The train to Moscow was pleasantly uneventful. The highlight of it was meeting our carriage mate, Larissa, a middle-aged lady from high up at the top of Siberia who force-fed us gooseberries and raspberries and marched me out into the corridor first thing the following morning for a glimpse of Vladimir.
Chris was itching for the train trip to be over, as most of his family was due to meet us in Moscow. He hadn’t seen them for nine months. I was really looking forward to seeing them too: our families are really close, so it was like knowing an aunt and uncle and cousin were all waiting on the platform.
The train pulled into Moscow mid-morning. Chris was fizzing with excitement by then. We packed up and got ready and he peered out of the window as we pulled into the platform.
“I see them! I see them!” he squeaked suddenly. We said goodbye to Larissa and belted off the train, weaving our way through the crowd up the platform, and there they were: Cathy and Steve, Chris’s Mum and Dad, and Maddy, his sister. Only Chris’s brother Jonny was missing. It was brilliant to see them all. We had a broadly-grinning and moist-eyed reunion and launched ourselves straight into the splendour of the Moscow metro.
The strange thing was, as Cathy pointed out, mere minutes after we met up everything felt perfectly normal, as though we all went gallivanting round Moscow together every day. We were renting a flat in a brilliant location near the Arbat, so we dropped off our backpacks and had a quick shower before we ventured out again. It was Tuesday. The Edis family, including Chris, were heading off to St Petersburg on Thursday, so we didn’t have much time to spare and there were a lot of sights to see.
Luckily most of the museums we wanted to see were closed, so we were able to tick a whole heap of them off our list in less than an hour. Herzen’s and Lermontov’s houses were both closed; so was Scriabin’s, but the doors were open as it was being renovated so we were able to wander in anyway and see his piano. The Melnikov House was closed so we peered at it through the fence. Congratulating ourselves on our excellent sightseeing progress, we headed off towards Red Square, stopping to pick up some food from a supermarket along the way.
Round Red Square I had that strange feeling you get when seeing a very familiar place for the first time in real life. St Basil’s, for example, is much smaller than I thought it was. The walls of the Kremlin are much less severe than they seem on the television; in fact Moscow is a much more colourful and happier place than I was expecting it to be.
The next day was the first of August. We headed straight back to the Kremlin after breakfast, arriving more or less as it opened. It’s a strange mix of the business end of a government and the ultra-touristy, crammed with cathedrals, tombs and stern ministerial buildings. Onion domes aplenty. The weather was perfect: warm but not so hot it was unpleasant to move around, and the brilliant sunlight made all the golden domes shine.
We met up with some of Chris’s friends, who live in Moscow, and went for a leisurely lunch with them. It grew hotter, but luckily we had decided to visit for the air-conditioned Tretyakov Museum in the afternoon. Inside the museum it was beautifully cool.
The contents of the Tretyakov are just overwhelming. Room after room of incredible works by Russia’s greatest painters and portraits of loads of artists and writers. At one point, exhausted, we collapsed on a bench for a bit then decided to leave – only to discover another floor of landscapes that refused to be ignored. That’s the only trouble with museums: you almost need to set aside a full day just to do each one justice, and more than that if it’s somewhere like the Hermitage or the Louvre.
One of the paintings in these final rooms was Levitan’s Vladimirka Road. Cathy has given me a postcard of this work just before I embarked on my Russian Culture MA, and I pinned it above my desk while I was knee-deep in Gulag literature and Dostoevsky and the Russian philosophers. I’d glance up at the long road in the painting with weary recognition as I slogged away at some essay or other. It was lovely to see it in the flesh, with Cathy there beside me.
Afterwards we went off to Gorky Park. Chris’s friend Bella told us about how the park had undergone a bit of a renaissance in the last year or so, and it was the perfect place to be that summer afternoon. We sat on the grass, drinking ice tea and watching the skateboarders, rollerbladers, courting couples, lemonade stands, the lost helium balloons escaping up into the warm evening air: everything a park should be.
We had dinner in the park then wandered down to the embankment of the Moskva. Even by ten in the evening it was still light out, and the riverside was crowded with happy people, filling out the bars and salsa dancing in an open air ballroom. It was a magical night. None of us wanted it to end.
The next morning we got up early as the others needed to catch the train to St Petersburg. Though we left the timing rather tight, they walked me to my next Moscow home, the Petrovka Loft hotel. I took Chris up on his long-standing offer to carry my backpack, which was known as The Beast: he hauled it all the way up several flights of stairs for me, and we said goodbye.
It was sad and strange to part from Chris after all we had been through along the Trans-Siberian. I couldn’t have asked for a more easygoing travelling companion. But I’d been to St Petersburg before, and I wanted to continue my journey by train, having got so far without flying.
The Petrovka Loft is what passed for a budget Moscow hotel in 2012. For an eye-watering sum I got a room with a double bed squeezed against one wall and a narrow gutter of floor around it. God knows how two people would manage to fit into it; the second would just have to throw themselves on to the bed from the door. The bathroom was down the hall. But the loft has a brilliant location, right next to the Bolshoi theatre, and that’s what you pay for. Moscow could do with a lot more budget hotels and hostels. I would have liked to have stayed longer, but I could only afford one night at the Petrovka Loft.
For my first solo adventure in Moscow I went to the Mayakovsky Museum. Russian museums tend not to spare their foreign visitors: all the descriptive labels were written in Russian, so I came out of there knowing little more about Mayakovsky’s life and works than I had when I arrived. However, that’s hardly the point. The museum is amazing. It’s a three-dimensional, building-sized collage of stuff from the man’s life, with things on the walls, floors, and dangling from the ceiling in a disorientating explosion of imagery. I loved it, though I had no idea what was going on most of the time.
After the Mayakovsky Museum I navigated my way to Patriarch’s Ponds. I can’t describe how nerdily excited I was to go there; I was practically trembling. It’s a small ordinary-looking park with a pond in it that happens to be the location of the opening chapter of Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita, one of my all-time favourite books. I went and sat on a bright yellow bench and imagined the opening scene unfolding around me, in all its comic horror: “One hot spring evening, just as the sun was going down, two men appeared at Patriarch’s Ponds…”
Somehow the sites of literary scenes are more resonant to me than the sites of historic events. I stood in Red Square, remembering all that had occurred round there, and thought “hmm… yes,” whereas in Patriarch’s Ponds I couldn’t stop grinning. Perhaps because imaginary characters feel terribly real when you’re walking in their footsteps, whereas historical figures and places always have that heavy sense of reality; or maybe it’s because a literary work allows you access to these places in a deeper, more immediate way than learning about them in history does. Well, who knows. I was very happy on my yellow bench.
The rest of my time in Moscow was spent in a similarly literary-nerdy way. I went to Pushkin Square, and the next day, my last day in Moscow, I visited Tolstoy’s house and the Andrei Bely museum. I wanted to go to Yasnaya Polyana but it would have involved more nights in Moscow than I could afford, so I made do with the Moscow house.
I found Tolstoy’s house quite moving. There are lots of photos of him and his family on the walls, and you look around to see the same chair he’s sitting in in the photo right next to you, almost haunted by his presence. It was also good to see the waste paper basket parked under his desk. An accessible bin is a vital tool of writing.
The Bely museum suffered from the same lack of translated information as the Mayakovsky, though I enjoyed looking at his sketches. I also had fun with the attendant, who refused to believe I didn’t have enough change for my ticket until she snatched my purse, up-ended it on the counter and went through the coins herself.
That evening I caught the train onwards to Ukraine. I was sad to leave Russia. For all its rather terrifying reputation, and despite the brandished knives and fistfights encountered along the way, I loved my time there. I was used to responding to a peremptory yell of ‘Devushka!’ (Girl!), and had grown to appreciate the brusque, unsought assistance so often thrust my way. Moscow had cast a particularly powerful spell over me, and I wished I could stay a little longer. But Kiev beckoned, and I was looking forward to seeing my Mum, who was flying out to join me there. So I heaved The Beast on my back and staggered off under its mounting weight towards another train station.