There are, I am finding, one or two differences between Moscow and London.
Take Christmas decorations. In London, the most interesting ones are done by the people trying to entice you into their shops to buy their wares and in Moscow, there aren’t any.
This is because in the Soviet Union, under the communists, Christmas was banned. Or at least energetically discouraged. So, in an interesting reversal of what the Christians did to the Pagan midwinter festivals, everybody celebrates New Year instead in a way which is almost entirely like the Christmases of elsewhere. Christmas trees? Are New Year trees. But otherwise largely indistinguishable. Father Christmas? Is Ded Moroz (Grandfather Frost), ably assisted by his granddaughter, Snegurochka (the Snow Maiden). Traditional television that everybody looks forward to? It’s no Doctor Who Christmas Special, but it exists. Family dining on an epic scale? Yes, got that, although it happens at midnight on 31st. And yes, everybody suffers through the leftovers for the next ten days too. There are even traditional sporting events the day after the big day. Swimming in ice holes mostly. Natch.
So what you are seeing when you walk around Moscow in the second half of December, are actually New Year decorations. Any insidious Christmas creep – the markets which spring up tend to be called Christmas markets, which is not surprising as they are as much of a blatant rip off of the same European phenomenon as they are in the UK – is dampened by the fact that the Orthodox celebration of the birth of Jesus is on 7th January. It’s fighting a losing battle is expecting people to delay gratification that long.
It’s not all pillaging from the West though. Mama was bemused by the sheer number of monkey themed items in all the shops this year until she remembered that Russians like to add whatever the animal from the Chinese horoscope is coming up next to their celebrations, and to hell with the fact that the respective New Years don’t line up at all and it’s a different belief system altogether.
When you receive a Christmas card from Mama with a cavorting rat, cow or dragon in a Santa hat covered in snow on the front, do not be surprised.
Of course, all this means that my Superb Big Brother and I get three separate days of being given presents, as Mama and Papa try to cover all their cultural bases in one marathon blow out. Every now and again being bi-cultural has its advantages. For us children.
Following the wild success of our London Christmas Window Scavenger Hunt in 2014, Mama thought it would be fun to get into the Christ… New Y… seasonal spirit by seeing what central Moscow had to offer, especially now that most of it is pedestrianised and considerably less overflowing with manic Christmas shoppers given that the centre of Moscow is mostly home to extremely high-end retail emporiums, and also given that Moscow tends to go in for bread and circuses on an epic scale for every public holiday of note.
Red Square. We enter at one end, and get our first glimpses of so many iconic sights around the edges. Well, my first glimpses. The others have all done this before.
There are the soaring brick-red walls sloping high up one side, protecting the Kremlin. These are cornered by the thin round (red) towers, topped with big ruby-red stars. In front of that there’s the squat blocky browny-red building you aren’t allowed to get to close to because someone called Lenin is inside, and the long lines of stone steps fanning out either side. At the back end is the Gothic blood-red splendour of the National History Museum. Next to that there’s a small coral church, and then all down the other side is a surprisingly unred beige affair, also fairly burdened with busy architectural detailing, inside which you can find the former State Department Store GUM.
And best of all, at the front, there is the riot of colour, thankfully with red to the fore, that is St Basil’s cathedral.
Actually, Mama says that St Basil’s isn’t even called St Basil’s, technically speaking. But then she also claims that Red Square is so named because ‘red’ and ‘beautiful’ have the same root in Russian, rather than because of the scarlet nature of its surroundings. I say it’s only a matter of time before someone overrules her and paints GUM a soothing shade of pink. Mama counters with the information that someone called Stalin has already done much the same, when he switched the previously whitewashed Kremlin walls to painted red, for much the same simplistic reasons.
She leaves out the fact that the walls are, underneath the paint, red brick.
After what feels like three thousand hours, we are only just in the centre, and wilting in the blazing sunlight. Red Square is huge, very open, ever so slightly curved and covered in extraordinarily hard-to-walk-on cobbles. Which also have mysterious straight lines in different colours painted all over them. Mama reckons they are lines for organising either parades or to guide the erection of stages for some concert or other, which are the two things that Red Square is for, when it isn’t covered by people in what pass for wide smiles in Russia or, for the foreigners, fur hats with ear flaps or a T-shirt with Putin on the front, standing around mugging for the cameras in front of the stuff round the edges.
Mama is not at all sure how she feels about the prospect of Putin’s face relacing the hammer and sickle as the edgy ironic souvenir for the discerning tourist, but by and large I am guessing something negative here.
Anyway, it’s a bit hot. The only time Mama has ever found Red Square a nice place to hang out in the height of summer was on her wedding day, when she indulged in the Russian custom of taking her big white dress and her wedding party out for a stroll around all the most photogenic spots in town. Yes, Mama, too, clearly has hankerings after princessdom, for all her eyebrow-raising at my insistence on wearing my poufy pink tutu skirt to the playground, and her wedding photos therefore include shots of her daintily swigging champagne in front of a brightly coloured onion domes in a large Disneyesque ballgown. Cool. Someone should have told her that the ones of her with a cigarette dangling out of her mouth are just a tad trashy though. Real princesses do not smoke. Where anyone can photograph them.
Not that the cobbles are any easier to walk on in the middle of a blizzard. Mama tells me. Or when they are slick with rain. It’s a bit of a slog in almost any weather she says. I dunno, I made Papa pick me up around now and did the rest of the walk in comfort.
After a brief break while we do our own photography shoot, we resume our hike towards St Basil’s. Mama thought we might enjoy scrambling around it.
She was wrong. In my case. St Basil’s is an odd kind of structure. It started when a tsar, promisingly called Ivan the Terrible, started tacking churches onto an existing structure every time he won a battle in a spat he was having with a neighbour. Having sealed Moscow’s supremacy, he decided to set the thing in stone, and although the architect did not just slavishly replace the original wooden buildings, the best that most people can say about the end result is that it is ‘unique’. There is a story that the architect had his eyes put out by the aptly named tsar so he could not build anything similar again. Mama says this is doubtful, but it just goes to show.
I can’t blame the gaudiness on the bad taste of the original builders though. Apparently that came about when Russians discovered new pigments a couple of hundred years later. The original was much more inclined towards just showing off this exciting new building material called (red) ‘brick’, which, incidentally, is how the Kremlin came to be surrounded by the stuff. The whitewash was to disguise this fact.
The older a church is in Russia, the plainer it is, by and large. In direct contrast to how it is in the UK. History is strange.
Anyway, later restorations have stuck to the more vibrant colourscheme, with just a few areas and a model on the inside to show how it might have looked before they emptied the paintbox all over it. Mama, the lapsed protestant, approves of the murals inside no matter how modern. It’s like, she says, someone took the illuminations from the margins of medieval manuscripts and extended them all over the walls and ceilings. Nice. And I have to say that the outside is certainly a cheerful sight. Mama says it’s easy to speculate that such brightness is needed in the winter to perk people up through the gloom. But then, she adds, you get to the depths of February, and the skies are a bright blue, the sun is shining down and bouncing off the plentiful white snow, and St Basil’s then moves from being merely loud to almost unbearably dazzling.
But it isn’t my artistic sensibilities which made our visit a trial. No, it’s the nature of the inside. There are Orthodox churches which have wide open spaces inside, but St Basil’s is more of the tradition of a collection of intimate chapels spread across several levels, with small connecting passageways and even more claustrophobic twisting staircases. And it’s very dark, with few windows and dim artificial lighting. Oddly enough, this only makes the gold leaf richness of the iconostases stand out even more. All this gave me the willies. Mama did not help by following us up the stairs making ghost noises. Nor did the male voice choirette, whose traditional chanting from an indeterminate location added yet another layer of spook.
I spent the visit clutching anxiously at Papa’s trouser legs shouting ‘where’s Mama?’ whenever she went out of view to take yet another photograph. But the others seemed to be enjoying themselves.
After the terror of St Basil’s, I congratulate Mama on her decision to leave visiting the mausoleum for another few years. She reckons there’s a definite judgement call to be made in deciding when your children will happily celebrate the ghoulishness of going to look at an actual dead body in an almost blacked-out room surrounded by fully armed guards who will be abrupt if you pause to try to take a better look, or, heaven forbid, talk, or whether they will have nightmares for six months as a result. The smell is something too. Mama says. This does mean that you don’t get to see all the other graves built into the walls of the Kremlin, but Mama feels that sightseeing can be a bit full of looking at the headstones of dead people as it is. And the chances of my having any idea of who they might be are slim, so I am good with missing out.
Instead, both Mama and I recommend a visit to GUM. It is, these days, a luxury mall, not quite as out there in terms of outrageous conspicuous consumption as its sister round the corner TsUM, but nevertheless not somewhere you are going to want to go and shop at unless you actually like spending more on a Hermes tie than you would back home. But it’s a lovely space. Built well before this Revolution everybody keeps talking about, it is something of an engineering marvel, with it’s impressive curved glass roof topped with even more impressive glass domes, which have withstood not only time but also huge amounts of snow being dropped on them every year. Mama says you should spend a lot of time both looking up and going up, because the galleries and bridges overlooking the central spaces, and the way they interact are also rather attractive.
Mama also thinks the cafes on the overhangs on the top floor look rather fun, not least because in summer they mist the air around the tables with a fine spray of water in order to try to counterbalance the lack of air conditioning. Seems to work. We did not find the atmosphere inside oppressive, despite the glass roof and the excessive heat outside. If you don’t fancy that, there is at least one excellent ice cream kiosk near the main southern entrance, which will allow you to indulge in a Muscovite tradition. Especially if you have one in winter. Mama likes the pistachio or melon flavoured cones. I’d go for the strawberry ones myself.
Other than that, there’s usually something to look at in GUM, like the window displays of idealised life from back when this was the biggest and most well-stocked Soviet department store, or the carpet of flowers down the left hand aisle. Aside from all the things in the shops.
Basically, this is the space I enjoyed roaming out of the three available on Red Square. You can keep your historical monuments, and your unshaded outside urban fields. Shopping malls. That’s where it’s at. Most people seem to disagree with me on this one though.
Opening: Red Square is closed when Lenin’s Mausoleum is open, which is Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Saturday 10am to 1pm. Red Square is also closed for selected public holidays depending on whether it is being used for some kind of display. You can usually get a view of square from the corners even if it is closed.
St Basil’s is open daily 10am to 7pm in summer and 11am to 5pm in winter.
Price: Red Square is free. Lenin’s Mausoleum is free and St Basil’s is 250 rubles (about £4) for adults and 50 rubles (less than £1) for children over 7.
Getting there: The nearest metro station is Okhotny Ryad (red line, with connecting stations on the green and dark blue lines called Tverskaya and Ploshad Revolutsii respectively), which, if you get the exit right, brings you up just behind the square on the other side of the National History Museum. Head for the (restored) gates with the small chapel set into them.