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The high crenelated walls of the Novodevichy Convent shut out the noise of the city. Sunlight glints on the golden onion domes of the Smolensky Cathedral, flowers and trees line the walkway between monastery buildings. Birds sing out. Nannies and grandmothers visit on the benches outside the cathedral, gently rocking large baby buggies. And church bells ring.

There is a feeling of tranquility here that has existed in Moscow since the early 16th century when the convent was established as a refuge and retreat for women of wealthy families.But if this is a place that seems timeless, it is also a place that reflects change. The church bells that ring may sound like church bells you would hear anyplace in the world, but they have a special sound here - a sound of freedom. Only since 1988 have church bells been allowed to ring again in the Soviet Union. And now they ring here at the convent, where church services are once again held in the cathedral, and at other "working" churches (the number of which is increasing all the time) around the country.

It is a small but visible sign of the changes that are taking place inside the Soviet Union these days.

There are many problems still, and it will be a long time before the "Bright Future" promised by Gorbachev and other leaders in fact arrives. But the breezes are blowing, and whatever the winds of the future bring, one thing is certain - this is an historic time in the Soviet Union's history, and a fascinating time to take a look.

With a population of 280 million, the Soviet Union claims a third of the world's people. And with a third of the country in Europe and two-thirds in Asia, it also boasts one-sixth of the world's land mass. A hundred different nationalities and ethnic groups live within the borders.

Although Russia and Soviet Union are often used as interchangeable terms, they are not. Russia is one of 15 republics that make up the union. But it is the largest and most important of the republics, a definitiverepository of culture, tradition and history and is certainly the most accessible to visitors.

There are a number of places worth note in the Russian republic: Novgorod, which boasts the oldest church in the country, St. Sophia's built in 1055; Tver, which nestles on the banks of the Volga River, the longest river in Europe. Until last July, it was known by its Communist-imposed name, Kallinin, but last summer the city was allowed to go back to its original name - another sign of change. Leningrad, which may soon revert to its pre-Communist St. Petersburg title, is a very European window on the West, nestled in the Baltic region of the country.

But without question, the heart of Russia is Moscow.Moscow is the city of onion domes. From the multicolored, multishaped domes of the famous St. Basil's church, to the numerous gold-plated domes of the Kremlin churches, to the other domes on other buildings around the city, this is the shape that seems to characterize Russia more than any other.

Moscow, which is the capital of both the USSR and the Russian Republic, is also the seat of the Central Committee of the Communist Party and the citadel of Soviet Power. It lies on the banks of Moskva River, in the central zone of the great Russian Plain.

The city is mapped out like a target, in great concentric circles surrounding the bull's-eye, the Kremlin.

This gem of Russian culture stands on Borovitsky Hill at the river's edge. Following a long historical tradition, the Kremlin today is the base of Soviet government, but at the same time it is a major museum that spans eight centuries of culture.

This was once the fortress that was home to the tsars. The Grand Kremlin Palace, the Armory and the bell tower of Ivan the Great now house treasures from those past eras. The Armory, particularly, boasts of a rich collection of gifts given to past Russian rulers, clothing and jewels once worn by them, whimsies, indulgences and playthings - including the spectacular collection of Faberge eggs - that speak of enormous wealth among the ruling class.

Also inside the Kremlin walls are glorious churches - the Cathedral of the Assumption, the Cathedral of the Annunciation, the Church of the Deposition of the Robe of Our Lady - preserved as museums, but a telling reminder that once Moscow was considered the "third Rome," so great was its defense of the faith.

Next to the Kremlin is Red Square, its cobblestone expanse large enough for all the sightseers, strollers, pilgrims and even a few demonstrators that make their way here.

Along one side of the square, lines of people wait patiently to be admitted to Lenin's Tomb. Across the way is GUM, the world's largest department store. Its colorful interior and glass-roofed ceiling resemble an overgrown Victorian greenhouse as much as a shopping center.

And at one end of the Square is famed St. Basil's, some say the most photographed building in the world. Certainly it is one of the world's truly unique buildings, its eight unmatched onion domes a-sparkle with riotous color that give it a fantasy flavor. Legend says that Ivan the Terrible, for whom the edifice was built, ordered the architects beheaded - or at least blinded - so they could never duplicate their efforts.

You can climb to the top inside the Cathedral, although the interior is something of an anticlimax after viewing the exterior. Still you get a nice view of the Square. St. Basil's is also a wonder at night, when floodlights cast an ethereal glow.

Few cities would rank their underground railways as a cultural highlight, but this is another not-to-be missed attraction in Moscow. Station terminals are filled with heroic statues, mosaics, paintings, carvings, stained glass and crystal chandeliers.

Scattered throughout the city are other points of interest: a few of the gingerbread monstrosities built by Stalin; a few other nameless, shapeless buildings built by Breshnev during what is now called the "Time of Stagnation"; the headquarters of the KGB; the home of the Bolshoi Ballet; the extensive Olympic Park; the impressive Exhibition Center, which houses the Russian equivalent of the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum; the strikingly graceful Space Monument; even the new McDonald's Restaurant (where the waiting time to get in is about three hours). Together they create a city with distinct personality all its own.Moscow has a culture and flavor that is uniquely Russian, something that comes from centuries of isolation and mistrust of the outside world. And if history has taken some quirky turns here, that is at least part of the reason. There was no Renaissance here, no Reformation. And Revolution, when it came, merely exchanged one type of oppression for another.

Now as Russia looks to the future, how much change will be possible, how soon it will come remain to be seen. But it will be done the Russian way - and the Russians have always been people of extremes. That, as much as anything, may be the message that a visit to Russia brings home.

- Carma Wadley visited the Soviet Union courtesy Globus-Gateway and Pan American Airways.