London’s unexpected Russian colours

Catherine Pushnaya 19 November 2021

Almost every visit to a foreign city is a cultural shock – the confusion of New York, the tidiness of everything Austrian, the endless siesta of Italy. Yet when I came to London, the cultural shock was absent. Why? Because London and my home city, Moscow, are incredibly similar.

Given entrenched diplomatic tensions between Britain and Russia, it might seem insane that London could be a cousin to something so alien and Eastern, still scarred by the influence of the Soviet regime. Yet the uncanny resemblance I see goes beyond the obvious similarity of big cities, commercial centres and places where students from the best universities of each country aspire to live. Yes, I am looking at you, Cambs. You’d much rather be in London than Coventry or O*ford after you graduate.

The first obvious link is the tube. While the subway of New York is a labyrinth of dark halls and filthy tracks, both London and Moscow present more inviting systems with similar ambiences. White walls, the smell of creosote – the only real differences to my eyes are that in Russia the trains are more box-like, and in London the architectural complexity is replaced by posters for the latest musicals. Unlike London’s, the Moscow tube can be converted into a nuclear bunker.

Another similarity is culture. It is not a coincidence that Russian oligarchs comprise a significant portion of those interested in purchasing London properties; the cultural life of the two metropolises is one and the same. It starts at the abundance of street food and theatre life, and then rolls over into the exclusive, hard-to-get-into clubs.

Like London, Moscow is a city where everyone comes in search of professional – and especially financial – success, and those who achieve it are keen on showing it off. Hence the incredible amount of shopping: Arbat is much like Bond street, with chocolate shops replaced by souvenir stalls, and the Kremlin is quite the analogue of Buckingham palace. You say Camden, I say Patriarch Ponds – where the infamous Berlioz meets Woland, now you can find countless artisanal shops and little clothing brands. When I visited Brasserie of Light in London, it was so strikingly Moscow-ish – blindingly light, with bathrooms of gold; and while I am not at all a fan of explicit luxury, it felt, weirdly, just as willing to show off as Moscow in its eastern dreaminess.

A Cambridge graduate would fit in a Russian society. Among the oligarchs, there is a major trend of sending children to study in Cambridge, or in England in general. Given that there are almost zero grants for Russians to study in Cambridge, and that Russian education is free, by virtue of selection almost every Russian one meets in this university comes from a wealthy family. I am one of the few exceptions. Perhaps Cambridge’s unexpected affiliation with the Russians is a continuation of the espionage tradition set by King’s College?

If you wanted to see something British in Moscow, you would not need to search very thoroughly. Some restaurants in Moscow City, such as Birds, offer quintessentially the same high-rise experience as dining at the Gherkin, though at a more affordable price. Pies can be found at the cat café Nicolai, and the niche, cozy restaurant Apartment 44 serves a lot of British-themed food in a quaint and vintage setting. The prices in central Moscow can rise as high as 80 pounds for two people; in Nicolai and Apartment 44, it could be between 4 to 8 pounds for the same.

If, however, you wanted to try something completely Russian, I would recommend café Varenichnaya No. 1 – a Soviet-chic joint; or Cafe Pushkin which was created after Gilbert Becaud invented it for a song. Given Russia’s access to sea, Moscow has good access to seafood – the restaurant called Crab & Wine is perhaps the best place to try a confusing number of different crab species. Book the tickets to the Bolshoi theatre in advance.

What would be rather hard to find in Moscow is afternoon tea – that marvellous tradition seems to be rooted the British Isles. Assuming we do not want to get too far from the places that serve it, there are tinges of Russian culture to be experienced in London or Cambridge, too. If you fancy a taste of Russia, consider Babushka Deli (operating online) – it is always a good way to surprise your Russian friend or yourself, albeit at elevated prices due to import fees. I recommend trying the Mishka chocolates. There are some restaurants in London specialising in Russian cuisine, like Zima restaurant (Zima means winter). Borsch and pies!

Last, but not least, in both London and Moscow the weather is awful. For me, Britain feels like home without snow, and I find it hard to survive without my Russian fur cap. There is one major thing that Russia has and that the UK is missing, owing to its lack of Siberian winters: proper building insulation. All in all, the weird and distant cousin of London is much closer than you might have thought.