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The Magic of Moscow

Nirmal Khanna takes you on a tour of offbeat destinations, which are steeped, in history and rich in culture. The next time that you plan a vacation, you will want to forsake the usual tourist spots to venture further a field to discover places that you read about in school and college. The first destination is Moscow, the capital of Russia.

When you land at Sheremetyevo-2 (one of the city's five airports) and start down the long drive into town, you begin to wonder why you ever made the effort. Ugly block like buildings, shabby vehicles, unfashionable clothes, and unsmiling pedestrians - the first impression is drab and grey. Yet, there must be something about this city and country, which made so many want to conquer and subjugate it. From the Tartar hordes, to Napoleon and Hitler, all tried to establish their control.

But, to discover the charm of Moscow, one has to do it on foot. So check in at your hotel (as close to the Red Square as possible) and then walk. Behind the main highways there is the old city with quiet parks, medieval cathedrals complete with onion shaped spires and richly adorned with paintings, museums displaying a wealth of art, concerts-in short the friendlier face of the city.

But, to see the two faces of this huge (yes, it is sprawling) metropolis, one has first to take a peep into history to understand its heart. The Kremlin area was first settled in the 11th century by Yuri Dolgoruky the Prince of Sandal.

In 1237 came the Tartars led by Batu the grandson
of Genghis Khan. The next few centuries were turbulent filled with wars and shifting fortunes.

In the 16 century Ivan the Terrible (who lived up to his name, killing even his eldest son in a fit of rage) expanded the kingdom. Another notable figure was Peter the Great in the 17 th Century who moved the capital to St Petersburg.

Then came Napoleon's assault on Moscow (1812) and one month later, his ignominious retreat. 1917 saw the overthrowing of the Tsarist regime and control by Stalin followed by the political upheaval through the decades. Each era has left behind a significant mark hence the ugly grey buildings, which partially obscure from view many picturesque churches. The block like structures and glimpses of onion topped spires form a unique vista.

Most of us know the Red Square by photographs - of great-coated, fur-hatted, grim-faced bureaucrats taking the salute at an arsenal, flanked by goose-stepping soldiers march by. But that is only on ceremonial occasions. The Red Square is vast, so comfortable shoes are a must.

You can still see the goose-stepping soldiers when they change guard at Lenin's tomb every hour.

The Red Square is always teeming with tourists from every possible nationality with cameras clicking away. This area used to be a market square and a place for ceremonial events. Here Ivan the Terrible confessed to his misdeeds in 1547 and built St Basil's Cathedral, Peter the Great's 2000 strong palace guard was butchered, hecklers forced Mikhail Gorbachov to retreat from Lenin's tomb and many more fascinating events.

Lenin's tomb, which every tourist feels obliged to visit, is depressing. Made of granite it displays the embalmed body of the leader. Queues snake around waiting to go in and finally, the tour takes about 20 minutes.

Much more interesting is St Basil's Cathedral which rises like a fairy tale on the south side. Once described by a 19th century French traveller as a 'Basket of Crystallised Fruit' it is the ultimate symbol of Russia and although it looks fairly Oriental, it epitomises the typical Russian style of churches. Built by Ivan the Terrible to commemorate a victory, it is actually a collection of nine chapels, with onion shaped spires in a multitude of colours. This is a favourite spot for tourists to assemble to take pictures to record their visit.

The Kremlin a self contained city with a multitude of palaces, armouries, and churches. In 1147, it is recorded that a feast was held at the hunting lodge of Prince Yuri Dolgoruky, ruling prince of Rostov and Suzdal. The lodge was perfectly situated atop a hill overlooking the Moskva and Neglina rivers, prompting its development (in such troubled times) as a fortified town, or Kremlin.

Within a century, the town had risen to become an independent principality within the Mongol empire and Moscow was made the seat of the Russian Orthodox Church. With Ivan the Great (1462-1505) at its helm, Muscovite rule extended over all of Russia, and the Kremlin became more magnificent, befitting its role as the seat of Russian power.

By 1480 the once modest hunting lodge had become an imposing fortress city. The magnificent Cathedral of the Assumption, where Ivan defiantly tore up the charter binding Moscow to Mongol rule, graced its stonewalls. Over the next two centuries the Kremlin served as the central stage for the magnificent and occasionally horrific history of the Tsars.

With the shift of power to St. Petersburg, the city and the Kremlin declined. However, the Bolsheviks' choice of Moscow as their capital in March 1918 returned it to pre-eminence. Although the Soviet State certainly left its mark on the Kremlin, the centuries-old citadel retains the aura of early Tsarist Russia.

The Arsenal
The Kremlin Arsenal was commissioned by Peter the Great to serve as a weapons depot and manufactory but is now the headquarters of the Kremlin Guard.

The State Kremlin Palace
This modern glass and concrete structure, completed in 1961, is the Kremlin's most recent edifice. It was built during the halcyon days of the Khrushchev administration to host Communist Party congresses and was executed in appropriately magnificent style with a huge auditorium (6000 seats), the stage of which was surmounted by a monumental bas-relief head of Lenin surrounded by gilded rays. Today, the Kremlin Ballet Company uses the palace for performances, and the once familiar relief of Lenin is gone.

The graceful neo-classical Senate building, commissioned by Catherine the Great and was intended to serve as a meeting place for an advisory council, but it is better known for having been the location of Lenin's office after the Revolution. Today, the Senate serves as the official Presidential residence.

Tsar Cannon and Bell
These two curiosities form an oddly appropriate pair. Both are among the largest of their kind in the world, and neither has ever worked. The 40-ton Tsar Cannon, built during the reign of Ivan the Terrible's imbecilic son Fyodor in 1586, possesses a barrel in excess of five meters long and a calibre of 890 mm. is adorned with a relief of the redoubtable Fyodor as well as a scene in which a fierce Russian lion devastates a snake symbolising Russia's enemies. The two hundred ton Tsar Bell, though the largest in the world, was never successfully completed, much less rung.

Beside the bell lies a small eleven-ton scrap that fell from the bell during its excavation.

Cathedral Square
Considered for centuries as the symbolic heart of Tsarist rule it is centred on the impressive Cathedral of the Assumption, built in the 1470s by Ivan the Great as the seat of the Russian Orthodox Church. Until Peter the Great moved his capital from Moscow to St. Petersburg in 1710, Cathedral Square was the focal point of political power in the country--coronations, assemblies of the nobility, and all of the associated ceremonial rituals of state took place here.

Assumption Cathedral
This is the oldest, largest, and most important of the Kremlin's many churches. It stands on the site of a small cathedral erected by Ivan I around 1330 to mark Moscow's new status as the seat of Russian orthodoxy. Ivan III (the Great) it was insufficient as a symbol of the city's grandeur. So, he hired an Italian, Alberti Fioravanti who built it in just four years but when he wanted to return to his country, he was imprisoned and died in captivity.

It was on its steps in 1480 that Ivan tore up the charter binding Moscow's princes to tribute to the Mongols. It is the Cathedral where coronations, funerals, victory services were held and it is remarkable for it's frescoes, icons, and the elaborate Throne of Monomakh.

The Cathedral of the Archangel Michael
Built by Ivan the Great's it is the burial place of the early Tsars and their predecessors, the princes of Moscow. Its features include the scallop-shell decoration of its gables and the ornate Corinthian columns.

The Cathedral of the Annunciation
The golden-domed Cathedral of the Annunciation served as the private chapel of the Tsars. It was raised by Ivan III in the late 1440s on the foundations of a much earlier and more modest church, An addition is the Grosnenskiy Porch built by Ivan the Terrible in 1572 after he contravened church doctrine by marrying for a fourth time (the Orthodox Church allowed only three marriages). Banned from coming in, from it Ivan would carry out his religious devotions from behind a specially constructed grille!

Also, there are the Cathedral of the Twelve Apostles and The Patriarch's Palace, The Terem, Ivan the Great Bell tower (the tallest structure in Russia) and Great Kremlin Palaces but the average tourist is by now palaced out and numb with sightseeing!

A brief stop at the Armoury is recommended as amongst other artefacts it holds a stupendous collection of over fifty Faberge eggs and next door, at the Diamond Treasury, visitors can catch a glimpse of the infamous 190-carat Orlov Diamond.

Moscow is known for the Bolshoi ballet and no matter how short your stay, a visit to this famed theatre is a must. Another must see is the Izmaylovsky Park, where an open air market comes to life every Sunday. Ignore the shops and department stores, this is where you can browse and pick up all your souvenirs specially matryoshka dolls. Another point: instead of a taxi take the Metro, first built in 1955 which was supposed to provide 'palaces for the people' with stations, specially the Arabatskaya, which is embellished with marble and ornate fittings.

Get a feel of the city, mingle with the people, haggle a little and shop to your heart's content!

Facts for the Traveller

Visas: All visitors require a visa
Time: There are 11 time zones; Moscow is GMT plus three hours
Electricity: 220V, 50 Hz
Weights & measures: Metric
Tourism: 7 million visitors per year

When to Go
July and August are the warmest months and the main holiday season. They're also the dampest - it might rain one day in three. So if you want to avoid the crowds and the rain, try May-June or September-October. Although winter is bitter, theatres open, buildings are warm and the snow is beautiful. Spring is slushy, muddy and generally horrible.

Travel Desk (Previous Features)

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