Moscow is big, raw, chaotic and real, and as a whole not particularly beautiful but in parts charming, intriguing and stunning. Most visitors like it. Covering over 850 square kilometers (340 square miles) and home to about 12 million people, it contains large green expanses, broad boulevards and onion-dome churches but is characterized mainly by its drab cement highrises, monolithic Soviet-era buildings, seven wedding-cake Stalinist skyscrapers, dreary weather and masses of people dressed in shades of gray, brown, and black that suddenly spring to life when the weather warms up. People from Moscow are called Muscovites. More people live in Moscow than in Belgium or Bulgaria.

Moscow is the second largest city in Europe (Istanbul is the largest) and the center of everything in Russia: It is the political, business, finance, military, fashion and popular culture capital of Russia. All important decisions are for the most part still made here. To make it big in Russia you have to make it big in Moscow. It is also a city where one can fail miserably as the homeless people in train stations and the drunks in the parks testify. The Soviet past is still omnipresent. For a while it seemed as if that era was destined for the dustbin. But after 20 years of President Vladimir Putin it is clear that the Soviet mentality has remained very much alive, even fashionable.

Moscow is like New York City and Washington D.C. rolled into one. Many of the country's most prominent museums, monuments, offices and businesses are located here. It is a place that deserves more than a quick, snapshot visit and grows on you the more you explore it: as you discover the character of different neighborhoods and figure out where too look for action and where to seek quiet. The only city that presents a challenge is St. Petersburg, which has been a rival of Moscow ever since it was conceived and regards itself as the cultural and intellectual heart of Russia.

In Moscow, you can find broad avenues flanked by Stalin-era buildings solidly built with multicolored stones. In some areas, the buildings are surprisingly colorful: pastels of pale yellow, rose and green. If you look hard enough you will uncover a star-shaped theater, a tractor-shaped cultural affair center and an apartment building built in the shape of a hammer and sickle. The Moscow Hotel looks lopsided because architects were afraid to tell Stalin they approved two sets of blue prints and construction began on both designs. Moscow also has its seamy and dirty side: with unwashed windows, mud-encrusted cars, potholed streets, beggars, drunks and prostitutes, cockroaches and rats. Trucks deliver huge loads of beets, potatoes, cabbage and melons to the open markets.

Moscow is located west of the great Russian plain on the banks of the Moscow River. The city is built on several low hills varying from eight meters (25 feet) to 267 meters (815 feet) above sea level. Moscow covers 2,511 square kilometers. About 40 per cent of that is by greenery and forests, making Moscow among of the greenest capitals in the world. Many people think that Moscow is most beautiful in the winter after a fresh snow, the sky is cleared by the frigid temperatures and people stroll around in fur coats and fur hats. White Nights and pleasant weather are an attractions of the summer. Highs can hit the upper and lower 30s C (upper 80s and lower 90s F). There is enough light during the summer solstice at 11:00pm to read a newspaper. Winter in Moscow lasts roughly from October to April. One of the best times to visit is in May when lilacs bloom all over the city.

Early History of Moscow

Moscow was founded in 1147 by Prince Yuri of Suzdal, who conquered the towns of Vladimir and Suzdal, battled other Russian princes for the throne of Kiev and claimed the land around present-day Moscow from a nobleman who offended him and was ordered killed. Prince Yuri was nicknamed "Dolgoruky," which means "low-handed." Moscow is first mentioned as Prince Yuri’s hunting camp. Due to its strategic position on a north-south trade route from Rostov to Ryazan, Moscow was the center of trade and government in what eventually became the Russian Empire.

The area around the Kremlin had been settled a couple hundred years before prince Yuri arrived and was site of the nobleman's estate when the city was founded. At the time Moscow was founded Kiev was the center of Russian culture. As time went on Moscow grew in importance and Kiev declined.

During the Mongol occupation in the 13, 14th and 15th centuries, Moscow grew in influence as a tax collection center for Russia and Moscow displaced Kiev as the capital and cultural center of Russia. By the late 1500s, Moscow was home to 100,000 people and was one of the largest cities in the world at that time.

Peter the Great hated Moscow. He built St. Petersburg and made it the capital of Russia in 1712. For over two centuries the center of tsarist Russia was in St. Petersburg. Even so Moscow remained important enough for Napoleon to claim it in 1812 only to have it burnt to the ground to drive him away.

In tsarist times, Moscow was a city cobblestones, birch forests, and churches. In 1916, the poet Marina Tsvetayeva referred to Moscow as the city of "fifty times forty" churches with small pigeon hovering over the golden domes and floors brought to a shine by the kisses of worshippers. As Russia's second city, Moscow retained its primacy only in trade, until the leaders of Soviet Russia transferred the capital back to Moscow early in 1918.

Later History of Moscow

After the Bolshevik Revolution, the Soviets made Moscow their capital. Lenin decreed that all tsarist monuments had to be replaced with monuments dedicated to "the liberation of labor." About half of Moscow's churches were destroyed, and the ones that remained were turned into warehouses, factories, sports clubs and offices. Of the 18 churches around the Kremlin, only nine survived. One Moscow church was replaced with a public toilet.

Stalin transformed Moscow into megalopolis of solemn monuments, cold skyscrapers, sterile squares, depressing factories and grim apartment buildings. Under his leadership, old historical buildings were torn down to make way for new apartments, schools, metro stations and prisons as well as the broad boulevards that characterize the city. To his credit he also built Moscow's wonderful Metro and commissioned artist and craftsmen to make the palace-like Metro stations. Within a relatively short time Moscow more than quadrupled in population and territory (878 square kilometers). But by the Brezhnev era, Moscow personified Soviet stagnation. In 1976, British journalist Geoffrey Bocca described it as "crushing catenation of faceless, shabby, shoving, rude and, above all, indifferent, uninteresting people."

Moscow has gone through great and rapid changes since the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s. Immediately afterwards many of the monuments to Marx and Lenin were pulled down, streets named after Soviet heros reverted to their pre-revolutionary names and many the city's 400 churches reopened as places of worship. Many reminders of the Soviet era remain. The 70-foot statue of Lenin still towers over Okyabrskaya Square. Statues and busts of Stalin, Brezhnev and KGB-founder Dzerzhinsky were torn down and placed on the lawn beside the State Tretyakov Gallery. Some of them are used by children as slides

In the early 1990s, kiosks and open-air vendors appeared everywhere. People often sold things that you'd be amazed anyone would ever want to buy. These vendors were particular numerous around major subway stops. In the late 1990s, more proper businesses and shopping malls and offices were completed. Moscow was cleaned up and given a make over to celebrate the city's 850th anniversary in 1997. At that time Moscow was sometimes called “not made of rubber”, meaning it could stretch indefinitely to accommodate all who want to visit or stay there. But the in the last two decades, the city's growing pains in housing and in supplying its large population have led to calls for limits on growth and crack-downs on the city’s huge "unregistered" population.

Moscow Under Luzhkov

Yuri Luzhkov, the mayor of Moscow from 1992 to 2009, left a definite stamp on the city and was accused of making Moscow the kitsch capital of the world. The transformation under Luzhkov was described by World Architecture magazine as “flamboyantly ornate” in style and “an abysmal rhetoric of traditional architectural element, re-created Disney-style in poor-quality material and with no attention to detail.”

Luzhkov once said, "I'm not a Red. I'm not a White. I'm just a builder. He was known for his grand construction projects, hallmarked by the US$300 million Christ of the Savior Cathedral, the Manezh Square Shopping Mall, and the comically awful US$20 million Peter the Great Monument. He also overseen the restoration of museums, 19th-century mansions, churches and palaces. Moscow Between 2001 and 2006, 51 buildings 30 stories or more were completed, under construction or proposed.

Luzhkov personally inspected construction plans and was known to have ordered changes in window casing and rooftop designs. He keeps workers happy by supplying them with free kvass, a beer-like drink, delivered by tanker truck. Many Muscovites lamented the changes he made. As of 2004, he ordered 400 buildings — including 60 labeled as architectural monuments, supposedly protected by national law — destroyed.

Luzhkov also tried the clear the streets of streetwalkers ad homeless people, close down sex shops in the city center and ordered vendors to stay at least 23 meters away from Metro stations. He issued decrees banning the use of English letters in Moscow storefronts and billboards and urged his employees not to use foreign-made automobiles.

Luzhkov was known as a man who got things done. He is credited with reducing crime by 20 percent, encouraging citizens to set up neighborhood anti-crime patrols, and forcing shopkeepers to clean up the area in front of their shops. He made sure city workers and pensioners were paid on time and kept debt-ridden companies afloat and found money to build much needed roads. He was criticized for denying the civil rights of dark-skinned people from the Caucasus by requiring residency permits.

Moscow Today

Moscow today is intense, cruel, dirty, crass, cultured, vibrant, extremely rich, dirt-poor and never boring. Construction, neon signs, leather and fur are everywhere; the traffic is atrocious; the nightlife can be very decadent. Moscow is where Russians with ambition come for a piece of the action and in the process have created a super metropolis that acts like a state unto itself and ignores the rest of Russia. Many people feel Moscow is like a different country from the rest of Russia.

The cast of characters includes collapsed drunks, dirty children, begging babushkas, ranting gypsies, orange-robed Hare Krishnas, uniformed Cossacks, mini-skirted models, gangsters in warm up suits and black leather jackets, bankers in armor-plated Mercedes. Prostitutes literally line some streets after midnight; punks, skinheads, grunge rockers, bikers and heavy metal heads all have their turf marked out, including at Red Square. Cockroaches and rats have figured out ways to survive the cold.

The atmosphere of Moscow has changed quite dramatically since the Soviet era. The main sights are still there — the Kremlin, St. Basil's Cathedral and the Bolshoi — as are the mud-encrusted cars and pot-holed streets, but there are also gay bars, techno nightclubs, shopping malls, casinos, mirrored-glass office towers, swank boutiques, street bazaars, hotels with US$500-a-night room and knock-dead beautiful prostitutes that charge over US$1,000 a night. .

Replacing the giant portraits of Lenin and Marx in Red Square are banners and signs advertising skin cream and tropical vacations. Since the break up of the Soviet Union, Moscow has become awash with billboards advertising vodka, cigarettes, casinos, underwear, expensive watches cosmetics, and strip clubs. First time visitors are often surprised by how normals things are. Lots of new buildings, new businesses, new restaurants, statues an, churches. Dozens of new supermarkets have opened; dilapidated hotels have been renovated; three-star hotels for middle class visitors have been built.

The low Moscow skyline is defined as much by construction cranes as Stalinist wedding cake buildings. Construction projects are everywhere. During the 1990s and early 2000s the trend to was to build glass-and-steel towers, neo-Stalinist structures and neon signs. The National Hotel, the Resurrection Gate at the entrance to Red Square, Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow Zoo and Gorky Park were all given major overhauls. Pedestrian tunnels have been added to the downtown area. The Ring Road, once known as "the read of death," has been upgraded to Western standards. Some parts of Moscow were given a major facelift. Central Tverskaya is now lined with fashionable shops and trendy restaurants. The ironwork fences of the inner boulevard ring were replaced with flowers and now is a pleasant place to take a walk.

Moscow Economics

Even though capitalism has taken hold in provincial towns at a slow pace it moved rapidly into Moscow. In the late 1990s about 70 percent of all the money invested in Russia flowed into the Moscow region (in comparison St. Petersburg's receives about 15 percent) and 20 percent of all privatized businesses were in Moscow. By the early 2000s, the share of investment had been reduced to 40 percent.

Moscow is a large percentafe of the country's wealth. About 80 percent of the banks and most of the largest companies have their headquartered in Moscow. Salaries are several times higher than in the rest of the country. Unemployment is low despite the huger influx of people that come from all over the former Soviet Union looking for work. For a time over a third of the national market for consumer goods was in Moscow and half of all new cars sold in Russia are sold in Moscow. Muscovites are twice as likely to own a personal computer and credit card are people in the provinces.

There is lots of business activity and energy in Moscow. The city attract the best and the brightest and the most ambitious people in Russia. Small business thrive and people can find new jobs for decent wages. Shopping malls and major stores have popped up like mushrooms on the Moscow Ring Road. The Moscow city center has some of the world's most expensive office space. Property values soared 33 percent a year in the early 2000sand 2004, when choice residential property in central Moscow was selling for US$2,000 a square meter. Osteozhenka is regarded a the most expensive area of the city. About two third's or the property is owned by the city (with business leasing the land at steep prices) and most of the rest is owned by the state.

Moscow often ranks high on lists of the worlds most expensive cities along with Tokyo, Hong Kong, Geneva, London and New York. Dinner at an top restaurant can easily run over US$100 per person. One study found that Muscovites spent an average of US$4,300 a year on nonfood shopping while other Russians spent only about US$930. There are also lots of rich people, including a fair number of billionaires. For a while the the Radisson Slavjanskaya was the meeting place of choice among oil magnates while arms merchants preferred are said to meet at Casino Moscow. But not everyone is not so well endowed. By one estimate 20 percent of the city’s population lives on less than US$200 a month. Many of these live in cheap apartments and grow their own food. Those don’t spend as much 70 percent of their income on food.

Moscow Traffic and Driving Conditions

Never has a place with so many bad drivers become filled so quickly with so many cars. The number of cars in Moscow jumped from 850,000 (79 per 1,000 people) in 1990 to 2.7 million (224 per 1,000 people) in 2001, with about 300,000 new ones added every year. Roads that were built for horse-drawn carriages have not been widened and are full of cars. A drive from the New Arbat Area to the Kremlin a few hundred meters away can take can more than an hour.

When the traffic is not gridlocked, cars speed by at break-neck speeds, drunk pedestrians stumble into traffic and freelance taxis and motorcycle gangs take up entire lanes. Traffic signals are relatively infrequent and they are often not synchronized and are ignored anyway. Left turns are banned and people often park on the sidewalks. To avoid making left turns motorist often have to take circuitous routes that involve negotiating mazes of one-way back streets and making U-turns.

Planners have tried banning trucks from the city center, rerouting traffic, and making streets one way but thus far none of these measures seems to have made much difference. Planners estimated in the early 2000s that Moscow needed another 300 kilometers of streets just to handle the vehicles at that time. Now there are twice as many cars and few plans made it past the drawing board.

Yuri Luzhkov, the mayor of Moscow in the 1990s and 2000s, made the traffic problem a top priority. The government built new highways and bridges but has not been able to keep pace with the explosion of new cars. Moscow Ring Automobile Road (known as the MKAD) is Moscow's widest, busiest and most costly road. Conceived under Khrushchev and completed in 1998, it circles the outer reaches of Moscow and is 10 lanes wide and 110 kilometers (69 miles) long and cost more than US$1 billion to build. The MKAD is the outermost of three rings roads. It is sometimes called "Death Road" because of the number of driving fatalities that have occurred there.

According the to Association for Safe International Road Travel (ASIRT): 1) Traffic jams are common on work days. 2)Drivers frequently disobey the speed limit and lane markings and run red lights. Drivers may drive while under the influence of alcohol or drive in the wrong lane, against oncoming traffic. 3) More than 12 percent of road crashes occur in Moscow. High-speed chases by police are common. 4) Proceed only when traffic lights are green. Right and left turns can only be made on arrows. 5) The system of fines for violating traffic regulations is inadequate and does not serve as a deterrent. [Source: Association for Safe International Road Travel (ASIRT)

Foreigners and Tourism in Moscow

Russia has diplomatic relations with most of the world's countries, and more than 100 of them have embassies and missions in Moscow. There are a large number of foreign businessmen, news correspondents and students from all over the world. Foreign tourists show up throughout the year but are most numerous in the summer. About 5,000 Americans (including dependents) live in Moscow. Among these are embassy personnel, business representatives, correspondents, clergy, exchange students, and professors. About 100,000 to 200,000 American tourists visit the city annually.

Moscow is widely regarded as one of the world’s foremost cultural cities. It is home to over 200 theaters and 500 museums, and modern creative spaces such as the Vinzavor, the ARMA factory, and the ArtPlay design center, In addition to the famous Bolshoi Theater, with its large repertoire of Russian and internationally famous opera and ballet, other theaters and concert halls feature popular and classical plays, concerts, recitals, and all of the performing arts.The vibrancy, talent and number of production emerging from Moscow's small opera scene is perhaps equaled only in Berlin. Children’s theaters and puppet theaters and other performances geared especially to younger people are also available. The Russian circuses with their rich history are overwhelmingly popular with children and adults alike.

Moscow is home to three UNESCO World Heritage sites and architectural marvels that includes its underground: metro stations — real "palaces of the people" with mosaics, paintings, stucco, and dazzling illumination. The city also offers fantastic restaurants, fashionable nightclubs, skyscrapers, dizzying views, and old neighborhoods courtyards where time has stood still for more than a century. Moscow is widely regarded as one of the world’s foremost cultural cities. It is home to over 200 theaters and 400 museums, and modern creative spaces such as the Vinzavor, the ARMA factory, and the ArtPlay design center, In addition to the famous Bolshoi Theater, with its large repertoire of Russian and internationally famous opera and ballet, other theaters and concert halls feature popular and classical plays, concerts, recitals, and all of the performing arts. The vibrancy, talent and number of production emerging from Moscow's small opera scene is perhaps equaled only in Berlin. For kids there is children's theater, puppet theaters and circuses with a rich and entertaining acts.

Warnings About Moscow

On the negative side, life in Moscow can be difficult and stressful. Air pollution, severe winter conditions and traffic all take their toll. Street crime is a problem and African and Asian Americans have been victims of racially motivated attacks.

Moscow is full of corruption an crime. Avoid the area around Kievsky Vokza (Kiev Station). It is major gathering place for thieves, pickpockets and youth gangs. Youth gangs sometimes harass Western tourists.

There have been several terrorist attacks in Moscow and security was increased throughout the city as a result. On several occasions Red Square has been closed. Security forces have a large presence in the area. Uniformed security officers are also highly visible in the Metro, at theaters and outside churches and public places, where many people gather such as Gorky Park. Undercover officers are busy. Dogs have been trained sniff out electronic devises and explosives. Theaters and concert halls are outfit with metal detectors.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: Federal Agency for Tourism of the Russian Federation (official Russia tourism website ), Russian government websites, UNESCO, Wikipedia, Lonely Planet guides, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Bloomberg, Reuters, Associated Press, AFP, Yomiuri Shimbun and various books and other publications.

Updated in September 2020

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