Moscow is one of the world’s great cities. It’s 850 year history is amazingly rich, as Moscow has been the focal point of so many of history's great events. Moscow is also the capital of the world’s largest country and has always been the centre of the great Russian empire. It is hard to define what it is about the world’s great cities that gives you a vibe, or a certain feeling of awe, but whatever that is, this feeling is felt in Moscow. Moscow is best experienced through it’s contrasts, culture, people and night life. There are also plenty of sites in Moscow to keep the camera-happy tourist busy for quite some time.
A Brief History of Moscow
Little is known about the foundation of Moscow. The first appearance of Moscow in literature is around 1147, so it is likely that it was founded sometime before that. On the banks of the Moskva river, the settlement of Moscow was able to steadily grew. During much of Moscow’s early history it was dominated by the Golden Horde. The principalities of the area all paid tribute and were in constant conflict with the Mongol invaders.
In 1325 Moscow became the centre of the Russian orthodox church. Christianity had spread from Kiev many years earlier and provided some limited unity between the principalities of the area. After the capture of Kiev the church moved first to Vladimir then to Moscow. The uniting effect of religion in the area with it’s centre at Moscow can not be underestimated as a driving force is uniting the principalities under Moscow’s control. After the fall of Constantinople some people considered Moscow and it’s leaders to be the successors to the Byzantine emperors and believed Moscow was destined to become the ‘Third Rome’.
Ivan III (Ivan the Great) the Grand Prince of Moscow was set to expand Moscow’s power in the late 1400's with his attack on Novgarod. In 1480 he stopped paying tribute to the Golden Horde and after the subsequent battles Moscow was freed of the Mongols. At this time Moscow’s control stretched from Novgorod to the Ural mountains.
Ivan IV (Ivan the terrible) further consolidated Moscow’s control incorporating Kazan and areas of the Volga. He was crowned as Russia’s first ‘Tsar’ (Caesar) and Moscow was now the centre and capital of the Russian empire.
Moscow is a city that has seen many disasters, and fires, having been burnt down many times. However it was Peter the Great that shocked Moscow the most when he announced in 1712 that the capital of Russia would move to swamplands recently captured from Sweden, and he built St. Petersburg in a European image. However Moscow always remained the capital in the hearts of many Russians as it was more ‘Russian’ and geographically more central.
Moscow’s continued importance is evident in the fact that it was Napoleon’s main objective when he attacked Russia in 1812. After an incredibly bloody battle at Borodino 130km west of Moscow, probably the largest single battle in world history until that point, Russians abandoned Moscow. Although Russia had technically lost the battle, it broke the back of the French army and really won Russia the war. Never before had such a large city been abandoned with the pending rival of the enemy. Although there was much criticism of the leaders at the time, it proved to be a successful move. The French arrived at the abandoned city to find it almost empty. Fires broke out across the city. There were no firefighters to put them out. As Napoleon sat in the kremlin, with his troops becoming disheartened and a little out of control, the city burnt down around him. Napoleon turned around and fled back to Paris. And so Moscow was again rebuilt.
As the bolsheviks seized power, Moscow's population was around 1.4 million. Lenin decided to move the capital back to Moscow, and his government took up residence in the kremlin. Development of Moscow increased dramatically under Stalin’s control. Stalin made plans to urbanise the whole city, demolishing large parts of the city and building sky-scrapers. Under Stalin’s power Russia was attacked by Hitler. A bloody fight began for Moscow. The German army made it within 30km of the kremlin, and a long and bloody battle raged for the city through one of Russia’s coldest winters on record. Russia held out, and now the city is still the capital and is home to about 9 million people.
The Sights - At a glance
The Moscow Kremlin (Московский Кремль)
The Kremlin is Russia’s heart of political power. It is surrounded by imposing red walls and filled with architecturally beautiful buildings and a big cannon. There is quite a bit to see of the kremlin, and its generally best seen with a tour which you can easily organise just outside. Allow enough time as there is quite a bit to see, both inside and outside of the various palaces, cathedrals and other buildings. As you are walking around don’t forget to imagine the place’s historical events. Such as: Napoleon arriving in 1812 after capturing Moscow, the Tsars ruling Russia, Stalin’s thoughts as the German army approached, or communist leaders pondering the events of the cold war. This is the centre of Moscow, and the centre of Russia.
Red Square (Красная площадь)
Red square is Moscow’s central square, and probably the most famous and filmed location in the city. It is surrounded by some of Moscow’s most famous buildings including the Kremlin, St Basil’s cathedral, Lenin's Mausoleum, GUM department store, State Historical Museum. It even is the ‘resting place’ of Lenin, Russia’s first communist leader. It was here that Russia’s famous military parades took place during World War II and the cold war.
St. Basil’s Cathedral (Храм Василия Блаженного)
This amazing cathedral on red square is a landmark of Moscow. Built to celebrate Ivan the Terrible’s victory at Kazan it was completed in 1561. It is an amazing feat of colour and architecture. The cathedral is located on the edge of Red Square.
Cathedral of Christ the Saviour (Храм Христа Спасителя)
After the war of 1812 against Napoleon, Alexander I commissioned a new cathedral to be built in Moscow. It was to be the biggest Russian Orthodox cathedral in the world. Construction took around 40 years, and it was around another 40 years until the surrounding areas and frescos were completed. It also served as a memorial the soldiers of the patriotic war.
In December 1937, on Stalin’s orders, the cathedral was destroyed with explosives. A new ‘Palace of Soviets’ was to be built on the site, however it was never built, and the site became a swimming pool. After the fall of the soviet union the cathedral was rebuilt with a combination of public funds, and donations from the public. “The Cathedral of Christ the Saviour has arisen out of the ashes in all of its' glory right in the heart of our capital.”
Novodevichy Convent (Новоде́вичий монасты́рь)
The Novodevichy Convent was built in 1524 by Vasili III in after the conquest of Smolensk. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Moscow Metro (Московский метрополитен, метро)
In most cities the Metro system is just a means of getting from one tourist attraction to another. The Moscow metro is an exception to this rule, it is a tourist attraction in itself.
You will find yourself stopping to marvel at some of Moscow’s amazingly ornately designed stations. Carrying an average of 7million passengers per day, it is also Europe’s busiest Metro system.
Bolshoi Theatre (Большой театр)
If you know that Russia is famous for Ballet and Opera then you have no doubt heard of Moscow’s Bolshoi Theatre. Restoration of the Bolshoi theatre is due to be completed in 2013.
Getting to Moscow.
There are two main international airports that service Moscow, and three other primary airports that service primarily short-haul and domestic destinations. The airport you arrive at will depend mostly on which airline you fly.
Sheremetyevo International Airport (Международный Аэропорт Шереметьево) services both international and domestic routes. There is currently no direct rail service to Sheremetyevo so road transport is required to Moscow or a station on the Metro network. For travellers not familiar with travelling in Russia it may be worth pre-booking a transfer service with your travel agent.
Domodedovo International Airport (Международный Аэропорт Москва-Домодедово) services mainly international arrivals and is a common port for western airlines. Domodedovo has a direct express train to the city after which you can transfer directly onto the metro. Naturally there are normal taxi and transfer services available to take you directly to your hotel.
When you arrive at Moscow by train you arrive at one of Moscow nine primary railway terminals. This will depend mostly on where you have come from. For example, all St. Petersburg connections arrive at Leningradsky station (Ленингра́дский вокза́л). Kazansky station (Каза́нский вокза́л) generally serves eastern destinations such as the trans-siberian railway. You should always carefully check which station your train will arrive or depart from. Most train stations have direct access to the Moscow metro system.