Russian Leaders 1993-1917

Seven nights in Moscow and St. Petersburg

Monday 13 July 1993 - A Night at the Ballet

Legs ached in the morning. A hot shower and hearty breakfast helped. Had intended heading back to Red Square and St. Basil's. But the area was cordoned off, with soldiers searching tourists for cameras, so we set off to explore the Kremlin again. Met an Alaskan couple at the ticket kiosk: "You're only in Moscow for three days!?"

Soviet Style PR

Did a circuit of the churches to gaze once more at their golden domes and then headed to the Kremlin Armoury Art Collection. Public Relations at the Armoury was a throwback to the days of Soviet Union tourism. A severe, heavy-set woman barred the door and ignored our questions. We flashed US dollars, and she let us in -- a Russian couple with roubles behind us weren't treated so "politely".

Through sign language, learnt we had to change US$10 each into roubles for admission to the Armoury. However, after we bought the tickets, the severe woman indicated the museum was closed, and we had to come back at midday.

It was a chance to return to Cathedral Square and spend more time looking at the churches. I revisited the Church of the Deposition of the Robe, enjoying it as much as yesterday -- only a few tourists inside which helped maintain its serenity. Whiled away more time reading English-language Moscow newspapers in the gardens beside Lenin's statue. One paper clearly targeted at British readers, with cricket scores in the sports' section, the other at Americans, with baseball results.

Kremlin Armoury

At midday, we brazenly jumped a long queue back at the Kremlin Armoury, waving our tickets at the severe woman, who thankfully, did not call the guards. Then we spent an hour trying not to feel too disappointed with the exhibits. Yes, there were displays of glittering gold and stunning and intricate pieces, but it wasn't my "thing". That said, I liked the carriages and suits of armour, my favourite being a father and son suit.

Tsar Cannon, KremlinImage by Tatyana Kazakova from Pixabay

Left the Kremlin and walked back to Red Square through gardens along its western wall. We bought "cakes" from a stall, but they proved to be non-vegetarian, meaty-sausage rolls. An old woman begging in the subway to our hotel appreciated our mistake.

Back at the hotel, we sampled the Swedish Buffet. Great value: 4800 roubles for as much salad, soup, main course, dessert and drinks as we could eat. I tried a traditional borscht soup. Unfortunately, among the cabbage and beetroot, my fork uncovered chunks of meat. (Should have asked for a doggy-bag for the old woman in the subway.)

GUM Department Store

After lunch, headed back out, bound for the GUM department store in Red Square. Our 1991 Independent Traveller guidebook on the then Soviet Union described GUM as "a depressing place full of tacky goods". I thought it a beautiful building: three rows of elegant three-storey shops housed under an arched glass roof.

However, it is depressing, not because the goods are tacky. But because most, if not all of the spic-and-span shops offer high-quality western labels. How can the average Muscovite afford Armani suits, L'Oreale perfume and Lego tip trucks priced in US dollars at western-European prices? I could't afford to shop there!

Interestingly, some things don't seem to have changed since the fall of the Soviet Union. Entry into several GUM shops was strictly limited, and long queues of hopeful shoppers stood outside, waiting for permission to enter. It reminded me of an East Berlin bookshop in 1987, where I had to queue for shopping basket before I could go inside.

GUM Department Store, MoscowImage by falco from Pixabay

Quit window shopping at GUM and got lost again, looking for the Bolshoi Theatre -- I couldn't cross-reference our guidebook with the Moscow map and street names. Passed more lines of hopeful black market sellers as we blundered on. One woman held up a pocket-sized calculator, another a kitten and a third a single sock! I wondered what her chances were of finding a buyer for one sock?

Bolshoi Theatre

Finally found the Bolshoi Theatre, a pale pink building with massive columns at the entrance. Easy to imagine the grandeur inside, especially when the Bolshoi Ballet is performing. Though that will have to wait for our next visit to Moscow, as Intourist organised tickets for their ballet tonight.

On the way back to our hotel to freshen up, we bought a watercolour of St. Basil's Cathedral. I was dubious of the seller's claim she was the artist -- for one thing, her name didn't match the signature! However, it was a lovely painting and a good souvenir, with a story.

St Basil's Cathedral

Further along the subway, various musicians were plying their trade. I have been impressed by the variety and quality of subway buskers in Moscow. Apart from ubiquitous guitarists, there are string quartets, trumpeters, saxophonists, jazz bands, folk bands (playing traditional Russian instruments), and even opera singers. And by some trick of tunnel acoustics, none of it overlaps or sounds discordant -- it makes for a smooth stream of music.

Nutcracker Ballet

Had a nap and headed back out for the Intourist Nutcracker ballet at the Palace of Deputies within the Kremlin. Compared to the Bolshoi, the theatre was soulless, like the Brighton Centre. But it was brought to life by the brilliant performance, in particular, the second act, which we almost missed because we thought the ballet had ended after the first act and nearly left during the interval!

Returned to our hotel via the subway where I bought another set of Russian leader dolls for a friend for US$5. At the hotel, we tried their Löwenbräu bar for dinner. Although we had to pay in dollars, were pleasantly surprised by the quality and value. I had a Russian Mushroom Julienne (with no meaty surprises!) and a pint of Löwenbräu for US$12.50.

While in the bar, a couple of young women wandered through offering bunches of flowers. An older woman accompanied them and approached a man sitting by himself. They had a short conversation, and he shook his head -- my suspicion about the hotel bars doubling as pick-up joints may be correct.

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We finished the night with a visit to St. Basil's. Red Square was lit by bright floodlights, in stark contrast to Sunday's subdued lighting. Took more photos of St. Basil's and listened to a busker in a traditional costume playing a harp-like instrument.

The haunting music suited the surroundings and made it hard to leave and return to the hotel. Sad to think it was our last nighttime visit to Red Square.