Spies, Secrets & Sophia Loren | The Inside Story of Moscow’s Most Famous Hotel
For the latest instalment of 'If These Walls Could Talk' we look at the history of the legendary Hotel Ukraina in Moscow
Our If These Walls Could Talk series takes a look at the legendary stories behind some of the world’s most famous luxury hotels. With everyone’s eyes on Russia as the World Cup reaches its closing stages, we look at one of Moscow’s best hotels, the historic Radisson Royal Ukraina.
Hotel Ukraina: The Legend
Sometimes it’s the little things in a hotel that make all the difference. In the case of the Hotel Ukraina – set in one of the cathedral-like Stalinist ‘Seven Sisters’ skyscrapers that have dominated Moscow’s urban landscape since the 1950s – it took the fall of an empire and the collapse of an ideology to really transform the guest experience.
When Moscow was gearing up to host its last major international sporting event, the 1980 Olympic Games, the reviews of the showpiece hotel from foreign journalists were less than glowing. “To paraphrase the recruiting slogan of the U.S. Navy: This is not just an accommodation, it’s an adventure,” the Washington Post warned.
“In 1980 the Washington Post wrote: ‘This is not just an accommodation, it’s an adventure'”
The lifts in the 34-storey building, topped by a Soviet star and once the tallest hotel in the world, came in for special scrutiny. “The lobby of the Ukraina has been likened to Grand Central Station without the trains. It is cavernous, austere and rather forbidding, an ambiance immediately reinforced by the elevators which one American guest dubbed Jaws 3’.” If you’re in a hurry, the paper said, it might be better to take the stairs.
But as Moscow winds down from the FIFA World Cup this summer, the five-star Ukraina – now also known as the Radisson Royal in a bid to attract foreign guests who might have been put off by its original Slavic moniker – can compete with luxury hotels around the globe.
No more juddering, shuddering shark lifts. Following a refurbishment starting in 2007 that saw a complete transformation of the landmark’s interior, birch wood-panelled elevators glide upwards from the lobby to the hotel’s 535 rooms. While journalists in town in the run up to the Olympics complained about having to order two main courses from the single restaurant to sate their appetites, delegations for the football had 19 upscale dining options to choose from.
Which isn’t to say all traces of the building’s Soviet past have been wiped away. Many have been preserved and in some cases restored. “We’re still representing the Soviet period but in a good sense, you know,” says Lvova Vlada of the hotel’s management. The entrance lobby now is opulent rather than austere, but it is still overlooked by the Socialist-realist plafond entitled “Labour and Harvest Day in hospitable Ukraine”.
Bronze statues with names like “Queen of the Fields” and “Mother” decorate the main hall and other public areas, while the hotel still has a collection of 1,256 Soviet-era paintings that were restored by experts from the Tretyakov gallery during the renovation. It’s a microcosm of modern Moscow, where Western luxury and relics of the USSR sit side by side: a Rolls Royce showroom off the lobby, beneath hammer and sickles carved into the building’s exterior.
And there are other mementoes from the hotel’s Soviet past. “We still have the employees who were working in Ukraina and were working here already for 40 years,” says Vlada. “There are some guests who came to Ukraina and still come back now. Like Sophia Loren, she was here two months ago, she was fabulous.” Other guests before and after the collapse of the USSR include Francis Ford Coppola, Sean Bean, Ralph Fiennes and Audrey Tautou.
The hotel has also regularly hosted high-level diplomatic missions and presidents, such as China’s Xi Jinping last year. Its powerful clientele and location across the Moscow river from the Russian White House – another of Moscow’s best buildings – have made it a fixture of spy novels and spawned enduring rumours of bugged rooms.
“Its powerful clientele and location have made it a fixture of spy novels and spawned enduring rumours of bugged rooms.”
But Swiss-educated Vlada is quick to shut down any suggestion that, if these walls could talk, they might also be listening, too. “No, it’s against the law. Nowadays it’s impossible,” she says, but goes on to emphasise the hotel’s reputation for high security. “Our security department is the biggest department in the hotel… You can’t see them but they are everywhere.
There’s a story of one Soviet-era guest scouring his room for listening devices and noticing a panel under one of the carpets. After unscrewing it he hears a woman screaming on the floor below as the chandelier in her room comes crashing down. Nobody is quite sure who it happened to (or indeed if it happened at all) but the story is too good not to repeat.
Hotel Ukraina: The Location
Much like the Ukraina/Radisson Royal, Russia’s capital itself has been completely transformed in the last few decades and even the last few years. Visitors will find themselves with no shortage of things to see and do in Moscow and the city’s best restaurants have undergone something of a revolution in recent years.
To exactly how much Moscow has changed, go to the impressive maquette of the city in the first floor of the building, which dates from 1977 and shows the area around Red Square as it was at the time. (The astronaut Neil Armstrong tried to buy the piece after it was displayed at an exhibition in New York; he was told, Vlada says, that “Moscow is not for sale”.)
Situated just across the river from the central Old and New Arbat streets, the hotel is ideally located for exploring the Russian capital. Walk down the Old Arbat towards the life-size Red Square before crossing the Moskva river again to explore Bolotny Island’s Red October chocolate factory, which has been is home to one of Moscow’s best bars, as well as restaurants and exhibition spaces. From there you can go on to Gorky Park, one of the city’s best public spaces with a huge ice rink in winter, or fun outdoor bars in summer.
While Russia is more isolated than almost ever before, Moscow as a city is increasingly open and easy to navigate. Tourists in town for the World Cup this summer reported a warm welcome and the national team’s better-than-expected performance in the tournament prompted rare, spontaneous outpourings of joy from the locals. In a city where smiles are rarely exchanged on the street, on match nights strangers were embracing each other. Perhaps some of it will last.
Hotel Ukraina: The Lowdown
Rooms as the Radisson go from around 12,000 rubles (£145) up to 250,000 rubles (£3,036) for a luxury suite that has just been redesigned in collaboration with Mercedes Benz. There are a number of drinking and dining options on site, including the Mercedes bar at the top, which offers panoramic views of Moscow. If you’re thinking of proposing during a trip to Russia, there’s also the “Romantic” restaurant under the spire of the building – it only seats two and you’ll get a specially designed menu for 80,000 rubles (£970).
The hotel also has nine yachts which offer river-cruise tours in the summer and even the Russian winter, as they come equipped with icebreakers. You can eat on some of them.
The Ukraina/Radisson is easy to get to from all of Moscow’s major airports. The aeroexpress from Vnukovo goes direct to Kievskiy station, which is in walking distance from the hotel, but if there’s more than one of you (or if you’re coming from Sheremetyevo or Domodedovo) it’s cheaper and more convenient to take an Uber or its local equivalent, Yandex.
Theo Merz is a British journalist based in Moscow. Keep up with him on Twitter.