Moscow is all things to all people. In Siberia, they call it "the West", with a note of scorn for the bureaucrats and politicians who promulgate and posture in the capital. For Westerners, the city may look European, but its unruly spirit seems closer to Central Asia. To Muscovites, however, Moscow is both a "Mother City" and a "big village" (bolshaya derevnya), a tumultuous community with an underlying collective instinct that shows itself in times of trouble. Nowhere else reflects the contradictions and ambiguities of the Russian people as Moscow does - nor the stresses of a country undergoing meltdown and renewal.
The city is huge, surreal and apocalyptic. After a few weeks here, the bizarre becomes normal, and you realize that life is - as Russians say - bespredel (without limits). Traditionally, Moscow has been a place for strangers to throw themselves into debauchery, leaving poorer and wiser. Its puritan stance in Soviet times was seldom heartfelt, and with the fall of Communism it has reverted to the lusty, violent ways that foreigners have noted with amazement over the centuries, and Gilyarovsky chronicled in his book, Moscow and the Muscovites.
As the home of one in fifteen Russians, Moscow exemplifies the best and worst of Russia. Its beauty and ugliness are inseparable, its sentimentality the obverse of a brutality rooted in centuries of despotism and fear of anarchy. Private and cultural life are as passionate as business and politics are cynical. The irony and resilience honed by decades of propaganda and shortages now help Muscovites to cope with the "Wild Capitalism" that intoxicates the city. Yet, for all its assertiveness, Moscow's essence is moody and elusive, and uncovering it is like opening an endless series of Matryoshka dolls, or peeling an onion down to its core.
Both images are apposite, for Moscow's concentric geography mirrors its historical development. At its heart is the Kremlin, whose foundation by Prince Dolgoruky in 1147 marked the birth of the city. Surrounding this are rings corresponding to the feudal settlements of medieval times, rebuilt along more European lines after the great fire of 1812, and ruthlessly modernized in accordance with Stalin's vision of Moscow as the Mecca of Communism. Further out lie the fortified monasteries that once guarded the outskirts, and the former country estates of tsars and nobles, now well within the urban sprawl encircled by the Moscow Ring Road.
Moscow's identity has been imbued with a sense of its own destiny since the fourteenth century, when the principality of Muscovy took the lead in the struggle against the Mongols and Tatars who had reduced the Kievan state to ruins. Under Ivan the Great and Ivan the Terrible - the "Gatherers of the Russian Lands" - its realm came to encompass everything from the White Sea to the Caspian, while after the fall of Constantinople to the Turks, Moscow assumed Byzantium's suzerainty over the Orthodox world. Despite the changes wrought by Peter the Great - not least the transfer of the capital to St Petersburg, which Slavophiles have always abhorred - Moscow kept its mystique and bided its time until the Bolsheviks made it the fountainhead of a new creed. Long accustomed to being at the centre of an empire, and being misled that their society was the envy of the world, Muscovites have felt the disillusionments of the 1990s more keenly than most Russians - though some have prospered beyond their wildest dreams.
All this is writ large in Moscow's architecture and streetlife. The Kremlin's cathedrals are Byzantine, like its politics. Ministries and hotels the size of city blocks reach their apotheosis in the "Seven Sisters" - Stalin-Gothic skyscrapers that brood over the city like vampires. The streets and metros resemble bazaars, with kiosks and hawkers on every corner. BMWs cruise past babushki whose monthly pensions wouldn't cover the cost of admission to a nightclub (the city has more casinos than any capital in the world). Fascists and Communists march together, bankers live in fear of bombs and life is up for grabs. From all this, Muscovites seek solace in backstreet churches and shady courtyards; in the steamy conviviality of the bathhouse; and over tea or vodka. Discovering the private, hidden side of Moscow is as rewarding as visiting the usual tourist sights....Continua