 to remove the city’s electrical cables from overhead pylons and bury them beneath the pavement. In a metropolis of 13 million residents, it has only added to the traffic chaos — jams are constant. Some of the gridlock has been eased by the resurrection of the Moscow Central Circle, a 34-mile ring railway line around the centre. It was initially constructed in 1908, closed to passengers in 1934, and reconfigured as a fast commuter service last September. Travellers can ride it to Delovoy Tsentr station and the Moscow City business district, an image of ‘new Russia’, where buildings like the 1,227ft-tall Federation Tower scratch at the heavens.
A mile south west of the Kremlin, the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour encapsulates Russia waltzing between old and new. It was originally built between 1839 and 1883 in thanks for Russia’s deliverance from Napoleon, but was obliterated by dynamite on Stalin’s orders in 1931, in the epoch of state atheism. Its replacement was built between 1990 and 2000 under the more benevolent eyes of Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin, a looming giant of white walls and gold domes that admires its reflection in the River Moskva.
And yet, though a child in years, the cathedral belongs to a Russia of unflinching centuries. It was here, on 21 February 2012, that the all-female rock band Pussy Riot played a guerilla gig, an act of political defiance aimed at Vladimir Putin that would see three of its members tried on charges of hooliganism motivated by religious hatred, and jailed for nearly two years in the harshest case. Watch the YouTube video of the incident and it appears utterly innocuous, but standing in the same vast space on a Saturday lunchtime, I’m suddenly not surprised that it provoked such a severe response. This cathedral represents the Russia of fervent Orthodox faith and extreme devotion. Elaborate mosaics and frescoes adorn the walls. The aroma of incense floats on the air. Women in headscarves rub tirelessly at brass candle stands, quietly angered by the wax that drips from burning wicks.
It’s beautiful but stifling, an improbable context for protest, and I feel the need to flee to the roof, where an observation deck offers views of a shapeshifting conurbation. Moscow City is visible in the distance, but the past is also swarthily insistent. In the distance I spy the Seven Sisters, the septet of colossal gothic skyscrapers, commissioned by Stalin between 1947 and 1953 and an inalienable part of the Moscow skyline. They are magnificent in size and scope, serving as (among other things) Moscow State University, the five-star Hotel Ukraina and its luxury sibling the Hotel Leningradskaya. But with clouds gathering behind them, they also resemble hands clawing their way up from a grave.
The sense of a Russia braced against dissent is amplified by a ride south-west on the tube. The Moscow metro is a masterpiece, surely the planet’s most spectacular subterranean transit system, but it pledges visual allegiance to the Soviet straitjacket. Park Kultury station, on Line 1, is a Stalinist celebration of Russian prowess, the concourse between its platforms peppered with marble statues of godlike youths, carved between 1931 and 1935: gorgeous boys reading literature, aspiring actors performing, athletic girls triumphing at tennis. It was carved out between 1931 and 1935, and does not seem too concerned that the world has moved on.
But a defiant flame flickers above ground. At first glance, Gorky Park — Moscow’s prime green enclave — would seem to toe the party line as well, named after Russian literary giant and Stalin’s favourite author Maxim Gorky, and featuring an enormous seven-archway entrance that booms with Soviet grandeur. The year 1955 is imprinted on its facade next to Lenin’s face.
Yet inside, the Garage Museum of Contemporary Art is a clever question mark, probing at the fabric of the society around it. Its moniker is a red herring, referring to the former bus depot in which it was originally housed. It now occupies the shell of the Vremena Goda (‘seasons of the year’) restaurant, the park’s culinary focal point in the Soviet decades. A mosaic of a female autumn clad in orange still adorns the main hall. The whole gallery, in fact, might be an act of misdirection, showcasing art that could be considered critical of the status quo, yet which wraps its barbs in ambiguity. ‘Numbers’, a 2015 work by the 28-year-old Chechen artist Aslan Gaisumov examines the destruction of his home city of Grozny by Russian forces in 1999. It reconstructs a street via the silent device of fixing salvaged house numbers — one to 99 — to a board. The reasons for the gaps’ placement, in a pattern that approximates a mouth of broken teeth, are left to your interpretation. Similarly, photos by Anastasia Bogomolova capture the bleak mundanity of life in the city of Bakal (1,000 miles east of Moscow), without explicitly stating that it was born out of slavery, the site of one of Stalin’s Gulags from 1941 to 1943.
Russia’s left field is also identifiable two miles east of the Kremlin at Winzavod, another contemporary art hub cocooned in a onetime brewery and wine factory. Travelling to find it feels like a journey beneath the city’s skin. Line 5 of the metro goes both above and below ground, surfacing next to Kurskaya railway station, from which drab armies of carriages trundle off in search of Moscow’s southern suburbs. Further on, it passes through narrow roads lined with warehouses and splattered with graffiti. The gallery is entirely at home in this post-industrial realm. Since 2007, its brick outhouses have displayed the work of many of the country’s brightest young visionaries and will continue to do so this summer via its Farewell to Eternal Youth exhibition. Video artist Evgeny Granilschikov will take centre stage until 16 July, and sculptor Irina Korina will come into focus for two months from 15 August. Both will enjoy audiences larger than you might expect of so scuffed a location. Hidden in the corner of the compound, diner-drinkery Kraftwerk is testament to Winzavod’s popularity. A chalkboard behind the bar lists 29 beers, with titles as evocative as Red Sonya and Fucking Perfect. A DJ booth promises loud, late nights. I ask the waitress dashing between tables what time it closes. “We’re open until our last customer leaves,” she says with a shrug that suggests she is used to lengthy shifts.
A fragment of a less introverted, more expressive Russia? Maybe. And maybe Zaryadye Park, Moscow’s current big creative project, is part of the same thing. Here is a flight of fantasy — a green lung. Due for completion in 2018, the space will incorporate everything from ecological zones that represent the flora of the Russian landscape to an orchestral concert hall and a half-bridge made from glass that will jut partially out over the Moskva River. That this will be the first new park in Moscow in 50 years is remarkable. That it’s being crafted to the blueprint of Diller Scofidio + Renfro, the New York design team who created Manhattan’s iconic High Line walkway, is even more so. That this place of public promenade will sit directly next door to the Kremlin, on the footprint of the demolished Rossiya Hotel, the 3,000-room kraken that became an emblem of squat Soviet sixties architecture, seems almost impossible to conceive.
“Part of the idea is to open up the city for pedestrians,” Timur Bashkaev, one of the architects responsible for the interiors of some of Zaryadye’s futuristic buildings, tells me as we examine a scale model of the site at his office in the shadow of Christ the Saviour. “People will walk out of Red Square and into the park. It will alter
Later that day I take a stroll to inspect it, peering over wooden barricades to spy on the work in progress. All around, 20-something Muscovites are scurrying into the dusk, aiming for the shops of the Okhotny Ryad mall, a retail temple wedded to American capitalism with such enthusiasm that it offers Dunkin’ Donuts. But around the corner, guards are still statuesque at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, Mother Russia watching her children, uncertain where the future will carry them.
Getting there & around
British Airways flies direct from Heathrow to Moscow’s Domodedovo Airport, which lies 26 miles south east of the city centre. Russian national carrier Aeroflot serves Heathrow and Gatwick from Sheremetyevo Airport, 18 miles north west of the Kremlin.
The Moscow Metro covers the city in depth and, including the Moscow Central Circle, it incorporates 15 lines, 245 miles of track and 237 stations. Single journeys are R55 (75p). The Aeroexpressaeroexpress.ru train service links Sheremetyevo and Domodedovo airports to the centre (the Belorussky and Paveletsky train terminals respectively), from R420 (£5.75) one way.
When to go
The Russian winter can be notoriously fierce, but Moscow can hit temperatures of 23C in July and August. September, with average temperatures of around 16C, is also an ideal month to visit.
How to do it
Steppes Travel, a Russia specialist, offers five-day breaks at the Four Seasons hotel, B&B, from £1,975 per person, including British Airways flights, a private guide, transfers and visa assistance.
Published in the Jul/Aug 2017 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)