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Russia

Moscow is an extraordinary city, and, like the Siberia was quite different from how I thought it might be. I was anticipating a mixture of old and new with far more of the latter in the form of horrible, Soviet-era apartments and greyness. However, we were delighted to find Moscow to be a beautiful, unique, challenging, crowded, drunken, and, at times, breathtaking city.

One of the best introductions to Moscow is the underground, which in many ways sums the whole city up for me.  It services 9 million travellers a day. That’s more than London and New York combined. Its escalators descend deep underground so that the system could be used as a huge nuclear bunker during the cold war. Despite this, many of the platforms are stunning – some with huge crystal chandeliers with Romanesque columns, others with murals of patriots or farmers or engineers, others with statues of prominent figures.

Above ground Moscow is much like any other quality Eastern European city albeit with defining onion domes. There are lots of parks, rivers, churches, grand hotels and fine government offices. Where Moscow varies from many other European cities is the complete lack of helpfulness, friendliness and huge amounts of public drinking. You can buy beer (often at 15%!) everywhere and some estimates suggest that up to 50% of Russian men are alcoholics. In fact, Russian men live, on average 12 years less than women largely because of drink!

Red Square is the centre of Moscow. It’s a large, rectangular, cobbled square with the Kremlin on one side, Saint Basil’s at the eastern end, one of many excellent museums at the western end and the amazing Gum department store, now replete with Dior, YSL, Prada and all the usual suspects.

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I suspect that there are few other buildings quite as famous as St Basil’s Cathedral pictorially that receive comparatively few international visitors. It really is as amazing and Disneyesque as it looks. Inside, it’s almost as strange with small rooms with shrines interconnected with painted corridors. The Kremlin (square-looking clock tower and wall on the right of the first photos) is also astonishing, with lots of delightful and historic churches, including the one where devout atheist Stalin ordered a service to be held as the Germans advanced.

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Inside St Basil’s Cathedral

Getting in and out of Moscow was frustrating. Even with my extremely rusty schoolboy Russian we struggled to get a train ticket out. Our desired destination was Tallin in Estonia, but we didn’t manage to get tickets and ended up having to go to Riga in Latvia.