This article was first published in the January 2008 edition of BBC History Magazine
Over the past thousand years Moscow has grown from a small trading post into a giant metropolis. It was the capital of imperial Russia until the 18th century, when the tsars moved their administration to St Petersburg. Then in 1918, in one of his first acts as Soviet leader, Lenin made Moscow the capital again and it has been Russia’s seat of government ever since.
The regime Lenin created imploded in 1991 but many traces of Soviet rule remain. A notable survivor is Lenin himself. He was hastily embalmed after his death in 1924 and is now a rather macabre tourist attraction, housed in a purpose-built mausoleum in Red Square. From 1953–61 Lenin had to share this mausoleum with Stalin but after a period of de-Stalinisation, the latter was removed and buried by the Kremlin wall with other leaders. Lenin’s body has become a macabre tourist attraction.
Red Square truly is the heart of Moscow. Its cobbled stones have witnessed some of the defining moments of the Communist epoch, including two dramatic military parades in the Great Patriotic War. In November 1941, with the German guns a few miles from the city, Stalin roused Muscovites with a speech invoking Russian heroes like Alexander Nevsky and Mikhail Kutuzov. Three and a half years later, standing on Lenin’s mausoleum, he watched as waves of Red Army tanks rolled past and triumphant soldiers hurled Nazi banners onto the ground.
The Second World War is remembered at Victory Park in the outskirts of the city. It is dominated by a 142-metre obelisk (10 centimetres for every day of the war) with a statue of St George slaying a Nazi dragon. The monument stands before the Museum of the Great Patriotic War, which provides a Russian perspective on the conflict and has English translations for those whose Russian is a little rusty.
Throughout his time in power Stalin made a determined effort to reconstruct Moscow as a modern 20th-century city, leading to both architectural triumphs and disasters. Some of the strangest additions were a group of gothic skyscrapers, known as the “Seven Sisters” which were apparently erected because Moscow was lacking a skyline. Far more impressive is the city’s Metro. Built in the 1930s, the fabulously ornate stations were once compared to “vast subterranean Turkish baths” by travel writer Martha Gellhorn.
After the Soviet Union disintegrated in 1991 some of the most visible aspects of Communist rule were removed, such as the statues of Bolshevik heroes. Several of these are now to be found in Moscow’s Sculpture Park, where they stand somewhat forlornly, often damaged after a less than careful removal process. Lenin, Marx and Brezhnev are all here as is a poignant statue of Stalin. Behind his confident, though nose-less, figure dozens of heads have been placed in wire cages. They are a reminder, to those with short memories, of the immense suffering Stalin and his acolytes inflicted on the country.
Moscow: A Literary and Cultural History by Caroline Brooke (Signal Books, 2006); Moscow 1941 by Rodric Braithwaite (Profile, 2007); A History of Modern Russia: From Nicholas II to Putin by Robert Service (Penguin, 2003).