Thursday, July 16, 2009

Brezhnev's Eyes Of Stone

How many times in my sorrowful separation,

In my wandering fate,

Have I thought of you, O Moscow!

Pushkin probably noticed it when he came back after a long time away too. The fact is, Moscow, like most of us, has gotten a little more orderly as the years pass. The last time HDEO spent a night in the stolitsa, and had time for a good stomp around was five years ago when Russiana was kinda cool, Ta-tu were shocking and life was gas gas gas.

It’s all a bit cookie cutter now, the wild east. Yes, you can see flathead no-neck gangsters tooling around in their 200,000 buck cars (we are driving on the ring road as I type and a blood-red Jaguar Cabriolet just growled past). You can check out the booty (in both senses of the word) in Gum, that Palace to consumerism that nuzzles Red Square, and you can chug James Bond Martinis and dance to the best NY club sounds next to chillingly bored androgynous teenage billionares glued to their iphones. But it’s all too passé.

The centre of Moscow is almost neat. It no longer terrifies, or awes. Yes, it’s massive, and snarled up with the worst jams this side of Bangkok. People are rattled of course, by the sudden shrivelling of the power of their Rouble. But the arrogance that made Moscow so cool, so tragically hip, has gone. If you find a few grams of it, it’s not the pure sort that fuelled the boom.

Around the huge new suburbs – shiny with happy high-rises - mega malls dominate. DISKONT SENTR. MEDIA MARKT. EVRO PARK. KROKUS EKSPO. And IKEA IKEA IKEA everywhere. People seem world-weary, shuffling, tired.

So where to go to get inspired, to feel the fine butterfly flutter of that first bump onto the tarmac in Sheremetevyo? Where to go where Moscow feels awesome, terrifying, the heart of the Imperium? Avoid Red Square which feels like a theme park with its myriad Lenin lookalikes, Cossacks with ipods, and the Onion domes a-weeping. Don’t bother with the Bolshoi, clad in chipboard with its gorgeous statues hidden from view.

Head Down into the metro, and Eyes Open at the most amazing underground station in the world bar none. Hundreds of soviet realist statues of the proletariat chasing the communist dream throng Revolution Square station. They seem hewn into the stone arches, bending under the weight of the USSR.

Brandishing Kalashnikovs and sheaves of wheat, toiling with hammer and sickle and pneumatic drill, poring over books, singing, reciting, operating machinery and on people. You can spend half an hour walking underground between Ploshchad Revolutsii, Teatralna and Okhotni Ryad and the architecture, designed to move the masses (again in both senses of the verb), is beautiful and stunning (but do spare a thought for those who perished during its construction).

And if you have time for nothing else, the best way to travel back in time is to follow the Maskva, down to Gorky Park (had to slip in the Scorpions reference somewhere, didn’t I?). Cross over and veer to the right of the big white warehouse that is actually the New Tretyakov gallery.

Part with 20 roubles (try and look local – big mirror shades and/or grunting will do it – you’ll get in cheaper) and you’re in the sculpture garden. It’s a trip. Look, there’s the towering statue of Dzedzhinski, founder of the hated KGB, complete with the anti-communist graffiti it wore when the glasnost gangs ripped it, plinth and all, from outside the Lubyanka.

Who’s that? Stalin himself, set among dismembered heads in barbed wire cages, chillingly honouring those the dictator banished to the gulag. His marble nose is smashed, again from the toppling he took in those perestroika-charged times.

And most poignant of all, for a child of the 70s, when the Russian bogeyman, the Cold War chill, was personified by the man with those eyebrows, Leonid Brezhnev. His bust stands on a plinth, head-height, in a quiet corner.

Here’s where it becomes magic. Walk up to him, and stand in front of him. Closer. Go eyeball to eyeball. The weight of history is palpable. You’re looking into the stone eyes of Brezhnev, doing as he surely did when he approved the original monument. For a moment the trees scream, the sky spins and you feel yourself falling towards a terrible force.

Then you see its just a lump of stone. Cold, dead stone. No terror there, not any more. But you shudder, despite the summer heat.


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