a double city trip on the russian railway

journey profile

Where: Moscow & St Petersburg. Russia, Europe
When: August 2008
What: St Basil’s Cathedral, Red Square, Stalin’s Seven Sisters, River Moscow Cruise, Gorky Park, Moscow Metro, Ostankino TV Tower, Park of Achievements, The Kremlin, Church of the Spilled Blood, GUM Store.
How: International Flight, Taxi, Boat, Russian Train, Moscow & St Petersburg Metros, Walking.
Counter: 1 country
Illnesses or mishaps: None


Russia was a beguiling place; architecturally I believe there is no other place quite like it. I'd wanted to go to Russia for years and, on my 30th birthday in August 2008 I finally got my wish. Added spice for us came from the Georgian and Russian conflict which had started two days before we left. News stands were awash with images of tanks and of Georgian President Saakashvili, and on the TV in our hotel. Russian media bias was rather blatant, unsurprisingly, especially in a country where there seemed to be an infinite range of different security and police divisions, each with their own particular uniform. One division, with blue shirts and trousers, sees 'men', no older than 20 in my opinion, hanging around metro stations in groups of three or four, carrying truncheons. Doesn't exactly instil confidence. Russia was quite clearly a country built on an arrogant machismo; men don't so much talk as grunt at you. Culturally there was an unmistakable undercurrent of mistrust and corruption: we walked past one police station, where the room (notice I didn't say reception desk) was filled with slack-looking officers smoking and laughing.

The country has a fascinating history; although far too complex to get to grips with in a short visit. Clear was the feeling that Russia struggles with what it is; huge buildings and architectural follies which serve no other purpose but to stand there as a reminder of a once great Russia, resorting to being used as indoor markets, underlines the superficiality of modern Russia; iconic Russian architecture built to make a statement, but nothing else. The USSR used its iconography and architecture to make grand gestures and big statements, purely out of an inferiority complex - playing catch-up with the West. The Park of Achievements (now tellingly re-named the All Russian Exhibition Centre) was designed to glorify communism and socialism. Nobody is making Russia play catch-up, it wants to do it itself. It is like a badly behaved younger brother who throws tantrums when he doesn't get enough attention, or gets left out of being picked for the football team and therefore becomes rude and aggressive. Why else would you build a huge park with a strange assortment of arches, fountains and empty buildings, and then call it 'The Park of Achievements'? It seems that Russia's greatest achievements quickly become its greatest embarrassments; standards by which it becomes judged and dismissed by the West.

All of this means that everything you see in Russia is infused with interest and history. Also its most recent history, from 1917 onwards is arguably some of its most jaw-droppingly fascinating. Like it or loathe it for what it stands for, Russia is an absolute must for anybody wanting to see the sights of the world before they head to that vaster country in the sky. A week was just not enough - you need at least a fortnight to get to grips with what there is to see here. This trip does not mean I am done with Russia - not just yet. I'll be back.



The capital of mother russia

Although I have only travelled a tiny proportion of this vast country, Moscow definitely felt like the dark, beating heart of Russia. I was desperate to see some of the huge and imposing Stalin palaces, the red brick towers of the Kremlin and St Basil's Cathedral. These are truly iconic sights which elicited a gasp from me on my approach to Red Square - and were worth travelling to Russia in themselves. St Basil's is a truly stunning sight and one I had been desperate to see for so long. It is so otherwordly in its colours and swirls that it becomes hard to imagine that man built it.

Moscow was also crammed full of weird and wonderful things to behold. A prime example we saw on our visit was the grand statement of the gold fountain in the Park of Achievements which didn't work. Also, the Ostankino TV Tower; at 540m tall it was taller than the Empire State Building when it was completed in 1967. It is still the tallest tower in Europe and the fourth tallest in the world; another grand gesture which, as history has marked, Russia is then judged by. In 1993 the tower was stormed by communists, taking three TV stations off the air. More tellingly, in 2000, the tower caught fire because of faulty 1960s electrics. Russian President, Vladimir Putin, declared, "This latest accident shows the shape of our vital installations and the overall state of our country." We stayed at the Golden Apple in Moscow. On leaving my 30th birthday card and balloons in the room, we returned to find that someone in the hotel had arranged the balloons into a smiley face and left a cake and bottle of champagne. Nice touch, I thought - and sadly a little uncharacteristic of Moscow. 


Moscow's famous Red Square with St Basil's and the Kremlin.


The wonderful multi-coloured stripes of the icon of Mother Russia: St. Basil's cathedral, Red Square. It certainly drew a gasp of awe from me as I approached it for the first time. There are only a few things which have me say "wow" out loud - and this was one of them.


Stalin's Seven Sister skyscrapers: a dramatic apartment building on Otyelnicheskaya Nabyerezhnaya.


Stalin's Seven Sister skyscrapers: Moscow State University. Apparently part inspiration for these fascinating monsters was the Royal Liver Building in Liverpool.


Stalin's Seven Sister skyscrapers: the Hotel Ukrainia and the behemoth of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs at night. 


Kremlin Towers: The Spaskaya Clock Tower with the red star of communism, and the gateaux-like Saint Nicholas Tower. Love how architectural grandeur goes hand in hand with power. Phallic-like towers = masculine power politics. The red stars add a sense of absurdity and difference, I feel.


Views of the Kremlin, which means "fortress" in Russian including the golden domes of the Kremlin's Ivan the Great bell tower.


The famous GUM department store flanks the side of Red Square, once full of dowdy Soviet goods but billed as the Harrods of the Soviet Union. Many of the shelves of this former Soviet department store were empty- now they are stuffed full of expensive designer label shops and cafes. Expect to pay £5 for a coffee in here - which we did, but just for touristic reasons.


Moscow's ornate and internationally-renowned Metro - photography strictly prohibited since the bombing of the Metro in 2003 but I managed to sneak a couple of shots. Two years after our visit the Metro was to be the scene of yet another bombing outrage, reputedly carried out by Chechen rebels.


The Moscow Park of Achievements (1): many of the buildings are topped by iconic USSR symbols. 


The Moscow Park of Achievements (2): Monuments to Lenin and Russian achievement downgraded to selling cheap tat. On the right, the park's Central Pavilion mimicking the typical Stalin palace features. Right,  Lenin at the Moscow Park of Achievements - a park formerly dedicated the the achievements of the USSR. 


The Moscow Park of Achievements (3): Grand boulevards leading to Stalin Palaces - classic Soviet planning.


The Ostankino TV Tower, 540m tall and in 1993 the scene of a major siege causing 3 channels to go off the air. Yeltsin declared a state of emergency. Right, the Space Obelisk at the entrance to Moscow Park of Achievements in north east Moscow. The Space Race was one area where the USSR played on an equal footing with the United States


The golden domes of The Christ the Saviour Cathedral.


Russian Baroque: the Church of the Trinity in Nikitniki built in the 1630s. Right, a Russian Orthodox priest catches up with the latest Kremlin-authorised news.


Moscow street scenes: a street stall selling Russian kitsch retro memorabilia including the obligatory Russian dolls. The defunct red flag of the USSR can clearly be seen in the bottom right of the picture adorning the table, underlining the paradoxical relationship Russia has with its communist past: dismissed, yet embraced; rubbished, yet hankered after. Right, a street kiosk.


Moscow's famous Red Square with St Basil's and the Kremlin - a sight I'd longed to see for years.



st. petersburg

russia's venice-like second city

Using the Moscow-St Petersburg Railway, we travelled some 700km, nine hours and across four Russian oblasts to reach Russia's second city (click here to view the indecipherable ticket). It was a journey we nearly never made - running late, and failing to understand a series of instructions from ticket office staff and Muscovites in broken English, we boarded the train with thirty seconds to spare. We wisely chose first class. I spent nine hours watching dreadfully old Russian programmes, which were beamed into the carriage by an old-style TV set. Most irritating was that for hours, fellow travellers (all Russian), sat there giggling and laughing at the programmes being shown. One programme was a cartoon from what looked like the 1960s. I spent the journey being generally, but mutely, appalled - especially as I couldn't understand a word and the whole nine hours' worth of entertainment was completely lost on me.

St Petersburg was boiling hot - and rather underwhelming. Likened by some as Russia's Venice, I had certain expectations which were not fulfilled. It must be said that our mix-up with cash and credit cards meant that we had a wasted journey to the Peterhof palace - although we did have a nice little boat journey to the palace - we just couldn't get on the island! Great shame. St Pete did seem far less Russian and more European. Apart from key Russian icons like the Metro system, there was little which reminded us of Moscow; there were certainly less police men or the OMON staring at us, which put us more at ease than we had been in Moscow.


The wonderful retro designs of Russian transport: the main St Petersburg railway station and, right, the inside of the St Petersburg Metro train.


The State Hermitage Museum - one of the largest and oldest museums in the world and founded by the then Empress of Russia, Catherine the Great. To look at it, you wouldn't think it was so important and, right, the General Staff building in Palace Square. The square was the setting for the infamous October Revolution in 1917 which led to the creation of the USSR (or 'CCCP' in Russian). 


The pastel colours of the Moika River. Right, the Hermitage Museum across the River Neva.


The Church of the Spilled Blood. It has, since it's completion in 1907, has been used as a morgue for death-starved Russians in WWII as well as a warehouse for vegetables. It intentionally resembles the internationally recognisable St Basil's in Moscow.


A Church of the Spilled Blood's creative onion domes selection.


St Petersburg's circular Palace Square.


In Palace Square wearing a Russian 40 degree heat. Just in case you're wondering, I've got my eye closed because sweat is running into it. The things you do for a photograph!




The gigantic Stalin Palace along the Moscow River.

Accidental footage of the Moscow Metro.



travel tips

  • Make sure you book your ticket to St Petersburg from Moscow in good time. Obviously it is a popular route meaning that your plans could be disrupted if you leave it too late.
  • Moscow has several train stations - make sure you know which one your train departs from. I remember locating the station amongst market stalls and busy streets being a bit of a nightmare. We made our train - but only just.


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