Pravda to Prada: Russia 20 years later

By Bill Strubbe
Globe Correspondent / September 20, 2009

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MOSCOW - As I slowly turned to take in the panorama - the Kremlin towers, Lenin’s Mausoleum, GUM department store, the domes of St. Basil’s Cathedral - I remembered standing here 20 years before. Determined to protest a nuclear test being conducted in Kazakhstan, we were permitted into Red Square on that gray morning provided we refrained from demonstrating. With a dose of Yankee arrogance we soon formed a human peace sign in the square, and as we sang “We Shall Overcome’’ the sun broke through and bathed us in light.

On my Peace Walk journeys during President Mikhail Gorbachev’s heady glasnost and perestroika years, I had slept in tents on soggy soccer fields, traveled by foot across the countryside, and sampled borscht in farmhouses. On my first trip to the new Russia my accommodations were decidedly less proletariat; I dined in restaurants and admired the splendors of the Hermitage and the Kremlin. Despite political upheavals and capitalist makeovers, Russia’s charms remain unsullied.

Huge, bustling, and expensive, Moscow can be intimidating, but with a good map and willingness to brave the Metro - learn Cyrillic so you can read the signage - you can get around. Besides, many of the subway stations built in the 1930s are of exceptional artistic design and worth a look.

Near Red Square I was amused to see Lenin copping a cigarette from Czar Nicholas II, look-alikes busking for a surreal photo op. Having never visited Lenin’s Mausoleum, I waited in line, and once inside had about three minutes to ponder: Is it Lenin or a wax replica? I don’t know, but rumor has it that, due to the annual rewaxing expense, Lenin’s departure is imminent.

It’s hard to believe that GUM, an elegant three-tiered mall, was once a dreary Soviet-era disaster. Though designer shops now hawk outrageously priced goods, we didn’t let that deter us from strolling its three arcades where we could at least afford the delicious ice cream and breakfast at Bosco on its summer terrace on Red Square.

For a fantastic view of the Kremlin walls, we took the elevator at the Ritz-Carlton to the 12th floor. The steel and glass dome of the O2 Lounge offers a fabulous winter oasis, but since it was summer we relaxed on the terrace in a comfy sofa under an umbrella.

The medieval Kremlin fortress is an architectural gem of palaces, cathedrals, museums, and government offices. The first wooden Kremlin was built in 1156 and in 1485-95 the toothed walls and clock towers were added. The armory’s collection of czarist Fabergé eggs is fantastic, as well as the Diamond Fund’s spectacular jewels: Catherine I’s diamond-encrusted crown, and the 190-carat Orlov diamond, given to her by one of her many lovers.

Walking over the Moscow River on the new Patriarshy Bridge with its wrought iron rails and street lamps, I was eager to see the Cathedral of Christ the Savior on the far side. My last time here I swam in the gigantic pool that Nikita Khrushchev had constructed in the foundations of the church, a Russo-Byzantine edifice that Stalin dynamited in the 1930s. Floating on my back along with thousands of Muscovites, through the steam I watched fireworks exploding over the Kremlin. With oligarch money, the church, which took 40 years to build in the 1800s, was reconstructed in the 1990s. After visiting the soaring interior this time, we purchased “piroshkis,’’ the ubiquitous baked pastries stuffed with mushrooms, potatoes, and ground meat, from a vendor and picnicked in the cathedral’s garden.

The Gorky House Museum is a stunning art nouveau mansion designed by architect Fyodor Shekhtel that became the residence of Russia’s great “proletarian’’ writer, Maxim Gorky. Built in 1906, Shekhtel incorporated sinuous floral forms into the wrought iron, window frames, light fixtures, and huge stained glass window. The wave-form stairway carved from stone culminates in a brass-and-stained-glass newel post lamp oozing stalactites. It’s a marvel.

Instead of the overnight train from Moscow to St. Petersburg, we opted for the less expensive flight. It’s a surprise to many to learn that St. Petersburg, a vision of palaces, canals, and culture, was founded just 306 years ago by Peter the Great on 42 swampy islands in the Neva River. We arrived during a warm spell with denizens strolling along the river and in the parks. Given diminished Sunday traffic, we rented two bicycles and saw neighborhoods otherwise off the tourist beat. Well into evening, we pedaled along canals, past the gilt dome of St. Isaac’s Cathedral, the world’s third largest, and the onion-domed Church of Our Savior on Spilled Blood, where an anarchist’s bomb exploded under Alexander II’s carriage in 1881. Farther along the Griboyedoya Canal is the delightful golden-winged Griffin Bridge.

I was particularly eager to visit the Peter and Paul Cathedral in the Peter and Paul Fortress; the golden spire is the city’s landmark, the resting place of Romanovs, including the recovered remains of Nicholas, Alexandra, and their five children. Later we toured the opulent rooms of the Yusupov Palace; the lavish miniature theater still holds regular performances, the highlight being the bachelor’s apartment where Rasputin met his demise at the hands of Felix Yusupov and several royals.

With over 100 museums, you can’t see them all, but topping the short list is the Hermitage. Built between 1754 and 1762 on the Neva, the Winter Palace was intended for Peter’s daughter Elizabeth, but upon her death, Catherine the Great moved in, commissioning whole buildings for her ever-growing art collection. Today the green and white palace complex contains 1,057 rooms and more than 3 million artworks.

While increased personal freedoms and entrepreneurial initiatives are certainly a boon for many in the new Russia, many others are still struggling. It was sad to see a woman “selling’’ clusters of lilacs: You give her money but never take the white and violet flowers that bloomed everywhere. For me, the scent of lilacs will always conjure up the grand city of St. Petersburg, and its Russia.

Bill Strubbe can be reached at

If You Go

Where to stay

Hotel Budapest

Petrovskie Linii, 2, Moscow


In a historic building near the Bolshoi and Maly theaters. Upscale rooms offer Internet access and satellite TV. Doubles start about $180 on weekends, $225 on weekdays, breakfast included.

Sokos Hotel Palace Bridge

V.O. Birzhevoi pereulok 2-4

(Vasily Island)

St. Petersburg


A Finnish hotel on Vasily Island. Doubles start at $120. Several restaurants and a spa facility.

Rossi Hotel

55 Fontanka Embankment

St. Petersburg


On the Fontanka Canal; doubles $190-$250 with breakfast.

Where to eat

Cafe Pushkin

26-A Tverskoy Blvd., Moscow


Considered one of the best Russian restaurants and also the place to be seen; French and Russian cuisine. $20-$100.

Starlite Diner

Bolotnaya Square, Moscow


Breakfast all day. Two eggs, ham, and potatoes, $8.50.

What to do

Skatprokat Bicycle Rentals

Goncharnaya st 7, St. Petersburg


About $13 per day, plus deposit.