Here’s the best way I know to describe the many faces of Moscow.
One side of Red Square is a huge department store called Gum (ГУМ). Its intricate carved stone façade looks right at home across the way from a cathedral and Lenin’s tomb. Inside, high end designers line the corridor, all flash and bling and gold.
Within Gum are many snack stalls, where visitors can throw back to Soviet times and indulge in some of the favorite snack foods of the era. Down one aisle we find an old-school soda stand which makes, from scratch, syrup and sparkling water mixtures that were the treats of choice when no brand name sodas graced grocery stores. There is a flavor that tastes exactly like melted cherry candy, and another that is reminiscent of toothpaste.
Another treat ‘from Soviet times’ is a small ice cream cone, which families queue for eagerly. The flavors are exactly what you’d expect, chocolate and vanilla and their normal counterparts. But they’re served in special cones that have a particular nostalgic shape. And the cones are pre-packed with ice cream, so as people order, the staff merely reaches into the coolers for the correct flavor. This ritual of special cone plus storage cooler brings back memories of ice cream treats 30 years ago, during Soviet times. We visitors are happy to note that even though the perfect ice cream dome is modest in size, the cone is packed full, and even the very last bite contains now melty ice cream.
Stuffed with sweet treats, we wander the luxurious halls of Gum once again, making a special stop at a famous marble bathroom, which is a tourist attraction in and of itself.
This combination of glamour and traditional Soviet roots comes up again and again during my visit to Moscow. One day, we happily indulge in lunch at one of the world’s top 50 restaurants. From where we sit, we overlook one of Stalin’s seven massive skyscrapers (Сталинские высотки) that were built around the city. Soviet hammer and sickle decorations grace all sides of the structure, reminding us that the past is very much within reach.
Another day, we visited an outdoor exhibition center that was built in the 1930s, a kind of Epcot-style theme park built to showcase the contributions of each of the major Soviet republics. In its heyday, the official name was ‘Exhibition of Achievements of the People’s Economy’, or, abbreviated in Russian, ВДНХ. Each republic had a traditionally-styled structure in which to exhibit the goods that the country brought to the Soviet Union. Georgia’s contribution of grapes was well documented, as was Uzbekistan’s cotton crop.
Today, the space mostly functions as a park with a few exhibits and small museums, but the buildings, having been ignored for the twenty years after 1991, are undergoing renovation, and are slowly reopening. Symbolically, a fountain outside of the pavilion of Uzbekistan was turned off at the fall of the Soviet Union and has only recently been fixed. For Russian young adults who visited the space as schoolchildren and who witnessed the disrepair, the revitalization of the area is a proud moment.
Moscow, my friend, you are difficult to describe. You defy simple categories, and exceed expectations.
You are glitzy, a platinum-blonde model teetering on the highest of high heels, ducking into a waiting Ferrari. You are a fluorescent lit metro stop, decorated like a lovely British sitting room, and noisily hauling your citizens to and from work. You are your controversial politics, oligarchs and bribery and currency chaos.
Moscow, friend, you are a melting pot of nations, of old republics and bright-eyed expats who give you the credibility of an international hub. You are orthodox religion, modest and quiet, steeped in history and scholarly study. You are multi-colored, multi-faceted. You make unending delights out of the most modest of ingredients (in this case, cottage cheese).