Twenty years after the fall of the Soviet Union, its epic history lives on in the buildings and monuments of Moscow, inspiring both awe and nostalgia.

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.

People like 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.’

Ilya now 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.

The GUM, 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.

Among the 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!’

On GUM’s 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 espresso.

The endgame 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.’

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.

Ilya’s 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.’

Bar Strelka 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.

Young 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.