The "voice" on the website is authentic as it cheerfully introduces "Paul", politely using an anglicised version of his Russian name Pavel because he thinks it might be too difficult for us to learn. We meet him in the lobby of our hotel, the excellent Park Hyatt Ararat. He turns out to be a curly haired six foot bundle of fun who, as an economics graduate, knows his Russian history inside out. He is not at all shy about discussing frankly any aspect of life in modern post-soviet Russia. He has apparently uncensored access to the internet and a very sophisticated understanding of current geo-political realities. We ask him if he is at all wary of 'the authorities' and he laughs ironically. He still lowers his voice when other pedestrians pass close enough to hear our conversation. We are in Russia after all.
The fee for a half-day tour is embarrassingly small ($40 for four hours regardless of how many take part, $70 buys you the whole day). You pay additional (small) entrance fees at places like Lenin's mausoleum and if you don't buy Pavel's lunch you are just mean. We would like to adopt him.
So we strolled on Red Square, visited Lenin (it looks like a waxwork but you don't dare try to get close enough to tell), St Basil's, which is even more beautiful for real than in the photos, and the famous GUM department store on Red Square (which is neither red nor square).
Having spent all my formative years in the cold war era, walking across the Troitsky bridge and entering the Moscow Kremlin feels slightly surreal. There are a few guards in their long winter coats holding rifles but you only see them from a distance. I kept expecting to be stopped and taken for interrogation. Instead we had a very relaxed tour inside the Kremlin walls, where there are large numbers of cannon captured from Napoleon proudly displaying Moscow's unconquerability. The artwork inside the Cathedral of the Archangel is simply breathtaking, overwhelming. Unfortunately, no photography is allowed but our appreciation was greatly increased by Pavel's knowledge of the symbolism in medieval Russian Orthodox iconography.
Our visit to the Moscow Metro was too brief and one we will surely repeat in extended form when we return as we certainly will. We will take Pavel with us again because his knowledge of the artwork there is extraordinary. He will produce his iPad at various points to show you a black & white image of the mosaic or painting you're looking at to explain whose face has been replaced with good old uncle Joe. Or where Stalin used to be but is no more.
If you're visiting Moscow for the first time we recommend you book Pavel for a full day or at least two half-days. The longer you stay, the more you'll get out of it of course. We can't wait to go back.