Russian Leaders 1993-1917

Seven nights in Moscow and St. Petersburg

Wednesday 14 July 1993 - Inside Lenin's Tomb

Fueled up for another big day with another superb breakfast, including egg pancakes. A drizzly morning, and I set off to visit Lenin's Tomb on my own. A short queue to enter Red Square, with soldiers checking bags and backpacks for cameras -- my torch and travel-clock were of "interest".

Joined a slightly longer line waiting in the drizzle outside Lenin's Tomb. Our Soviet Union guidebook had warned of "phenomenal queues" to see Lenin, but perhaps they're as much a thing of the past as Communism?

Lenin's Tomb

The doors opened promptly at 10 o'clock. Once inside the tomb, the line moved along swiftly: past statue-still soldiers at the entrance, a left turn, down a flight of stairs, a right turn, down more stairs, and right again. When I rounded the last corner and glimpsed Lenin in his glass sarcophagus (which seemed to emit the only source of dim light), I realised I'd need my glasses to see him. Slipped them from my backpack, hoping a soldier wouldn't challenge me on suspicion of pulling out a forbidden camera!

The besuited Lenin is only visible from the waist up, his bottom half covered by a stretched sheet, as if he was recovering from a double-amputation. One hand lays open, palm down, the other clenched into a fist. Lenin looks smaller than his statues, less powerful and imposing. His hair and beard are thin, almost fuzzy, and ginger-coloured. I don't recall the colour of his skin, whether it was pale pink or white. In truth, he could have been a Madame Tussauds waxwork rather than the embalmed body of one of the world's most prominent political figures. Death, the great leveller.

Lenin's TombImage by YourNewsUktv from Pixabay

Outside Lenin's Tomb, the line was ushered along the Kremlin Wall, past plaques and busts marking the graves of former heroes of the USSR, the politicians and scientists (those who didn't end up in Siberia!). There were fresh flowers on the graves of former leaders and twice as many on Stalin's as the rest. Perhaps Communism isn't quite dead?

Bought postcards and a Metro map from a stall on my way back to the hotel. The stall holder handed me a St. George badge, free! He explained St. George is associated with his home state, Georgia. I felt a bit awkward, but he didn't seem to want a tip for the badge, so I accepted it and thanked him, "Spasiba."

Moscow Metro

Back at the hotel, we bid farewell to our room and view of the Kremlin. Left backpacks at reception and, armed with my new map, set off on a Moscow Metro adventure. Over the next hour, we hopped on and off Metro trains, visiting several underground stations, grandly decorated with glass chandeliers and marble walls and mosaic tiles on socialist-paradise themes. All for the princely-Russian sum of 10 roubles each or two-thirds of a penny. Made the London Underground seem bland and expensive!

Ended our subterranean sightseeing at Leninskaya, near Leningrad Station from where later in the day we would be catching the train to St. Petersburg. Across from us another gothic skyscraper caught the attention of my camera. Later learnt this skyscraper is also not a KGB headquarters, but a hotel. It's one of seven gothic-architectures Stalin ordered be built in the 1930s to celebrate Moscow's 800th birthday. An eighth was planned, but never constructed -- hopefully, the builder wasn't sent to Siberia.

A deserted ferry terminal on the Moskva River didn't look promising for the trip back to the Kremlin, so we started walking. Spotted a trolley bus which we thought would be more fun and less tiring than walking, and hopped on board. However, we had to hop off again when it veered away from the river. Trudged uphill in what we hoped was the right direction, looking for another trolley bus. A few passed by, but all were going downhill.

And then, approaching the crest, we realised we'd found Sparrow Hill overlooking Moscow. While drizzle reduced the view to a hazy panorama, it seemed the perfect effect for a photo of the Moscow State University, the tallest of Stalin's gothic skyscrapers.

Moscow State UniversityImage by Bluesnap from Pixabay

Our good luck continued, with a trolley bus from Sparrow Hill all the way downhill to the bridge across from the Kremlin, and we even worked out how to pay for the fare, so didn't risk being caught by ticket inspectors (unlike on previous trolley buses!). We walked across the bridge to Red Square and at last, visited the inside of St. Basil's Cathedral.

St Basil's Cathedral

Our guidebook had prepared me for a disappointment, but once again, Moscow provided a pleasant surprise. The interior of St. Basil's is like a rabbit warren, with high-ceilinged chapels under its domes. The walls and ceilings are decorated with frescoes, some faded, others recently restored. The colours of one chapel complement the Cathedral's psychedelic exterior. There are also icon feature walls. But for me, the frescoes, old and new, combined with the windy passages made St. Basil's my favourite Moscow church, even pipping the Church of the Deposition of the Robe.

We returned to the hotel and had restorative teas and snacks from one of the bars. It was a struggle to get up from the comfy chair -- my feet felt so sore. But we headed back out towards the Bolshoi and found another department store, TSUM, which appeared to cater more to the average Muscovite. It still had an incredible range of expensive looking gadgets and only one snack bar with herring and "spam" sandwiches.

Our search for a reasonably priced cafe led to another glitzy arcade, where the shops were empty of customers (how do they stay in business?), and finally to a good old-fashioned Soviet-style shop. To buy a loaf of bread, I queued and paid at a cash register, where they gave me a ticket to join another queue to claim my purchase. We bought jam from a different shop and cheese from a stall across from our hotel. Dinner sorted!

Soviet Achievements

We jumped back onto the Metro for a farewell tour of our favourite stations. Looking at the map, decided we had enough time for a quick side trip to the Cosmonaut Museum. Although closed, the soaring obelisk at the entrance to the museum depicting a rocket launching into space was worth seeing.

Nearby a triumphal arch with a statue of two workers, a man and woman in overalls, waving a red flag marked the entrance to the Soviet Achievements Museum. We passed a down-and-out looking guy on the way back to the Metro. He pointed to the arch and raised his fist in a symbol of power. Looking at his dishevelled condition and the line of black marketers peddling their pathetic wares, I wondered if he'd raised his fist in a mock salute. Surely his and their lot wouldn't be any better under Communism?

We got lost (again) returning to the hotel. Couldn't find our stop on the Metro map -- later learnt many Moscow streets including the Intourist Hotel's were renamed after the fall of Communism. Eventually found our way back to the hotel, checked our packs one more time, and then went for a farewell wander to Red Square.

Red Square and St BasilsImage by designerpoint from Pixabay

Even after three days and countless visits, St. Basil's still looked amazing (a similar effect to seeing the Eifel Tower). And it felt appropriate that a jazz band busked our last crossing of the subway from Red Square to the hotel. Had a short wait before the Intourist bus took us to Leningrad Station, so I used the time to buy a bottle of genuine Russian vodka for 2000 roubles (US$2) and read the Moscow Times.

On the trip to the station, Tamara commented on various points of interest, including the real old KGB Headquarters. While it wasn't one of Stalin's gothic skyscrapers, I recognised the area as where we got lost yesterday looking for the Bolshoi Theatre.

Leningrad Station

There was a crush of tourists at Leningrad Station, and we escaped the raised brollies of our guides for a cup of tea from the station cafe. Unfortunately, tea was off, and they could only manage one cup of coffee. Felt a little uncomfortable in the dingy cafe, but I preferred it over waiting with the tour group.

The young guy serving behind the counter had spiked hair and earrings and was playing a tape of loud punk music. I wondered what the middle-aged soldier sitting at another table thought of him and his music.

Our overnight carriage was at the front of the train. At first, I was concerned about the engine noise, and then I heard a quartet of young singles in the adjacent compartment planning an all-night party. Thankfully, the engine provided a pleasant background hum, and the clickety-clack of train-on-track drowned out our neighbours.

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We turned off our compartment lights and watched the passing cityscape, enjoying our picnic dinner of bread, cheese and jam. I cracked open my bottle of vodka and toasted Moscow, "Da svidAniya", goodbye -- or as it's written in my English-Russian phrasebook, "good buy".

Click here to read Part 2 of Seven nights in Moscow and St. Petersburg, my travel journal entries from St. Petersburg.

© 2019 Robert Fairhead

Robert Fairhead

A middle-aged dad and dog owner, Robert Fairhead is an editor and writer at Tall And True, and blogs on his eponymous website, RobertFairhead.com.

His favourite pastimes include reading and writing, walking his dog, and watching Aussie Rules Football with his son. He is also a part-time dog trainer and runs classes at his local dog training club and through Robert's Responsible Dog Training.

Robert has worked as an electrician, a computer programmer, and a sales and marketing consultant, and he is the principal copywriter at Rocher Communications.

His book reviews and writing on dogs have appeared in newspapers and online. And in 2020, he published a collection of short stories, Both Sides of the Story.

Robert has also enjoyed a one-night stand as a stand-up comic.

My father and his partner visited Moscow and St. Petersburg in May 2019, spending six days on a boat as the retired engineer and his wife had on our trip in 1993. He had also enjoyed the mix of sightseeing the cities and cruising between them. And he commented that when visiting the Kremlin, he and his partner thought they had seen Vladimir Putin in a cavalcade of extra-long black cars. But like me with Boris Yeltsin, he'd been too slow to take a photo to confirm the sighting.