the colorful architecture of Moscow

No matter how frigid the temperatures may be get during Moscow’s bitter winter months, one thing visitors can always count on is the unexpected cheer provided by the city’s brilliantly hued architecture!  The dazzle of color is perhaps best experienced at St. Basil’s Cathedral in Red Square (see below), however a stroll through any of the city’s neighborhoods will reveal an intriguing mixture of many different architectu​ral styles that all seem to share color as a unifying factor.

Probably the most prevalent style of architecture visitors will discover is Greek Neo-Classicism, but with a twist.  Most of the “Colonial-​style" buildings in town are painted in bright pastel pinks, blues, and yellows.  (We found some pristine examples of this charming style painted in cerulean blue while trolling along Smolenskiy Bulvar.)  Not surprisingly, many of the revered Orthodox churches sprinkled heavily through Moscow have also been constructed in this style.  The care and dedication that goes into the upkeep of their seemingly delicate facades is evident in structures like the Church of Saint Nicholas the Wonderworker in Bolvanovka (built in 1712 near the Taganka Gate), and the Church of Trinity in Serebryaniki (constructed at the bank of the Yauza River in 1781).  Both locations were too striking to pass by without snapping a photo or two!

On the other hand, sometimes a very lack of color is what makes the boldest statement.  This is best exemplified by the impressive Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, arguably the third most popular building in Moscow today (just behind St. Basil’s and the Kremlin).  Constructed in the mid-1990’s, the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour replaces a previous version built in the early 1800’s that was eventually destroyed by Josef Stalin in 1933.  Its bold placement along the bank of the Moscow River makes the tallest Eastern Orthodox church in the world easily visible throughout much of the city, and its that prominence that has helped to restore balance in the national psyche after decades of oppressive Communism.

The Cathedral of Christ the Saviour is constructed out of marble and granite, with interior murals that are gilded in over 225 pounds of gold leaf!  Moscow, excessive?  (Surely, you jest!)  Access to the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour is available daily from 6:30 AM until 10:00 PM; entrance is FREE.  A museum that houses plan drawings and relics from the original structure has slightly limited hours from 10:00 AM until 6:00 PM.  Be on the lookout for pieces that depict the “Palace of Soviets,” the massive edifice Stalin had hoped would once stand here as a symbol of the USSR’s vast accomplishments.

And speaking of Stalin, no write-up of Moscow’s architecture can be complete without a mention of the dictator’s incredible “Seven Sisters,” a collection of monolithic cement buildings built in the 1940’s and early 1950’s to impress politicos from abroad.  Stalin himself handpicked the designers from a pool of newer generation architects that would help to modernize the city’s image.  Today, the Stalinskie Vysotki loom large over Moscow’s skyline, much like Mothra or Godzilla in one of those ingenious Japanese monster films.  While in town, we were lucky enough to stay in one of the “Seven Sisters,” the Kotelnicheskaya Apartments.  (See “digs” for more information on this and other vysotki.

Church of Saint Nicholas the Wonderworker in Bolvanovka - 20, Ulitsa Upper Radishchevskaya, Taganskaya Square (near the Taganskaya Metro station), Moscow

Church of Trinity in Serebryaniki - 1/3, Serebryanichesky Lane, Moscow (near Kurskaya and Chkalovskaya Metro lines), Moscow, 011 (7) 495 921-2844

Cathedral of Christ the Saviour - 15, Ultisa Volkhonka, on the bank of the Moscow River (accessible via the Kropotkinskaya Metro station), Moscow, 011 (7) 495 988-6681,

The Kremlin & Red Square

Throughout the world, The Kremlin and Red Square are synonymous with Moscow.  While the combined location has predominantly been viewed by the world as a symbol of Communisim’s might, today The Kremlin, and Red Square which unfolds below it, are more amenable, akin to London’s Trafalgar Square or New York’s Times Square.  In fact, while we visited in December of 2006, a large stage had been constructed just off the side of St. Basil’s Cathedral (see below) to entertain the throngs of Muskovites yet to descend on the vast public space for the New Year’s festivities. 

And yet even on a day that is not to be celebrated, visitors will compete with hordes of others filing up Red Square to grab that perfect photo of St. Basil’s or any of the other colorful, gilded architecture that surrounds it!
  If you are visiting Moscow, trust us, Red Square is unavoidable!  Like a magnet, it draws you in from any direction, and thus, even though the weather was extremely frigid throughout our stay, we too braved the temps and made the requisite journey to soak it all in!

Proper fashion sense be damned, as we made our way to the iconic landmark, we came equipped with two pairs of thermal socks and equally insulated jackets and pants.  Stopping only briefly to warm up with a hot dog or two, we entered Red Square via the Alexander Gardens, and were simply agog by the enormity of visual stimulation!  Red brick is everywhere!  And yes, there are just a few other people taking pictures here and there!
Joining in on the touristy fun, our first challenge was to line up the ultra-colorful St. Basil’s Cathedral to sit just above our heads.  You’ll have to be standing quite a ways from it to achieve the goal.  Of course, snapping the perfect image without any other gawkers in the background is not going to be easy!  Just be patient and wait your turn.  (Your “Set of Drifters” always somehow manage to get a shot that makes it appear as though we’re the only ones there!  HA!)  No doubt, the glacial temperatures will cut your concentration short, but fear not, no matter what your camera end up capturing, it will be distinctively Russian!

Need to warm up?  How about a trip inside The Kremlin itself?  The massive structure is, and has been, the center of Russia’s political world for centuries since it was constructed by Italian masters in the late 1400’s.  (Of course, the area’s historical importance is much older than that!)  You could spend at least an entire day here exploring the building’s lush gilded Neoclassical interiors, particularly those of the Armoury Palace.  Unfortunately, we could not fit even one single Fabergé egg into our schedule.  While we inevitably hoped to shoot a backing visual for the Gentle People show below the Kremlin's handsome clock tower, a lack of time - and fear of arrest - abated us!  Perhaps next time!

The Kremlin’s many museums are open Friday through Wednesday (closed Thursdays) from 10:00 AM until 5:00 PM, unless some special government event requires that it remain off limits.  Admission prices vary depending on the portions of The Kremlin you wish to visit.  Check their website, or with the concierge at your hotel, for more current information.

Aside from majestic St. Basil’s Cathedral, other nearby Red Square attractions include Lenin’s Mausoleum, the Alexander Gardens, and GUM shopping mall (see “goodies.”)
  Set of Drifters tip:  The Kremlin's “Armoury Chamber” holds seances at 10:00 AM, 12:00 PM, 2:30 PM and 4:30 PM daily, though we are not entirely sure what that means!

Set of Drifters video:  Check out our YouTube channel for video from this event!

Red Square & The Kremlin - along the bank of the Moscow River (accessible via the Borovitskaya and Biblioteka Imeni Lenina Metro stations), Moscow, 011 (7) 495 202-3776,  

St. Basil’s Cathedral

While in Moscow, it just happened to be Set of Drifter Brady’s birthday!  To celebrate we took a morning trek to investigate Moscow’s famed Red Square, and its crowning jewel, the Cathedral of St. Basil the Blessed.  The famous structure really is as beautiful in person as you would hope. In fact, draped in all of those sweet candy colors, it looks good almost enough to eat!

Certainly one of the most photographed buildings in the world, the exterior of St. Bail’s consists of nine different chapels, and although the outside looks rather disordelry with its many onion-shaped domes striped in alternating hues of green, yellow, blue and red, the inside design is laid out in a surprisingly consistent pattern.  Built in the years 1555 to 1560 by Postnik Yakovlev, the cathedral was commissioned by Tsar Ivan the Terrible to commemorate a victory over the Tatars in the Mongolian city of Kazan.  (At the time, the cathedral would not have looked as it does today, its facade simply painted white and its domes topped in gold).  According to urban legend, after the cathedral was completed, Mr. Terrible ordered the blinding of architect Yakovlev so that he may never create another structure as lovely as this!  Ouch.

Years later in the 1860’s, St. Basil’s was completely renovated; the colorful ornamentation of the turrets was added at this time.  Unfortunately, its newfound beauty was soon threatened by none other than Josef Stalin himself, who in the 1930’s decried that the cathedral be torn down so as not to obstruct Moscow’s grand militia from taking to the Moscow river!  Outraged by the thought, a passionate architect named Pyotr Baranovsky sent a missive to Stalin’s cabinet that described his own suicide on the steps of St. Basil’s should such a disgrace fall on the cathedral.  Fearing a public outcry, Stalin changed his mind and the cathedral was saved!

Looking back at the photos even years later, I am still impressed by how striking the architecture of St. Basil’s is, even as represented in black-and-white photos that are stripped of the turrets’ colorful nuttiness.  Of course, there is no forgetting the discomfort that also shows up on our faces in said photos!  It was so cold during that crisp, blue-skied morning in Red Square that it almost felt as though the tears in our eyes had frozen solid.  (In fact, due to the icy temperatures afoot, the shudder of my camera lens actually stuck in mid-snap!  I had never seen anything like it!)  That silly cheap "fur" hat I had purchased back in New York at H&M was not working out so well!  Brrrrrrrrr...

Coming in from the cold, we eventually hit up a nearby cafe to help us thaw out our interiors!  It was a short respite since the we had to get back to the Kotelnicheskaya for another day of rehearsing.

St. Basil’s is open Wednesday through Monday from 11:00 AM to 5:30 PM, but in winter, only until 4:00 PM.  The cathedral is also closed the first Monday of every month.  Set of Drifters tip:  Make sure to be on the lookout for a superb bronze statue out front that features Dmitry Pozharsky and Kuzma Minin.  The former was a prince, the latter a butcher, and in 1612, the duo rallied together the citizens of Nizhniy Novgorod to a form a volunteer army that would hold back a group of invading Poles.  Moscow’s first monumental sculpture was originally placed in the center of Red Square, but its obstruction of parades caused its relocation to the front of St. Basil's Cathedral. 

Set of Drifters video:  Check out our YouTube channel for video from this event!

St. Basil’s Cathedral - 4, Krasnaya Ploshad (Red Square), Moscow, 011 (7) 495 298-5880
(in Russian)

The Moscow Metro

You may have remembered from our section on Paris that we dubbed its subway stations as among the best in the world.  Still, top honors must go to “The Moscow Metro in the name of Lenin,” or rather simply the “Moscow Metro,” which offers a utilitarian web of efficient transportation that is just as much a top attraction within the city.

Indeed, many of the palatial stations could almost double as museums!  Depending on the era in which they were built, each tells a story of Moscow’s history through its design and ornamentation.  Introduced in the 1935, the construction of the Metro required tunneling deep into the ground below Moscow’s swamplike subsoil.  Visitors to the Metro today will be astounded at just how long the escalators are that take you to and from the train platforms.  (Hopefully, you don’t have vertigo?)

It is said that the inspiration behind the design of those first few lines was to completely mask from commuters the fact that they were actually hundreds of meters below the ground.  And thus, the stations built in the 1930’s were turned into underground palaces where the importance light was emphasized throughout the Neoclassical design.  Architects as important as Alexei Dushkin were brought in to help with some of the stations, overseeing every minute detail from the construction of elaborate mosaics and stained glass to the chandeliers and large life-size statues.

Of course, when Stalin came on board to showcase the power of his Communist dominance, the opulence was turned up even a few more notches in the stations that were built to support his “Circle Line,” an important artery of the Metro system since it connects seven other lines together without passengers having to travel through the center of Moscow.  During these years, gold-trimmed porcelain and marble bas reliefs spruced up the Prospekt Mira station, while art nouveau influences gave Novoslobodskaya a look all its own!

In the years since Stalin’s death, Metro station designs have become more streamlined and modern, not that there’s anything wrong with that.  Some of our favorites are from this era!  So, what should and shouldn’t you hold out for?  Our most beloved stations follow in no particular order:

  • Ploschad Revolutsii (1938, on the Arbatsko-Pokrovskaya line) - Amazing life-size bronze Soviet statues haunt from the red marbled arches that line this Dushkin-designed thoroughfare, complete with art nouveau-inspired chandeliers.
  • Arbatskaya (1953, Filyovskaya & Arbatsko-Pokrovskaya lines) - Ahhh, how can you denounce those crazy chandeliers that drip from the arched ceilings, complete with dainty white-painted ceramic flowers?  This is Stalin’s opulence to the hilt!
  • Aviamotornaya (1979, on the Kalininskaya line) - Wow!  What a ceiling!  It’s like an Egyptian disco tomb!  The bizarre metal sculpture at the end of the platform feels almost like a drag queen’s costume from Priscilla, Queen of the Desert!
  • Elektrozavodskaya (1944, on the Arbatsko-Pokrovskay line) - Sure the marble sculpture on display here is exquisite, yet its the insanely lit ceiling, with over 300 inset lamps, that will startle and amaze.  No wonder this station is named after a nearby electric light bulb factory!
  • Kievskaya (1954, on the Koltsevaya Line) - Go for the intricately-carved stucco framed mosaics that just may force you to miss a few trains while browsing.
  • Anninno (2001, on the Serpukhovsko-Timiryazevskaya Line) - Calling occupants of interplanetary craft, this station is awash in the cool glow of florescent light that shoots down from one of several inverted domes that replicate the design of flying saucers!  Love it.
  • Komsomolskaya (1952, on the Sokolnicheskaya & Circle lines) - Another of Stalin’s masterpiece’s, this station is not messing around!  You may not believe your eyes!
  • Rimskaya (1995, on the Lyublinskaya Line) - What the heck are those novye bogaty babies doing there on those fallen Roman columns?  Just plain creepy...

Since you are not allowed to take photos on trains or inside the stations (for security reasons we are told), try to soak in as much as you can while you are waiting for the next train to arrive.  And if you absolutely must snap an image of that insane bronze Soviet sculpture inside the Izmaylovskiy Park station, or those simple yet beautiful arched ceilings inside Kropotkinskaya, just do it quickly with your phone!  But be surreptitious as possible otherwise you may be approached by a member of the militsiya!

Another option is to attend one of Patriarshy Dom’s tours Metro tours that occur Saturdays and Sundays at 11:00 AM.  You will need to call them to inquire about prices and to arrange a meet-up point (see website below).  Finally, if all else fails, keep your snapping to locales above ground.  The exteriors of the Metro, easily noticeable by the conspicuous large “M” signage, are often works of art in their own right.  Favorites included our local Kitay-gorod station and the handsome Arbatskaya on the Arbatsko-Pokrovskaya line.

Today, nine million Muskovites are carried throughout the 270 km. of train track each day!  That’s more than London and New York City combined and that means there's an awful lot of grandiose Metro stations to gawk at (171 and counting)! 

Moscow’s Metro runs daily from 5:30 AM until 12:30 AM, though expect slightly extended hours on holidays.  Trains run every couple minutes during the day and about every seven minutes during the evening.  The cost of a single fare is 28 rubles (about $1.00 USD), while better discounts may be purchased in blocks of 5, 10 or 20.  (Check the Moscow Metro’s charming website for current closures or any fare changes.)

Set of Drifters tip:
  Though it may be the most stunning in the world, Moscow’s Metro system is not necessarily the easiest to navigate.  Aside from the fact that signage is almost entirely written in Cyrillic (save for maps inside the actual carriages), some station names can be found on two separate lines even though they are not the same station!!  And to make matters worse, whenever two lines converge at a hub, the hub is given a new name other than either of the two stations it connects.  Brush up on your Cyrllic - please!  You are going to need it in the subways for sure.  (For more assistance on getting around this somewhat convoluted city, see “essentials.”)

Moscow Metro (main office) - 41/2, Prospect Mira (near the Prospect Mira station), Moscow, 011 (7) 495 688-0293,

Patriarshy Dom Tours - 6, Vspolny per., inside the brick building of Moscow school #1239, Moscow, 011 (7) 495 795-0927, or from the United States, (650) 678-7076,

Gorky Park

From the pop culture melting pot that is America, the name “Gorky Park” conjures up sinister thoughts of Martin Cruz Smith’s ‘80s crime novel and the movie that followed starring William Hurt.  Most Americans have heard of the destination, but few know what it’s really like.  Well, we’re here to report, Gorky Park is like the Disneyland of Moscow, albeit a bit more run-down.

Located alongside the Moskva River, the majestic park named after writer Maxim Gorky stretches out over 300 acres and embraces a wide array of amusements suitable for all types!  Originally designed in 1928 by the world famous avant-garde Soviet architect, Konstantin Melnikov, Gorky Park has become an integral part of many a Muskovite’s daily life.

We had the pleasure of experiencing “Park Kultury” in both the icy cold winter of 2007 as well as the (almost) balmy summer of 2004! 
In winter months, Gorky Park glistens beautifully inthe snow.  Restaurants, like the Uzbek teahouse Chaikhona No. 1 (see “eats”) and larger attractions like the infamous “Ice Disco” at the park’s skating rink remain open.

In the warmer temps of summer. we recommend checking out some of the special music events and dance parties that are often held on weekends.  For a nominal entrance fee, the fests offer a great opportunity to meet the peeps and check out their local music scene!  Set of Drifter Doug was invited once to DJ a party here where the dancefloor segued effortlessly into a pool surrounded by podiums that supported several go-go dancers!  Yes, in celebration of the glorious weather during summer, those zany Muskovites sure love a bit of the boogie!

Younglings will enjoy other less frenetic amusements like a ride on “Buryan,” a makeshift Russian space shuttle, or more typical thrills like bumper cars, a variety of roller-coasters, and “Q-Zar” laser tag which is housed in a large space that resembles a beehive!

Ultimately, Gorky Park is a great place to mix with the locals - and enjoy some of the natural beauty that is more often than not covered in snow for a large part of the year!  Official “operating hours” for Gorky Park are 10:00 AM until 9:00 PM during the winter, and 10:00 AM until 10:00 PM during the summer.  Admission for rides depends on the attraction!  (Ay-yi-yi.)  Set of Drifters tip:  Gorky Park sound too outdated for your taste?  Why not wait a couple years?  A huge renovation is planned now that management has recently changed hands.  A good start is the Garage Center for Contemporary Culture which showcases edgy street art installations and photography.

Gorky Park - Ulitsa Krymsky val Park Kultury (via Park Kultury Metro station), Moscow  119049, 011 (7) 495 237-1266,

Garage Center for Contemporary Culture - Krymskiy Val, 9/45, Gorky Park, Moscow 119049, 011 (7) 495 645-0520,