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Oct 31, 2005
Hotel National, Moscow - Forbes
National Hotel Facade

Moscow: The formidable Hotel National, within easy rifle range of Red Square, is one of the 20th century's great survivors. Now being run to five-star standards by Le Meridien Hotels and Resorts, this 1903 eclectic art nouveau jewel is reclaiming its czarist-era prominence as Moscow's most elegant hotel. • The Bolsheviks knew a good thing when they seized it, and their leaders promptly moved into the National in 1918, soon after gaining control of the country--Lenin grabbed room 107 for himself and his wife. Under Stalin, the hotel became a nest of spies, complete with eavesdropping devices in the rooms. (The head of the secret police, Nicolai Yezhov, once listened in as his unwitting wife got seduced by a prominent writer.) After the German army was repulsed from Moscow's suburbs during World War II, the hotel became an important gathering place for politicians and diplomats, including Stalin himself and Churchill.

In the postwar years, the National became a drab has-been under the indifferent management of the Soviets' Intourist monopoly. But then came perestroika and the new Russia, and by 1995 the old place was completely renovated. Meridien now has the National back at the top of its game.

Walk under the Stalinist smokestack landscape mural on the hotel's corner facade, pass the Lenin relief next to the front door and enter into a world that knows how to put dialectical materialism to practical use. A muted sense of luxury pervades the frosted-glass doorways, heel-clicking parquet floors, built-in statuary, potted palms, Victorian light fixtures and disconcertingly high ceilings. The whole place has more the air of a slightly batty aunt's country estate than a hotel in the center of Russia's busy metropolis.

The National prides itself on having an all-Russian staff, but most everyone's English seems fluent enough to report on your counterrevolutionary tendencies--though impeccable service is more the order of the day. Need an impossible ticket to the Bolshoi? A reservation at one of Moscow's trendy restaurants? To get your new Russian girlfriend past the doorman? Ni problema, sir.

The Presidential Suite was occupied by King Juan Carlos of Spain during my recent visit, so I stayed in a somewhat more dowdy room--an unfortunate remnant of the hotel's Intourist days. The room I was most interested in, Lenin's old pad, was around the corner with a brass plaque next to it. Although anyone can now stay there if they plunk down $1,200 a night (or take over the country), the National's staff was kind enough to let me have a peek.

Apart from the flat-screen TVs and antique Steinway upright piano, the room is set up much the way it would have been during Lenin's sojourn, with elegant Victorian furnishings and porcelain knickknacks. But the thing that most attracted my attention was the vintage telephone resting on the green felt desktop. Need to stage a purge? During Lenin's time, you just dialed next door to room 106, where "Iron Felix" Dzerzhinsky, the dreaded head of the Cheka, lived. Need a cocktail? Molotov was in room 133.

From the desk one can glance out the window to where a mummified Lenin now resides in his Red Square mausoleum. Given all the new amenities, one cannot help but suspect that he would still prefer the National.

--Finn-Olaf Jones

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