I love Moscow. I've loved it since my first visit more than 20 years ago when, at midnight, I walked into Red Square. Knee-deep in snow, the square looked mysterious and magical. St Basil's rose like a candy-striped confection, a cluster of marzipan pineapples, a whacked-out spaceship that had landed at the heart of an empire, the biggest country on earth.
As an American child of the Cold War, I had imagined the Kremlin to be a drab fortress in which evil commies communed. Instead, it turned out to be a set of glorious museums and palaces, the churches topped with golden domes glittering through the snow. The grandeur, the scale and the beauty seduced me. Even after dozens of visits, I could spend all my time in Moscow in Red Square.
Last summer, on a balmy night, I sat at an Italian café in Red Square, eating hazelnut gelato. Gum, the department store, stuffed with designer clothes, was ablaze with lights. The Lenin Museum diagonally opposite had closed, its wonderful artefacts — the wig Lenin wore, his Rolls-Royce — long since moved to the Revolution Museum on Tverskaya, Moscow's main drag. And the young soldier outside Lenin's tomb chatted and posed for pictures with some young tourists.
I love Moscow for its contrasts, the now, the then. At the Vogue Café, gorgeous young women, whose mothers might have waited in line for a pair of shoes from East Berlin, now discuss the waiting time for a Birkin bag from Hermès.
Is this ridiculous nostalgia? Almost surely it is, for life is better now. I love Moscow's bookshops — where once all you could get were boxed sets of Brezhnev's speeches, you can now buy anything. There's food on the shelves, a burgeoning middle class and places like Yolki Palki, where you can get good, cheap Russian fast food. But Muscovites also run to nostalgia, though theirs, as often as not, is for the 19th century, Moscow's literary and scientific heyday. The best restaurant in town, for my money, is the Café Pushkin, a faux 19th-century mansion where the waiters wear knee breeches.
This is a sprawling, brawling, impossible 900-year-old city of ten million plus, its history layered like an archaeological dig. Its obsessions are with money, art, real estate, fashion and food. The traffic never stops. Or the noise. I love it because it has moved at supersonic speed away from its dreary past.
Most of all, I love it for its people. Muscovites are smart, crazy, savvy, ambitious, insecure and very funny. They are possessed of a sense of themselves as living at the very centre of their universe. 'Russia is a country with one and a half cities, the rest are villages with big buildings,' says a Moscow friend. (The 'half city', to the horror of many, is felt to be St Petersburg.) Moscow reminds me of no place so much as my own New York. Development is all in money-mad Moscow now, skyscrapers going up, a factory converted to lofts and galleries. Old buildings and monuments are demolished. Catch them while you can.
I wouldn't want to miss those outcroppings of Soviet life — the metro stations like Revolution with its heroic bronze statues, or Mayakovskaya with mosaics depicting socialist life. Ismailovo flea market is my regular stop. I always head for the poster man on the second floor, who has a fantastic collection of ravishing vintage Soviet versions. The House of Photography has frequent exhibitions of Soviet photographers, the likes of Alexander Rodchenko, the greatest of the Constructivists.
Nothing feels so good, or makes me laugh so much, as the changes in Moscow hotel life. A cocktail and some sushi — Moscow's favourite food — at the roof bar of the Ritz-Carlton is so much better than the Intourist Hotel it replaced, a place of strange smells and terrible souvenirs.
Back in the day, I stayed in all the Soviet hotels. We called them Comrade Fawlty and wondered what people would talk about when times changed. One of the most memorable was the Budapest, where the room had orange paper curtains. Recently, I read that the Budapest was described as 'shabby chic'. It made me laugh, but then in Moscow, laughter has always been a necessary commodity.
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