Here’s picture of the building we (the women in the group) are staying in, taken from across the street. Further down, you can see the Foreign Ministry, one of the “Seven Sisters” buildings constructed under Stalin, which we affectionately call the Ministry of Magic. You can also see that the boulevard is extremely wide, with several lanes of traffic in each direction. To cross the boulevard, you have to walk to a corner with an underpass. This boulevard is one of the widest we’ve encountered, but it’s not exceptional. The streets of Moscow tend to be very wide. We thought this was odd because, until recently, not many Russians had cars. We asked our guide why the streets are so wide, and he said it was for parades. They must have had lots of parades, stretching for miles, but I haven’t seen one yet–except in a video of Red Square playing in the Museum of Contemporary Russian History. That military parade, celebrating the defeat of Germany in WWII, lasted for 8 hours–in pouring rain. I can only imaged what the boulevards looked like, with miles of officers and soldiers marching by.
Today Moscow is a huge, bustling city. It’s even harder to imagine what it looked like in the 18th century, when the establishment of St. Petersburg as the capital in 1703 reduced Moscow to a “provincial capital.” In his vivid cultural history of Russia, Orlando Figes described the character of Moscow then:
With its little wooden houses and narrow winding lanes, its mansions with their stables and enclosed courtyards, where cows and sheep were allowed to roam, Moscow had a distinct rural feel. It was called ‘the big village’–a nickname it has retained to this day. (153)
Moscow may have retained the nickname, but it doesn’t feel like a village anymore, at least not on the wide boulevards. But according to our able guide, the locals know how to find sheltered courtyards that no longer house cows and sheep, but do contain lively bars and restaurants. And last night after the theatre, we turned off Smolyenskaya Boulevard onto a side street, descending the steps into a charming restaurant that served food of the Caucuses (Georgian and Armenian). Alison had spotted it earlier because she liked the look of its sign. The waiter allowed us to sit downstairs near the open kitchen where it was less smokey, pulling together two rustic wood tables to accommodate us all. We ordered family style–khachupuri (a salty, sour, buttery cheese bread), pickles, a summer salad of fresh greens and beet-wrapped goat cheese, grilled lamb, nastoika (a thick fruit juice infusion), and Russian vodka. Our waiter was friendly and mischievous, speaking a few words of English and teaching us some Russian–teasing us when we wanted more water, because the word for “water” sounds like the word for “vodka,” which we didn’t need more of. In that setting, Moscow felt like a ‘big village,’ which may be why so many Russians feel at home here.