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Return to the Evil Empire

Moscow, Russia

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It seems a long time since Ronald Reagan called the Soviet Union ‘an Evil Empire’ in the 1980s. The Berlin Wall has come down. The USSR has broken up, and Russia – the Union’s largest constituent and chief driving force – has become a democracy, of a sort.

How much Moscow has changed in that time – indeed, how much it has ever changed – is more open to debate. The city has been burnt down, rebuilt, extended, remodelled as the capital of a royal empire, and, later, as the headquarters of a workers’ paradise. But something distinctively Muscovite seems to continue, and, you might be forgiven for thinking, hasn’t changed much since the city was founded sometime in the eleventh or twelfth centuries.

If there’s one thing that the inhabitants of Moscow – or at least their architects – have always seemed to have a taste for, it’s grandeur. This sometimes demonstrates itself in odd ways. The first time you use public transport in the city you’ll notice this. Moscow has what must be one of the most ornate and lavishly decorated subway systems in the world. The chandeliers and artwork that deck the stairwells and access tunnels put equivalent mass transit systems in New York or London completely in the shade. The fact that Moscow’s subway system is the busiest in the world – it handles a staggering nine million people every single day – shows to just what lengths the city authorities are prepared to go to keep their famous subways famous.

The sense of grandeur hits you again when you surface in Moscow’s number one tourist destination: Red Square. The square is no longer the site of vast marches and parades by the Red Army as Russia’s political leadership look on from the walls of the Kremlin, basking in their power – although you get the impression that Vladimir Putin, the current president, wouldn’t be at all averse to that sort of thing. Now that the propaganda and detritus of seventy years of communism have been stripped away, Red Square can stop being a symbol of oppression and return to what it was always meant to be: a piece a staggering urban design, showcasing some of the greatest architecture in the world.

One symbol of the old regime remains: Lenin’s mausoleum. It’s not as crowded as it used to be in the days when Soviet students and schoolchildren were ritually hauled past the old Marxist’s embalmed body, but it still gets pretty busy. You can visit it yourself, as long as you arrive between nine in the morning and one in afternoon on any day except Monday or Friday, and come face to face with a major historical figure.

Or will you? Speculation has been rife for years whether the body on display in the Mausoleum is really Lenin or not. The old guy looks distinctly plasticky, and the government’s refusal to comment on the status of the corpse has led many to believe that the real Lenin has been quietly buried somewhere and replaced with a more durable and less smelly alternative.

When you emerge, blinking, from the gloom of the Mausoleum, there’s much more to see in Red Square. The Kremlin Museums are worth a whole article or two of their own, and contain a vast array of art works, historical weapons, manuscripts and paintings from over a thousand years of history. Access to the Kremlin Museums includes the chance to visit several of the major Kremlin churches, as well as the Ivan the Great Bell Tower and the Kremlin Armory.

If you really want to know about modern Russia, though, you might do better to give the Kremlin a miss and head over to the eastern side of Red Square. The State Universal Store (commonly called the GUM) is just one example of a huge state-owned chain of department stores that used to cover the entire Soviet world. Although the chain in its original form went the same way as the Soviet government that founded it, Moscow GUM is still there and still open. In fact, you can hardly miss it: it takes up virtually all of one side of Red Square. That’s a pretty big area. In principle it’s not one store, but many small ones under one magnificent, arched glass roof. That shouldn’t make a lot of difference to you, though, as it’s easy to browse from one area to another without really noticing. Don’t expect real bargains – although many of the designer goods on display are priced out of reach of a good proportion of Muscovites, the prices are skewed towards tourists. Moscow isn’t that cheap a place to live, especially if you’re from out of town.

But it’s certainly grand. It may have some problems, and some pretty rotten suburbs – but where else would you get chandeliers on the subway, of all places?

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