Grand tours: By the light of the silvery moon

Writers and their adventures in literature. This week Astolphe de Custine watches the sun set over the Kremlin
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The Independent Travel

Astolphe de Custine (1790-1857) was born at the onset of the French Revolution, during which his father was guillotined and his mother imprisoned. As the Marquis de Custine he wrote books about Spain under Ferdinand VII and, notably, the travelogue 'Letters from Russia'. According to many, the latter did for Imperial Russia what 'Democracy in America', by Custine's fellow aristocrat Alexis de Tocqueville, did for Britain's colonies in North America. Presenting a rounded picture of Russian life, both at court and on the streets, 'Letters from Russia' is also one of the most evocative pieces of travel writing from this pivotal period of Russian history.

Astolphe de Custine (1790-1857) was born at the onset of the French Revolution, during which his father was guillotined and his mother imprisoned. As the Marquis de Custine he wrote books about Spain under Ferdinand VII and, notably, the travelogue 'Letters from Russia'. According to many, the latter did for Imperial Russia what 'Democracy in America', by Custine's fellow aristocrat Alexis de Tocqueville, did for Britain's colonies in North America. Presenting a rounded picture of Russian life, both at court and on the streets, 'Letters from Russia' is also one of the most evocative pieces of travel writing from this pivotal period of Russian history.

Towards ten o'clock, the sun sank, and the moon rose. The turrets of the convents, the spires of the chapels, the towers, the battlements, the palaces, and all the irregular and frowning masses of buildings that form the Kremlin, were here and there swathed with wreaths of light as resplendent as golden fringes, while the body of the city was seen only by the remaining beams of day, which momentarily faded on the painted tiles, the copper cupolas, the gilded chains, and the metallic roofs, that make the firmament of Moscow. These edifices, the general grouping of which gives the idea of some rich tapestry, still however stood in richly coloured relief against the faint blue ground of heaven. It seems as though the sun were willing to give a parting salute to the ancient capital of Russia. This adieu appeared to me magnificent; although clouds of mosquitoes buzzed about my ears, and my eyes were filled with the dust of the streets, kept in continual motion but the thousands of vehicles moving about, at a gallop, in all directions.

The most numerous were the truly national droshkies, those tiny summer sledges, which being unable conveniently to carry more than one person at a time, are multiplied to infinity in order to meet the wants of an active population, numerous, but lost in the circuit of so immense a city. The first thing that struck me in the streets was the more lively, free, and careless bearing of the populations as compared with that of Petersburg. An air of liberty is here breathed that is unknown to the rest of the empire. It is this which explains to me the secret aversion of the sovereigns to the old city, which they flatter, fear, and flee. The Emperor Nicholas, who is a good Russian, says he is very fond of it: but I cannot see that he resides in it more than did his predecessors, who detested it.

I slowly followed the promenaders of the streets, and after having ascended and descended several declivities in the wake of a wave of idle loungers, whom I mechanically took for guides, I reached the centre of the city, a shapeless square, adjoining which was a garden, with alleys of trees brilliantly lighted, and under the shade of which could be heard the sound of distant music. Several open cafés tended further to remind me of Europe; but I could not interest myself in these amusements: I was beneath the walls of the Kremlin, that colossal mountain raised for tyranny by the hands of slaves. For the modern city a public promenade has been made, a species of garden planted, in the English taste, round the walls of the ancient fortress of Moscow.

How am I to describe the walls of the Kremlin? The word "wall" gives an idea of quite too ordinary an object; it would deceive the reader: the walls of the Kremlin are a chain of mountains. This citadel, reared on the confines of Europe and Asia, is, as compared with ordinary ramparts, what the Alps are to our hills: the Kremlin is the Mont Blanc of fortresses. If the giant that is called the Russian Empire had a heart, I should say that the Kremlin was the heart of the monster, but, as it is, I would call it the head.

I wish I could give an idea of this mighty pile of stones, reared step by step into the heavens; this asylum of despotism, raised in the name of liberty: for the Kremlin was a barrier opposed to the Kalmyks by the Russians: its walls have equally aided the independence of the state and the tyranny of the sovereign. They are boldly carried over the deep sinuosities of the soil. When the declivities of the hillocks become too precipitous, the rampart is lowered by steps: these steps, rising between heaven and earth, are enormous; they are the ladders of the giants who make war against the gods.

The line of the first girdle of structures is broken by fantastic towers, so elevated, strong, and grotesque in appearance as to remind one of the peaks in Switzerland, with their many-shaped rocks, and their many-colored glaciers. The obscurity no doubt contributed to increase the size of objects, and to give them unusual forms and tints – I say tints, for night, like engravings, has its colouring. To behold gentlemen and ladies, dressed à la parisienne, promenading at the feet of this fabulous palace, was to fancy myself in a dream. What would Ivan III, the restorer, or it might be said, the founder, of the Kremlin, have thought, could he have beheld at the foot of the sacred fortress his old Muscovites, shaved, curled and dressed in frock coats, white pantaloon, and yellow gloves, eating ices, seated before a brightly lighted cafi? He would have said, as I do, it is impossible! And yet this is now seen every summer evening in Moscow.

This is an extract from 'Letters from Russia' (£14.99), available to readers of 'The Independent on Sunday' for £12.99 including p&p within the UK. To order a copy, call Granta on 0500 004033 and quote 'Independent on Sunday'. The offer ends on 7 March.

Follow in the footsteps

White Russians

Moscow may be a cold place to visit in winter, with temperatures hitting minus 10C, but it is a good time to enjoy the rich cultural life. Two notable attractions are the Moscow State Circus (00 7 095 200 0668; www.circus nikulin.ru), which performs from Thursday to Sunday each week, and the Obraztsov puppet theatre (00 7 095 299 5979; www.puppet.ru), founded by Sergei Obraztsov in 1931, which stages daily shows.

Getting there

Intourist (020-7727 4100; www.intourist.co.uk) offers return flights with British Airways from £242. A double room at the three-star Rossiya Hotel costs £84 per night, including breakfast.

Malin Rising

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