December 17, 2008

Celebrating Christmas and New Year the Russian Way

My childhood and teenage-years memories of New Year celebrations in Russia are grand. These kind of memories one cherishes for life and tries to re-create every year wherever one is. For me, it was the New Year celebrations in New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Portland, Seattle, Sacramento and Houston. But there was nothing like the New Year in Moscow, Russia.

December 30th is usually the last working day for the Russians. With Orthodox Christmas on January 7th, Russia enjoys an early start of holiday celebrations with the New Year, which is by far the biggest holiday in Russia, and the most beloved by all.

For years, Russians were looking forward to the holiday celebrations, which usually meant that the most of the delecatesse products would be available at the stores, such as red and black caviar, fruits that were not grown in Russia (mandarins, pineapples and such), cheese of all European kind and Russian best chocolate. For Russians having a full table of good food is the most important party of the ceremony, because this is what they share with their friends and family and gifts were just an addition. Most importantly – it was all about the Russian-produced champagne (which has a sweat taste in comparison to all other foreign champagne.)The easiest description of New Year's Eve in Russia may well be that of Western Christmas and New Year's Eve rolled into one grand celebration – including exchange of gifts, food and drinks.

Russians are generous natural hosts (one suspects this is a tradition, which seeped into Russia from the East) that compete over with friends and family who will host a New Year party, which usually takes place at a house (a Russian would never spend a New Year at a bar or a restaurant). But celebrations are not only about dressing up, feasting, singing and dancing for Russians, it is also a mixture of melancholy reflection turning - with the year - to exuberant optimism, accompanied by prodigious toasts to a better future, better health and better world (Russians always toast for the world peace.)

At five minutes to midnight, Russians freeze at anything they are doing and prepare to open a champagne right after the translation of the president’s speech addressed to the nation comes live from Kremlin. It’s a moment that all Russians cherish, no matter how much they might be disappointed with the current state of economy and politics. Even outside Russia, Russians who live in other countries, they gather at homes of their fellow Russians who have access to Russian TV and follow the same tradition of food, gifts, toasts and Presidential speech.

(Former Russian president, Vladimir Putin, preparing for the New Year 2008 TV live speech to the nation.)

This is followed by the Russian National Anthem, before the chimes of the Kremlin clock (Кремлёвские куранты) on Red Square ring in the New Year as Russians open champagne and cheer.

Visit Best Ice-Skating Rings in Moscow for more information.

And there is nothing like ice-skating before or after the New Year party, or the following day on one of many open skating rings around the city. (When I was little, we will go skate on the main square in the city, followed by snow ball fights, which are fun at any age.

If you feel extra-adventurous for New Year, take a Trans-Siberian train with all the "local" flavor you can get - from famous traditional tea ceremony on a train to buying sausages made out of a horse meat from a village resident on some suburban Siberian train platform in the middle of nowhere. To learn more about Trans-Siberian and train schedules, visit Way to Russia guide.
Better to See Once Than to Hear a Hundred Times

For years Russians used to say, “Better to see once than to hear a hundred times.” They always knew that one of the places worth seeing was the capital of their country - Moscow, the heart of Russia.

They welcome you to visit the country, where “War and Peace” was written and tsars ruled, where a revolution has taken place and democracy replaced communism, and where the best rye bread is baked and the famous caviar is produced. Of course, it will take you not a day, not even a year to explore enough of Russia, but to see a bit of everything – Moscow is the place.

A city of contrasts, Moscow’s architecture represents every period of Moscow’s development from the 12th century to the present. In the daytime the city will introduce you to its famous museums, like The Pushkin Art Museum of Fine Art with a broad selection of European works, and to its famous galleries, like The Tretyakovsky Gallery, where masterpieces of Russian artists are represented in the 60 halls of the building. It will take you more than a day to see it all!

(Manezh Square, just off Red Square)

Whoever you might ask, would most certainly suggest seeing the Kremlin. Standing on the Red Square, another familiar name, and looking at the Kremlin wall and the Mausoleum, The Kremlin appears to be a town of its own. Behind its walls one can find the Archangel Cathedral, the royal burial place. Its interior has gold icons of such rare beauty that no pictures are allowed to be taken inside, and only in your memory the vision of it will stay forever. In front of the Kremlin, close to the Eternal Fire of Glory, which is never fading away in honor to the unknown soldiers of the World War II, one of the most beautiful places in Moscow is the Manezhnaya Square - the “Russian Venice,” one of the favorite places for tourists and for local love birds. The square not only offers the largest and the only one in the world underground mall with the most famous boutiques, but the square also offers space for rollerblading, for dinning out at many open cafes and many shady places to relax and enjoy famous Russian ice-cream sold out of little carriages around the square.

(Moscow metro, opened in 1935)
To get to the downtown of Moscow, one only need to take a few main streets down away from the Red Square that lead to the downtown. On of them is Tverskaya street, which gathers the bulk of the visitors in Moscow. Not only it is famous for celebrity sightseeing, famous Eliseevskiy grocery store, which used to belong to one of the richest merchandiser family in the 19th Century and boutiques. It gathers the most fashionable crowd because only a few feet away one can find theatrical districts, the largest cinema building and a few park alleys. The streets in and around the Tverskaya streets reveals 19th century palaces and 1930’s apartment blocks with European and national stores, cafes and restaurants, it is also a street where many celebrities have chosen to live and mingle among ordinary people.

(Prospect Kutuzov)

Among other famous Moscow streets are Old and New Arbat, one famous of numerous Casino and Sex Shops and one another is famous for the oldest street art district, and Kutuzov Avenue. The Old Arbat is famous for its street artists and cafes, and is a place to meet people; the other is famous for its Triumph Arc and the “Kneeling Hill”, built in honor of all the victims of the World War II, also a place for live concerts and the suicidal rollerbladers and skaters, who take advantage of marble floors and stairs.

(Old Arbat artist street)

If one is tired of walking? One does not have to be! Moscow is one of those rare cities that offer all kinds of public transportation one can think of - buses, trolleybuses, streetcars, taxis, and the Metro are offered for your convenience. The latter one, the Metro system, reflects the city’s street patterns and is known for the elaborate architecture of its stations, which were built during Stalin’s era by prisoners. It has more chandeliers than the Buckingham Palace, and more marble than in the whole of Russia. The Moscow Subway permanently became one of the treasures and landscapes mentioned in the guidebooks as a must-see place.

(Typical onion-shaped Russian Orthodox churches)

Cross yourself three times and say “Amen”, when you are present at a mess service in an Orthodox Church during prayers. Beautiful onion-shaped churches and cathedrals are keeping the sacred spirit in their unique icons and rituals. Some of them are dated back to the 14th Century and to the beginning of Moscow, when Tatars were invading Moscow lands and Knight Vladimir was protecting the lands from the Muslims. At that time, the most beautiful icons were created by Andrey Rublev, whose art works are now on display in New York, London, Paris, and Rome, among many other world cultured places.

Bolshoi (Great) Theatre

Anton Chekhov (1860-1904)

MXAT (Moscow Art Theatre, where the first Seagull by A. Chekhov was staged in 1896)

If that is not enough of a reason for you to visit Moscow, then perhaps one does not want to miss the city of always growing in numbers - theatres, music, and nightlife. It has been Bolshoi (Great) Theatre, where the “Swan Lake by the Russian composer Pytor Ilyich Tchaikovsky was first performed, and The Moscow Art Theatre (MXAT,) where Anton Chekhov introduced the acting world to the Method. - the Method acting that soon was adapted by Mikhael Chekhov who carried on the brother’s legacy to the east banks of the United States and who taught famous American acting teacher, Lee Strasberg, in New York. Lee Strasberg later trained the likes of Marlon Brando, Kirk Douglas, Merlyn Monroe, Al Pacino, Robert De Niro and Meryl Streep, whose remarkable performance we have been enjoying until this day.

What mega city can be called mega if it did not offer exciting “forget-your-shoes-on-the-dance-floor” and “hot-kiss-exchange-between-the-strangers-in-the-bathroom” kind of nightlife? Check out the bars and clubs, about hundreds of them in the city - to dance to popular European and Russian dance music, see live performances of local and European bands, and to taste the drinks and hors-d’ouvres of Russian specials, such as smoked osetrina with the finest black caviar. The most famous and oldest clubs are Utopia, Meteliza, Propaganda and Pilot. But the new ones are multiplying like fruit flies, so it is a good idea to ask a local about some choices. For full lists of all the clubs, lounges and bars in Moscow, go to Afisha guide to entertainment in Moscow.

(Russian fashionista)

You may also want to consider the Russian dress code! One can get uneasy if one is inspected for long by some bystander, especially if one wears one of these items: a baseball cap, sandals, shorts, and a backpack. Do not worry – the Russian can spot an American from miles away because Moscow follows the European fashion and none of those items are in anyone’s wardrobe; one will see women in high heals and men – in trousers and nice shoes, not only for special occasions. Sport clothes are worn rarely in the Russian society, unless one is being in a sport club, jogging, or working in a summer-house (dacha) garden.

Not to overwhelm the tourist-to-be, I will stop here and mention the last, but not the least detail. Always have your passport with you, all the maps can be bought at kiosks everywhere in Moscow, and have a speaking guide, even though one out of two people would know English well enough to answer your questions.
Just remember it is a one-time life experience you will never forget!

And to help you plan your trip to Moscow/Russia, please drop me a line and I’ll help you put together an itinerary, including what to wear in winter in Russia.

To see more of Moscow, visit my “Moscow, Russia” album on the right hand side of the blog.

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