Moscow. A city of fountains, great architecture, momentous history, and circles.
Yes, circles. Moscow is essentially a series of concentric rings which have grown outwards over time. When it was first founded, like most Russian towns, the central Kremlin, at first a fortress, became the main administrative centre, and this was surrounded by the first circle, the defensive Kremlin wall. What we would call a town would grow outside the Kremlin wall, until at some point the need to defend the buildings and people in the town led to another wall, another circle. And of course, as the town grows, and there is no more room inside the wall, people start building outside the wall.
The first walled city of Moscow was called Kitai-Gorod. There is still an area of Moscow with that name, and a metro station, which is today understood to mean “China-town” but the confusion arises from the Russian name for China, understandably, originally having a similar etymology.
Over the centuries the process repeated – first with the white wall of Bely Gorod (the white city) and then Zemlyanoy Gorod (the earthworks city). Each time the level of prestige inside the fortification was greater than the prestige attached to those living outside the walls – at one point people living outside the walls were known as meshchane – a word that nowadays means “petty borgeois” or “philistine”. In the 20th century it was a motorway, the MKAD ringroad that set the most recent boundary of Moscow’s territorial reach, although yet again the city is creeping out beyond that limit.
The rings are more than just historical anomalies. There are transport ringroads aligning with the edges of Bely Gorod (the Boulevard Ring) and Zemlyanoy Gorod (the Garden Ring). The effect is to make the Metro underground map look something like a bicycle wheel, with spokes crossing from one side of the city to the other, and the radial lines connecting them.
It is fascinating to contrast Moscow, a city that has just grown outwards in every direction, ring by ring like an ancient oak tree, with Volgograd, which clings defiantly to the twists and turns of the Volga river and has been stretched out to 80km in length but little more than 10km wide at any point.
Of course Moscow also has its history as the capital of Russia for many years, and its shares of triumphs and tragedies, great artists and writers and poets and leaders, and terrible villains.
As we drove home on our final day, we took the Garden Ring motorway to circle the old Zemyanoy city before heading south to Domodedovo airport. I saw once again the magnificent historical university building, immediately recognisable on the skyline atop the Sparrow Hills. And we passed the new Moscow, the big, bold skyscrapers which have appeared on the horizon during the last decade and are growing in number as the cranes converge to bring a new, modern style of architecture that would not be out of place in Tokyo, Dubai or New York.
History rolls on, and Moscow rolls on with it. Thank you for reading my thoughts about my first encounter with this great city.