IF I were ever to be reincarnated, I would like to return as a Muscovite woman.
Their vital statistics are impossible. This I discovered on my first morning at the Moscow Marriott Grand Hotel, where in a business forum attended by men in business attire, the women, inexplicably, came in short (even slinky) dresses and stilettos, baring some serious skin I would only contemplate baring on a night out in the town. But they had no qualms. With the perfect figure, it was as if God had sculpted each one of them personally.
Everything is perfect in Russia—from the high-speed Sapsan train my relatives and I took from St. Petersburg to Moscow that covered the 650-kilometer distance in four hours, to the 10- to 16-lane ring roads circling Moscow that gave its mayor the name “Lord of the Rings.”
Having it all
Even its subway is flawless. The Moscow Metro, 1930s to 1950s-era subway stations, is a stunning showcase of marble columns and granite floors, stained glass windows, ceiling mosaics, bronze statues, chandeliers, bas-reliefs and friezes.
“The Soviet ideology was that everything in the Soviet Union had to be the best,” our local guide, Maria, 33, said.
And it wasn’t difficult to have the best. After all, Maria said, “Russia has ALL the natural resources—oil, gas, marble, granite, gold, diamonds, rubies, sapphire, everything.”
It also has the longest escalator I had ever seen, going very deep into the ground because some parts of the subway go under the Moskva River. The trains come every minute, every 30 seconds during rush hour.
From the station, it’s just a five-minute walk to Red Square, right next to the Kremlin.
Originally, Red Square was a marketplace and site for public executions. Today, it has a softer reputation, hosting on one side the Lenin Mausoleum where the Soviet leader Vladimir Lenin lies in a crystal sarcophagus; and on the opposite side, Russia’s most famous shopping mall, the quarter-of-a-kilometer-long, glass-roofed Gum.
It also hosts the colorful 16th century St. Basil’s Cathedral with Byzantine and oriental features popular as a backdrop for lovers on an evening stroll.
I thought visitors would not be allowed into the Kremlin, the complex that serves as the official residence of the Russian president. But Maria brought us there, even pointing out a domed mustard building with a flag that she said contained Vladimir Putin’s office.
In fact, with palaces and other attractions, the Kremlin looks more like a tourism juggernaut than a clandestine command center for plotting world domination that the movies make it out to be.
Tourists get a preview of its attractions right on the Kremlin grounds: The 18th century Tsar Bell, commissioned by Peter the Great’s niece, is the world’s biggest bell at 20 feet tall and 200 tons. But it has never rung because as work on the bell neared completion, an 11-ton piece of it broke off when guards threw cold water on it in an attempt to save it from a fire.
Inside the Kremlin complex, the president is supposed to live in the 700-room Grand Kremlin Palace, the former residence of the tsars. But Putin does not. The palace is used mainly for state receptions and official ceremonies.
Another palace in the complex, the Communist-era State Kremlin Palace, is where the Soviet government held official meetings. It is now a concert hall that can accommodate 6,000 screaming fans.
I never would have thought the Kremlin would be associated with anything religious. But it has three cathedrals: the 15th century Annunciation Cathedral, the personal chapel of the tsars; and Assumption Cathedral, where royal weddings were held, emperors crowned, and bishops buried; and the 16th century Cathedral of the Archangel, where 56 members of Russian royalty are buried.
The three cathedrals share a common belfry, the 81-meter Ivan the Great Bell Tower, which, on account of its height, doubled as a watchtower for fires and enemies.
The Kremlin also houses the Armory Museum containing the outfits, carriages, armor, and gem-encrusted thrones and crowns of Russian royalty.
“Peter the Great’s daughter, the Empress Elizabeth, left 15,000 dresses and 5,000 pairs of shoes because she never wore a single dress twice,” Maria said.
(And we thought Imelda Marcos had too many shoes.)
The museum’s collection also includes tableware, including drinking vessels with jewels that change color if poisoned; and the famous Faberge eggs, Easter eggs the jeweler Peter Carl Fabergé made for the royal family that were decorated with gold, diamonds and rubies.
Despite the enormous wealth it brings, there are downsides to being a member of royalty, we learned on our visit to the Novodevichy Convent, the biggest nunnery in Moscow and a Unesco World Heritage Site for its preservation of Moscow baroque architecture.
This is where Peter the Great’s first wife became a nun. No, she did not suddenly get the call. Peter forced her to take the veil.
“In the 16th and 17th centuries, if the tsar wanted a second wife, the first wife was forced to become a nun,” Maria said.
Another royal woman Peter forced to become a nun was his regent half-sister Sofia. After she attempted to seize power, Peter had her confined to a cell in the convent, where he had the corpses of her followers suspended outside her window.
The convent also features the Smolensky Cathedral famed for its frescos.
Adjacent to the convent is the cemetery for high-profile Russians like Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, Russian president Boris Yeltsin, Soviet foreign minister Vyacheslav Molotov (of Molotov cocktail fame), first lady Raisa Gorbachev, playwright Anton Chekhov, and famous scientists, musicians and actors.
An interesting sight close by is the Cathedral of Christ the Savior, the world’s tallest Orthodox Christian church, today better known as the place where in 2012, members of the Russian feminist punk rock group Pussy Riot staged a performance criticizing the government, leading to their arrest and jailing.
For the fallen
Russia was a party to many conflicts, so in Moscow, there are several memorials to its war dead. Outside the Kremlin wall, the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Alexander Garden honors the Soviet soldiers killed in World War 2. Dark red stone blocks hold soil from the places where their battles occurred.
Some 27 million Soviet people died during this war. And at the Museum of the Great Patriotic War in Victory Park, they are remembered through dioramas of battles, and in a touching tribute, a hall with strings of glass beads from the ceiling representing tears for them.
Maria said women who fought in the war and survived did not get the best homecoming. “Despite their coming home with medals, women pilots were (shunned and) considered whores by their families—because they had spent five years with men.”
A war museum that is not as gloomy is the Museum-Panorama: The Battle of Borodino, where a 360-degree pavilion houses a panoramic painting of Russia’s main battle in 1812 against Napoleon’s army during the French invasion of Russia. The 115-meter-long, 15-meter-high painting is more than 100 years old.
To lift our spirits, we explored Old Arbat St., a one-kilometer pedestrian street for eating and shopping near our hotel.
We also watched the Nikulin Moscow Circus, where I marveled at the perfectly toned performers strutting in fabulous costumes that would put Las Vegas showgirls to shame. Maria was right. Russia does have everything—jaw-dropping acrobatic stunts; and birds, monkeys, horses, zebras, tigers, lions and elephants that could all do the gorgeous tamers’ bidding.
I was all the more determined to return as a Russian woman, until Maria said: “In Russia, 51 percent of the population is women. Only 49 percent are men. So there’s high competition for men. Did you see the women in high heels?”
I’ll have to give this reincarnation thing a major rethink.