Eva Collins : Photographs and Writing

Words

Rouble rousers

October 27, 2007

Consumerism has replaced communism in Russia's capital, writes Eva Collins.
As a child in Poland, I dreamed of sitting on Stalin's knee watching the May parade roll past in Moscow's Red Square.
Now, as an adult, I approach the square with a sense of trepidation and excitement.
The square is much smaller than I imagined and the entrance through which the tanks once rolled now has a restored arched gateway, too small for a broad military procession.
In order to widen access to the square, Stalin had the gate and the nearby chapel demolished. Since the fall of communism in 1991, the gate and many other churches have been beautifully restored or rebuilt.
Surprisingly, there are few remnants of communist rule in central Moscow. Before the fall of communism, foreign tourists were accompanied by state Intourist guides who were instructed not to discuss politics or civil rights. Hotel rooms were bugged by the KGB, the government had unrestricted power, churches were closed down or used as storehouses and the media was totally controlled. The city looked drab, the people unhappy and the queues outside the near-empty food stores were a mile long.
These days, the streets are lined with glistening golden church domes, beautifully restored baroque, art deco and art nouveau buildings and exclusive boutiques and shopping arcades. Here you can buy designer-label clothes and accessories from Prada, Armani, Burberry and Louis Vuitton, as well as Cartier and Tiffany jewellery, Lalique crystal and furs.
Trendy bars, cafes and superbly stocked delicatessens dot the streets with price tags similar to those in Australia, although most salaries are well below ours. There are many millionaires, however, to support this luxury retail industry. Moscow, one of the largest cities in the world with a population of 15 million, is said to be home to more billionaires than any other city.
Outside the elegant shops, hotels and restaurants, the eyes of ubiquitous black-clad men, wired to mobiles, scan the streets.
Some buildings have kept their plaques with carved faces of Lenin. The proletarian Lower House (the Duma) and the metro stations have friezes with hammer and sickle emblems and the Kremlin towers are topped by bright red stars but these are few and far between. Most of the propaganda statues and sculptures have been removed from view and placed in a park, just outside the world famous New Tretyakov Gallery.
Behind Lenin's mausoleum, there is a row of busts of communist leaders who died while in office. Their eyes stare blankly past the onlookers, except for the eyes of Stalin which are averted and look sideways. Even in death, it seems, he can't look people in the eye.
I ask a middle-aged tourist guide how she feels about the oppression her former government inflicted on neighbouring countries.
"Terrible," she says, "but the Soviets were even worse to their own people."
A distinguished businessman chips in.
"That's in the past now. What about the French? Do people ask them if they feel guilty about the wars Napoleon waged?"
I chat with teenagers playing guitar and rolling cigarettes beneath the looming statue of Karl Marx. Their friends with pierced eyebrows skateboard on the footpath while some punks from Minsk fidget restlessly.
How much do they know about the ideals and excesses of communism?
"Not much," they say. "All that happened last century. It's ancient history now."
It's still recent history for their parents' generation. For some, especially those with business acumen, the fall of communism opened the gates to freedom of expression and movement and financial advancement.
For others, however, life without the old social benefits is hard to bear. Along the main thoroughfares, sad old women stand propped against city buildings with their hands held out. Some try to sell a few lengths of shoes laces, a box of nails or a bunch of flowers but they go largely unnoticed.
Among them are the war casualties.
Walking along the busy Tverskaya Street, I see a seated soldier with two metal legs protruding.
"Afghanistan?" I ask.
"Nyet," he replies. "Chechnya."
On Sundays, the mall outside the Kremlin's Red Square bustles with strollers, street performers and souvenir stalls. Bridal couples lay flowers on the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier before having their pictures taken. Owners of chained monkeys, falcons and bears beckon people to be photographed with them.
I walk past a seated man weighed down with medals. I could swear it's Brezhnev but isn't he long dead? Thinking about it, I bump into Stalin.
"Photo?" he asks and produces a list of fees.
Maybe I'll get to sit on his knee after all.
I attempt to bargain down the 200 rouble fee but he is called away on his mobile. Lenin is cheaper, so I have a photo taken with him. Stalin returns angry at the loss of his anticipated income and starts an argument. A passer-by intervenes and separates the two rivals. I take the opportunity to defect to a nearby French patisserie.
Despite the existence of the mafia and street crime, Moscow throbs with life. Even at night, smartly dressed women walk freely and with confidence. I find the people easy to engage in conversation and happy to have their photos taken.
There are seven iconic Soviet gothic-style buildings built by Stalin in Moscow. They are massive skyscrapers, stepped like wedding cakes, with dark Kafkaesque windows looking down on the people below. One of them, appropriately, houses the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. It is a powerful, menacing, brutalist piece of architecture, better than anything you'd get from the set of Gotham City.
In contrast to these austere and much-maligned buildings, the Metro is considered to be Stalin's architectural masterpiece and is one of the world's most heavily used metro systems. Through it, Stalin perhaps wanted his people to experience opulence, something that was only available to the bourgeoisie before the revolution.
Many stations resemble ornate ballrooms. Bronze sculptures, ceiling mosaics, stained glass, murals, marble and even chandeliers adorn this palatial underground network.
The art deco hall at Mayakovskaya Station was awarded the grand prize at the 1938 New York World Fair.
Another landmark that should not be missed is the controversial, 20-storey high Peter the Great statue that stands in the middle of the Moscow River, not far from Gorky Park. It has a commanding presence, particularly when seen from a distance, and is a watchful sentinel over the surrounding streets.
It reminds us that Russia was once a very powerful nation and is likely to become one yet again.
FAST FACTS
Two alphabets of advice
When travelling to Russia, it's wise to bring a small card of the Cyrillic alphabet with the equivalent Roman script. On the streets and metro stations, there is very little written in English and even the McDonald's and Baskin-Robbins signs are in Russian.
Always carry a photocopy of your passport, as the Russian police are known to stop locals and tourists for identity checks.
Getting there
Moscow has two main airports, Domodedovo (DME) and Sheremetyevo (SVO). Both are a long way from the city and the traffic is horrendous.
KLM fares start at $1250, Lufthansa $1633, Austrian Airlines $1762, Thai Airways $1348, Japan Airlines $1375, Emirates $1975 plus tax.
Fares are low season from Melbourne and Sydney and do not include tax (about $600 but much less with Emirates).
If you use a European carrier, it is possible to fly into Moscow and out of St Petersburg. There is an overnight train between the cities for about EUR107 ($172) for a four-berth sleeper.
Australian passport holders require a visa for Russia.
This story can also be found at: http://www.smh.com.au/articles/2007/10/25/1192941216576.html