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Golden domes and Red Square splendour: Moscow offers intriguing churches, museums and galleries, and reflects Russia’s former military glories

Built on the banks of the Moskva River, the city dates back to 1147 and is alive with a sense of history

PUBLISHED : Monday, 19 September, 2016, 9:32am
UPDATED : Friday, 23 September, 2016, 11:56am

What can you say about Moscow that hasn’t been said already? Not only is it the largest city in Russia, it’s also the nation’s undoubted seat of prestige and power. Just witness what happens every Victory Day (May 9) on the parade to celebrate the Soviet Union’s 1945 defeat of Nazi Germany. Regiments of soldiers with unflinching faces march through Red Square, followed by sturdy tanks and an assortment of other cutting-edge military hardware. It’s not astonishing that in a metropolis so proud of its history and heritage, there’s an array of intriguing churches, museums and galleries to reflect this.               

Moscow, on the banks of the Moskva River in the European part of Russia, can trace its history back to 1147 when she was first mentioned in contemporary records. Since then, the megacity has served as the capital of her country for almost 500 years. An extremely interesting, if also exceptionally dangerous era, was during the existence of the West’s ultimate foe, the Soviet Union. And it’s possible to visit the preserved body of the founding father of the erstwhile communist state, Lenin, in his mausoleum in Red Square. In medieval times a slum, this grandest of quads is now the beating heart of the metropolis. At the southern end, set back from the dark grey cobblestones, is the wedding cake-splendour of St. Basil’s Cathedral. A confection of multicoloured onion domes sit atop the 47.5-metre high red-brick edifice, which is now a museum. Ivan the Terrible ordered its construction in 1555. Inside, a special highlight is the stunning iconostasis.

The Kitay-Gorod neighbourhood of Moscow, facing Red Square, is where you might find the Russian Paris Hilton, as it houses the department store, GUM. Although it's part of a nationwide-chain, Moscow’s branch is the most prestigious – brands among the 150-plus outlets here include Vacheron Constantin. Erected in the 1890s, the engineering ingenuity that went into this supermall’s extraordinary 242-metre-long ochre façade is also evident in the spellbinding steel framework and glass interior. Ironically, despite the fact everybody was officially considered to be equal in Soviet society, this uber-galleria’s top floor contained Section 100, an under-wraps apparel shop that could only be used by the highest echelons of the Communist Party.

Also on Red Square, a comprehensive overview of Russia’s past can be had in the State Historical Museum. The 19th-century Russian revivalist-style building is a gem in its own right, a perfect carmine-bricked assemblage of jagged towers and cornices. The first floor takes one on an invigorating journey from the Stone Age right up until the end of the 1600s; the next level up details the successes, failures and tragedies of this Eurasian behemoth’s greatest epoch, the Russian empire (1721-1917). In total, there are over 4.5 million artefacts, with the Turmanskiy Sarcophagus and a longboat excavated from the banks of the Volga River being standouts.  Incidentally, this institution is a 10-minute stroll away from its country’s centre of political power, the Kremlin. As well as being the official residence of President Vladimir Putin, within the thick, high walls of this fortified complex lie palaces, churches and a couple of must-see museums: the Armoury and the Diamond Fund.   

Once a secret military complex and a bunker, the Tagansky Protected Command Point is now a humongous museum (7,000 square metres).  Constructed in the 1950s and around a half-an-hour’s drive from the centre of town, this 65-metre-deep installation is an illustration of how paranoid the Soviet leadership was about the threat of nuclear war. It’s fascinating to explore an unyielding labyrinth of corridors, and the bleak living quarters that were supposed to accommodate up to 3,000 people if the bomb dropped. Fortunately, today one doesn’t have to expect any unwanted surprises in Moscow, an eclectic, absorbing capital where travellers are sure to have an unforgettable time.