One cold and damp April morning, I arrived in Moscow expecting to find exciting Russian discussions about Chekov, Tolstoy and Dostoevsky over vodka. I wanted to learn more about these authors, long beloved of mine, from their country of origin and from the Russian masses themselves. What do average Russians think of Chekov? Do Russian themselves find Dostoevsky darkly funny? Is Tolstoy accorded the same respect in the nation of his birth as Tagore is in India? Instead, my cheerful cabbie turned out to be a Raj Kapoor fan and spent the next half hour getting the pronunciation of Rishi “Bobby” Kapoor right. In a bid to impress his “Indian friend,” sitting in the back seat wondering if it’s the right time to deftly manoeuvre the conversation to Russia’s lit landscape, he launched into a musical assassination of Mera Joota Hai Japani, a Soviet anthem that made Shree 420 and its idealistic hero Raj Kapoor an instant hit in the communist haven. Granted, the cabbie had the exact vocal skills of Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam’s Ajay Devgn, but can’t we just appreciate his passion for Bollywood?
Hidden in that amusing experience is actually something very moving. It’s oddly touching to know that someone so far away, in a culture that can’t be more different, remembers India’s long-forgotten classics. And, then it struck me: I am here in Moscow, looking to relive Russia’s classics and what a surprise it would spring on Muscovites if I drop a line from Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina. Perhaps, the same delight as Mera Joota Hai Japani was to my Bollywood-trained ears.
“Tolstoy museum?” I asked our Muscovite comrade.
And he drove me right into the Prechistenka street. The heritage amber façade which houses the Leo Tolstoy State Museum could well be the dacha that Pushkin famously described. It was the Pushkin line, ‘The guests were arriving to a country house,’ that inspired Anna Karenina, Tolstoy’s most enduring work and as I stood in front of the Tolstoy Museum, that line played and replayed in my mind. I can’t think of a better way to inaugurate my Moscow journey than a mandatory pilgrimage to an author whose writing has influenced generations of Indian writers and journalists.
DAY 1 – ART
LEO TOLSTOY STATE MUSEUM
Russians are fiercely proud – and protective – of their literary tradition and it reflects in the way the LTSM is preserved and maintained. LTSM brings alive the memories of Tolstoy with real artefacts, paintings, hundreds of letters and documents and rare photographs. Bet you haven’t seen the renowned bearded author of War and Peace unwinding with family, enjoying a daily routine like horse-riding or a day in the woods. The hidden jewel for me was this room dedicated to Anna Karenina – canonised as though she were Russia’s very own La Joconde.
MOSCOW MUSEUM OF MORDERN ART
Not far from LTSM is the Moscow Museum of Modern Art (MMOMA), a go-to destination for Russia’s, and the world’s, foremost avant-garde art. During our visit, MMOMA’s General Rehearsal, a highly innovative exhibition inspired by the backstage of a theatrical play was the talk of the town. If you are interested in contemporary art, do hop over to Garage Museum of Contemporary Art (it used to be a Soviet-era café now converted into major art hub) and Olga Sviblova’s Multimedia Art Museum on Ostozhenka street where we were treated to the collective madness of Picasso, Basquiat and Warhol.
DAY 2 – FOOD
15 KITCHEN + BAR
Moscow’s food trail is just as alive and fraught with new experiences as its art and cultural scene. Visitors will be thrilled with the sheer variety of cuisine, both local and global. Russian dishes like Borscht and Pelmeni are popular. So is Khachapuri, a cheesy Georgian delight. But if you are looking for fusion and some killer cocktails, opt for 15 Kitchen + Bar, close to metro station Kropotkinskaya. With its tasteful interiors and innovative recipes (the chef, apparently, changes every few months and so does the menu), 15 Kitchen + Bar is highly recommended. Ideal meal? Quinoa goreng, traditional black Russian bread and vodka.
In Russian, dom means home. Dom 12 on the Mansurovskiy Pereulok is a home away from home. It houses one of the finest bars in the city. Oaky atmosphere and comfy wooden vibes, Dom 12 is a perfect place to revisit your Moscow iPhone memories and wrap up your Russian trip.
DAY 3 – SIGHTSEEING
KREMLIN AND RED SQUARE
The Russian capital is bursting with frenetic energy and nowhere is this teeming of creativity more apparent than the Kremlin. More history is cramped in Red Square than any other place in Moscow. Kremlin, still very much the royal citadel that it once was, is the spiritual, artistic and historic centre of Moscow. Visit the St Basil's Cathedral while there. You might recognise this relic from Ivan The Terrible’s time from its cluster of onion-shaped domes. In fact, Moscow is full of gorgeous churches with shiny golden domes framed against the grey sky. Also scattered around the city are warehouses and defunct factories that are being increasingly revamped as cultural hubs. One is example is Leonid and Victoria Mikhelson’s the Geometry of Now festival that was held in a derelict power station near the Kremlin – proving that Russians are proud of their history and finding ever newer ways to stitch the contemporary with the old and the dusted.
BOLSHOI THEATRE AND GORKY PARK
Notable for ballet and opera, the ultimate destination for an evening of music and orchestra is Bolshoi Theatre, a historic venue that threw its doors open to public back in the 18th century. The recently-renovated theatre has just announced 26 operas to be staged in a span between 2018 and 2019. If you are nature lover and are looking to escape the city’s bustle while very much being in the heart of Moscow, do visit the verdant Gorky Park. During my stay, the park was already in its 90th year. You might have already guessed my literary aspirations. Taking a break on one of the lake-facing benches (it felt like NY’s Central Park, for a moment), I was just happy to note that the park is named after another of my favourite authors – Maxim Gorky.
Russians do admire their literary heroes, don’t they?