The upsetting truth about sightseeing in Moscow is that, for all the fascinating insides of churches, museums and galleries it’s rigmarole like no other to penetrate their famous front entrances.
This in fact, also applies to Russia itself, where bureaucracy is taken to the extreme. Police, border patrol, officials – essentially anyone sporting an impressive badge on their top right pocket – revel in adhering to the government dictated protocol that becomes such a hindrance to the keen and inquisitive traveller.
This passion for paperwork was first highlighted to me before my Trans-Siberian adventure had even started, in the dark depths of an underground Internet café in Canberra, Australia. I answered more questions in those two hours than I had done during my entire university degree. On what day did I enter Peru back in 2007? What is the phone number of my previous employer? Oh, and the one before him too please? What does my father do? Am I a terrorist? Well, I had come that far, so I entered ‘No’.
I can’t complain, as I was issued a tourist visa and away I went. I later discovered that once within the country itself, my task to become a legal visitor was far from over. It seems that a visa simply isn’t sufficient for their needs: Upon entering a new city or town, each tourist must also register with the city police for the duration of their stay. In Irkutsk this cost a mere 250 rubles, however Moscow’s premium charge for a week amid its glorious streets was 500 rubles – almost AUD$20! Having been issued my registration papers my hostel warned that the police could stop me at any time. I have to admit, this did add an extra dimension to my procession though Moscow’s cultural delights. I strategically avoided eye contact with anyone wearing a uniform or a serious hat (which in a snow-laden Moscow is pretty much everyone)
Once the police were made aware that Rachel Lishman had entered their city for the purpose of tourism, Moscow was my oyster. Or so I thought. The final obstacles in my sightseeing mission were the intensely meticulous security checks within the buildings themselves. For this last procedure, I had to be keen, dexterous and willing to be eyed over by large quasi-Neolithic guards brandishing truncheons. After I had paid my money to the cashier I was filtered through an atrium where my backpack came off and was dropped through a scanner. I would then walk forward solemnly towards a freakishly tall woman who, triggered by the machine’s beeps would holler repeatedly ‘belt! Belt!’ At this point, I would dive backwards and whip off my belt and drop it onto the scanner, along with the backpack. Having survived the search I was then ushered to the cloakroom, and if agile enough, could whip out my camera before both my bag and my coat were taken from me by eager, chatty old ladies and replaced with a numbered token in my palm.
Following every visit I found myself asking: “Was it worth all that?” It’s a big compliment to the city that the answer was always “Yes”. For this reason I realised that Moscow’s best visitor experiences are akin to taking a small holiday. Airport security is a pain and everyone despises it, but we all know that on the other side of that metal archway lies a destination that we can’t wait to get too. During my week in Moscow I embarked on several pint-sized holidays: The walls of the Kremlin’s churches dripped with gold leaf; the different chapels of St Basil’s Cathedral delivered frescoes around every twisting, narrow corner; Lenin lay proud and somber (if not somewhat reluctantly) in his tomb, and even the State History Museum through its large ornate halls and myriad of ancient exhibits, cajoled me into forgetting the 30 minutes it had taken to get inside.
Hopefully in the future, Russia will gradually unravel itself from the strongly bound red tape that holds it steady today. Until then, I would argue that its cultural treasures, although all hard nuts to crack, still merit the effort that the passionate police-permission-slip-holder is, having come that far, undoubtedly willing to make.