Edit Blog Post
Published: September 21st 2008
A 'riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma...'. The 'Iron Curtain', the 'Russian Bear', the 'Great Game'... vivid images but what does all this mean today? And what can you learn of the famous Russian soul armed only with a few words of the language and a Trans-Siberian railway ticket? My expectations were low as I picked my way across the mini-potholes littering the platform at Belorusskaya Station. I did, however, have my own Russian Bear to help me through the culture shock and language barrier: negotiating potholes both literal and metaphorical. Vyachaslav, an aeronautical engineer, had come crashing into my sleeping car at Hanover. A high-flying scientist in the Cold War, he had been brought low by the botched reforms of Perestroika and the rise of the oligarchs. Now he survived on $200 a month in one of the most expensive cities in the world. And so he commuted every week to Hanover.
Vyachaslav steered me out of the station towards the money changers. Kiosks and food stalls lined the approach road to the station. Techno music blared; bottle-dyed blondes barked at bystanders. The atmosphere was an-almost Istanbul: a souk without the spices. Another reality check: money changing
was quick and easy, the exchange rate satisfactory. Why should I be surprised?
Sliiping away from Vyachaslev I headed down the long booming escalator: a round yellow tunnel in spectral moonlight. There was no advertising, although I noticed that little poster hooks had been mounted in the walls - the shape of consumerism to come. The Moscow metro is a thing to behold: huge cavernous booking halls, marble everywhere, heroic Soviet artwork and glittering chandeliers. All bathed in a yellow half light creating an uneasy undercurrent of suspicion, paranoia and mystery.
At platform level trains rattled constantly through the station - as the doors opened, hordes of people swarmed towards the exits in a tidal flood. In the carriage were tough-looking elderly women with pinched faces (what had they lived through?), a few soldiers in uniform, heaving men in leather jackets and an array of Asiatic features - migrants from the Stans.
In central Moscow I got out at Lubyanka - notorious prison and former KGB headquarters. Images of Stalin's purges, torture and the Gulag flashed through my mind. The Russian joke runs that Lubyanka was the tallest building in the world, since 'you could see Siberia
from its basement'. A ten minute walk and then St Basil's cathedral with its twisted onion domes in blue and white and green and gold. This was built by Ivan the Terrible, who was so overwhelmed by the church's beauty that he immediately had the architect blinded, so that his feat might never be repeated.
My room in the Hotel Rossya (slated for demolition) gave straight out onto St Basil's and the Kremlin, so I sat down with a few bottles of Baltika beer and just stared at the view for an hour - the best seats in the house. Then the beer took hold and I decided to explore the huge, brutalist monstrosity that was this hotel, with its four separate receptions and an infinity of bars, banks and barber shops. Commisoned under Kruschev and completed under Brezhnev, in many ways this had been the heart of the Cold War and Soviet imperial pretensions. I calculated over 3000 rooms, and it took me 16 minutes to walk the corridor round the building back to room 2614. It had been built to house the whole of the Soviet Parliament. The dimly-lit corridors retained an air of menace, with frequent
alcoves where a spy, or maybe an assassin - your assassin - might step out of the shadows. I noticed I was falling back into cultural cliche, where men in overcoats and tilted trilbies watch you over newspapers and beautiful double agents sidle up to you in cocktail bars.
Intourist also had an office in the Rossya, and the clerk sold me a ticket to the Bolshoi Ballet for $80. The performance was tonight, so I headed down into Red Square towards the Bolshoi. Passing Lenin's mausoleum, I ducked into the GUM store on the east side of Red Square to escape the rain. The GUM (State Department Store) would have once been a marvellous place for foreigners like me to pick up Russian champagne and caviar at bargain prices. Now it had become a temple to squalid Mammon with its designer brands, over-the-top cars and expensive mobile phone technology. Despite the beautiful architecture it was, quite simply, soulless. And it would have taken Vyachaslev's annual salary to buy one of their Vuitton handbags.
I soon found myself fending off a mugging attempt in Okhotny Road, which was hissing with traffic in the driving rain. The pavement was blocked by scaffolding, so I stepped out into the road to skirt a parked car. A man ran towards me with outstretched arms, growling. I ducked back to the other side of the car; he ducked too. Drawing on my stock of Cold War cliches, I opened my black umbrella and threatened him with the spike, and to my astonishment he retreated slightly, while I weaved across the six lanes of traffic and made my escape.
'We were mugged last night', said Yvonne, my box companion at the Bolshoi. She was from Holland, and in town for a political conference.
'I'm fascinated to see what's going to happen over the next couple of days - whether the Russians are going to say anything about the crime situation. And it's ironic, we're here to discuss the spread of democracy, but there's no evidence of any democracy at all!'
It seemed to me that Russians discussing democracy was akin to tigers debating the merits of vegetarianism, or sailors touting the joys of abstinence.
And then I remembered Vyachaslev roaring on the Ost-West Express: 'Putin?! We know nothing about him! He has no party! He has no programme! We need another Stalin!!'
'I think this place is going backwards' concluded Yvonne.
At that moment a fat man in a tight black suit entered the box behind me, and we fell silent. He scanned the audience thorougly, then sat down behind me, his heavy, wheezing breath playing across my neck. Down on the stage tonight's ballet - Le Tricorne - was in full flow. The beautiful miller's wife was repelling the advances of the repulsive mayor in his three-cornered hat. The miller arrived, matador-like, and the trio twirled and spun around the Picasso scenary like dervishes, while the breathing on my neck grew stronger and stronger. The last dance was 'La Gaite Parisienne' - set in a fin de siecle cafe in Paris. The scene was a Toulouse-Laitrec painting,but the action descended into a bar room brawl, with trays and punches flying while the chorus girls high-kicked a Can-Can.
Back on the street things were dank and dangerous once again, and I scurried down Vetoshny Pereulok - a side alley on the other side of the GUM. I was alone on the street, but I saw that blue and red lights were flashing at the end of the road, while people darted around parked vehicles. A policeman approached, carrying a heavy sack, which he dropped in the entrance to GUM. A man's head lolled out, and started groaning. I quickened my pace, skipped through the police tape and crowd barriers and picked my way past four fire engines, six ambulances and a score of machine gun-toting policemen. Noboby paid me the slightest attention.
Shivering, I ran through the underpass towards the Hotel Rossya, stopping at a kiosk to stock up on Baltika. I borrowed a bottle opener, but the old crone waved it away as a gift. This was as far away from La Gaite Parisienne as it was possible to be - a sodden, dark, dangerous Moscow night in unforgiving rain. And I had learned nothing of the Russian soul - although a mirror had been held up to my own.
(Footnote: The Hotel Rossya was finally closed in Decemeber 2005, and is currently a pile of rubble).
Tot: 0.461s; Tpl: 0.034s; cc: 11; qc: 31; dbt: 0.0601s; 1; m:saturn w:www (184.108.40.206); sld: 1;
; mem: 1.3mb