From the moment you arrive at the Soviet-style Sheremetyevo airport and spot its female officials in their dominatrix uniforms, Moscow makes you feel as if you’re in the middle of a James Bond film. I suppose this is exactly the reason we’ve come – to experience that thrill of fear as a Russian policeman looks us up and down; to buckle in terror at the unnecessary brutality of the metro’s ticket machines (one false move and you’re a gonner); to chuckle darkly at jokes about the old KGB building being the tallest building in Moscow – you can see all the way to Siberia, boom boom…
It’s New Year’s Eve and the city is preparing to party. In the centre of town there are hundreds of soldiers milling around, faces ice pale; inscrutable beneath their military-issue Russian hats. It’s not snowing; at minus fourteen degrees it’s far too cold for that, but the sky above Red Square is heavy and formidable, weighed down by the prospect of the freezing night ahead. We venture out of the hotel at ten minutes to eleven, passports dutifully stashed in our inner pockets.
“Make sure you take them,” the man at reception tells us worriedly. “You never know when they’ll ask.”
Red Square is heaving. We persuade our way through a line of soldiers by smiling and batting our eyelashes. Eventually they allow us through and we find ourselves drawn along with the masses, dancing, cheering and swigging vodka. When midnight strikes, Putin appears on a big screen on the stage, broadcasting from the Kremlin behind us – Happy New Year Moscow…
This is not a beautiful city, yet there is beauty of a kind in the austere stone facades of the soviet apartment buildings, every tiny window glowing with a standard-issue light fixture even now, seventeen years after the collapse of communism. There’s the great Stalinist edifice of the Hotel MOSKVA, not beautiful exactly but prepossessing, towering coldly over the river beneath the forbidding Moscow sky.
There’s the strange, surreal beauty of Gorky Park, Moscow’s Soviet amusement complex, with its deserted collection of Communist statues lying in the snow, their faces set forever in stoic expressions of triumph. We visit on New Year’s Day to find the Ferris wheel has stopped turning, frozen solid. There are no hot drinks to warm up the ice skaters either, just a man selling animal-shaped balloons which bob gaudily against the snow-laden sky.
I love the fact that despite Moscow’s austerity it has the golden domes and baubles of the Kremlin, inside whose walls I find the most beautiful ancient church and an armory stuffed with Tsarist finery. I love the incongruity of Lenin’s mausoleum on one side of Red Square and St Basil’s Cathedral, that anarchy of colour and form, on the other. We visit Lenin one morning, filing past the still, pale figure and trying not to laugh. I love the Metro’s stunning art-deco stations – Novoslobodskaya, Mayakovskaya, Belorusskaya and Kievskaaya – so extravagantly festooned with chandeliers, frescoes and mosaics.
I love the fact that Moscow’s streets are muffled by the cold and the vestiges of snow piled up on the pavements; that there are fur-clad figures shuffling along, heads set stoically against the biting air. The Muscovites are elegant people who do winter in style – the women wear matching coats and hats, brooches elegantly pinned, thirties-style, to the brims, heeled boots emerging gracefully from beneath their stylish, floor-length fox-fur coats. Families resemble extras from Dr Zhivago, the porcelain-skinned children, cheeks splashed red as children’s cheeks should be, their hands enveloped in thick fur mittens. To come to Moscow is to realise that unless you’re Russian, the city will always remain mysterious, but no less interesting for that.
And to arrive in St Petersburg from Moscow is to leap from the ridiculous to the sublime. Arriving on the express train, an uber-efficient service which hurtles us between cities in a mere four hours, is to discover a completely different Russia. Where Moscow is grey, surly and enigmatic, St Petersburg is glittering, hedonistic and utterly intoxicating. If Moscow is the brunette, St Petersburg is definitely the blonde, compensating for Moscow’s severity by adorning herself with all the gold and frippery she can lay her hands on.
Where Moscow has soldiers, grey skies and the odd riot, St Petersburg has palaces, winter balls and Nevsky Prospekt, the city’s answer to Oxford Street, with its massive Gostiny Dvor shopping complex, its exotic little fur shops selling mink coats worth thousands, its sexy girls in hats (I guarantee you’ll buy one by the end of the trip…) and its shiny BMWs zooming through the traffic lights.
In St Petersburg the buildings are candy pink and sienna red and every house has some pillared facade, stuccoed ceiling or gilded statue. Here the snow scattered across the domed roofs and curling bridges glows gold in the winter sunshine and the frozen River Neva, jumbled with broken ice floes, mirrors the magnificent powder-blue frontage of the Hermitage, one of the world’s greatest art galleries. There are 44 islands and 300 bridges in St Petersburg, each one crossing a canal which twists elegantly between picturesque streets. The opulence can be overwhelming – as far as sightseeing is concerned, it’s hard to know where to start. The minute you get here the city lulls you into a state of happy lethargy so that all you’ll want to do is shop and sit in coffee bars, watching the world stream past. Because where Moscow has few coffee shops, St Petersburg has hundreds – dark, crowded interiors enticing you with cups of thick chocolate, eastern coffee or Russian tea served straight from the samovar.
But the Hermitage is worth queuing for. It has over 3.5 million pieces of art over six departments in four buildings on three floors. Go there to be astounded by the amount of gold that it’s possible to cram into one room; wander through the rococo interior of the Winter Palace with its 1057 rooms and 117 staircases. Gasp at the over-the-top beauty of the gilded ceilings where Nicolas II and his family spent their last days before the revolution, at the giant gold peacock which takes pride of place in one of these glittering halls and at the Rembrandts and Rubens and Leonardo Da Vincis scattered in between.
Go to the ballet too. Swan Lake at the Marinsky Theatre on a Thursday night is a glimpse of St Petersburg’s heart. Even the taxi driver admits he loves it.
“I go every week,” he says, glancing at us in the mirror as we trundle through the city’s back streets. “I’ve seen Swan Like fifteen times.” The Marinsky (known during Soviet times as the Kirov) is a dolls-house of a building with a tiny, sculpted blue and gold interior edged with satin-lined boxes. It’s too pretty to be real; when the performance starts the men cheer, deep-voiced, “Bravo!”.
And this is the way to get Russia, really, much more than endless sightseeing tours. It’s worth simply entering into the spirit of it all, sitting and scooping it up, savouring it like some sweet, heady piece of exotic confectionery. See both cities, if you can, because Moscow and St Petersburg are two halves of the same whole. Russia is all about contrasts; the grey and the golden; the surly and the sublime.
And see it in winter, if you see it at all, for there is nothing better than entering the rich cosiness of a coffee shop on a snowy afternoon, placing your new furry hat beneath your chair and wrapping your hands around a large cup of steaming, vodka-laced Russian chocolate.
Jane Labous travelled as a guest of the Ararat Hyatt Hotel, Moscow and The Grand Hotel, St Petersburg.