Moscow in winter, draped in snow and twinkling with unevenly distributed material wealth, is an amazing spectacle,
Besides all the new-money Russians, the westward cultural tilt and the wacky theme restaurants that have turned up in post-Soviet days, the city remains rich with architecture and art that go back centuries.
And the Muscovites are so good at winter! One afternoon I watched a woman in a fur hat cross an icy sidewalk, hop over a slushy gutter and hail a taxi with all the elegance of a figure skater on a freshly prepped rink.
This is not to say that Russia is easy in any season. Many travelers are repelled by the anti-gay “propaganda” law adopted by the country’s legislators in 2013. Others are wary of terrorism in connection with the Winter Olympics. And Moscow has some of Europe’s stiffest prices and a legion of cashiers and waiters who want nothing to do with your American Express card.
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Still, if you go, wintry Moscow will open your eyes. Here are a few questions and answers about the city. But bear in mind what my translator and guide, Svetlana Gaikovich, told me on our first day: “Moscow is not Russia. Moscow is a small country within Russia. A showcase.”
—Do I have to start in Red Square like every other tourist?
Yes. Stand out front and gawk at the domes and turrets and statues of St. Basil’s Cathedral, which dates to the 16th century. Pay for a tour behind the walls of the Kremlin next door, where three more cathedrals wait, including the 15th century Assumption Cathedral, whose interior — martyrs on the pillars, Christ on the iconostasis — makes St. Basil’s gaudy exterior look like a blank slate.
Across the square from the Kremlin you have GUM, an arcade-style, three-level, 1890s department store formerly run by the government. Now GUM is a retail fantasy land, privately owned since 2005 by a group led by the ubiquitous luxury retailer Bosco di Ciliegi.
Only an oligarch could pay the prices at the GUM Tiffany and Burberry shops, but that’s not so different from Fifth Avenue in New York. And the holiday lights and displays are about as remarkable. What you won’t find on Fifth Avenue is GUM’s Stolovaya 57, a bustling restaurant that mimics a 1957 Soviet factory cafeteria all the way down to its plates of “herring in a fur coat.” (That’s herring and potatoes with beets and carrots. Better than it sounds.)
If you can afford it, sleep in one of the new or redone hotels near the square. Since 2007, Ritz-Carlton has been on a site once dominated by a grim Intourist hotel. In late 2011, the Intercontinental Hotel Tverskaya replaced the former Minsk Hotel. The old Hotel Moskva, a landmark that was built in the 1930s and razed in about 2004, has been replaced by a new Hotel Moskva, run by Four Seasons, due to open in mid-2014.
I stayed at the Hotel Metropol, an Art Nouveau landmark built in 1901. Every day, heading down to fortify myself at the breakfast buffet, I passed pictures of previous guests such as Vladimir Lenin, George Bernard Shaw, Bertolt Brecht and Michael Jackson.
—Why am I hearing Louis Armstrong?
That’s the sound of the Red Square winter skating rink, a block from the Metropol. “What a Wonderful World” was playing as I stepped up. In the center of the ice, a couple was kissing. (All this, by the way, is two snowball tosses from Lenin’s Mausoleum.)
But don’t do all your skating in Red Square. Head instead to Gorky Park, which is so much more than a 1981 detective novel by Martin Cruz Smith. It’s 300 acres along the river, redesigned in 2011 to banish that bedraggled-old-fairgrounds feeling. In winter there are ice sculptures, light displays, playfully decorated Georgian food huts, hockey games, art installations, wedding parties and mini-slopes for snowboarders. The skating rink and linked paths cover more than 4 acres. If there’s a better place to insinuate yourself among hordes of happy Russians, I haven’t found it yet.
— How can I keep warm?
Your warmest option in Moscow is the ornately appointed Sanduny Baths, the oldest bathhouse in the city, about a mile from Red Square, where I half-melted a pair of glasses. (It would have been wiser to leave them outside the sauna.)
Another option is an 18th century mansion now known as Cafe Pushkin. It used to be a pharmacist’s home and office. The upstairs “library” area, appointed with bookshelves, globes and waiters who hover, is where plutocrats break bread with politicians. My lunch there was the biggest splurge of my trip (almost $150 for two people), but the mushroom soup and salmon-stuffed dumplings were terrific.
—What about art. It’s not all icons, is it?
Well, icons are basically all Russian artists did from the 11th to 18th centuries, so you’ll see plenty at the State Tretyakov Gallery, along with brilliant later portraits and landscapes. In the New Tretyakov, at a separate location, there’s a statue garden of cast-off Soviet heroes (many Lenins, one Brezhnev, no Stalins).
But the surprise, art-wise, is Red October, a bohemian neighborhood that has arisen since 2006 in a former Red October chocolate factory across the river from the Kremlin. Tenants include the Lumiere Brothers Center for Photography (opened 2010); Red October Gallery (opened 2012); Strelka Institute for Media, Architecture and Design; and several nightclubs and restaurants, including a hipster cafe called Produkti, whose tattooed and perforated patrons could slouch into any coffeehouse in Eagle Rock.
— What’s that enormous metal thing rising over Red October and the river?
It’s a sculpture of Peter the Great, father of the Russian navy and czar of Russia from 1682 to 1725. It’s taller than the Statue of Liberty (more than 300 feet) and was unveiled in 1997. The nicest thing I can say is that it’s really big.