My itinerary called for a 12-hour layover in Moscow, which I was actually rather pleased about. I figured that would give me enough time to leave the airport and sojourn to Red Square, which is exactly what I did. After checking my large bag, I toured the airport in search of lockers to stash my two heavy carry ons. Unfortunately, I found none and resolved to lug them around the city. Heck, it would give me a nice workout anyway.
As is often the case, the airport was about 40 miles outside of town. I was advised that Moscow traffic is terrible and that I’d be best served taking an express train downtown. Indeed, I found the AeroExpress train waiting outside the airport, promising a swift 45-minute trip to the city, from where I could take a subway to Red Square.
I stepped onto the platform with my roundtrip ticket (500 rubles, or about $15) and set my bags down on the wet ground. Within 20 minutes, a long red train pulled up to the platform. I stepped in and plopped down into one of the poorly cushioned seats.
The train, like much of Russia, struck me as a strange amalgamation of Soviet and capitalist thinking. It’s like the commercial, “You got chocolate in my peanut butter!” only here it’s “you got capitalism in my communism!”
Example 1: The airport was clearly built with large, visually heavy concrete blocks, but now there’s an effort underway to cover the concrete with a Gehry-esque draping of mirrored windows flowing in and out like falling fabric.
Example 2: The train is quite spartan with hard surfaces designed for easy cleaning. And yet at each end hangs a “SAMSUNG LED!” TV playing a loop of highly produced commercials for Radisson hotels, luxury cars and other consumer goods.
The ride into Moscow was uneventful and I enjoyed looking out the window at the forests, dilapidated buildings, train yards and such. When we finally pulled into the Moscow station, I found my way to the subway and then a map of Moscow.
Staring at the map, I realized I had (a) no clue where I was and (b) no idea how to get where I wanted to go.
I stood there for a few minutes, waiting for someone else to step up to the map too, hoping I could buttonhole him/her and get some answers. Sure enough, a young man stepped up and I was able to pantomime “here,” eliciting a finger pointing at one station on the map. Then I said, “Kremlin?” and got another finger on the map. Problem solved.
The ticket dispensing machines offered English as an option, so set with my two-trip pass, I entered the bowels of Moscow. As in Prague, the subway stations highlight some of the best and worst of the former Soviet bloc.
Each station features tall ceilings, ornate decorations, granite walls and other luxurious elements, as if they wanted the station to be featured in a special mass transit issue of “Architectural Digest.” And yet at the same time, the lights, housings for cleaning equipment, small security sheds and other elements were devoid of any style, grace or design. Yellow fluorescent lights, exposed conduits, sheet-metal sheds — all bespoke of a “fuck it” mentality that strikes me as coming out of the latter half of the Soviet period.
Once the subway trains arrived, I realized I had made a fatal flaw in my quizzing of my map companion. Although I knew which station I needed to go to, I had no idea which train would take me there. As trains on both tracks arrived simultaneously, I figured I had a 50-50 chance to pick the right one. So I turned left and hopped on board.
Naturally, it was the wrong train.
Don’t Be (Red) Square
When I finally got turned around and made my way to the Red Square station, I stepped out into the warm damp air and looked around. All around me where stalls of trinket vendors hawking everything from fur hats to decks of cards to nesting dolls and more.
I couldn’t see any buildings that shouted “Red Square” to me, so I began wandering about. As I walked, I saw someone dressed as Shrek, a giant Spongebob Squarepants and plenty of hot dog vendors. Then, almost by accident, I looked to my left and saw through an archway the unforgettable St. Basil’s Cathedral.
Walking through the Kremlin’s gates, I found myself remembering countless spy movies shot at this location. The looming brick buildings, the beautiful twisting domes, the Lenin Mausoleum — it looked at once familiar and utterly foreign.
I could imagine military parades and freezing winter nights on this spot, but as I walked about, it was full of people — and about a dozen wedding parties with brides in flowing white gowns and grooms in shiny gray suits — milling about under a warm overcast sky.
Once again I was taken aback at the strange combination of Soviet and western icons. To the right was Lenin’s tomb. To the left, cafes and luxury stores, including a Hermes shop.
After about two hours of wandering and enjoying the Kremlin’s beauty, I bought a few souvenirs and headed back to the airport. Tired, sweaty, and hungry, it was time to try to get some rest before taking the next leg of my flight.