FX Excursions

FX Excursions offers the chance for once-in-a-lifetime experiences in destinations around the world.

Searching The Russian Soul

Jun 1, 2012
2012 / June 2012

Just around the bend from the Kremlin, 5th Kotelnicheskiy Lane is an unremarkable, narrow street ascending from the embankment of the Moscow River. At the top of the hill, on the right-hand side, there is an unremarkable, two-story yellow building.

This is a building with hidden depths. Literally. The old Soviet red star on the side entrance provides a hint of what lies within — and, more significantly, beneath — Building No. 11.

Once we cross the threshold, two decades of Moscow’s modernization are left behind. We pass through heavy blast doors and descend 18 floors below ground, entering an extensive warren of iron-walled tunnels. We are in Bunker 42, a communications facility that would have been used by the Soviets in the event of a nuclear war.

We crowd together in dim light, surrounded by antiquated military equipment. For my fellow visitors, the bunker is a musty artifact of the Cold War. But for me, it’s something more. I can’t help but regard this secret subterranean hideout, 213 feet down, as emblematic of the Russian soul.

In 1861, the great writer Fyodor Dostoyevsky wrote, “If there is a country in the world which to other countries is more unknown or unexplored, enigmatic and mysterious, that country is undoubtedly Russia.”

Today in Moscow, at street level, it would appear the enigmas and mysteries of Russia have been swept away by the unrelenting tide of international consumerism. Familiar logos are emblazoned on giant billboards and video screens. Japanese and German vehicles shuffle for space on the teeming roads. Muscovites stroll the sidewalks wearing the latest international brands.

New arrivals might be tempted to view Moscow as just another cosmopolitan city. But if they look closer, they will see some of the elements that set this place apart.

For a start, there are the street signs, written almost exclusively in Cyrillic. If you don’t have a basic grasp of the Russian alphabet, you will be rendered illiterate.

Ordinary Muscovites can be equally hard to decipher. Many appear to regard strangers with indifference at best, and sometimes with downright suspicion. And yet, join them around a table with a bottle of vodka, and the barriers dissolve. Real friendships can be forged.

Often, on these alcohol-fueled nights with new friends, the conversation will turn to the “Russian soul.” Almost every Russian believes there is a fundamental essence that sets them apart from all other nationalities. Over the years, I have heard dozens of diagnoses as to precisely what makes the Russians Russian. Most can be encapsulated, simply, as hidden depths. No building, and no person, can be taken at face value. There are always other layers.

That is especially true of Moscow, Russia’s “Mother City.” At first glance on a map, it appears geographically isolated, located at the heart of the East European Plain around 500 miles from the nearest ocean.

Yet Moscow’s initial success was as a port. Thanks to a network of navigable rivers and canals, the city is connected to the Baltic, the Arctic Ocean, the Black Sea (and the Mediterranean beyond) and the Caspian. These connections established Moscow as the trading hub of Russia and made it a key interface between north and south, east and west.

With a population of 11.5 million, Moscow became the most populous city in Europe and ranks fifth in the world. Despite its sheer size (the municipality covers an area of more than 400 square miles), it is relatively easy for newbies to get their bearings.

Geographically, politically and spiritually, the Kremlin represents the very center of the city and is surrounded by a concentric series of ring roads, with several major boulevards radiating out like the spokes of a wheel. The Moscow River meanders through the city, running roughly from northwest to southeast. As long as you have a general idea of where you are in relation to the river and the ring roads, you shouldn’t get lost.

The city’s economic center of gravity is currently in the process of shifting to a 148-acre riverside site 2.5 miles west of the Kremlin. The $12 billion Moscow International Business Center is one of Europe’s largest megaprojects and was conceived to leapfrog Moscow into the front rank of European commercial centers.

Many of the IBC’s gleaming skyscrapers are already functioning, while the centerpiece, the Federation Tower, will become Europe’s tallest building on completion in 2013 (or later, following a recent major fire at the construction site).

The IBC is one of the clearest manifestations of the dramatic economic growth Moscow has experienced since the collapse of communism, largely underpinned by Russia’s position as the world’s largest exporter of gas and oil.

In 2010, the country experienced 4.3 percent growth, flouting the global downturn. In the current year, the economy is expected to expand 3.3 percent, further bolstering Russia’s place among the burgeoning BRIC nations (alongside Brazil, India and China).

The 21st-century skyline of the IBC seems to proclaim Moscow’s emergence as a truly global city open for business, though the city has not yet thrown off its instinct for formidable defense. While the old city walls have given way to the ring roads, other forms of protection have been employed, largely involving prodigious amounts of bureaucracy.

Regulations for foreign visitors and businesses are constantly changing and can be a minefield to negotiate. Anyone falling foul of even relatively minor administrative restrictions can find themselves in a legal quagmire.

“The mistake you make in the West,” a Russian journalist told me recently, “is to assume that the Cold War was based purely on political ideology. In fact, it was also sociological. Even though the politics have changed, we are still Russians. It is in our nature to put up barriers.”

When I first visited Moscow in 1986, the Iron Curtain was still in place. It seemed to cast a shadow over the city, draining everything of color and life. In contrast to that era, today’s Moscow has burst into lively Technicolor.

Even Bunker 42 is not quite what it seems. Deep underground, as we finish off our tour, we encounter guests arriving for a wedding reception. Part of the bunker has been converted into a buffet hall, complete with a bar and dance floor. Music thumps; the vodka is already flowing. Several guests urge us to join the party.

Yes, many of the barriers remain between Moscow and the outside world. But we have learned not to take this fascinating city at face value. Beyond the often-forbidding exterior, there is a warm welcome.

 

Diversions

You haven’t arrived in Moscow until you have set foot on the cobbles of Red Square. Together with the adjacent Kremlin, it is the heart of the city. Grand parades and state funerals are played out in this vast space. The name derives from the Russian krasnaya, which as well as meaning “red” can also be translated as “beautiful.” It lives up to both definitions. To one side of the square are the red stone walls of the Kremlin and the granite mausoleum in which the preserved body of Lenin still lies in state (the mausoleum is open 10 a.m.–1 p.m. except Mondays and Fridays); on the other is the ornate frontage of the GUM department store. At the southern end of Red Square is the fairytale building that, for many people, is the symbol of Moscow: St. Basil’s Cathedral with its multicolored onion domes.

The Kremlin is practically a city within a city, incorporating four palaces, three cathedrals and several important museums. Bear in mind that because the Kremlin is also the official residence of the president of the Russian Federation (Vladimir Putin), it is often closed to visitors during state occasions — closures are usually advertised in advance.

For visitors of a certain age, the Kremlin retains some of the ominous bearing of the Cold War years, though most of the monumental trappings of communism have been swept away. Many have ended up in the Fallen Monument Park adjacent to the New Tretyakov Gallery. Here, in leafy surroundings, you can stroll among busts of Lenin, Stalin and other communist icons.

The State Tretyakov Gallery is divided between two locations. The New Tretyakov (10 Krymsky Val) houses a collection of Russian art from the 1917 Revolution onward, while the Old Tretyakov (10 Lavrushinsky Lane) presents a comprehensive overview of pre-Revolution art.

The Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts has a wider geographic scope, including important works by Van Gogh, Picasso and Matisse as well as some of the golden treasures excavated from the archaeological site of Troy. This year marks the Pushkin Museum’s centenary, and many celebratory events are scheduled.

The price of a Metro ticket gives you access to one of the city’s greatest attractions — the Metro itself. Many of the 180 stations were designed as “people’s palaces” and are breathtakingly beautiful. Among the best are Belorusskaya, Komsomolskaya, Park Kultury and Taganskaya. There is a Metro Museum at Sportivnaya Station.

 

Just The Facts

Time Zone: GMT +4

Phone Code: Country code: 7 City code: 495/499

Entry/Exit Requirements:It is essential to be familiar with the latest Russian visa laws prior to arrival; the laws change regularly, and failure to comply can result in deportation or imprisonment. A hotel, tour company, business contact or employer must sponsor every foreign visitor. U.S. citizens must possess a valid passport and a visa issued by a Russian consulate. You can only remain in Russia within the dates specified in your visa.

Currency: Russian ruble

Official Language: Russian

Key Industries: Energy production, chemicals, finance, IT, tourism, retail

Info To Go

Sheremetyevo International Airport (SVO) is located 18 miles northwest of downtown. Transfers to the city are by rail, bus or car. The vehicle journey can take 30 minutes to two hours, depending on the traffic. Domodedovo International Airport (DME), 26 miles southeast of downtown, is increasingly becoming the airport of choice for international arrivals, with an efficient non-stop rail link via Aeroexpress to the city (45 minutes, $10).

Lodging

Aquamarine Hotel Moscow

At this sleekly modern hotel, just a 20-minute walk from Red Square, the Aqua-Spa is a haven of tranquility. 26 Ozerkovskaya $$$

Lotte Hotel Moscow

Two blocks from famous Arbat Street, the luxurious Moscow outpost of the South Korean Lotte group has its own upscale shopping mall. 8 Building 2, Novinskiy Blvd. $$$$

Radisson Royal Hotel, Moscow

Formerly the Ukraine Hotel, occupying one of the Soviet-era “Seven Sisters” skyscrapers, the renovated property offers palatial rooms and stunning views. 2/1 Building 1, Kutuzovsky Prospekt $$$$

Dining

Café Pushkin

Although it opened in 1999, this popular establishment transports you to the 19th century, right down to waiters’ period costumes. Perfect for special occasions. 26a Tverskaya Blvd. $$$$

Stolovaya No. 57

On the top floor of the GUM department store, this Soviet-style canteen evokes another era, with a difference: These days, the food’s great. 3rd Floor, GUM, Red Square $

Tiflis

There’s no better recommendation than this authentic Georgian restaurant in a building that evokes the architecture of Tbilisi; popular with expatriate Georgians. 32 Building 2 Ul. Ostozhenka $$

 

Checking In With Aleksandra Efimova

Chicago-based businesswoman and president of Aleksandra Enterprises, Inc.

What Are The Key Opportunities For American Investors In Moscow?

Recently the city of Moscow approved expansion of the southeast territories. This is a major effort to decrease traffic, improve residents’ lifestyles, create more green parks and recreation and increase living space per resident. Within this development, foreign businesses will benefit from opportunities in transportation, construction, parks, recreation and entertainment. Other areas of opportunity include private hospitals and rehabilitation centers, high technology, IT and training. (Russians are hungry for “know-how” in many areas.)

What Cultural Differences Should Americans Be Aware Of When Doing Business In Russia?

I have done business in Russia since 1998. Although I was born in Russia and am fluent in the language, cultural business differences still shake me sometimes. For example, it is essential to know people to get anything done. It’s advisable to have a local partner with strong connections to increase your chances of success. The process of negotiating and signing contracts takes much longer than in the United States. Get ready for a period of “getting to know each other.” Russians want to know who they do business with. And Russians are hospitable, so long dinners, visits to the banya [sauna] and vodka toasts are not stereotypes — they’re reality. Russia is a male-dominated business world, so women definitely have to prove their way up. Also, be warned foreign entrepreneurs are often pressured for otkati — kickbacks.

How Has Moscow Changed Since The Fall Of The Iron Curtain?

More has changed than not, especially in Moscow. There is a strong entrepreneurial spirit, with privately owned restaurants, hotels and other businesses, leading to competition, more variety, better service and better value. It’s now a much easier city for travelers — hotels, ATMs and more people speaking English. The city is an open, hungry market for foreign investment. Most important, people’s mentality changed. They want to work hard and benefit from it.

Which Local Attractions Do You Recommend?

Red Square, the Kremlin, The Pushkin Museum, Tretyakov Gallery.  More traditionally, try to experience a banya. There are plenty of great restaurants — like Café Pushkin, Turandot and Bosco — and awesome nightlife. 

 

Aleksandra Enterprises, Inc.

Aquamarine Hotel Moscow

Bunker 42

Café Pushkin

GUM

The Kremlin

Lotte Hotel Moscow

Moscow Metro

The Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts

Radisson Royal Hotel, Moscow

Stolovaya No. 57

The State Tretyakov Gallery

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