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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
‘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.
Ilya, who remember the shortcomings of the USSR and have flourished since its
break-up, are discovering a fondness for the vanished land of their childhood.
The revelation can come in surprising ways; Ilya had his epiphany at a car show
where he saw an old Soviet truck, a GAZ-51, next to a sleek Mercedes 300SL and
realised that the lumpy old truck was, to his eyes, more beautiful. ‘I worked
at a collective farm in my first vacation from college – this was September
1986,’ he recounts. ‘My classmates and I helped to harvest potatoes, and we
were driven to and from the fields in a GAZ-51. It was a really special time in
my life and I formed a close bond with those guys. There were girls, and
singing and drinking. That truck was a part of my life. The Mercedes I had only
seen in the cinema. It was the one I always wanted to have. But in fact it
doesn’t mean anything to me.’
organises vintage car shows. He’s noticed a new interest in artefacts of the
Soviet past like the Volga, the Zhiguli and the Zil – the luxury car choice of
apparatchiks. In the years of Perestroika and following the collapse, Russians
carried a pronounced sense of inferiority about themselves: a sense that
foreign stuff was the best. Progress meant Coca-Cola, McDonald’s and Mercedes.
However, in Moscow today, there’s a feeling that Russians have re-evaluated the
Soviet past and learned to feel a strange fondness for it.
opposite the Kremlin, was supposedly the country’s flagship store – the Harrods
of the Soviet Union. In fact, its shelves were usually lamentably bare. Now,
it’s a thriving shopping mall. Its colonnaded halls house every kind of
product, from designer boots to retro bicycles, and the food hall on the ground
floor is a vision of plenty: sushi rolled by hand, smoked sturgeon, rare teas
and olive oil.
displays, there are tributes to Soviet nostalgia: stacks of tinned Soviet
condensed milk, Zhiguli beer and iconic Soviet sweets. Bottles of Baikal and
Duchess – the Tizer and Fanta of Soviet childhoods – make a shameless pitch to
middle-aged Russians: ‘Experience the taste of your childhood. The pleasure of
drinks prepared according to original 1980s recipes from natural ingredients
and crystal-clear water will return you to your care-free childhood!’
restaurant floor, they’ve created a Soviet-era canteen – the kind that every
workplace ran for its employees. By an odd symmetry, I actually went to the
original GUM canteen 21 years ago – almost to the month – and had, if memory
serves, gristly, mystery meat cutlets on a pile of buckwheat, with a red fruit
drink to wash it down. Today, the propaganda posters on the walls are
tongue-in-cheek (‘Ladies, take care of your diet!’; ‘Ask for a sausage
everywhere!’; ‘Fruit and veg will help you keep your edge!’) and the buffet is
a cornucopia of caviar, borscht, herring, smoked salmon, chocolate cake and
that brought about the final unravelling of the Soviet Union began in August
1991 with a botched coup. Hardline communists tried to stop President
Gorbachev’s reforms with a show of military strength, but only succeeded in
accelerating the final break-up.
‘I had a
job interview in the Kremlin that day,’ says Viktor Belyaev. He is in his 50s,
with strikingly mismatched eyes: one blue, one brown. ‘At 7.30 in the morning,
someone rang me and said there were tanks in the streets. I told them to stop
kidding and hung up. About half an hour later, I was woken up by my windows
shaking. I looked out and saw tanks on Leninsky Prospekt, tearing up the
asphalt with their tracks.’
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.
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.’
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
words find an unwitting echo just a few hundred yards away. Tamara Dzalaeva is
sitting on the riverside balcony of Bar Strelka, wearing Dior glasses and
drinking a cocktail with a slice of pineapple. ‘We didn’t come from nowhere,’
she explains to me. ‘We were too impressed by America. Now we understand that
we have a different history. We are different even in our subconscious.’
is part of the huge brick-built structure that, until four years ago, housed
Red October – the Soviet Union’s iconic confectionery factory whose winged
design still appears on sweets and chocolate boxes. In 2007, its production
shifted elsewhere and the buildings were taken over by a media institute as
well as small businesses, bars and restaurants. Some lamented the closure, but
its redevelopment now seems inspired.
On a warm
Friday evening, the factory’s bars, where sweets were once made for the Red
Army, are open for play, and its visitors span the whole range of young Russia:
low-key professionals at Strelka, the arty and urbane at Art Akademiya, the
louche and bohemian at Gypsy and the super-rich at Rai (meaning ‘heaven’) –
which, with its ridiculous gold sequinned entrance, already looks a bit passé.
Muscovites such as Vika, Ilya and Tamara are too young for nostalgia, but they
are curious and smart enough to know that the past shapes the present. The USSR
continues, like a dead star, to exert an influence – its wealth, people and
ideas still a force in the world. And in Moscow, its architectural legacy is
the stage where young citizens are making their lives.
The article 'Remnants of Russia’s past' was published in partnership with Lonely Planet Magazine.