Remnants of Russia’s past
In front of the Central Pavilion of Moscow’s All-Russia Exhibition Centre sits a statue of Lenin. (Pete Seaward)
It’s a blazing hot August day in Moscow. At street-level, Muscovites are strolling around in shorts, linen slacks and minimal summer frocks. Yet in a gloomy netherworld beneath their sandals and stiletto heels, the temperature is a constant 18°C and the subterranean silence is punctuated by the drip of water. ‘Mind your feet,’ says Olga Arkharova, as she steps over an underground stream.
Here, some 65 metres below the sundrenched streets of Moscow, lies a disused communications bunker. Like some Cold War bat cave, it was accessible only by a reinforced lift shaft concealed within the false front of a seemingly ordinary building. Its workers, who were sworn to secrecy, could have survived down here for three months in the event of a nuclear attack. Since 2007, the 7,000-sq-metre site has been a museum. ‘This isn’t just part of Russian history,’ says Olga, the museum’s director. ‘It’s part of world history. It shows how close we came to nuclear war.’ The sound of a passing Metro train rumbles through the bunker’s walls.
Above ground, Moscow has changed almost beyond recognition, but in Bunker 42, there is still the fleeting scent of another era. The rotary phones are clunky, the lifts and stencilled warning signs have a slipshod look. Here it is: the militarism, the sturdiness, the kitsch, the strangely uniform aesthetic that shaped a continent. Here, at least, remnants of the USSR are intact.
A generation is coming of age that has no recollection of the Soviet Union: its menace, its inefficiencies, its idealism. And yet the USSR was, inarguably, one of the defining entities of the 20th century.
The strange red empire that slipped away 20 years ago this Christmas had, among other things, its own smell. Cheap, cardboard-tipped Soviet cigarettes called ‘papirosa’ perfumed the arrivals halls of Moscow’s airports and were ubiquitous throughout the city. Now, like much else about the USSR, they have disappeared.
Moscow today is many things – an oil and gas boom town, a traffic nightmare, a centre of art and fashion – but it’s also an unintended memorial to the USSR. Each phase of the Soviet Union’s history is preserved in the city’s architecture: experiments in Modernist design in the early years of the Russian Revolution, the imperial monuments of the Stalin years, drab tower blocks from the years of stagnation. To visit is to encounter the story of this vanished country.
Among Moscow’s most eye-catching structures are those commissioned by Stalin himself. His legacy to the city includes the astonishingly ornate stations of the Moscow Metro and the seven skyscrapers – the ‘Seven Sisters’ – that surround the city in a loose ring, a startling assemblage of columns and gothic detail. There’s something eerie about Stalin’s skyscrapers – their power and grandeur seems to carry an implied threat. This is the architecture of conquest.
Two of the Seven Sisters are hotels: the Ukraina and the Leningradskaya. Some 21 years ago, I stayed in the Leningradskaya while writing a guidebook to a country that, unknown to me, was on the brink of dissolution. Like the USSR itself, the hotel was both grand and shoddy: its old lifts clanked alarmingly as they ascended to the upper floors, the onceopulent interior had gone to seed and Colonel Gaddafi’s The Green Book was on sale in the lobby’s book shop. In the gloomy restaurant where the waiters openly demanded bribes, Russians danced the lambada to the melancholy strains of Llorando se Fue – which, played on a synthesizer, seemed to echo in every function room in the Soviet Union.
Now, a brand-new lift whisks you up to your floor. The Soviet curtains, shabby rugs and dodgy water supply are all gone, replaced by a uniform efficiency and abundance. Looking out over the trafficchoked streets of the city, I surprise myself with a feeling of nostalgia for a time that was clearly inferior to the present.
‘We have a saying about the past: “The old days were better, the girls were younger then”,’ says Ilya Sorokin. He’s 43 and has a peaked captain’s hat perched raffishly on his shaven head. In the luxury car showroom where we meet, four Soviet cars are attracting knowing smiles and recollections from Muscovites who have learned to aspire to better things.