Posted by: Alex | June 25, 2015

To Russia For Fun

Longtime readers of this blog know I have a penchant for exploring huge cities, and a recent trend of visiting BRIC countries (Brazil, Russia, India, and China). I visited São Paulo in 2012 and Shanghai in 2013–why not try my luck with the economic powerhouse city of another BRIC country? This time, it was Russia.

I’ll be honest. Moscow had never really been on the top of my travel list. Russia has bureaucratic and expensive visa policies. Worse, I always imagined Moscow, up until the time of this trip, to be a dirty, drab sort of place. Once you see St. Basil’s Cathedral, what else is there? (I know Russia currently plays the role as the US’s main adversary globally, but visiting adversarial countries has never really deterred me, and has often proved quite rewarding.)

Truth be told, a big part of the reason I opted to go to Russia at all was pragmatic: airfares from Atlanta were almost $500 cheaper than other European gateways. Further, flights to other parts of Eastern Europe were dirt cheap, probably owing to the vast currency fluctuations against the dollar. All of this more than paid for the cost of a visa. I figured, why not give Russia a whirl?

So, the big question: does the real Moscow match my mental image as an ugly, unfriendly place?

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Absolutely not! I actually found Moscow to be pretty darned pleasant, and with a whole lot more to see and do than I had expected.

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After taking Moscow’s Aeroexpress train into town, my first image of Moscow was Belorusskaya Station. Nothing drab or unfriendly about that!

Next up, it was time for a crash course in Moscow’s metro. And what a metro it is!

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The stations are deep, deep underground, accessed by extremely fast-moving escalators that typically carry far more passengers than in this photo.

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Purely Soviet-built (except for the modern extensions), the metro is literally a work of art. The stations blow any other metro I’ve ever seen out of the water, aesthetically.

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These are not exceptional stations; these are typical!

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An art lover could surely spend an afternoon exploring station after station. (Given the Cyrillic station names, and the fact that most interchange stations on different lines have two different names, you just might end up spending an afternoon exploring the metro whether you want to or not!)

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Lenin.

That’s enough of the metro. So how does Moscow fare at street level?

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Pretty well, actually. A typical central Moscow pedestrian street.

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Splashes of color (and a single-file line of angry motorists!).

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Yep–they’ve got parks.

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One issue with Moscow is the cars. Some big roads with lots of cars pierce the heart of the city. Motorists are generally pretty deferential to pedestrians at crosswalks, but sometimes it can involve quite a walk to get to a legitimate crossing point. Fortunately, the metro is cheap and ubiquitous.

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The most striking thing about Moscow, to me, was the mass of high-end shopping in the city center. It’s something to behold: expensive boutiques and luxury stores as far as the eye can see.

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Expensive cafes, roads clogged with black Mercedes–the city has a rich, refined feel that possibly even goes beyond western capitals. Not dingy at all!

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A surreal sight: communist icons adorning buildings now filled with designer stores marketed towards a razor-thin segment of Russia’s elite.

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High-end frills abound. This is perhaps a contender for the world’s most elaborate ice cream stand, complete with a massive fabric totem serving no clear purpose, augmented with a large cage packed (perhaps symbolically?) with doves–just because.

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A plush cafe in a hidden alcove.

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One thing is for sure: all of the same natural, handmade, organic trends you see in the US are sweeping Moscow just the same. “Cold-pressed”, “local craft”, “superfood”–all of this is just as popular in Moscow as it is in Atlanta.

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Trendy cabana-style restaurants in the park sell the same retro-chic vibe so popular in America to a youthful, bike-bound clientele.

Honestly, the similarities between urban culture in Atlanta and Moscow were one of the most surprising things about the culture there. I expected a somewhat harsh, foreign, and possibly even anti-American edge to the people. Not so: many young people wear t-shirts saying New York, Brooklyn, or Los Angeles, and sometimes even with American flag patterns.

I told one Russian I was from Atlanta, and was expecting to hear, if anything, one of the city’s traditional claims to fame (Coca-Cola, the Olympics, the airport, MLK). Instead, I was surprised to hear: “Oh yes…the Walking Dead!” Nobody seemed to scoff whatsoever at the idea of me being an American; people seemed to respond a little more warmly than room temperature, actually.

Definitely not what I expected. I’m sure the countryside, or even the suburbs of Moscow, could be much different, harboring the country’s reputed nationalism and xenophobia. But I witnessed not a bit of it during my time in Moscow.

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American brands are almost as common as they are in Western European capitals (and provide helpful Cyrillic alphabet quizzes! Although Cyrillic does butcher the letter “J”, translated here as “dzh”). Clearly some significant degree of investment and commercial relationship with the US remains in tact.

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That’s not to say all is well; clearly it is not. A stone’s thrown from the Kremlin, this is the recently-assassinated Boris Nemtsov’s memorial. The liberal figure and Putin-critic was shot in the back four times as he crossed this bridge on February 27, 2015. The case remains embroiled in controversy and doubt.

A very sad event and unnerving spot indeed.

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Moscow does live up to its reputation handily in at least one respect: being expensive. Even with the marked devaluation in the currency of late, these prices are exorbitant. 625 rubles for a box of cereal? That’s $12.50. Yikes.

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$6 for a coconut water would sure have me rethink my health drink fads!

Next up: Red Square and the Kremlin!

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Responses

  1. […] my Introduction to Moscow post, I admitted that I had wondered if there was much more to do in the Russian capital than see […]


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