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Calling Moscow (Part 2)

by Bernard H. Wood on March 12, 2010

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So what is Russian and what is Soviet? And are the sights before us even Russian anyway?

Soviet architecture in Moscow.Neil refers to the confounded preconceptions of tourists that come his way, their subsequent reality-check and the important distinction between Russian and Soviet:

“Clients often are hit by the vast numbers on the street and are often surprised by the fact that Moscow is not as Russian as they expected it to be. It’s only the two square miles in the centre that looks particularly ‘Russian’,” he says, referring to the Western stereotype of pale, stern-faced, bear-hat wearers, stiff-marching through Red Square in front of a snow-topped Kremlin. As for the rest: “I wouldn’t say necessarily that it looks like any other place. It doesn’t. It has a particular look to it. But it isn’t necessarily ‘Russian’. It doesn’t quite hit the cliché.”

“There is some evidence of a vast cultural history, but a lot of it was torn down… Not necessarily removed because it was bad. In the 1920s and 1930s when the Soviet Union was getting going – past being an idea, now it was growing legs – they started taking down a lot of things in the centre of town that they thought were embarrassing, or the remnants of a rather shambolic past that they’d rather forget about, and started to rebuild things.”

I note a pervasive thread throughout our talks: this notion of cultural embarrassment, the importance of furnishing the external viewer with the right impression, based solely upon what they expect other cultures’ perceptions of them to be. A convoluted inferiority complex of some kind? We’re destined to come back to this later.

“They share an attitude similar to the Chinese, who hate everything old. They’re not at all impressed by things that are old and ramshackle. Old and formidable, like the Kremlin: they can cope with that! Old and shambly-looking: they’re not impressed with that at all. A lot of medieval Moscow went missing in the 1920s and 30s. They thought they had bigger and better ideas to materialise instead.”

Referring to the Russia Experience clientèle: “Not all of those ideas appeal to what modern travellers are looking for. 1930s soviet buildings are not really high on most people’s shopping list. They built all these so-called Stalin-Gothic or Stalin-Baroque buildings: these mad, high-rise buildings. They were destroying 4-storey medieval buildings and replacing them with 70-storey buildings! All with red Soviet stars on the top and designs that. They look like space-rockets reaching for the sky.”

“It’s like Modernist architecture: there’s a little bit of it in Paris even, but Russia did it to an even greater degree. The Moscow metro was a project from that period: All of the stations are built in this mad, excessive, hyper-gothic, realist, modernist style. They weren’t built for now, they were built for the future. They were all about a glorious future in which we would all live this way, at home. Of course that never actually happened.”

I learn that in the 1930s and 40s this style was very popular. It still dominates the centre of Moscow because so much of it was thrown up so quickly… – and then left. Monuments to futures past. By the late 1950s the metro may have extended to its outlying stations, but the enthusiasm and money had run out. We are left with Red-Star-topped concrete slabs and the occasional triumphalist bas-relief, the Red propaganda art works.

Neil restates his case: that aside from its medieval centre, “Moscow isn’t a Russian city, it’s a Soviet city; a dream version of how the Soviet Union would look. But the money and the enthusiasm didn’t last and they only ever really did the capital. It’s different to anything else you’ll see anywhere else around the world because of this kind of strange hothouse culture of trying to develop something entirely new.”

“If you read the poetry or see the films: they really thought that they were building a whole new world in which the proletariat would be kings and the evil capitalists would be thrown out. And probably, for a while, they actually believed it. Of course the dream went sour later, but Moscow has been turned into something pretty unusual”

Next time: Calling Moscow (Part 3)
Book your ticket, reality is just a train journey away. Plus: useful ways for resting thespians to occupy their time.

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