Remnants of Russia’s past
Viktor had graduated top of his class in culinary school and worked in Praga, the most prestigious Soviet restaurant of its day, alongside octogenarian chefs who had once cooked for the Tsar. He was seconded to work at the Kremlin, where he was able to see first-hand the contradictions that undermined Soviet power. At his workplace, he prepared the finest foods for Soviet officials. ‘Apples, meat, fish, grapes, butter. The highest quality,’ he tells me. ‘I wish my children could taste them. Smoked salmon so tender you carved it by rubbing it with a blunt knife.’ Meanwhile, shortages of basic goods such as milk, soap and shoes were a daily frustration for ordinary citizens.
Viktor is now a much-garlanded chef with his own catering firm. Yet like many older Russians, for whom the communist notion of ‘new Soviet man’ was an ideal of citizenship and responsibility, he has complicated feelings about the changes he has lived through. ‘A man in a nice suit was lying out [in the street] recently. I asked “What’s happened?” and someone said “He’s drunk”. I went over to the man – I know first aid and he’d had a heart attack. I asked him how long he’d been there, and he said it had been a few hours. That wouldn’t have happened in Soviet times. Someone would have checked on him.’
Nothing better exemplifies the pathos and aspiration of the USS R than the All-Russia Exhibition Centre, known by its former Soviet acronym as VDNKh. This is a huge Stalin-era park to the north of the city where a series of pavilions and outdoor sculptures commemorate the 15 constituent republics of the USS R and their creative and technological achievements. Over its entrance stands Soviet sculptor Vera Mukhina’s enormous Worker and Kolkhoz Woman. Inside, a series of bizarre structures compete to outdo each other in monumentalism and outlandishness. At its farthest end is a full-size rocket of the kind that shot Soviet cosmonauts into space.
Today, the VDNKh is badly in need of a revamp. Its ornate pavilions are still strangely beautiful, but the park itself has grown ramshackle and is crowded with tacky fairground attractions. For no fathomable reason, the Pavilion of Belarus is hosting a sale of women’s clothing and there’s an exhibition of fur coats in the Electrification pavilion.
There’s a poignancy about the scene. Instead of reverent people paying homage to the national achievements, there’s a sense of decay. Russians cavorting on Segway PTs, rollerblades and bicycles are just a menace to pedestrians.
Yet elsewhere in the city, old and new Moscow find themselves in better harmony. Just across the Moscow River from the Kremlin stands the House on the Embankment. It’s not, in fact, a house at all, but a complex of more than 500 apartments built in 1928-1931 to house the senior members of the ruling Communist Party. It was designed by the architect Boris Iofan in a spare, Modernist style that today looks rather threatening.
Like the USSR itself, the building was an experiment in communal living: a self-sufficient urban village with its own shops and clubs and kindergarten. As revolutionary idealism gave way to tyranny, a third of the building’s inhabitants were arrested and at least 240 shot in the purges that followed Stalin’s rise to power.
A tiny museum located in one of these former apartments preserves some of the oppressive atmosphere of Russia in the 1930s, with dark wood, Turkish rugs, lace hangings, heavy furniture, uniforms and a radio gramophone.
Vika and Ilya are a Russian couple in their early twenties. They listen as a curator explains the bloody history of the house and how it became an emblem of the hopes and repression of the Revolution. I wonder what brings them to this place. Vika shrugs. ‘We were born in the USSR. It was our childhood,’ she says.