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 - Travel - The Independent

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.

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