Rough Guide: There's a heady mix of high culture and low-life on the banks of the Moskva River. Dan Richardson, author of 'The Rough Guide to Moscow' tries to make sense out of the strangest of places

First impressions

Brash and ballsy. Wealth and power are flaunted; whores, cocaine and bodyguards give its nightclubs an Al Capone feel. Stalin's legacy is embodied in gigantic buildings and avenues that reduce people to insignificance. God only knows how the poor live - even Western visitors are shocked by the cost of things, although the falling rouble should make it cheaper. Muscovites are survivors; tough as cement on the outside and warmly bitter- sweet in private.

Chief attractions

Red Square and the Kremlin - will Lenin or Yeltsin go first? High culture in the form of the Bolshoi Ballet, the Tretyakov Gallery and the Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts (for starters). Churches and monasteries guarded by Cossacks, with wonderful liturgical rites and sinister tales attached to their cemeteries. Nightlife of Bangkok debauchery at Zurich prices. The unpredictability and bizarreness of ordinary life. An opportunity to see history being made, and later realise that you were being fooled.

Essential knowledge

Think dialectically. Yesterday's heroes are today's villains. Everything is in flux, but old habits don't change. If none of this makes sense, stick around and it will. Return a few years later and you'll feel like a dinosaur. Moscow's Mayor, Yuri Luzhkov, is Mohamed Al Fayed on a tank.

Fondest memories

The Tsarist estate of Kolomenskoe in a blizzard, with crows cawing and bells ringing; I felt transported back to the time of Ivan the Terrible. Lots of vodka-fuelled evenings - the details are a blank. Home-bottled mushrooms and berries, evoking summer in winter. Baptising our daughter in an Orthodox church.

Worst intrusion at dinner

We were eating with friends when an armed paratrooper burst in, yelling: "Stay seated!" My wife lacked a Moscow residency permit and risked being arrested under the then State of Emergency, but the owner of the restaurant persuaded the cops to let her go. I've never yet seen anyone shot in a club or on the streets, nor has anybody I know.

Vilest media

The gutter press consists of the papers of parties whose hatred of Jews and democracy transcends any ideological differences, sold by jackbooted vendors. All the TV stations and other papers are controlled by the "Group of Seven" oligarchs, believed to be the puppetmasters behind the Kremlin. If you can't read Russian, there are two prissy English-language free sheets.

Politest burglar

I came home to find the door of our flat kicked in and a smartly dressed man inside. "Who are you?" I asked, stupidly. "A thief," he replied, pulling out a pistol and waving it nonchalantly. He then explained that he was just seeing if there was anything left to steal after someone else had broken in, and offered to leave if I didn't call the police. Luckily, neither thief had touched the vodka, as I needed a stiff one.

Naffest monument

Mayor Luzhkov and his favourite sculptor, Zurab Tsereteli, have imposed some extraordinarily naff monuments on the city. The Nazi dragon being sliced into salami by St George and the parade of zombies in Victory Park are kitsch enough, but nothing compared to the l65-foot-high monument to Peter the Great beside the Moskva River, which has been under guard since neo-Bolsheviks threatened to blow it up if Lenin's body was removed from Red Square. Many would cheer if they did.

Finest barricade

I was here during the showdown between Yeltsin and Parliament in 1993, and saw the barricades on both sides. In the early days there was a carnival of "Red grannies", Cossacks and nutters at the White House, and only token barricades - unlike on the night of 3-4 October, when Yeltsin supporters blocked the main thoroughfare with trucks. I didn't go to watch the shelling of the White House, though hundreds did. There's now a shrine to those who died, with a symbolic barricade tended by old ladies who declare themselves to be "patriots not Communists" and blame all Russia's ills on International Zionism.

FACT FILE

moscow

GETTING THERE

For flights, call Scott's Tours (tel: 0171-383 5353). London (Heathrow and Gatwick) to Moscow by Aeroflot (pounds 255) or BA (pounds 546, although the price comes down to pounds 280 if you pre-book accommodation); indirect flights by SAS (pounds 210) and Lufthansa (pounds 240), which also fly from Manchester or Birmingham. Two package deals from Interchange (tel:0181-681 3612) are three nights B&B in the three-star Rossiya Hotel, just off Red Square, for pounds 351; and three nights in a Russian home, with half-board, from pounds 356. Both include flights.

VISAS

Package tourists can get their visa through the tour operator. A trick is to get a business visa (which doesn't require you to have pre-booked accommodation). Charges can be as little as pounds 48; try East-West Travel (tel: 0171-938 3211), Scotts Tours, or Interchange.

WHERE TO STAY

Try the Travellers

Guest House (fax: 007812/2807686; email: tghatglasnet.ru), which can arrange visas for guests. The hostel is clean and safe, with 4- and 5-bed rooms; pounds 11 per night, breakfast not included.

The Independent travel offers: Discover a world of inspiring destinations

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Sport
Manchester United's kit for the 2014/15 season
football
News
Nadine Gordimer died peacefully at home yesterday
peopleNobel laureate was a powerful anti-Apartheid voice
Extras
indybest
Arts and Entertainment
Neil Young performs on stage at Hyde Park
musicAnd his Hyde Park set has rhyme and reason, writes Nick Hasted
News
Women have been desperate to possess dimples like Cheryl Cole's
people Cole has secretly married French boyfriend Jean-Bernard Fernandez-Versini after just three months.
News
Ian Thorpe has thanked his supporters after the athlete said in an interview that he is gay
people
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
News
The headstone of jazz great Miles Davis at Woodlawn Cemetery in New York
news
News
newsBear sweltering in zoo that reaches temperatures of 40 degrees
Arts and Entertainment
Professor Kathy Willis will showcase plants from the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew
radioPlants: From Roots to Riches has been two years in the making
Extras
indybestThe tastiest creations for children’s parties this summer
Arts and Entertainment
TV The follow-up documentary that has got locals worried
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Java Swing Developer - Hounslow - £33K to £45K

    £33000 - £45000 per annum + 8% Bonus, pension: Deerfoot IT Resources Limited: ...

    Sales Manager (Fashion and Jewellery), Paddington, London

    £45-£55k OTE £75k : Charter Selection: Major London International Fashion and ...

    Volunteer Digital Marketing Trustee needed

    Voluntary, reasonable expenses reimbursed: Reach Volunteering: Are you keen on...

    Java Swing Developer - Hounslow - £33K to £45K

    £33000 - £45000 per annum + 8% Bonus, pension: Deerfoot IT Resources Limited: ...

    Day In a Page

    Super Mario crushes the Messi dream as Germany win the 2014 World Cup in Brazil

    Super Mario crushes the Messi dream

    Germany win the 2014 World Cup in Brazil
    Saharan remains may be evidence of the first race war, 13,000 years ago

    The first race war, 13,000 years ago?

    Saharan remains may be evidence of oldest large-scale armed conflict
    Scientists find early warning system for Alzheimer’s

    Scientists find early warning system for Alzheimer’s

    Researchers hope eye tests can spot ‘biomarkers’ of the disease
    Sex, controversy and schoolgirl schtick

    Meet Japan's AKB48

    Pop, sex and schoolgirl schtick make for controversial success
    In pictures: Breathtaking results of this weekend's 'supermoon'

    Weekend's 'supermoon' in pictures

    The moon appeared bigger and brighter at the weekend
    Iraq crisis: How Saudi Arabia helped Isis take over the north of the country

    How Saudi Arabia helped Isis take over northern Iraq

    A speech by an ex-MI6 boss hints at a plan going back over a decade. In some areas, being Shia is akin to being a Jew in Nazi Germany, says Patrick Cockburn
    The evolution of Andy Serkis: First Gollum, then King Kong - now the actor is swinging through the trees in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

    The evolution of Andy Serkis

    First Gollum, then King Kong - now the actor is swinging through the trees in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
    You thought 'Benefits Street' was controversial: Follow-up documentary 'Immigrant Street' has got locals worried

    You thought 'Benefits Street' was controversial...

    Follow-up documentary 'Immigrant Street' has got locals worried
    Refugee children from Central America let down by Washington's high ideals

    Refugee children let down by Washington's high ideals

    Democrats and Republicans refuse to set aside their differences to cope with the influx of desperate Central Americas, says Rupert Cornwell
    Children's books are too white, says Laureate

    Children's books are too white, says Laureate

    Malorie Blackman appeals for a better ethnic mix of authors and characters and the illustrator Quentin Blake comes to the rescue
    Blackest is the new black: Scientists have developed a material so dark that you can't see it...

    Blackest is the new black

    Scientists have developed a material so dark that you can't see it...
    Matthew Barzun: America's diplomatic dude

    Matthew Barzun: America's diplomatic dude

    The US Ambassador to London holds 'jeans and beer' gigs at his official residence – it's all part of the job, he tells Chris Green
    Meet the Quantified Selfers: From heart rates to happiness, there is little this fast-growing, self-tracking community won't monitor

    Meet the 'Quantified Selfers'

    From heart rates to happiness, there is little this fast-growing, self-tracking community won't monitor
    Madani Younis: Five-star reviews are just the opening act for British theatre's first non-white artistic director

    Five-star reviews are just the opening act for British theatre's first non-white artistic director

    Madani Younis wants the neighbourhood to follow his work as closely as his audiences do
    Mrs Brown and her boys: are they having a laugh?

    Mrs Brown and her boys: are they having a laugh?

    When it comes to national stereotyping, the Irish – among others – know it can pay to play up to outsiders' expectations, says DJ Taylor