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The New Face of Moscow

So it seems a little surreal to be drinking vintage wine with Pozner at the Pushkin or eating succulent rack of lamb at the French restaurant Le Duc, with its superb cheeses, extraordinary wine list, and vaulted ceilings that give the place the austere air of a cathedral.

Outside, the snow starts falling, huge flakes floating down on the frozen streets. Every city has its season; Moscow's is winter, when the snow is deep, the ice is black, and the temperature is often 20 below. Trees are gnarled with frost and hung with icicles. The 18th- and 19th-century palaces and houses and shops, renovated now, glisten under the snow like marzipan. The churches, often used as storage facilities during Soviet times, have also been richly restored and come in blood-red, jade, teal, royal blue, and pistachio; dusted with snow, their gold onion domes glitter against the black sky.

At midnight Pozner drives me back to my hotel, down Tverskaya Street, Moscow's main drag. On the left is Yeliseyev, once the city's grandest gourmet store, still ravishing with its stained-glass skylights, mahogany counters, and chandeliers. Just past it is Night Flight, the club where, it's said, you can find Moscow's most expensive hookers. Farther along is the Moscow Art Theater, founded by Konstantin Stanislavsky, who invented the Method acting style. In the new Moscow, students sometimes perform in English.

Moscow traffic is horrendous—no one observes the rules much, and people often drive up on the curb to get through. Pozner negotiates the snarl and leaves me at Le Royal Meridien National, a hotel in an ornate 1903 Art Nouveau building. Lenin once spoke from the balcony of the National's room 107. Though it has been modernized, its sinuous wrought-iron elevator screen and stair rails have been left intact, and it's the most evocative of all Moscow hotels. I stayed here on my first visit; the doorman then resembled Leonid Brezhnev in a cardigan. I told the woman at the front desk that it was my first time in Moscow and I wanted a view of Red Square. "Here you may want," she replied, "but here you may not necessarily get."

Now you get. If you have the dough, you can get anything. My $250-a-night room on the fourth floor has a view straight up a snow-clad street to Red Square and the Kremlin. St. Basil's, with the smoke cloud from a power plant behind it, looks like a rococo spaceship landed on a frozen planet. It is an extraordinary, outrageous, beautiful building. (Commissioned by Ivan the Terrible, St. Basil's was built between 1555 and 1561 by Postnik and Barma; according to legend, Ivan had them blinded afterward so they would never build another like it.) Look at it up close and it seems to be made of fish scales, mosaics, and jewels.

Red Square is still the heart of the city, of the country. All roads lead here, literally and figuratively, and it is one of those few great urban spaces—Manhattan's Central Park, the Venetian Lagoon, Place de la Concorde in Paris—that never disappoints. The Rolling Stones may have played Red Square, and on New Year's Eve it's packed with revelers, but Lenin's Tomb is still the square's main attraction. Vladimir Ilich Ulyanov, once the moving force of another Moscow, capital of the Soviet Union, lies shriveled in his box, weird, embalmed, the leftover icon of a vanished empire.


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