Moskva (Москва) is a Russian word for Moscow, but if you're traveling there and only experience Moscow, then you will never know what Moskva really is.
Let's start from the general outlines
. Moscow is the richest city in Russia and yet you can find the poorest people living there (like paperless migrants from former Soviet Union countries who come to work in nearly slave-like conditions because that life is still better than what they have back home). Another image: it's winter and you're walking along one of the picturesque old town center streets in Kitai Gorod
. The black SUVs are rushing by spilling the dark wet snow mass on the passers by while the whole scene is slowly covered by the beautiful white snowflakes. This combination of hard aggression and soft tenderness is a very special feature of #moskva. You could end up in the Moscow metro
in peak hours when it's covered with people mass and in those crowds you'd see an old woman selling the fresh flowers she's just picked up at a forest. Such contrasts are very touching and look like the sprouts pushing out through burned-out soil...
Your exploration will most likely start from trying to get a Russian visa to travel to Moscow. To get the visa you need to obtain visa support (available here) and already during that process you'll experience the Russian bureaucracy in all its kafkaesque complexity. A visit to the Russian consulate will give you a taste of chaos that's so peculiar to Russia.
If everything goes well (and it will), you will most likely arrive to a Russian airport and the best one to start exploring Moscow is Domodedovo, because it has the right mix of domestic and international arrivals to give you the right feeling about the East/West dichotomy that pulls Russia apart and unifies it at the same time. The basic feature of that dichotomy is a mix of order (emphasized by English-language signs and navigation acting as a welcoming simulacrum of Western infrastructure) and of disorder (expressed through the moving crowds of people, rustling queues and numerous unfinished construction sites).
The next step is the taxi from the airport to the city. As you'll be driving at 200 km / hour through the dense traffic you'll realize that seatbelts were created for cowards and start to experience YOLO the Russian way. The grey suburban apartment blocks will be superseded by glossy advertising lights of the Moscow center and you will soon find yourself in the Kingdom of Capitalism where the main keywords are "money" and "power". Anything that does not adhere to the supremacy of those two has to be either pushed out beyond the Garden Ring (the main central street of Moscow) or play the complex game of being a double agent (which makes those who survive stronger, one could claim).
Let's say you want the real thing and check into the Liningradsky Hilton hotel, which is a Stalin Skyscraper remodeled into a chain hotel, located in the Moscow center but at a very dodgy area of the three biggest railway stations (so it's a full contrast experience, again). The receptionist will try to emulate western politeness but you will already feel in his suspicious attitude that you have arrived into a different kind of habitat, which has a familiar appearance, but a totally different essence. The bulky security guard at reception will amplify your experience.
After that you'll probably go out to experience some post-card views like the Red Square and Kremlin, visit Tverskaya street, walk through the old Kitai Gorod area and see Tretyakov gallery – the usual suspects. You will probably try some Soviet food at the GUM Stolovaya canteen and balance that experience with a luxurious dinner experience at Pushkin restaurant to immerse back into the 19th century, to sort of feel back the origins, which have been irrevocably lost. By then you will probably have a feeling that you've done all the checklist and start looking for some off-the-beaten-track entertainment.
In terms of entertainment Moscow has a lot to offer. The protagonist of Sokurov's Russian Ark film says that Russians have always been good in copying things and making them even better than the original. Multiple hipster joints go much further than their Brooklyn-inspired counterparts and look slightly unnatural at the Russian landscape, but you have to realize that they carry an important cultural and educative function. Places like Strelka, S-11 (former Solyanka), NII, Ema-Bar, Gorky Park, Winzavod, Fabrika, Mayak – serve as the hubs for the city's intelligentsia and signify new and reborn Russia.
Sure, they might all seem excessively hip and prohibitively elitist to your normal Russian, but as long as the sign economy expands, more and more people get on the board, more and more places like this open up, more and more people understand that they can find their solace in some kind of notion of personal development instead of the blind career-oriented nationalist macho discourse proposed by the mainstream. Besides, they probably keep this very intelligentsia from leaving, which, in turn, prevents Russia from spiraling into complete isolation and dictatorial rule of majority.
Anyway, after a while you will wake up in your Stalin skyscraper and be all like... hangover, yes... but also – all like... ok, so I got my share of Moskva experience and it was quite pleasant. I've seen all the beautiful buildings, I met some nice people who speak English, I had some good food, (maybe) I've even met somebody... right... what's next? This is the moment to dwell into the underground and this journey should start from the place that you saw in a fleeting moment on your way from the airport - the Moscow suburbs.
That's when simulacrum transforms into the real experience.
Forget about taxis for now. While they are a good way to meet people (most of them won't speak English though, so you won't get the pleasure of being told about the latest gossip by a total stranger), you should take the metro to Vykhino
station and go to suburbs
. Do it at peak hour, so you experience penguin-like escalator walk carried by the crowds. Vykhino platform is a crazy train station in the suburbs full of chaotically moving crowds. It's gray, raw and real. Spend at least 20 minutes there. Observe people, mingle with them. If you're really adventurous, take one of the elektrichka suburban trains.
Your next stop could be to take metro or bus into a neighbor suburban area, a good choice is Perovo (metro Novogireevo) known to be more dangerous than the others. You probably will not get robbed, but you'll see peaceful life of the working people and there's something really reassuring about the fleeting feeling of comfort that you get watching them go about their daily business, doing shopping, playing with kids, drinking beer on the street, washing their cars and minding their own business (just like yourself). Hail a car (yes, you don't need to wait for a taxi, just put your hand out and somebody will stop to give you a lift for money) and ask them to go to Chelyabinskay st, 7 – the address of Zasada bar.
There you can experience Moscow how it was back in the 90s, including sharing a table with shady types in the basement of a post office. Once you're done, take a walk to Izmailovsky park – you'll quickly find out that it feels like a real forest... You can get lost there at the beautiful ponds (do not swim there though!), meadows and trees – reminiscent of the Zone in Tarkovsky's Stalker. Upon emerging from the forest land, you'll probably want to visit a friend who lives nearby and have a tea in their kitchen – this tradition has never been lost and you'll have some of the most intense conversations in Russia this way. If it's not too late, you might want to visit the souvenir market Izmailovo and get some nice artifacts to remind you of this whole experience.
When you come back to the center, it's not gonna look the same. You'll probably want to perform a decompression ritual and eat in some good restaurant like Ugolek or Ragoo (just to remind yourself that the West still exists). Or you could also eat some nice Caucasian food at Khinkalnaya (unforgettable!) or drink some tea Uzbek-style at Chaikhona.
After that, you will start wanting different sort of experiences. Some recommended places include Bunker-42 - a former nuclear bunker in the center of Moscow, Cosmonautics Museum (which has a beautiful building and is located next to VVTs (ВВЦ) - former exhibition that was displaying the achievements of the Soviet industry – a monument in itself), as well as the Energy Pyramid (which was supposed to fertilize crops through its holistic geometric configuration).
When you're done, a good way to end that whole journey is to visit an exhibition at
Triumph gallery, which represents some of the most original Russian contemporary artists. You might witness AES Group's perfectly rendered installations of bourgeoisie simulacrum or Aleksey Taruts' videos of explosions in Moscow – just to provide yourself a detached view onto the whole experience that you've just had. Not so far away there's also the apartment of German Vinogradov where he performs his ritualistic fire performances every Friday for a limited audience.
By that time you will probably want to travel further in Russia, so simply go to the bus station and get a ticket to Suzdal (a small Russian church town 2 hours outside of Moscow), Novgorod or St. Petersburg. The contrast with Moscow is immense and all of those places offer something unique that Moscow simply does not have. But it is also in that difference that you start to understand Russian complexity at its fullest, that special tension between the crude and the profound, between the raw energy of the Earth and polysingularity of the Cosmos.