Rediscovering MOSCOW

The Moscow I visited in 1976 was a gray, drab city of bare shelves, mediocre restaurants and surly officials. The shift from communism to capitalism brought crime, corruption and soaring prices. For many residents, that may still be true, but my experience of a brief stay in June was pure delight. Historic buildings have been restored, domes regilded, the streets are constantly swept and locals wander through the parks after dark with no fear of a mugging. St. Petersburg has always been a glorious spectacle, but now the capital is putting on its best face.

Bolshoi Theater | Photo: Michael Webb

There’s a sprinkling of glitzy malls and slick office towers, but the historic legacy is cherished. Palaces and churches are painted in ice-cream colors to contrast with winter snow and they are floodlit after dark to dramatize the columned facades and rich surface ornament. Be sure to book tickets for a performance at the Bolshoi Theater and arrive early to explore its palatial reception rooms, which outshine those of the Paris Opera and La Scala. And, if it’s your first time, brave the crowds to explore the wonders of the Kremlin, the Pushkin and Tretyakov Museums, and soak up the turbulent history of Red Square.

A palace across from the Bolshoi Theater | Photo: Michael Webb

On this trip I went in search of the avant garde: that explosion of daring that flourished in the first decade after the revolution and was brutally suppressed by Stalin in the early 1930s. The embodiment of this era is the house that architect Konstantin Melnikov built for himself in the Arbat. It was the only private house in the Soviet Union and it was authorized as a prototype for mass production. Melnikov conceived it as a dialogue of two intersecting cylinders and was inspired by traditional church towers and their hexagonal windows. The garden is open every day and daily tours are sold out the moment they go on-line, two weeks in advance.

Kremlin | Photo: Michael Webb

You can visit two other Melnikov buildings. A bus garage with the original bold lettering on its façade is now the Jewish Museum of Culture and Tolerance, a valuable resource in a country with a long tradition of anti-semitism. And the Rusakov Workers’ Club with its three jutting bays is now home to an adventurous theater company. Narkomfin, an experimental housing project of 1930 located behind the US Embassy was teetering on the edge of ruin but is now being restored and you may be able to visit the show apartment and buy one of their eye-catching T shirts. And everyone is welcome at the Danilovsky Market, whose fluted metal canopy shelters a cornucopia of meat, fish and produce, with a range of eateries around the periphery. The bilingual Constructivist Moscow Map will guide you these and other treasures.

Melnikov house: painting studio | Photo: Michael Webb

The Metro was the one great achievement of the Stalinist regime. Begun in 1935, it gives every Muscovite a taste of opulence—much as movie palaces did for Americans in the 1920s. There’s an illustrated map (available from Blue Crow Media) to guide you to the best stations, including Ploschad Revolutsii, Aeroport, Mayovskaya, and the circle-line platforms of Komosolskaya. Be sure to avoid the morning and evening rush hours.

Danilovsky market | Photo: Michael Webb

Maxim Gorky was one of the great Russian writers of the past century and it’s well worth exploring his Art Nouveau house, for the sculptured marble staircase, intricate metal work and stained glass, as well as a host of memorabilia. He gave his name to Moscow’s major park, which contains two important art collections. The New Tretyakov Gallery is the place to appreciate the explosion of abstraction as well the realism which preceded and followed that short-lived experiment. And the Garage Museum, a decrepit cafeteria restored and re-skinned by Rem Koolhaas is a vibrant showcase of contemporary art.

Gorky House | Photo: Michael Webb

The newest urban oasis is Zaryadye Park, designed by the architects of the New York High Line. Rolling hills are planted with silver birch, wild flowers and grasses, and a V-plan walkway cantilevered over the river commands some of the best views in the city. You can watch the sun set over the Kremlin while dining on the terrace of the Voskhod restaurant, which offers an eclectic menu of Russian specialties.

Garage | Photo: Michael Webb

I stayed at the Arbat 6 Boutique Hotel, in a historic district that is conveniently close to the center, but well removed from the tour groups that throng the major hotels. Its intimacy and charm were a welcome contrast to the Rossia, a 6000-room caravanserai where the authorities lodged me 43 years ago. Moscow offers an enticing variety of restaurants and I would particularly recommend the few I tried, for cuisine, service and atmosphere. Ask your hotel to make reservations a week in advance.

Metro Station | Photo: Michael Webb

Dr Zhivago occupies the ground floor of the National Hotel and is open 24/7. It features a colorful mural based on Malevich’s late figurative paintings and the window commands a view of the Kremlin, which is beautifully lit after dark. Caviar, bortsch, beef stroganoff and all the other Russian classics. Mokhovaya Street 15.

Twins Garden is an adventurous restaurant on the upper floor of an office building. It puts a fresh spin on traditional recipes and ingredients in an elegant room looking out over the roofs of the city. Strastnoy Blvd 8A

Zaryadye | Photo: Michael Webb

Mari Vanna evokes a traditional Russian house with friendly aproned waitresses and a calico cat that sits watchfully in the middle of the floor. Do try the cold sorrel soup, and grannie’s recipes for little meat and vegetable pies. There’s an outpost in lower Manhattan. Spiridon’yevskiy Street 10A

Sakhli is a homely Georgian restaurant, serving wonderfully rich combinations of meat, nuts, spices and fruits, along with good Georgian wines that are hard to find elsewhere in Moscow since the two countries went to war. Bolshoi Karetny 6, 1

Michael Webb

Michael Webb

Michael grew up in London and now lives in a classic modern apartment in Los Angeles. His twin passions are architecture and travel, and he indulges both as often as he can, exploring every continent in search of material and inspiration. His travel memoir, Moving Around: a Lifetime of Wandering (ORO Books, October) recalls memorable experiences of people and places over seven decades. Michael is the author of 28 other books, most recently Architects' Houses. He has written on travel and design for The New York Times, Travel & Leisure, Virtuoso Life, Monocle, Architectural Digest and other publications
around the world.
Michael Webb

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