Moscow, once the capital of the "evil empire," has changed more radically in the last half decade than over the previous half century. Once-empty shops have become expensive restaurants, designer boutiques and 24-hour convenience stores. The nightlife, which used to be restricted to cheesy singers at bad restaurants, has exploded into one of the most vibrant and decadent party scenes in Europe. Young Muscovite women read the Russian-language Cosmopolitan, dress in Benetton, rollerblade on weekends and order goat-cheese-and-basil pizza by phone. The clientele at the city's stylish restaurants wouldn't look out of place at the Ivy or Spago, and mobile phones are commonplace.
The politically ambitious mayor, Yury Luzhkov, has transformed the centre of the city by rebuilding the magnificent Christ the Saviour Cathedral and constructing a huge, three-story-deep shopping mall under Manezh Square, next to the Kremlin. The crime wave of the early '90's has tapered off - the notorious mafia have become more subtle in their dress and business methods. The ruble has stabilised after the runaway inflation of 1992-94. Moscow is acquiring all the attributes of a Western European city at breakneck speed - but all interpreted with an unmistakably Russian panache.
Moscow is the biggest city in the biggest country in the world. Its heart and soul, as well as its geographic centre, is the Kremlin, a triangular, walled citadel on the Moscow River bordered by Red Square and Alexander Gardens. Red Square is inseparable from the Kremlin as part of the historic and spiritual centre of Moscow. Its name has nothing to do with communism but comes from the old Russian word for "beautiful".
Surrounding Red Square are such attractions as the Historical Museum, GUM (Russia's biggest department store), the rebuilt Christ the Saviour Cathedral and reconstructed Resurrection Gates, St Basil's Cathedral and the Lenin Mausoleum (with Lenin still there, but destined to be buried in St Petersburg sometime in the future).
The Kremlin is circled by three ring roads. The first is the Boulevard Ring, only 1.2 mi/2 km from the Kremlin - a circle of leafy boulevards lined with 18th and 18th century buildings. It's charming, dilapidated and a traffic nightmare during business hours. The ironically named Garden Ring, slightly farther from the Kremlin, is in fact an eight-lane, traffic-choked highway lined mainly with massive Stalinesque administrative buildings and apartment blocks. It roughly marks the boundary of pre-Stalinist Moscow - all the buildings outside it date from his rule or after.
The outer ring road is the boundary of the city of Moscow, although in a few places high-rise apartment buildings spill out into the surrounding farmland and forest. Major arterial roads radiate from the Kremlin to this outer ring road and then become highways to all the cities of Russia. In the countryside around the city are little settlements of holiday cottages, or dachas, where Moscovites retire to escape the dirt and heat of Moscow in high summer and to plant their potato crops for next winter.