30 years ago today: A taste of Moscow, with occasional beers for sustenance.


Previously: Back in the USSR, with my old friend Barr.

30 June 1987 (Tuesday).

Monday had been Black Market Ruble Transaction Day, and we started plotting a decadent restaurant excursion for Tuesday evening, which would be our final overnight hotel stay in Moscow.

On Wednesday, there’d be a bus excursion to Zagorsk, since renamed Sergiev-Posad, home of Russia’s most famous monastery. Then, instead of a hotel bed, we were scheduled to take an overnight sleeper train to Leningrad (St. Petersburg), arriving early on the morning of Thursday, July 1.

Sleep? Just a euphemism. Not a chance.

Following is an illustrated account of sightseeing on Monday and Tuesday. In the next installment, I’ll try to remember what happened at the Hotel Moskva at dinner on Tuesday night, and recap Zagorsk.

After World War II, Stalin recommenced a project to build skyscrapers throughout Moscow. Eventually there were seven of them, with plans for two others landing on the cutting room floor after Stalin’s death.

In 1987, In the absence of other tall buildings, these “Stalinist Empire” structures couldn’t be missed. I’m thinking this is the Hotel Ukraina, today a 500-room unit of Radisson — but I might be wrong.

But I know this one is Moscow State University, situated atop the Lenin Hills.

The view from Moscow State University is sweeping. The former 1980 Olympic stadium, originally known as the Central Lenin Stadium (built in 1956), now is called Luzhniki Stadium and has been extensively remodeled.

Looking toward central Moscow, Red Square and the Kremlin.

Whether experienced during official tour business or later on our own time via the Metro, we found ourselves drawn to Red Square. Here workers demonstrate the superiority of cobblestones; no repaving is ever necessary. Merely fit them back into place, and move on.

From left to right, the 1,000-room Hotel Rossiya (demolished in 2007), St. Basil’s and the Kremlin, with two usual touristic suspects in front. The Hotel Rossiya was built in the late 1960s atop the foundation intended for one of the cancelled skyscraper projects. It was a monstrosity, and a park is planned for the site.

On the opposite side of Red Square from the Kremlin and Lenin’s Mausoleum is GUM, longtime Soviet state-owned department store — in effect, a huge indoor shopping arcade, today completely privatized and brimming with boutiques and the like. GUM was buzzing on the day we looked in.

The next photo shows a row of Soviet vending machines. I explained this in my previous 1985 travel narrative.

“Hesitantly, I walked toward the sooty gray box until I could make out a word stenciled in Cyrillic: Вода́.

“Water … apparently drinking water.

“There was a coin slot, and a posted price of one or two kopecks, at 100 kopecks to a ruble. Our tour escort Ari later explained that the two choices were still (uncarbonated) or sparkling water. Three public drinking glasses were available for use – merely select the cleanest, place it in the recess, deposit coins, push button, drink liquid and set the glass back on the ledge for the next user.

“My water wasn’t fizzy. The glass was returned to its place. Now the remarkable absence of litter made sense.”

The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, in the Alexander Garden by the Kremlin wall.

A favorite trick of the Soviet atheist state was to destroy churches outright, but often when the church was left standing, a rabbit hutch housing triumph of the worker’s state would be erected close by, or sometimes completely surrounding the aged onion domes.

“Old” Arbat Street would not have looked out of place in dozens of other European cities, but for Moscow, it was the first pedestrianized street where the historic appearance was to be consciously incorporated into a pleasing state approximating ambiance, with shops, cafes and street life.

It doesn’t seem like much, but it was epochal in its own way, and quickly became lightly subversive and mildly counter-cultural, insofar as such concepts existed in Moscow.

Nick, Roger, Barrie and Nat; back at the hotel with a case of beer. The bottles are Soviet Zhigulevskoye and the cans Danish-brewed Carlsberg Export from the Beriozka (hard currency shop).

It seems that Zhigulevskoye has an interesting back story, after all, as told here.

A brief Kremlin visit was part of the tour package on Tuesday.

In Russian, a “kremlin” is a citadel, or fortress within a city. In 1987, not much of it was open to tourists, but at least we got inside the walls. Peter the Great moved the Russian capital from Moscow to St. Petersburg, then the Bolshevisk moved it back, but through all the changes, the Moscow Kremlin symbolized the seat of Russian power, whether Tsarist or Communist — or Putin, even.

The Tsar Bell is missing a chunk.

And, the Tsar Cannon.

Needless to say, there was much of interest occurring inside the Kremlin during the Gorbachev era, as well as more foreign correspondents than ever before on hand to cover the news. We encountered one of them and spent a few minutes gawking.

Each of us with a beer in hand, day drinking at the hotel. It was good to be young.

Next: A hazy meal at the Hotel Moskva.