‘M’ Is For Moscow

Apr 1, 2007
2007 / April 2007

It is an alphabet, but not quite as we know it. Some of the letters are the same as ours; some look the same but are pronounced differently; others are completely alien. Although the Iron Curtain came down nearly 20 years ago, the language barrier has remained in place and is being strengthened. If you don’t have a rudimentary grasp of the Cyrillic alphabet when you arrive in Moscow, you are instantly rendered illiterate. All visitors must complete an entry form, which is often written entirely in Cyrillic — without an English translation. In the airport immigration hall, new arrivals help each other decipher the forms. The Russian officials look on, unmoved. It is tempting to imagine that the sign hanging above the immigration cubicles — written in Cyrillic, of course — reads: “Get used to it, buddy.”

Your problems are only just beginning. On the metro, on restaurant menus, in museums, on street signs, on official notices, on local maps, the letters are stubbornly Cyrillic. Few compromises are made. The prime advice to anyone planning a Moscow visit is to learn the basics of the local alphabet in advance.

Moscow itself reflects the written language. The city is a combination of the familiar and the exotic. Over the centuries it has absorbed the influences of both Europe and Asia, and that twin heritage can be seen in the architecture and in the faces of its people. Yet, partly because of its exposed position between two continents, Moscow is remarkably insular for a city that ranks as the 21st largest in the world, and has evolved formidable defenses, both physical and cultural.

Nowhere is that more apparent than in Red Square, the city’s epicenter. The massive walls of the Kremlin loom on one side casting shadows over the granite mausoleum in which Lenin’s body (or a waxwork replica of it — nobody knows for sure) lies in state. The Kremlin signified Moscow’s impenetrability long before communism, and continues to do so today.

To conduct business successfully in Moscow, you must submit to the Russian way of doing things. Foreign investors must contend with enormous red tape. In recent years, the Duma, Russia’s parliament, has passed protectionist legislation that has compounded the problem. The insurance and financial markets, in particular, are regulated to favor local corporations.

But when you spend time in Moscow, you discover that there are rich rewards if you make the effort to cross the barriers. Learn a few words of Russian, and people will respond warmly. Venture within the cold walls of the Kremlin, and you’ll discover a magnificent complex of cathedrals and palaces. Wade through the red tape, and you’ll find a city full of attractive business opportunities.

More than 15,000 foreign companies are now registered in Moscow, and inward investment has risen from $4 billion in 1994 to $16 billion in 2005. The city’s gross domestic product increased by 8.8 percent in 2005, while industrial production grew by 17.9 percent. Moscow receives 67 percent of all foreign investment into Russia.

Besides being Russia’s political, commercial and industrial capital, Moscow is a cultural center of international renown. The Bolshoi Ballet (housed in a magnificent theater not far from the old KGB headquarters) is justly famous, and there is a dazzling wealth of art galleries and museums. Linking the whole city together is the metro, the world’s most luxurious underground railway, with stations that resemble palaces.

Moscow is truly one of the world’s great cities, but go prepared. Don’t expect your visit to be as easy as “ABC.”


LODGING

HOTEL BALTSCHUG KEMPINSKI

Guests in the corner rooms overlooking the Moskva River enjoy one of the best views in Moscow: the colorful onion domes of St. Basil’s Cathedral and the red walls of the Kremlin. The exterior of the hotel is all that remains of the former Hotel Bucharest, which was built in 1898. In 1989, Kempinski launched an $85 million upgrade, which involved rebuilding the interior with materials imported from Austria. Belying its 19th century facade, the rooms are large and modern; fully equipped for business travelers. The hotel has won awards for its high standard of service. $$$$
HOTEL BALTSCHUG KEMPINSKI
Ul. Balchug 1
tel 7 495 230 5500, fax 7 495 230 5502
http://www.kempinski.com

ARARAT PARK HYATT
The location is ideal, within easy walking distance of Red Square and the Bolshoi Theater. The Ararat Park Hyatt has been open for less than five years, but is already well established as one of Moscow’s most prestigious addresses. The 203 rooms are generously spacious with coolly contemporary decor. The 360-square-foot Winter Garden Suite is beautifully appointed, and provides outstanding views of the Kremlin in one direction and the Bolshoi in the other. The 10th-floor Conservatory Bar is very impressive, but check prices before ordering, cocktails are exorbitant. $$$$
PARK HYATT MOSCOW
4 Neglinnaya St.
tel 7 495 783 1234, fax 7 495 783 1235
http://www.moscow.park.hyatt.com

GOLDEN APPLE BOUTIQUE HOTEL

When the Golden Apple opened in 2004, it represented something entirely new for the city, and is the antithesis of the old, megalithic nationalized hotels that still predominate. Situated close to Pushkin Square, just a 15-minute walk from the Kremlin, the hotel is relatively small (92 rooms), and is stylishly minimalist. Rooms are equipped with wireless Internet access, and there is also a very good business center with conference facilities. Jaded business travelers may find this trendy hotel to be a little daunting, but if you prefer smaller, boutique hotels this is the place for you. $$$
GOLDEN APPLE BOUTIQUE HOTEL
11 Malaya Dmitrovka
tel 7 495 980 7000, fax 7 495 980 7001
http://www.goldenapple.ru


DINING

KUPOL

Kupol (The Cupola) is the latest venture by Anatoly Komm, a former financier and fashion mogul who is now established as one of Moscow’s top chefs. The restaurant occupies an impressive glass-and-steel dome close to the Moskva River. The cuisine is a fusion of European, Asian and Russian elements. Starters include truffles with potato and beet chips. Among the main courses is sea bass with avocado and lime mousse.The menu is quite expensive, and the food is not always top notch, but as with Komm’s other restaurants, it’s a great place to see and be seen. $$$$
KUPOL
36 Novy Arbat
tel 7 495 290 7373

VOLGA-VOLGA

This long-established restaurant was a particular favorite of Josef Stalin. Rather than discard its history, Volga-Volga has embraced it, and provides the opportunity to sample the lifestyle enjoyed by senior party members during the communist era. Fortunately, the menu has been brought up to date, so you can indulge in Soviet nostalgia while enjoying a great meal. The venison is very good, marinated in wild fruit from the taiga forest. $$-$$$
VOLGA-VOLGA
51 Leningradskoya Shosse
tel 7 495 981 0905

BUDWEISER BUDVAR RESTAURANT

When you order a Bud here, it certainly won’t taste the same as it does back home. This charmingly rustic restaurant is named after the famous Czech beer which, despite numerous legal disputes with Anheuser-Busch, continues to be known as Budweiser throughout Europe (in the U.S. it’s marketed as Czechvar). The food is mainly central European, with an emphasis on fruit sauces to accompany the entrees. There’s a reasonably decent wine list, but it would be criminal to eat here without enjoying the eponymous beer on tap. $$
BUDWEISER BUDVAR RESTAURANT
33 Kotelnicheskaya Embankment
tel 7 495 915 3124


DIVERSIONS

The Moscow Metro, which was commissioned by Stalin in 1935, is not only the best method of getting around the city, but it is also a tourist attraction in its own right. Many of the 160 stations were designed as “people’s palaces.” Some of the pro-Soviet murals on the station walls have been whitewashed, but the meticulous decorations and ornate fittings largely remain intact. The Circle Line is best for sightseeing, though it is advisable to avoid rush hour. Among the most interesting stations are Belorusskaya, Komsomolskaya, Park Kultury, and Taganskaya. The Metro Museum, attached to Sportivnaya station, is well worth a visit if you’re interested in the history of the metro.

You haven’t truly been to Moscow unless you’ve crossed the cobbled expanse of Red Square. This is the very heart of the city, and can be combined with visits to the Kremlin (http://www.kremlin.ru/eng), St. Basil’s Cathedral, and the massive GUM Department Store — now reinvented as a high-class shopping arcade.

The pedestrian-only Old Arbat Street has long been a meeting place for the city’s writers, artists and actors. Even though it is popular with tourists, it has retained some of its bohemian character. It’s a good place to buy local arts and crafts.

My favorite art gallery is the State Tretyakov Gallery () which holds the world’s finest collection of Russian art. The Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts (http://www.museum.ru/gmii/) has a more wide-ranging collection of exhibits, including pieces seized from the Nazis in 1945.


INFO TO GO

International flights arrive at Sheremetevo-2 Airport (SVO), 17 miles northwest of downtown Moscow. Taxis into town cost almost $100. Aeroflot offers free limousine transfers for its first-class passengers. Using public transport, you can get into town by a combination of minibus and metro for about $1.

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