Monday 8 May
Drink, dance and screw because there’s nothing else to do
Whilst Russia has been a "democratic" country for over 15 years it still has the feel of the old communist bloc. The hammer and sickle decorates every other building and the ballroom-like metro stations (complete with chandeliers). Busts of great socialist leaders and thinkers are everywhere. This impression was amplified by posters in every shop window promoting the 9th May victory in Europe celebrations which generally involved square jawed workers and soldiers, big gold stars and red flags, all in the familiar communist propaganda style.
We were warned repeatedly to steer clear of the "militsa" whose main job appeared to be checking everyone's documents. For tourists this means trying to find any reason they can to extract a "fine" from you. In Red Square they are known to team up with con men in a money-dropping scam.
The young people in Moscow we found to be very friendly and helpful in general, but anyone over the age of 35 seemed to take great offence at any requests of assistance (hey, you use a different alphabet to us so we might need a little help?) and often looked so sour faced that if they ever smiled their jaws would break.
In contrast to the authoritarian atmosphere it is quite normal for Moscavites to be glugging from a can or bottle of beer in any situation and at any time of the day. Street kiosks selling beer and cigarettes are on most corners and open from dawn. These are also the only produce that does not cost an absolute fortune (Moscow was more expensive than London in our experience). You get the impression that this is intentional to keep the public pacified as there is little else for the desperately poor majority of Russians to be happy about. It completely baffled us how anyone could afford to live decently here when even a doctor will apparently only take home $300 a month.
The Kremlin, Red Square and St Basil's Cathedral were all very impressive and well worth the visit. Most of the architecture predates the communist period and hints and times of exuberant wealth of the ruling class. St Basil's is every child's fantasy of a fairy castle with its bulbous spires and candy colours. The communist era architecture is striking too, such as the University of Moscow which looks like a neo-gothic cathedral-cum-space rocket which towers magnificently over Gorky Park south of the Moscow river.
It is also worth taking a boat trip along this river as many of the most impressive and important buildings and statues line the banks, such as the ridiculously gargantuan monument to the first commander of the Russian navy - a life size ship sitting on a tall plume of waves with the commander standing on top looking boldly out to sea.
Unfortunately most of Moscow is not so picturesque. Our hostel was on the 10th floor of a decrepit building about an hour's walk from the centre of the city. The view from our window was of many more crumbling apartment blocks and this was supposed to be quite a wealthy part of town. Most buildings appear to be slowly turning into rubble and everything was covered in a fine layer of dust making it impossible to sit down or lean against a wall.