Ye olde travel guide: Moscow 1937

William Ryan invites visitors to sample champagne and sausages in a city that lives in the shadow of a strict communist regime

Illustration by Jonty Clark.

This article was first published in the November 2012 issue of BBC History Magazine

Advertisement

When to go

Moscow has much to interest travellers throughout the year but, as Napoleon’s brief visit in 1812 showed, it’s wise to be wary of the Moscow winter. July and August are the warmest months and the Physical Culture Day parade (July) shouldn’t be missed.Thousands of athletes march around Red Square watched by the party leadership from Lenin’s mausoleum, and much can be learned from the leadership’s positioning, if nothing else. A Central Committee member who doesn’t feature prominently may not be long for public life.

What to take 

Efforts to complete the current five-year plan in only four years are under way, and many consumer goods are in short supply, even in relatively well-served Moscow. If you’re visiting in winter, be sure to bring boots and galoshes: footwear is not currently a production priority. You may also wish to bring a set of cutlery – in some public cafeterias citizens have to queue for knives and forks as well as their food.

Costs and money

The official exchange rate is 50 roubles to the pound but the issue is often availability rather than cost. While the official prices of many consumer products may seem reasonable, in reality they’re almost unobtainable. Having foreign currency (valuta) will make things easier.

Sights and activities

If you can tear yourself away from the delights of the Central Anti-Religious Museum and the State Darwin Museum, try and visit the recently built Moscow Planetarium. It has daily lectures on such fascinating subjects as ‘Astronomy and Socialist Construction’ – and, best of all, they’re delivered in Russian only.

Dangers and annoyances

Contact with ordinary Soviet citizens can be dangerous, not so much for you as for them. Bearing this in mind, be suspicious of those who go out of their way to befriend you – they may not be quite what they seem.

Sleeping and accommodation

Moscow has a number of fine hotels, ranging from the pre-revolutionary elegance of the Metropol to the solid opulence of the recently opened Moskva. Rumour has it that the innovative imbalance in Moskva’s facade was caused by Stalin’s inadvertent approval of two alternate plans. Faced with such a dilemma, the head of construction sensibly implemented one design for the left tower, and one for the right.

Food and drink

Statistics released by the People’s Commissariat of the Food Industries show that the Soviet Union leads the world in the production of quality foods. The Red October Chocolate Factory will manufacture 10m kilos of chocolate this year, while the Moscow Mikoyan Meat Combinat will produce 130 types of sausage (including 70 boiled varieties!). It’s perhaps just as well that the Moscow Mikoyan also turns out specialist products for those with weak digestions.
Drinking in Moscow is as sophisticated as you might expect in the capital of world socialism. White-coated bartenders at the Metropol Hotel mix unusual cocktails that have stunned western visitors in recent years.
As for Soviet champagne, it has to be tasted to be believed. In just 10 years, Soviet specialists have produced a sparkling wine of a quality that has terrified French experts who have sampled it. They needn’t worry about competition, though – Stalin has decreed that Soviet champagne is for Soviet people only. And lucky visitors like you, of course.

Entertainment

Moscow is a party town and Soviet youth enjoy jazz just as much as their western counterparts: dancing carries on until 3am at the Metropol and even later at the Empire Restaurant. In the summer, enormous costume balls are held in Gorky Park, but be careful who you choose to go as. State security aren’t known for their sense of humour.

Getting around

The first line of the Moscow Metro opened in 1935 and its stations have been decorated with murals, mosaics and sculptures showcasing the successes of the Soviet Union. Taking a tram is also an option, although they’re often incredibly overcrowded.

Emergencies

In the event of arrest remember that some foreigners simply disappear during their stay in the Soviet Union so, whatever you do, don’t go quietly. Make efforts to have your embassy contacted immediately. Their intervention can secure your release, particularly if you are from a powerful country.
William Ryan is the author of The Bloody Meadow (Pan Books, 2012)