Moscow: A City on the Edge of Space

Quiet at the Hermitage.

Most foreign visitors to Russia, asked to choose between St. Petersburg and Moscow, will choose the former. They love its pastel palaces, glittering canals, and bridges that rise up silently like ghosts of the night. Supposedly there are over 3,000 listed historic buildings. Russia’s northern capital is, in essence, a city that strives to be European — and after centuries, all the artifice and emulation has worked. After centuries of being Russia’s “Window onto Europe,” St. Petersburg has effectively become the country’s doorway to the continent.

High-speed Allegro trains connect the former imperial capital to Helsinki in three and a half hours. Even from a window seat, the border between Russia and Finland is barely noticeable amongst the birch trees. The train pauses momentarily as customs agents board the train to check passports before continuing on its near-frictionless journey. Perhaps the only other telltale sign of the border are the hundreds of oil tank car trains emblazoned with GAZPROM’s logo that idle on the tracks. Cruises bring boatloads of tourists from the Baltic and beyond to St. Petersburg for a few hours, while buses whisk people away to Tallinn, the capital of Estonia. The proximity and presence of Europe mean that St. Petersburg is always striving to meet expectations of both Russians and foreigners that it is European.

In Moscow, however, no such expectations exist: the landlocked city is not restrained by the need to imitate Europe. The steppes of Kazakhstan are nearly as close to the Russian capital as the plains of Germany. Possibly by 2020, the high-speed rail to the city of Kazan, where Ivan the Terrible destroyed the Golden Horde in 1552, will be complete. Rocketing across southwest Russia at up to 400 kilometers per hour, the train will only take 3.5 hours to reach this city, the capital of the Russian Republic of Tatarstan. Tallinn, by contrast, takes 15 hours to reach from Moscow by train. Where St. Petersburg looks west, Moscow is increasingly looking east.

So far removed from Europe, Moscow has become the center of a universe all its own. During the week I spent ambling aboveground on the grand boulevards and hidden side streets and rumbling below ground on the sleek metro, I discovered three dimensions to the cosmos of Moscow: the underground, the cosmopolitan empire, and outer space. The mind-bending city wraps up these three different topographies all at once.

Forget the Kremlin, Red Square, and the GUM Department Store. Those are all iconic and unforgettable (particularly the ice cream cones at the department store) for a reason: they exemplify the stereotypical Russian nation. The other three dimensions may not be as instantly recognizable as Russian, but that is because they embody Russia as a place that ceaselessly seeks to be more: more than Moscow’s boundaries, more than the Russian people themselves, more than even the Earth itself. Whereas St. Petersburg lives up to expectations, Moscow transcends them and transports you to another universe. In this post, I’ll explore the Moscow that strives to reach up and out of the atmosphere and into the last frontier.

The pre-scooped ice cream cones for 50 rubles at GUM.

Moscow in outer space

One night in August before of a fireworks show, I exited the metro at Leninskiy Prospekt. To the west, down the Third Ring Road, a beefy gold statue stood confidently on a huge pedestal against the deep blue sky. As we came closer, I asked my Russian colleague who the statue was depicting. She didn’t know, but a stranger in the street overheard me and yelled, “Gagarin!”

A monument to Yuri Gagarin.

On April 12, 1961, Yuri Gagarin became the first human, and also the first Soviet citizen, to reach outer space. His smiling face serves as an icon of the Soviet Union’s achievements, and memorials to him and his triumphant voyage are everywhere. The giant statue sits at the northern end of Gagarinsky District, an entire neighborhood named after the cosmonaut. Carrying on the astro-scientific theme, nearby is the Russian Academy of Sciences, a building constructed in a sort of scientific art-deco style. With all its twisted gold and silver, the top of the building looks weirdly like an electric brain. There is nothing of the sort in stately St. Petersburg.

The Russian Academy of Sciences.

Gagarin’s statue isn’t the only demonstration of Moscow’s fixation with outer space. In the gardens of the Kremlin, a seedling planted on the day of his voyage has now morphed into a large tree called “Cosmos,” which is also dedicated to Gagarin. In the massive VDNKh exposition park, constructed under Stalin, sits a test-version of the Buran — a reusable space shuttle designed under the Soviets that never lived up to expectations, partly due to the country’s collapse— and an old Vostok 8K72K rocket. And in the metro, Chkalovskaya Station is a wonder of chrome and steel, with two mosaics depicting fantastical planets. Even in the deepest recesses of Moscow, you can feel the possibility of soaring into outer space.

Chkalovskaya Station

In the north of Moscow, near where many of the Soviet space program operations were housed, the Museum of Cosmonautics welcomes people to learn about the fascinating history of Soviet and Russian space exploration. The museum also holds exhibits on all sorts of Soviet-era celestial and cosmonautical literature and artwork. In the Soviet Union, scientists and artists alike succumbed to an obsession with other worlds. This might have emanated both from a desire to escape the present during difficult Soviet times, but also perhaps speaks to a deep-seated teleological belief about the march of history that influenced Russian thought and, no doubt, Soviet politics.

Yet the most impressive symbol of Moscow’s transcendence of planet Earth has to be the Monument to the Conquerors of Space («Покорителям космоса»). The statue’s name reveals how for Russia, space was a frontier to be beaten and conquered, much like nature on planet earth. In Soviet times, the idea of the “struggle with the elements” («борьба со стихией») permeated national propaganda. On the brilliantly sunny summer day that I visited the monument, the 361-foot titanium contrail with a rocket ship perched on its end appeared to pierce straight through a cloud. Reliefs of toiling men and women undergirded the contrail, emblematizing the Soviet people’s struggle to lift the nation into outer space during the Space Race. At the front of the monument sat not Yuri Gagarin, as one might expect, but rather a scientist: Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, one of the founding fathers of astronautics.

The Monument to the Conquerors of Space.

Adjacent to the monument is Cosmonaut’s Alley, lined by giant busts of the numerous Soviet cosmonauts who made it to outer space. In the shadow of the imposing Monument to the Conquerors of Space, however, the individuals are almost afterthoughts. This, I suppose, should come as no surprise in Moscow, a city with its gaze fixed on the cosmos rather than the continent next door.

To the great blue yonder.
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