Moscow is the capital of Russia with a population of over 20 million residents. Russia is the world's largest country. It stretches from Europe and the Baltic Sea all the way through Asia to the Pacific Ocean.
Russia has eleven time zones, and its landscape includes Arctic tundra, forests, and subtropical beaches. The accomplishments of the Russian people can be noted in science, art, literature, dance, and architecture. A visit to Moscow would not be complete without a tour of Red Square which has many historic buildings.
Moscow has served as the capital of Russia throughout its transition from medieval times, to the Russian Empire, the Soviet Union, and the contemporary Russian Federation. Moscow is one of the main centers of Russian culture because of the artists and scientists that work in the museums, universities and theaters located in the city. French and German traditions were very influential in shaping Russian culture during the reigns of the tsars.
The Bolshaya Dmitrovka Street goes from Red Square past the Bolshoi Theatre. The street is well illuminated and decorated with festive lights. The cars are well maintained and very different from the cars of the Soviet era.
The Russian government has done a great job in maintaining a festive atmosphere in the downtown streets close to Red Square. Russians have fallen in love with Italian fashion. The building behind me is a Louis Vuitton store. Nearby buildings have familiar names like Prada and Gucci.
The north side of Red Square is delimited by an imposing red brick building with white trim that comprises the State Historical Museum. The museum opened in 1894 at the time of the coronation of Aleksander III. The museum holds archaeological and anthropological collections that tell the history of Russia from the Paleolithic period to the present day.
The museum has an exhibit about the war of 1812 when Napoleon invaded Russia. During this war, the Russian army avoided engagement against the larger French army by retreating deeper into Russian territory. They also burned their own villages and crops to make it more difficult for Napoleon to feed his army. Napoleon finally headed back to France when the cold Russian winter made it very difficult to wage war. Napoleon's army of 680,000 men was reduced to only 27,000 at the end of the campaign. The story of this war is told in the novel by Leo Tolstoy War and Peace.
The Kazan Cathedral is an active site for Russian Orthodox services. The church was built out of wood around 1625, but it was destroyed by a fire in 1632. Tsar Michael I replaced it with a brick church in October 1636. In 1936, Joseph Stalin ordered all churches to be removed from Red Square to make room for the military parades of the Soviet Union. The church was demolished, and after the fall of the Soviet Union, the Kazan Cathedral was the first church to be completely rebuilt. The restoration was completed in 1993.
The abbreviation GUM stood for Government's Universal Store under the Soviet Union. The large store was built toward the end of the 19th century, and it has been a center of trade ever since. Many Russian products could be bought here, including artisan crafts such as the nested dolls called matrioshkas. During Soviet times you had to stand in line three times in order to buy something. First, you would tell a clerk what you wanted, and the clerk would prepare an invoice. Next, you would stand in line at the cash register to pay for the merchandise. Finally, you would take your receipt to the first clerk to retrieve your items. You would also need to bring a shopping bag with you because they would not have one at the store.
The glass-roofed design of the GUM store gives it a bright look that minimizes the need for artificial light. Everything is very modern and expensive now. Many of the stores feature Italian and French fashion names like Fendi, Dior, Gucci, etc. The cheapest thing that you can find here is an ice cream cone for 50 Rubles, which is about $0.80 US. There was no sign of the traditional wooden crafts.
Adjacent to the east wall of the Kremlin and facing the GUM department store is Lenin's Mausoleum that currently serves as the resting place of Vladimir Lenin. His preserved body has been on public display since shortly after his death in 1924. Visitors have to wait in line and go through metal detectors similar to those used at airports. Military guards direct you inside the mausoleum and keep you moving. Photography and videotaping inside the mausoleum are forbidden. Visitors are asked to show respect by not talking or wearing hats.
A visit to the mausoleum is not recommended for people who have difficulty walking. You have to go down two flights of stairs in near darkness, where the walls and the floor are black. You have to shuffle your feet to feel the floor as you go to keep from falling down because there is no handrail by the wall. At the bottom landing, where Lenin's body is displayed, the room is illuminated with a very dim orange light. The air has a high humidity to keep the body from desiccating and mummifying.
The military guards at Red Square work in shifts. Sometimes they direct visitors in Lenin's mausoleum, and sometimes they stand guard at the memorial to the fallen during World War II.
On the side of Kremlin opposite Red Square is a memorial to the fallen of World War II. It is estimated that 10.6 million Soviet soldiers died as a result of the war. The vigil of the military guards is similar to that observed at Arlington National Cemetery in Washington, D.C.
The memorial to the fallen of World War II lists the cities that suffered the greatest losses from German blockades, artillery and aerial bombardment. Some of the Soviet names like Leningrad and Stalingrad have been changed to their previous non-communist names like St. Peterburg, and Volgograd.
St. Basil's Cathedral is probably the most iconic building of Russia. It was built from 1555–61 on orders from the tsar Ivan the Terrible. The building is now a museum. Its architecture has a complex design that has no precedent in Byzantine tradition from the fifth to fifteenth century. It is certainly colorful and eye-catching. Visitors to Red Square consider this a prime spot for photographs and selfies.
Walking on Red Square you get a feeling for the diversity of the Russian people. There are blondes with Slavic traits, orientals with both fair and dark skin, and people with middle eastern features. This is exactly what you would expect in the world's largest country that covers such a large geographical area and encompasses so many cultures.
The experience of going to a Russian shopping center is very similar to what you would expect in the United States or Europe. The names of the shops are very familiar: Swarovski, Victoria's Secret, and many more. I was in Moscow in 2016, after the United States had imposed economic sanctions on Russia for the takeover of the Crimean Peninsula, but there was no sign that the Russian citizens were deprived in any way. The shopping centers were full of people and they seemed to be buying everything. People were well dressed and everyone seemed to be texting on a cell phone.
Multinational corporations have established themselves all across Russia. The underground shopping center just north of Red Square had a Burger King, a KFC and a Sbarro restaurant. There were two restaurants offering traditional Russian foods and another one serving Uzbek food.
There is a great selection of restaurants along the streets of Moscow, but many are specialized by food categories. You are more likely to find French food or burgers than the typical Russian dishes. However, the food courts in shopping centers sometimes have traditional home cooking, such as ukha, which is a fish soup, and vinegret, which is a salad of diced boiled root vegetables dressed with a little vinegar and oil, and garnished with slices of hard boiled eggs. Other traditional Russian dishes are meat dumplings called pelmeni, and the well-known beet soup called borscht, which is garnished with fresh dill and a spoonful of sour cream.