Relics of a revolution
The USSR may be gone but it's not forgotten. Amid the rapacious capitalism of modern Moscow, the signature of the Soviet era is everywhere, writes Keith Mundy.
Moscow is the Kremlin and Red Square, St Basil's Cathedral and the Bolshoi Ballet. Yes, don't miss them. But for anyone with a penchant for the weird, the wonderful and the woeful, or a fascination with the unique mixture of appalling abuses and extraordinary achievements that was the Soviet Union, Moscow has many other treasures.
The USSR revelled in monstrous monuments, stupendous statuary and ubiquitous hammer-and-sickle heraldry. The state was the only organ that was allowed to make public statements - no commercial advertising, no individual expression was permitted - and the commissars and apparatchiks did so with an abandon that only a potent cocktail of total power and bad taste could achieve.
The result was impressive and has survived the 'transformations' of the Boris Yeltsin and Vladimir Putin years. Moscow is still marked by countless vestiges of the USSR. Indeed, with special reference to the communist holiest of holies, Lenin's Tomb, Putin has said people's sensibilities must be respected; the wax-like body and its blood-red pyramid mausoleum on Red Square will remain.
But Lenin's Tomb - the first great communist monument - is a work of admirable restraint and minimalist refinement, built in the revolution's first years, when Russia had many of the world's finest modernist artists, designers, composers, filmmakers and so on. When Joseph Stalin took full power in 1929, the state let rip.
Socialist realism were the watchwords for artists - the only words, on pain of purge, exile or worse. And so, instead of the turbulent revolutionary styles of futurism and constructivism, the Soviet capital - like China later - was flooded with heroic figures of happy workers and joyous farmers plastered with hammers and sickles, covered with exhortations to struggle for the socialist nirvana.
Some things were easy to do. The main entrance to the Kremlin was Saviour's Gate, which had had a figure of Christ atop its 70-metre tall spire for centuries.
Down came Jesus, up went a red star. It's still there but now it looks more like a Christmas decoration than a communist declaration.
Some ideas, by contrast, were so megalomaniacal they were never finished. Stalin's permanent mark is all over Moscow in the form of ring roads and boulevards. But his favourite and most unmistakable scheme was the string of neo-Gothic skyscrapers raised at key points encircling the inner city and dubbed the Seven Sisters. The eighth and biggest, planned for the city centre, was never built.
Though some rivals are beginning to appear, these Rockefeller Centres of communist ambition still dominate the skyline, with the biggest standing on top of the Sparrow Hills, formerly the Lenin Hills, in the south. This is Moscow State University, fronted by a colonnade and with a 33km warren of corridors. The central block rises 36 storeys and is flanked by huge wings, capped by turrets, clocks, statues and crowns, and by a spire that tops out at 240 metres with a 12-tonne red star.
At the rear, the university looks out across a vast esplanade to a popular Moscow viewing point, where the land falls away steeply to the Moskva River. But what catches the eye first is a huge steel gantry that looks like a ski jump. Surely it can't be, not here in the city. It is.
Down below, across the river, is the Luzhniki Stadium complex, a focal point of the 1980 Moscow Olympics; the ski jump is the quickest way to get there, presumably. Chekhov once said about this spot: 'If you want to understand Russia, you must study Moscow from these hills ...' The Soviets might well have confounded him.
Moscow's widest and longest boulevard is Leninsky Prospekt, carved out by Stalin in the 1940s. At a major intersection, a grooved titanium column soars high above the speeding traffic with a titanium hunk standing on top, arms held out like booster rockets, heroically shooting into space without helmet or capsule. This is the Gagarin Monument, homage to the world's first spaceman and a vestige that seems valid. Yuri Gagarin was truly a hero, unlike many of the other figures around town.
But the creme de la creme of Soviet relics is an extravaganza identified by a choice of alphabet soups: GAO VVC stands for All-Russia Exhibition Centre (its new name) while VDNKh stands for the Exhibition of Achievements of the National Economy of the USSR (the old name; generally still preferred). Spread over many hectares, it used to be a showcase of the USSR. Glittering pavilions in Stalinist 'empire style' touted the achievements of the Soviet peoples and republics, displaying their best products in grand settings.
Post-USSR, in the super-capitalist 1990s, the VDNKh/GAO VVC swiftly degenerated into a shambolic shopping zone, but lately it has been spruced up into a pleasant public park - with super Soviet features. Entering via a triumphal archway topped by a bronze tractor driver and farm girl, you are greeted by a big gun-metal statue of Vladimir Lenin before you enter a wonderland of elaborate fountains suggesting agricultural fertility and surrounded by palaces of promotion. At the park's far end, a couple of old Aeroflot jets nestle below a Vostok space rocket poised as if lifting off. You can sit in the Tupolev 154's cockpit, pull on the throttle and fantasise about taking off, although everything is stuck rigid.
Truly stirring is the Memorial Museum of Cosmonautics, which faces the park gateway, near the colossal Hotel Cosmos. The museum has everything a cosmonaut could wish for: Sputniks, spacesuits, space capsules ... all moodily lit in a dark space that exerts an extraterrestrial magic.
Outside, on top, is the soaring Monument to the Conquerors of Space, celebrating the 1957 launch of Sputnik, the world's first artificial satellite. A bullet-like form shoots 100 metres high atop a sweep of shiny titanium that curls down to a granite plinth, conjuring a rocket hitting the stratosphere. The plinth walls are sculpted with heroic reliefs of scientists, engineers and workers, shown the way to the stars by Lenin, next to whom, today, three schoolboys are sneakily puffing cigarettes and somewhat missing the message.
Deep underground lies another supreme Soviet relic, the Moscow Metro, all 265km of it. You might think some of it had been built in the belle epoque, so palatial are the stations with marble, mirrors and chandeliers. Other parts, such as Revolution Square station, with its gallery of bronze revolutionary heroes, were obviously Stalin's. Despite the ubiquity of Soviet vestiges, plenty have
been done away with. Many were destroyed in the 90s, but some escaped to Sculpture Park, a graveyard for toppled icons. Here, deposed communist statuary has been dumped and joined by new works, so that Lenin, Stalin, 'Iron Felix' Dzerzhinsky and others mingle with today's anarchic creations.
Karl Marx has been left in his prime location, facing the Bolshoi Theatre, but he could be ruing his survival. Emerging from the top of a granite monolith, the philosopher still urges, 'Workers of the world, unite!' in a bold inscription. By night, the statue is illuminated, accidentally, by a mammoth video screen above Theatre Square advertising imported luxury goods. It's a supreme irony. If it wasn't for Gucci and Chanel, you wouldn't even be able to see the great icon of communism.
Getting there: Cathay Pacific (www.cathaypacific.com) flies from Hong Kong to Moscow. Two classic hotels lie close to Red Square and the Kremlin: the Hotel National (www.national.ru) and the Hotel Metropol (www.metropol-moscow.ru). New, five-star hotels in the same area include the Ararat