Russia’s capital is shedding the weight of its Soviet history and transforming into a cultural destination fit for the 21st century.
By Anna Jackson-Stevens
November 25, 2017
If you’ve been away from Moscow for the last 30 years or so, you might not recognize it when touching down today. Gone are the days of hailing private cars and haggling over the price of a journey through town—which might have been a couple of Marlboro Lights—or bribing your way into business class on Aeroflot. Once a destination marred by hardship and authoritarian rule, where working expats negotiated “danger money” into their contracts, Russia’s capital is morphing into an attraction, enjoying a rush of enthusiastic shoppers from China and adventurous travelers from Europe, as well as more cautious ones from the U.S. Now, Uber, Airbnb, and co-working spaces are catering to a new creative class, and the World Cup will arrive on Russian soils in 2018.
Russia has been playing catch-up since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, after nearly a century spent behind an Iron Curtain that saw achievements in science and culture but stagnation in the economy and social environment. While state assets privatized during perestroika to generate capital made billionaires of a handful of connected dealmakers—who’ve been around the world on their luxury yachts, hobnobbed with powers that be, and bought up large slices of foreign real estate—those oligarchs have finally come full circle, plowing rewards reaped back into the homeland.
Sections of the city have benefitted from substantial private investment into renovation and innovation, with boldfaced names transforming the urban fabric while catapulting Moscow into the upper ranks of the contemporary art world. Witness Dasha Zhukova’s Garage Museum of Contemporary Art, designed by Rem Koolhaas’s firm OMA, and Diller Scofidio + Renfro’s Zaryadye Park; Renzo Piano’s conversion of a power plant to the Russian art–focused V-A-C Foundation is set for completion in 2019. And the fifth iteration of the art fair Cosmoscow overlapped this year with the seventh Moscow Biennale, showcasing the international range of the artists, galleries, and collectors who now journey to a city that, in a rather short time, has made an indelible mark on the world’s cultural calendar.
But many of the changes have also been brought on by international sanctions: the Russian state had to prove that it could thrive without imports, a reality that birthed a culinary renaissance as chefs turn to homegrown producers. What was once a wasteland of potatoes and borscht is now alive with dynamic menus populated with replicated European-style cheeses, locally sourced produce, and even modern renditions of pre-revolutionary classic dishes. The Brooklyn aesthetic that has swept over reclaimed industrial neighborhoods all over the world has finally arrived here, too—chances are your waiter will be speckled with tattoos and serving you a cocktail mixed with vodka infused in-house with indigenous fruit.As a result, Russian patriotism is at its peak, and there’s a renewed interest in provenance and national heritage.
A radical face-lift continues to transform parts of the city center, revealing architectural gems hidden behind grotty kiosks razed overnight and metro stations better known for their palatial interiors, including the art deco pavilion at Chistye Prudy (known as Clean Ponds today but referred to as Dirty Ponds when it was a garbage dump in medieval times). Publishing houses on Pushkin Square have received a similar treatment: the old Art Moderne premises for Pravda and a prime example of constructivism, Izvestia, have gained new visibility with the demolition of concealing eyesores.
Cranes jab the skyline as cupolas continue to be polished, the last of the Soviet-era khrushchyovka apartment blocks are being demolished, and new pavement has been laid for motorists and pedestrians. There’s a long way to go, but the city is noticeably cleaner. New trees line embankments; fresh flowerbeds are tended to along boulevards, and verdant lawns cover old industrial sites. Even the weather seems to have risen to the occasion: the sky has stopped raining mud, and the air is easier to breathe. Running routes extend farther and farther. Given the chance, people sit on benches, skateboard over ramps, picnic in parks, and rollerblade on even paving. It’s enough to make a believer out of even the most skeptical globe-traveling visitor.
While the city still suffers from a dearth of good places to stay, a few recently renovated Stalinist-era luxury properties stand out from the pack. A short stroll from Red Square, the Four Seasons Moscow retains some gilded opulence while also showing off contemporary restraint, taking up residence in a stately 1930s building by architect Alexey Shchusev that has been immortalized by Stolichnaya vodka. Paintings of retro dacha scenes by national treasure Alexander Yakut keep the Soviet soul alive in restaurant Bystro, while former dancer Vladimir Glynin’s photographs of lithe bodies serve as fitting décor for the spa. At Ararat Park Hyatt, near the Bolshoi, architect Tony Chi has outfitted 208 rooms overlooking the atrium with dark woods and custom furniture; glass-walled Winter Garden suites have private terraces and the best views of the Kremlin. Book a table at the landmark Café Ararat, where Armenian-style meat dishes and cognacs are served in a restored space replete with intricately carved marble columns. Hailing from a lineage of grand hotels such as New York’s The Plaza, Paris’s The Ritz, and Claridge’s in London, 1901 Belle Époque palace, Metropol, has a storied history. The Bolsheviks used it as home base to form their government after the revolution (the first Soviet constitution was drafted in Suite 217); now it’s undergoing a renovation, though the stunning fin de siècle restaurant and its stained-glass ceiling will remain intact.
On the site of the Soviet-era Belgrade Hotel, in the Arbat District, Berlin-based Bruzkus Batek Architects gave the Azimut Hotel Smolenskaya all the ambiance of a modern-day ad agency, with classic German efficiency and a smart concept that incorporates compact spaces and modular beds. Neon signs on matte black walls show the way to the restaurant, which offers a smorgasbord of European and Russian dishes. A pleasant surprise are the wines from Swiss-Russian producer Domaines Burnier; their signature white assemblage Lublu provides an elegant taste of the country’s terroir.
But there’s more to the new Moscow than refurbished landmarks, and a couple of modern newcomers are pushing a more creative aesthetic to the forefront. Standart Hotelis an unexpectedly futuristic stalwart situated behind an art nouveau facade by architect Pavel Andreev (the man behind the Bolshoi’s face-lift). Designed by decorator Stanislav Tratsevskiy, its 105 idiosyncratic rooms are embellished with one-off art objects, curvaceous Spanish furniture, and faux-stucco walls. At restaurant Sever-Yug (North-South), dishes such as seafood paella and Galician-style octopus add Mediterranean warmth to a capital that spends around six months of the year plunged in the cold of winter; with its dim lighting, foyer fireplace, and in-lounge DJ, new arrival Moss Boutique Hotel has become a weekend hot spot. Designer Natalia Belonogova of NB Studio interpreted architect Bela Badmazhapova’s concept of connected scent, sound, and touch in the lobby and guest rooms with natural materials: warm wood, cold stone and, soon, signature fragrances by Tel Aviv perfumers Zielinski & Rozen. Curated in-house, MosART hosts a rotating selection of works by Alexey Dubinsky and Volume Influx, among others, all available for purchase.
Restaurants & Bars
The scene went du sublime au ridicule from one end of the ’90s to the other. As chef-restaurateur Arkady Novikov once believed, if you didn’t serve sushi, burrata, and chicken bouillon, clients went elsewhere. His eponymous restaurant in the Ritz Carlton reflects a growing craving for monothematic food with a Pan-Asian menu copied from his London restaurant, but there’s still plenty to choose from: the restaurant offers an abundance of sake, served in a restrained interior by Natalia Belonogova. But this is still Russia, after all. An over-the-top marble bar counter highlights an assortment of sea-sourced delicacies in ice windows, while the VIP room’s fireplace and oversize oval table make it ideal for after-hours business negotiations. Inspired by a French poem written more than half a century ago, Café Pushkin has become a cultural institution since it opened its doors, in 1999. Prepare yourself for a pre-revolutionary experience upon arrival: the mansion is filled with antiques, including a working ornamental elevator, as well as a menu fit for a czar (blini with caviar, piroshki, and sturgeon) by artist and restaurateur Andrey Dellos.
Thanks to Western sanctions, Russian menus were modified under duress from early 2014, but those conditions soon became fuel for flexing creative culinary muscles. Alexander Rappoport of Grand Café Dr. Zhivago, on the ground floor of the National Hotel, was one of the first to re-create traditional dishes, making it cool to spend less. The work of designer Anastasia Panibratova, the dining room features a riot of color, from ruby stars pinned to gold ceilings and crimson ribbons against snow-white walls and statues, but the menu brings to mind Valentin Serov’s famous painting Girl with Peaches, the fruits replaced with a mountain of zakuski, Russian hors d’oeuvres. (The scene plays out on social media during Maslenitsa, the Slavic equivalent of Shrove Tuesday or Mardi Gras, only it lasts a full week.) Be sure to order the potato, sour cream, and red-salmon caviar salad with dill, and wash them down with a homemade selection infused with herbs, spices, berries, and pinecones. For a minimalist antidote, head to the brick-and-distressed-wood dining room by architect Alexander Brodsky at Proliv, the latest from bohemian Muscovite Mitya Borisov. Vinyl records play classical music and Russian chanson, providing the perfect backdrop for the restaurant’s menu of Jewish comfort foods and nastoiki, a vodka-based spirit infused with natural flavors.
Indoor greenery is all the rage right now, but nowhere is the concept more abundant than at Sempre, where Belgian creative director and homeware designer Gust Sempre leads the foliage-filled melting pot of great food, design, and art. New British chef Oliver Dollard focuses on sustainability and seasonality, integrating traditional Russian ingredients into classic recipes: heritage carrots are served with salo (pork fat), hummus is made with buckwheat and peanut, and beetroot soup comes with smoked berries and sour cream. Opened this summer in Patriarch Ponds (affectionately known as Patriki or Patriarshy), Berezka took over from a multibrand designer shoe shop of the same name, which might explain the steady stream of Instagram posts by the “it” girls who rule the roost in this part of town. It’s the latest project from trendsetter owners and advocates for healthy living Dina Khabirova and Svetlana Bondarchuk, whose philosophy is evident in chef Regis Triguel’s carrot tartare, kimchi and mandarin juice, and salade Niçoise.
It’s no wonder that White Rabbit figures among the world’s best restaurants. Celebrity chef Vladimir Mukhin’s locally sourced menu displays a touch of conceptual madness—evident in dishes like swan liver ryazhenka (in fermented milk) and King Stanislaw’s baba, soaked in champagne, apricots, and ice cream and named after the cake’s purported introduction to France by the exiled Polish king. But the elegant domed glass ceiling, herringbone hardwood floors, and sumptuous seating are pure genius. Hot on its heels came Selfie, in Novinsky Passage, enjoying panoramic views of the Garden Ring Road and the light-filled aesthetic perfect for the ubiquitous photo ops its name suggests. Here, Mukhin is joined by Anatoly Kazakov in a central open kitchen, which turns out showstoppers such as ravioli filled with truffle cream cheese.
Long content to sip vodka with friends in the comfort of their own homes, Russians haven’t traditionally been into bars—until recently. Moscow’s drinking culture is getting a lively infusion thanks to Noor Electro, co-owners and architects Sergey Pokrovskiy and Mikhail Belyakov’s retro pastel-hued cocktail lounge, which shares the building with Stanislavsky Electrotheatre. Marat Saddarov is Moscow’s original barman; his French 75 packs a punch. The heat is on again at Fahrenheit, an industrial-style loft where Denis Krazhev’s inventive cocktail menu is divided into sections inspired by traditional Russian environments: meadow, garden, kailyard (kitchen garden), and forest. The speakeasy Public takes its cocktails just as seriously, but its pared-down design makes it popular with creative types. A metal door leads downstairs to a concrete-clad, bunker-style basement bar with unexpected details that reveal themselves slowly: table legs are constructed to look like Giò Pomodoro sculptures, and a brass chandelier with dangling crystals creates a warm glow illuminating imbibers sipping Moscow Mules.
Immersive theater is having something of a moment in Moscow. Though there are already numerous examples of the genre in production, never before has an opera been presented in the format. That all changes this autumn when Tchaikovsky’s Queen of Spades, An Opera Promenade begins a six-month run at Troyka Multispace, in the historic Goncharov-Filippov Mansion. Backed by a live orchestra, 70 artists perform within arm’s length of 54 viewers in a sensory experience during which the audience is guided through seven immersive scenes, conceived over two years by creative director Aleksandr Legchakov, that call to mind the pioneering Sleep No More in Manhattan.
Connoisseurs of the visual arts take note: The Moscow House of Photography was reborn in 2010 as the Multimedia Art Museum Moscow, thanks to the relentless efforts of its ballerina-petite yet outsize director Olga Sviblova, whose first Biennale of Photography launched in 1996 and alternates with a Festival of Fashion and Style in Photography, both taking over galleries and any other available wall space in the city ever since.
An impressive consortium of international architects—including Diller Scofidio + Renfro (the firm responsible for New York’s High Line), Hargreaves Associates (the firm behind Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park in London), and Citymakers (of Moscow’s Art-Kvartal urban park project)—have teamed up to unveil Moscow’s newest public space, Zaryadye Park, a concept designed to soften the city’s historically harsh edges. Opened on the site of former eyesore Rossiya Hotel to mark Moscow’s 870th anniversary, the multidimensional space links old and new with an innovative media installation that takes visitors on a virtual flight through Russia. Suspended halfway across the Moscow River, the V-shaped viewing deck has already become a defining image, but like the glass pyramid in front of the Louvre, it divides opinion: is the bridge that stops in the middle, never reaching the other side, a symbol for modern Russia? Or could it be encouraging a leap of faith? Mariinsky No. 6, a concert hall, also opens at Zaryadye Park in 2018.
Famous for its iconic Alenka chocolate bars, the Red October factory keeps a shop and museum on its old production site—an island that’s now known for nightlife and Strelka, a private institute for media, architecture, and design, launched in 2009 by visionary Alexander Mamut. Its consulting company Strelka KB manages the development of public spaces and specializes in international design competitions, including My Street, a series of theater platforms built into more than 100 revamped city spaces.
A walk along the river from Red October takes you to Gorky Park, where Muzeon art park features a series of wooden paths that meander through gardens filled with more than 1,000 sculptures by Russian avant-garde and contemporary artists. The space springs to life in the summer thanks to a theater, pavilion school, and children’s center, and video-art interpretations of old master paintings transform the facade of the Central House of Artists through a curtain of spraying fountains choreographed to music. But Gorky Park’s pièce de résistance is Garage Museum of Contemporary Art, which archives Russian art from the 1950s to the present. Founded by Dasha Zhukova and Roman Abramovich in 2008, and designed by OMA’s Rem Koolhaas in the former Soviet Modern restaurant Vremena Goda, the gallery was a movable art feast until settling in its current location in 2015, bringing much-needed change to a depressing expanse dotted with derelict fairground attractions. Collections and exhibitions take up two levels of gallery space; currently showing is Takashi Murakami’s exhibition, beautifully timed to brighten up gray winter days.
Moscow has come a long way since my student days, when I would hang around the army store Voentorg and cajole officers to buy me sailor tops and blazers with rose gold–colored buttons. Though it took a while for the military look to catch on, all the big brands are peddling it at high-end department stores like GUM and TSUM. At Gourji, accessories featuring all manner of Soviet army memorabilia are on offer, including Kalashnikov- and grenade-themed ornaments to hang off your smartphone.
A nostalgic view of old Russia shines in the specialty enamelwork of jewelry designer Petr Axenoff, whose ornate egg-shaped pendants and floral-themed earrings hark back to imperial times and landed him a commission from the BBC to create pieces for their recent production of War and Peace. Russia-themed prints are also the focus on silk squares, scarves, and shawls at Radical Chic, a boutique on trendy Patriki by local firm Solstudio Textile Design. The cult-status fabrics are produced next door, where they’re also exported to international fashion houses. The historic tea sets at Imperial Porcelain on Kutuzovsky Prospekt make for covetable souvenirs. Founded in St. Petersburg in 1744, the landmark china factory is known for its classic cobalt net motif but the the prints inspired by members of the Russian avant-garde shouldn’t be overlooked.
Street-style devotees will find plenty to love at designer Katya Dobryakova’s Patriki showroom (she also has one in New York’s SoHo), where pop culture meets satire in basic sweatshirts, tees, and jackets embroidered with cheeky political messages—see the image of Putin crowned Vladimir I. Moving this month to Stoleshnikov Lane, fashion muse Olga Karput’s impossibly cool café and store concept KM20 (Kuznetskiy Most 20) sells pieces from Vetements, Gosha Rubchinskiy, and Walk of Shame, as well as vegetable-forward dishes and organic wines. Cosmotheca continues to expand since setting up shop in Moscow six years ago, opening two new stores this autumn to bring the total to eighteen. The emporium unites niche beauty lines and signature fragrances from around the world under a common ecofriendly ethos, but local brands are the stars, skincare by Berezka Lab and make-up by Sergey Naumov among them.
A movement to revitalize Soviet-era bazaars is also underway. Danilovsky rynok (farmer’s market) was a sorry place to be a quarter of a century ago, with little on display beyond loaves of black Borodinsky bread, a few pickles, and splayed anorexic-looking chickens. Today it’s pleasantly bourgeois, with colorful arrays of plump fruit and vegetables and food stalls that beckon shoppers to eat in rather than take away. Worth the trek south on the No. 39 tram along a scenic route past the Tretyakov Gallery, the Cheremushkinskaya Market remains a relatively hidden gem whose cold Soviet exterior gives way to a warm heart.
Three Moscow Insiders Unveil Their Go-To Spots
“Fifth Avenue at the design center Artplay is my idea of interior heaven. Go here to find fabrics and furnishings, curtains and cornices, lighting and bed linens, all by a host of leading American and European manufacturers, from Loro Piana and Holland & Sherry to Fine Art Lamps and Roberto Cavalli. Le Form is another favorite, offering a great mix of well-known and leading-edge fashion and homewares brands. The free popcorn makes Kinoteatr Pioner a winter treat (the brand has two open-air summer cinemas in Gorky and Sokolniki Parks). There’s nice ambience and the choice of films is always interesting.”
“The Viktor Vasnetsov House Museum (now part of the Tretyakov Gallery) is a fairy-tale home, with over 24,000 exhibits that include household items and works of art by the great 19th-century painter. I always discover a new gem among the abundance of precious stones at the Diamond Fund in the Kremlin Armoury: the history behind them is fascinating, and diamonds are always in fashion.”
“I don’t go out as much since I started cooking, but Cutfishon Patriki is one of the best places for Japanese, while Bjorn, on Pyatnitskaya, offers slick service and an imaginative New Nordic menu for vegetarians. My favorite bar on weekend nights is Leveldva, upstairs at Ugolek, for tasty food and dancing to electronic music.”