Sunday, 20 December 2009

The best constructivist building in Moscow

Got to see the inside of what is probably the most famous Soviet constructivist building in the world - Narkomfin.  Designed by Moisei Ginsburg in the 1920s, this housing block was meant to aid the transition  towards communism, by combining a mixture of privatised flats (with kitchens) and ones only containing space for sleeping and studying, with all other facilities organised collectively.  It was also an early example of architectural modernism - with double height spaces, long horizontal windows and white walls - some of which the more reknowned French architect Le Corbusier nicked for his own modernist housing masterpiece Unite D'Habitation. 

Narkomfin has been badly neglected and is in very poor condition. However, some flats are occupied - left over from the privatisation of housing that took place through the early part of the 1990s. The property developer MIAN has also bought many flats, intending to develop a converted scheme for housing, but is being affected by the financial crisis and the usual legal stalemates. This has left the building - unloved for most of the Soviet period - in a kind of (typically Russian) limbo. 

These days it is very hard to get inside Narkomfin. The few remaining tenants are both angry and anxious; they called the police when we visited, uncertain about our reason for being there (even though we were with representatives from Alexey Ginsburg - architect grandson of Moisei - who MIAN have employed to design the improvements; and of Moskonstruct who are a Russian-Italian campaigning organisation.) It is also crumbling and in a state - rubbish from squatters (now cleared out by MIAN); plaster peeling off the walls, and windows broken and stained. But the overall glory of the vision can still be seen - a very clever weaving together of double height living spaces with single height bedrooms, bathrooms and (yes) kitchens; interlocked into a clean whole, with lots of light and - considering the restrictions of both economy and politics in the 1920s Soviet Union - spacious.

The truth is, though, nobody is holding their breath about the building surviving. Along with MAPS, another group which is trying to save some of the best bits of Moscow's architectural heritage,  Moskonstruct seem pretty fatalistic about their chances, when up against current development pressures, corruption, and the known preference of Moscow's mayor Yuri Luzkhov for the new.

Sign Moskonstruct's petition to save Narkomfin here.

Christmas decs on my kitchen window, courtesy of дед мороз (Father Frost)!

Sunday, 13 December 2009

The cheapness of champagne

Brought a bottle of Советское Шампанское/
Sovetskoye Shampanskoye - Soviet Champagne - in my local supermarket for about 200 rubles (4 pounds/4.5 Euro/$6) last week. Made sure it said dry/brut/брют as I have been told that the local preference is for very sweet; and found it both very cheap and very drinkable. (Although this may be in comparison to the wine, which is generally both overpriced and dreadful).

So bought another bottle yesterday, and as the photograph illustrates, had a series of difficulties opening it. Was even reduced to searching websites when the cork initially refused to 'pop out' and found one forum where a group were arguing increasingly more aggressively in textual form -  for what felt like hours - as to what was the best thing to do. When I tried  some of their advice, which was to run hot water over the cork, the result was that the rounded top just pulled off. So then I resorted to a corkscrew, only to find that the one in this flat is one of those that has all the appearance of a corkscrew but is actually made out of metal-coloured mud, which just bent when I even showed it the cork, and then got completely stuck.

As you can see, this bottle remains unopened, and any suggestions as to what to do next are welcome. 

снег, снег, снег, снег!

Had my first Russian lesson this week, and feeling a bit pathetic at how bad I am. But found out something important, that has been confusing me. Much of what I read about the Russian language says that it is easy because letters do not change how they sound in different word contexts (unlike English where pronunciation is all over the place).

But, now I am here, this is clearly not true. Milk, for example, is spelt молоко or moloko, but pronounced malako (with the emphasis on the last syllable.) And snow...snow is written снег or SNEG (I know, sweet!) but is actually pronounced SNEK.  So, now I know that it is only the syllable which is emphasised in a word, which is pronounced correctly. Well I am also finding out that some letters are always pronounced the same; and that others are 'paired' so that one changes to the other when at the end of a word (as in г/к but also в which becomes ф or F when at the end of a word.).

So that must have made it all a lot clearer!

Monday, 7 December 2009

hurrah, hurrah, hurrah!

Come February I know I am going to regret this enthusiasm, but right now I am just very happy it is snowing and that everything looks so pretty! 

Sunday, 6 December 2009

Pet shopping

Beyond the gates of VDNKh there is a straggling single line of people, mainly older women, standing silently offering a few things for sale such as sweaters or embroidery. Near the gate itself, though, the goods turn out to be almost all kittens and puppies, bundled up inside each person's coat or bag, with only their little heads sticking out.  Sooo cute....

A day at the park

Another day out, this time to the All Russian Exhibition Centre, now known as VVC/ ВВЦ but still mainly called by its previous name - Exhibition of the Achievements of the National Economy - or VDNKh/ВДНХ  which is also the name of the local metro stop. It is a weird place, a sprawling site across which about 80 pavilions are scattered; some in 'regional' styles, and some to represent a particular industry or field (radio-electronics, soviet culture, atomic energy etc.,) all in varying states of decrepitude. In the Soviet period exhibitions and conferences were held here, and some of the grand intentions can still be felt. But now the pavilions are mainly occupied by stalls selling miscellaneous junk, surrounded by a fun fair and hot-dog stands, as well as heroic statues and fountains. I went at the weekend, so the place was packed with families having a day out. 

I then joined a Mosmania tour to the nearby Ostankino TV tower (by travelling from VDNKh on the new monorail to Телецентр). This is another place to get  a great view over the city; although security was tough (you have to book in advance and show your passport) and the official tour was in Russian. And although I have intended not to make fun of translation errors on this blog - 1.) because I speak almost no Russian yet, and my accent is atrocious, and 2.) because almost all the Russians I work with speak impeccably good English with almost no accent at all - I am going to do right now. Just to pass on the joy of hearing the guide say (whilst we were at the monorail stop, looking away from the Ostankino tower at the nearby Sheremetev estate and it's lake) that we were witnessing " a serial of ponds, where many women committed suicide in that very puddle."

A bit better...

Was going to continue my grumblings about Christmas, since they appear to be building a gigantic Santa's grotto in Red Square. But now feeling rather more excited as it is turning into an outdoor skating rink. And one of my (slightly peculiar) hobbies has been to ice skate in the centre of cities - the Rockefeller Centre in New York, outside the Natural History Museum in London, and by the Rathausplatz Vienna. Was planning to add the Ice Park in Rautatientori Square, Helsinki in early January but can't now make the trip. So ice skating in Red Square will be a good substitute.  

Christmas grumps

I don't know why, but I thought that because Russians celebrate Christmas on January 7th (based on the Russian Orthodox calender), Moscow would not be full of Christmas tat like everywhere else European. But I was wrong. The place is ablaze with baubles. And with the worst of UK Christmas pop songs. And with fat red Santas and various other sentimental figurines. Bah humbug.

Sunday, 29 November 2009

Tried out the opera for the first time, where, at the Novaya Opera anyway, tickets are extraordinarily cheap at 200 roubles (about 4 pounds/7 dollars/4.50 euros). Went to see the Magic Flute. Don't know much about opera, so not sure how much the weirdness was inherent in Mozart's original - the story is pretty all over the place and meant to have a bit of a pantomine quality -and how much was a particularly Russian interpretation. Suffice to say that the sorcerer character was Stalin (Bad guy? Good guy?) and his surrounding chorus henchmen wore trilbys, black suits and hammers.  The heroine, meanwhile, had a red cardboard sickle velcroed to her hair for much of it, and there were many very literal moments (a large 'magic flute' - with wings - hanging centre stage) and  quite a lot of random events. Why oh why did the henchmen throw red stuffed animals at the hero at one stage, or did the wicked queen suddenly 'grow' an extra-large leg? And pity the two baritones who were wrapped up in silver foil, together with their cardboard box plinths, as 'Stalin' statues - so could only hobble very slowly and oddly across the stage and had to do a kind of sideways flop in order to be carried off. All in all, given that the singing was very good, a great if slightly surprising night out.

Saturday, 28 November 2009

Unidentified packages 4

Saturday brunch at CafeMania - the one on the corner of Rozhdestvenka and Pushechnaya near Kutznetsky Most metro - so treated myself to this cake, called a Fifth Element (no, I don't know why either). Not really unidentified as the menu said it combined chocolate with gorgonzola cheese(!), berries and cinnamon. The reality was such a chocolate attack that I know I wont be able to eat another one of these for at least a year!

Monday, 23 November 2009

Alexey Kozlov

Went to hear a Russian jazz legend last week, saxophonist Alexey Kozlov, with his band the New Arsenal. Whilst jazz wasn't banned in the Soviet period, non-'regular' musicians (the cultural underground) did get constantly hounded by the KGB. Some of Kozlov's tunes are about this very thing, which cannot have endeared him then, and the experience of which clearly remains central to how he still sees himself today. 

He is a fantastic player, not just living off a previous reputation, although the band takes a bit of time to get fully into their stride. It says on the website that he was born in 1935, so he is in good form (if a bit haggard) - although I guess many jazz musicians seem to last a very long time. 
You can listen so some music here: or go and see them play Thursdays, starting 8.30 at the Forte Club on Bolshaya Bronnaya str.,29 (in Russian Бол. Бронная ул.)

Moscow hats time- and what a choice!

Handy hints for travelers 7: don't bother with sweaters!

It feels counterintuitive - at least for the Brits - but there is one layer of clothing that you really don't need to pack for a Moscow winter, and that is a thick sweater/jumper/cardigan. When you go out you will want to throw on a jacket, thick coat, gloves, hat, scarf and warm boots. But inside, with central heating everywhere at full blast, you will find yourself in shirtsleeves. 

So, my advice is  - forego the sweaters and make room for something else (whatever that is!).

Sunday, 15 November 2009

Missed it....

Cant believe it - missed the snow whilst I was back in London for a week; and now it is mild and wet again. But something else has happened. The light is different, muted, and a low level cloud mist mainly hangs over the skyscrapers.

So suddenly, Moscow feels more like a Soviet city. The big, small, old, new cars are beginning to look alike under a even muddy grime, part of a city shifting into brown monchrome. In a local railway station, everyone is black-hatted and black-coated, and the place cloudy with coal smoke.

Meanwhile the Mayor of Moscow, Yuri Luzhkov, is planning cloud seeding, to prevent snow in the city. I was so looking forward to some new whiteness....

If you want to read about Russians following China into geo-engineering - illustrated by a great picture of snow in Red Square - see this article in the Moscow Times.

Saturday, 31 October 2009

Snow!! (well, kind of)

It has begun to snow, and of course I have been getting very over-excited. Since arriving, I have been romantically anticipating a city covered in layers of snow (deep and crisp and even); and also thinking of it, anxiously, as a purchasing opportunity for all the fur-lined clothing I will need to survive.

So slightly disappointed (and simultaneously relieved) that this is only a flurry of fine powder, thinly spread.

Handy hints for travelers 6: toilets

Moscow is very well supplied with public toilets; most metro stations have ranks of prefab units outside, which cost 20 or 25 rubles. These are basic, but perfectly clean. What I like most is the way the attendants customise one of the cubicles as a 'little home' to sit in.

As most travel guides point out, there are almost no facilities for disabled people here, but there are now a couple of prefab disabled toilets near Red Square - which of course are the ones taken over by the attendant, since the space is bigger.

I was told by a colleague that these disabled facilities (and the quite absent-minded and random addition of yellow painted 'pimple' paving at some junctions) are the response to a campaign by writers and artists for the rights of disabled people, but have not been able to find out anything else - can anyone add some light on this?

Friday, 23 October 2009

Another highspot

Went on a great walking tour last weekend with a group called MosMania. It was slightly complicated (and long) because it involved first having to join the official Moscow State University (MSU) tour which was very long-winded and 'official'; and then sneaking off after to see things from a student's perspective (the people who took us around are/were students at the university).

The reasons for going to MSU is that it is one of Stalin's skyscrapers (constructed in the 1950s and without much change from those days), and it is located on Sparrow Hills, so with great views over the city.

There was also the student Autumn Ball in progress, so we were surrounded by young people in dinner jackets and shiny ballgowns, practicing their dancing, talking on their mobile phones, waiting anxiously for partners; all of which added to the particular character of the place. Amazing soviet classical detailing (built by prisoners - both returning Russian prisoners of war from Germany and low-grade political prisoners) plus old-fashioned lecture halls and seminar rooms, with the kind of wooden desks which suggest Victorian Board Schools; and then a huge basement of facilities, including a swimming pool, and accommodation (which we didn't see) for 6,000 students on site - a whole self-contained world in fact.

And the same old mix of Soviet, contemporary, elegant, decrepit or just plain weird bits and pieces that I have mentioned before.

handy hints for travelers: 5 - highspots

Been looking out for places 'up high' to look down on the city. The 02 lounge at the Ritz Carlton is one, with a great roof terrace overlooking the Kremlin and a funky if over-designed cafe. Not cheap but a great place to lounge (for some reason these chairs reminds me of The Prisoner - a reference that will only work for a certain age-group and location).

Another recommendation that I have read about, but not been to yet, is the Russian Academy of Sciences (Leninsky Prospekt, 32a; nearest metro: Leninsky Prospekt, website - -so any comments on that welcome also.

Handy Hints for travellers 4: Cures for a cold?

Been off work for a week with a head cold, which is expected I think, as I work my way through the Russian virus variations. Everyone thinks of this as the cold and flu season; actually of many illnesses - the people I work with consider that Russians are a sickly lot. This is not just with the flu/грипп (gripp), or headcold/насморк (nasmork) or chill/простуда(prostida) but also with all sorts of minor headaches and tiredness; unusually put down to barometric pressure or electro-magnetic forces.

As to remedies - well I used vitamin C, but the main recommendation was a product based on (so I was told) chicken blood called оциллококцинум. Yes, I know, and I haven't tried it. Well, not yet.

Against generalisations

Found myself reading the Economist the other day (not a thing I do often, just one of those magazines that comes free to flying travellers) and noticed that they no longer refer to developed/developing countries, or even industrialised/emerging economies. No, now they just say 'rich' countries. I couldn't find the matching term for the 'rest' (the 'other' as post-colonialists like to put it)- presumably even the Economist doesn't want to call them simply poor countries.

And I also couldn't work out which were the rich countries. America obviously. But China, Russia? What do they mean by rich? GNP? Lots of wealthy people? A booming economy? But it did get me thinking, because one of the things about living in Moscow compared to, say, London, is that the evidence/appearance of richess and poverty or development and 'backwardness' is endlessly and immediately somehow non-congruent, at the level of everyday experience. It is as if somewhere like London - despite its diversity and huge variations - nevertheless has an overall look of coherence about it. Moscow, on the other hand, (and maybe like many emerging economies) is such a mixed bag; the endless intersecting of traditional, Soviet, capitalist, regional and other histories and cultures on the streets of the city. One minute an elderly group standing on the pavement singing patriotic songs and waving the Red flag: the next some teenagers giggling together dressed as goths; then a proud poster for a new disabled toilet (in response to a campaign from artists and writers); and a street cleaner from one of the asian republics with a brush make of twigs, and a cart constructed from an old pram frame and a bucket.

I dont know how much of this feeling is because I am a foreigner here; when I talk to Russians about it, they also seem to believe that Russia is a strange place (which doesn't mean that they agree with what Westerners think is weird about it...)

Tales of the unexpected 2

I think tales of the unexpected is going to become not so much an occasional series as a horribly frequent one. But I have to ask, just what is this full sized plastic zebra doing here (with matching cow) - in the yard of a florist in a relatively poor part of town? It is a bling thing to have one in your garden/living room/balcony? Or is it just to attract us to buy more flowers?

Friday, 16 October 2009

Something I didn't mention

Er, I guess I should admit I did treat myself to something at the electronics market. Haven't seen these iPod cases in London, but maybe you can get them anywhere....aren't they pretty?!

Car cans

Everywhere you go, there are metal boxes for cars; either individually as above, or massive sites - you will see loads if you come to the city on the train from Domodedovo airport/домодедово аэропорт. I am sure sure if this is mainly about security or weather-proofing. Anyone know?

Tales of the unexpected 1

Travelling always means you find stuff that just doesn't quite make sense; and Russia has a reputation, of course, for being full of peculiarities and everyday weirdness compared to the rest of 'ordinary' Western Europe.

Without wanting to perpetuate that belief, here is the first of another occasional series. The photograph shows one of inner Moscow's popular hanging out areas, Chistye Prudy/чистые пруды - part of the Boulevard Ring promenade - which has a pond. And a gondola. With a gondolier.

Chistye Prudy means Clean Pond, a renaming of Dirty Pond in (I think) the 18th century when, the story goes, it was used by the local butchers as a dumping ground for spare offal. It is about the size of 5 London bendy-buses, placed side by side. So not much of a boat trip.

I have yet to see someone take the ride, but am looking forward to it very much. May even have to do it myself, if only to get a better picture.

Wednesday, 14 October 2009

Going mental

This place, the electronics market at Savyolovskaya/савёловская , as one of my colleagues put it quite factually "a bit mental'. You come out of the metro (on the grey line, just beyond the ring) and find yourself in an extremely brightly lit and narrow corridor with one electronics shop after another on either side which, I swear, is about three-quarters of a mile long. And that is just the beginning of a huge maze of stalls offering stuff to buy.

It certainly challenged my assumptions about what you can buy in Moscow and the high prices of everything imported. It is true that there are odd things that are hard to find for no particular reason - like particular sorts of batteries and blutack for example - but here there were more contemporary electronics than you would ever need, and which didn't seem more expensive than Europe (although I got mainly obsessed by 1.) Digital SLR cameras and 2.) iPod accessories so I can only speak for those particular products). It felt like Tokyo, not Moscow.

It did make me think about how I interpret conspicuous consumption here. Of course in London and the UK shops do that fully-glazed/please come in/look at all our goods and are focused in high streets and hypermarkets. Moscow is more like other European countries, where shops are often surprisingly hard to identity - not just because of language, but also because doors are often shut, windows no different from offices, and location not always obvious. And, increasingly, I am finding places like Dmitrovskaya. Huge areas which are half-way between a market and a department store. Huge being the operative word.

Building works...

Following the extremely heavy rain on Monday, more bits of plaster and other miscellaneous stuff is coming off some of the older buildings, all dealt with in the usual distracted and un-bothered manner. .On my way to work is a perfect example - a few repairs are going on here, but what I love is the lash-up protection to passers-by, particularly an impromptu bus-shelter, thrown up out of misc. sticks and now covered in bent corrugated metal sheets.

And right in the line of fire - fine for crumbling plaster, but ready to collapse completely if any major lump of blockwork should feel like leaving home.

Monday, 12 October 2009

Missing hotel

Walked down past Red Square and over the river yesterday, and finally noticed that the hotel was missing! Meaning the enormous Hotel Russia which I remember from my last visit 30 years ago as a massive, ugly and somehow typically Soviet solution to providing temporary accommodation for various delegates, trade unionists and other miscellaneous visitors from across the Union and occasionally beyond; each endless corridor of identical doors patrolled by an unsmiling babushka in charge of a samovar, from whom I never managed to extract a single cup of tea.

One of my friends said that it was just demolished without any notice: the stories are that the KGB had various equipment there they didn't want found (other buildings in the immediate vicinity of the Kremlin have disappeared in similar fashion.) Well, it was definitely hideous, but then Moscow is not rich in hotels. And doesn't seem that interested in developing the tourist industry - as you will know if you have attempted the process of getting a tourist visa.

If you want to see what the Hotel Russia looked like and the demolition, go to EnglishRussia.

Saturday, 10 October 2009

Russian word of the day - for your entertainment!

This widget is from a site - Transparent language - that also has a great Russian blog

Everything smells of apples

Lots of my colleagues at work are bringing in bags full of apples - look like windfalls mainly, definitely not the identikit apples you get in Tesco - and mass baking of apples in teacups via the microwave is taking place. All are happy, the bins are rich with peelings, and everything smells of apples.

As a PS I should note that the apple in this picture was purchased from one of those fancy shops I mentioned before; and at a hugely inflated cost that would have my colleagues laughing behind their hands ( I did the usual thing and misread the per 100gms price as the actual price...)

Weird missing things

I feel like I am turning into this strange British stereotype person - I have started missing typical english things that I hardly ever eat at home. This includes fish and chips and mugs of tea. Just yesterday I bought a box of cornflakes - cornflakes - which I don't think I have had for about 15 years! So I need to know, is this a common experience? Because it feels a bit uncomfortable, whatever next? Marmite?

In the meantime I have been exploring more food shops (don't know if these two facts are connected). There really does seem to be a huge gap here between ordinary supermarkets and the extremely expensive, security-guarded posh ones. Another craving which better matches my London eating habits is for good French and Spanish cheeses - something in the milk product area, but with a bit of flavour. I may have to smuggle some back next time I am in London, because I treated myself to a tiny sliver of Manchego today and it cost over seven of your English pounds.

Eating it very, very slowly.

The view from my window

Have been realising how much the view from my window is like the view from my window in London. I am on the 7th floor here, not the third, so look down on the autumn trees rather than across at them, but otherwise what I see are crows and pigeons going about their business; and roof-tops and glimpses into other windows across the courtyard. Like London, people come out onto their balconies to smoke and observe. There are also children playing games down below - here something to do with sticks and what looks like taking sniper positions (!) whereas in London they are mainly trying to see what they can break (!) The only difference is that I can watch a group of men working on the roof opposite, skidding and slipping about in the wet on the new metal siding they are laying - 2 stories up and with absolutely nothing to stop them falling off.

So, you could take that as a sign of Russian fatalism and lack of health and safety, or as an indication of the molly-coddling nanny-state in Britain. Or not generalise at all. Whichever you prefer.

Sunday, 4 October 2009

Handy hints for travelers 3: metro again

The metro is confusing for a couple of reasons. First, at interchanges, the stop will have different name for each line - and are often quite a walk apart. The lines are coloured, and this colour (almost always) appears in the signs, telling you which way to go. The second difficulty is that metro stations can often be huge underground warrens, both where different lines connect, and in the many entrance/вход and exit/в’ыход points. Look for the sign that says exit to town/город.

Shown is a typical metro sign, to be seen on most platforms. These are actually really clear. The horizontal top line lists all the stations on the line you are on in order and direction. The vertical 'drop-down menus' beneath each station title give the name(s) of the line and the stations that are linked from it (including, first, the name of the linked station of there is one.)



Crossing the bridge to the Red October Chocolate Factory I saw a couple of young angels. Found out after that they are part of an ongoing art project, a whole group, although no one quite seems to know whether there is a point.

More art and stuff

More exhibitions today - this time off to the Baibakov Art Project at the Red October Chocolate Factory (nearest metro Kropotkinskaya/кропоткинская) to see Luc Tuymans (Against the Day) and Olga Chernysheva (Present Past). Brilliant pair of well curated shows and fabulous work. Here the owner is an oligarch's daughter - only in her early 20s - but clearly a talent to watch.

Also a lot of other work on show throughout the string of buildings because the ex-factory is currently a major place for artists studios, galleries and impromptu shows. This is a relatively good, although potentially temporary, outcome following campaigns against the move of chocolate production to another site. Every one is worried that the location on the island right by the newly rebuilt Christ the Saviour cathedral makes it vulnerable to yet more commercial development.

Me, what I miss is the open-air swimming pool previously on the cathedral site which I remember from a visit 30 years ago. It was a massive lido, with sleek, high diving boards and water steaming in the freezing air; which was entered by swimming out from inside the changing rooms. This, in turn, was the result of a hole made for a planned Palace of the Soviets (never built and seeing the competition entries we should all be relieved) - a hole created by the destruction of the previous cathedral by Stalin in 1931.

A male-female imbalance?

If you have spent any time checking out Russia -related websites you will have come across yet another Russian Brides offer. There is ongoing debate here about the 'problem' of more women than men - usually given as a 56% to 44% split.

And why? Well people still seem to be arguing that it is to do with how many Russian men were killed in the second world war. So all those extra women must be pretty elderly by now...

In fact, as of 2007, the average life expectancy in Russia was 61.5 years for males and 73.9 years for females (11 years less on average than in Europe or the States)* - a real change from the late 1950s when it was the other way around, although things are getting now better again.

However, this imbalance gives the Russian brides sites a great line - and I quote:

"Russia has always suffered from a shortage of men relative to the number of women (currently men make up only 44% of the total population). Russian Girls want to chat with you. After the Second World War, in which 27 million Russians were killed (the bulk of the casualties were men) there was a great shortage of men. Russian Bride discovers western men. There was even a popular song in the 1960s that went "according to statistics, there are only eight men for every ten Russian girls". Russian Woman as exemplar of romance overseas. In many ways, this "deficit", which still prevails in modern day Russia, has given has placed Russian men in a very enviable position while increasing the number of mail order brides seeking marriage overseas."

This author also uses this imbalance to 'explain' why Russian men can still get away with sexism (still called chauvinism here). Certainly my female colleagues think chauvinism remains rife.

* Reference from a pretty thorough Wikipedia entry.

Friday, 2 October 2009

Unidentified packages 3

There are an enormous range of milk-related products here, and special milk/moloko/молоко shops. Many of which look almost exactly the same to the untutored eye, and seem to only be across the limited range from milk to yoghurt to very mild ricotta/curd cheese. The Moscow News recently published a list of the top 15 diary products extolling the virtues of these various items - Smetana at the top, then Kefir, Tvorog, Toplyonoye moloko, Syrok, Ryazhenka, Vologod Butter, Prostokvasha, Sgushchyonoye moloko, ice cream, cheese, Ayran, brynza, Snezhok and Plavleny syr. So that is some more useful information for you.

Pictured is an unexpected example- not on the Moscow News list - which is actually going to be one of the things I will miss if/when I leave Moscow; a chocolate coated cream cheese bar. Yum!

Oh - and it is like a tiny choc ice you find in the fridge next to - the milk products!

Yet more traffic stuff

Last Tuesday was No Car Day in Moscow, as it was in other parts of Europe. You can see the impact from the photograph.

I saw my first 'cavalcade' of the elite - have heard grumbles from many of my colleagues about the fact that the boss class close down roads when they need to get about, rather than deal with traffic problems. The police escort cars had their sirens on, working across a series of high and low notes. Which I can't take seriously because they sound just like the Clangers; the low notes, to be honest, how a Clanger would sound if it was farting.

Monday, 28 September 2009

On life, feeling like a student

And just to continue that student feeling, I currently live a one-saucepan life, which is slightly worse than it sounds as I don't have any bowls either! For some reason I am being coy about either demanding more from my landlady, or just going out and buying what I need; as previously mentioned, all the underpasses (of which there are many, due to it being the only way to cross the major ring roads) are full of stalls selling just that kind of tat; along with - suddenly - winter coats and scarves, did I mention it is getting colder?

Gettng colder!

I think it may be obvious that the weather here is already getting colder under gunmetal skies. I am exaggerating a little (I certainly keep wearing too many clothes when I go out), partly from over-excitement and partly because everyone keeps saying there is no in-between season here, just summer then winter.

Which brings me to the issue of bedding and heating. The heating goes on for everyone sometime in November - in the meantime, shops and stalls are selling thick slippers and woolly waistcoats, presumably for the next month or so before everywhere gets piping hot inside.

So, why do I just have a skinny quilt for bedding? The landlady insisted it was the usual; and that it was certainly enough as stuffed, albeit thinly, with camel hair. Since IKEA definitely sell the standard Scandeweigen duvet, I am not sure if I have been conned. It is nice and light....but I am having to layer a coat on top. Feel like a student again.

How can I not love Moscow!

How can I not love a city that paints so many of its buildings ochre and pink and mint green and turquoise blue, and then tops them off with roofs of glittering gold and white? That provides blankets in cafes so you can sit outside, even as the ice begins to rim the puddles? Where people just park anywhere and anyhow?

It makes a great pair with London; if only I could afford to live in both simultaneously!

Saturday, 26 September 2009

Handy hints for travelers 4; crossing the road

Most important tip for visitors - do not expect any car to stop ever at zebra crossings, even when you are halfway across. Do not even expect them to slow down.

Just thought you should know (and check out the people in the photo throwing themselves out of the way).

and more creatures...

And here are some 'stuffed' animals, also on display near Red Square.... the bear is having a quick fag.

....and the animals

Another thing about the Garage show, that was just unexpected, was how many live animals it contained (also some stuffed bears and chickens). There were some pretty miserable small birds in one installation; and then another with snakes, tortoises, cockroaches and other insects - which was actually a very interesting piece.

May have particularly noticed as, having finally got to Red Square, I found myself taken aback by people posing for photos with chained monkeys. You just don't get that in London anymore. Oh, and I have just finished reading Me Cheeta by James Lever, which definitely makes one think about the peculiar history of our relationships to other species.

More about culture

Got invited to the opening of the 3rd Moscow Biennale of Contemporary Art at Garage last week. Thought I would meet all the glitterati there, since Garage or Garazh or гараж ( the local joke is that the logo looks like Tampax) is run by Darya Zhukova, best known in Europe as Roman Abhramovich's girlfriend. In fact I think the big names had all been to a party the night before, and it was more an event for the cultural hoi-polloi. The space can fit 1,500 people and a lot of art - it was once, after all, a Constructivist bus garage - but 2,500 people turned up, so we had a interesting crowd experience with security (which came, it must be said, after a very typical Moscow experience of spending nearly 2 hours in a traffic jam, not going very far) and then drank plenty of free vodka to make up for the wait.

There remans a kind of struggling with the art scene here; is it just that contemporary art is a 'must have' for Russia to be part of the global cultural landscape, or that rich Russians want access to modern art along with their other items of conspicuous consumption? The acting head of the Federation Agency for Culture and Cinematography famously said when he opened the first biennale that contemporary art was like "an unloveable person one needs to love". The sheer size of the show and the uneveness of curation - as well as all the gossip about behind the scenes back-biting - means that the range of exhibitions across Moscow are quite mixed; and that the best work at Garage was often in a confusing relationship to lesser pieces. This year's theme - Against Exclusion - does seem to led to a 'lets have one of those, and those and those' mentality, spanning from Aboriginal art to Yinka Shonibare to Spence Tunick-in-Moscow (see above), in a pretty haphazard fashion.

And there is that other thing, about what constitutes 'normal' behaviour in different contexts; I am just not used to seeing people posing for their photographs in a gallery, in front of the work.

Sunday, 20 September 2009

Language and cultural change

I have been trying to reduce the number of if-it-is-possible, and what-I-was-thinking-was-maybe phrases that usually pepper my (very English) speaking, as I can see that they confuse my Russian colleagues as they try to unpick what I am actually getting at.

But I am also less willing to make any assumptions about cultural/language differences. I am asked quite a lot what English people are like, which is a pretty impossible question to answer. And even only being here for a few weeks all those generalities about what Russians are 'like' of course begin to fall apart as different personalities take shape. For many of the people I work with - in their 20s - the Soviet period was already almost over when they were born; the older stereotypes we have about communist life seem to hold much stronger in the west than here.

Went to a lecture about the post-revolutionary 1920s workers clubs (many of them famous as constructivist architecture) at Garage, which included some fabulous archive footage of workers doing leisure and educational activities in black and white collaborative gusto. And the audience looked just like any young European cultural audience. The problem is why I expected them to be any different - maybe either square jawed Slavs or strange communist characters.

Even for all these young 'new Russians', what they know about the past depends a lot of the often very different experiences of their parents. With the few young people I have asked, it is clear that their parents - the older generation - are very open in talking about Soviet times, it is not being forgotten. Some said their parents really missed how some things were, others that their parents or grandparents had suffered under communism and were glad for the change. So no easy generalisations here.

On paying in cash

The Russians have a smart answer to the tendency for paying for stuff in cash - machines in all kinds of public places which you feed with rubles in order to top-up your pay-as-you-go phone and to pay for home internet (and probably other things which I haven't found out about yet!)

The (fuzzy) picture shows such a machine in a butchers shop.

Monday, 7 September 2009


Had a very romantic idea of going mushroom picking in the woods this autumn, which is meant to be typically Russian. In the meantime, here are some very determined items forcing their way through the tarmac in a central Moscow park....

Handy hints for travelers 3: Eating out

One example where this lack of a ‘service’ relationship makes it easy to get dinner is a chain called Moo Moo (as in the sound cows make, му му in Russian) which has a black/white cow-like blob as a logo. Here, standard cheap Russian food is offered buffet-fashion; and in the general hubbub, you can not only see what you can order, but can also just point to get a plateful.

I have also been eating in sushi bars/суши бар, which are very common and trendy in Moscow (and of course show everything on the menu in pictures). My local just around the corner on Pokrovka/покровка is called Kamado/камадо and the food is incredibly fresh; I don't really understand how such a land-locked city has Moscow manages to have such fresh fish.

A bit more up-market – which also means that all the waitresses speak good English – is Solyanka/ Солянка (Solyanka ulitsa, 11, nearest Metro: Kitai-Gorod) which would not feel out of place in London’s Hoxton, has a beautifully done ‘shabby chic’ interior (see interior shot, above) and is a great place for lounging over a coffee and cake or snack.

And there is a restaurant at the international cinema called 35mm, also on Pokrovka, which is expensive and international but with very good food.


Before I came, I read that Russians have a reputation for rudeness, for shortness in speech, for poor service in shops and for ignoring others in the street. At the same time - in the enigma/wrapped in a blah/ literature – they always turn out to be very friendly, with hearts of gold and to have those famous Russian souls.

As a stranger, with no grasp of the language this public lack of need for dialogue is actually quite relaxing. I can buy something in a supermarket with just a curt thank you without anxiety, and can also walk about ignoring those around me.

Meanwhile, also conforming the type, the people I am working for have been endless kind and gone out of their way to be helpful. So, although I have only been here just over a week, I feel quite at home.

Still summer

Everyone here says that when the cold weather comes it comes very quickly. Walking the streets in brilliant sunshine, strong shadows, with bright blue skies and glinting gold from the domes, is a just a lovely way to spend the weekend, and everyone clearly wants to enjoy it whilst they can. Today, the first Saturday of September, is Moscow day and all over the city bandstands and seating are being set up for parades and events. I still haven’t managed to get into Red Square because of these preparations, but every day I have seen new groups turn up to practice, including a Buddhist group in saffron robes and an Indian (mainly Sikh) regiment.

Of course instead I got distracted and ended up shopping in Zara in GUM, the main department store, that I remember from 30 years ago as a nearly derelict place like an Asian bazaar but with very few shops, and hardly anything on sale. I don’t know whether Lenin is revolving in his tomb over there in his mausoleum or laughing his head off.


I feel very honoured to have the opportunity to work with some of the people here developing their cultural and creative industries. Having visited both Proekt Fabrika and Zavod Flacon, I can see investors, curators, project managers, architects, artists, designers and others who exploring new and creative uses for the asset-stripped factories left over from the Soviet period and the more recent privatisation.


Like East Berlin after the wall came down, these old industrial buildings offer incredible opportunities. Right now, they have the empty beauty of ruins.


But when I ask about future plans, it is all about wait and see. There is plenty of energy and activity, but the kind of driven ambition one sees in western culture is less in evidence or at least less expressed. This is a country where expectations have often been thwarted, and where ambition was often connected to the unpleasant careerism of the apparatchiks. And we are in (yet another) global financial uncertainty…


I have tried hard not to mention the traffic here, but in the end you have to. There are truly terrible jams, especially on the massively wide ring roads which encircle the city (the boulevard ring, the second or garden ring and the ‘other’ more outer one which for some reason doesn’t seem to have a name). The driving is also almost all dreadful. Transport varies from bashed-up Ladas through to huge shiny black-windscreened 4 x4s, and nobody takes much notice of anyone else (the saving grace being that it against the law to sound your horn except in an emergency, so the chaos happens more quietly than, say, Italy). Cars break down or have accidents and are left abandoned by their drivers. People zigzag across lanes and refuse to let anyone in. Trams and trolley buses get knotted up. Cars are parked everywhere and anywhere. And because, as everyone knows, the traffic police are corrupt, many people buy their driving licences. In fact, it is hard to pass the test without a bribe, even if you try, so many people just don’t bother.

The other quaint aspect of this massive addition of cars to Moscow is the ongoing principle of waving down a private car for a lift. You just stand at the edge of the road and put your hand out, in a rather absent-minded fashion. Sooner or later someone will stop and a fare can be negotiated, usually around 200 - 300 roubles (4 – 6 GBP) depending on distance. Having experienced this a few times, the strange thing is that drivers never seem to know where they are going. This is partly to do with Moscow’s incredibly byzantine one-way system, but it also seems endemic to the arrangement, that things should take a long time and involve complication.

Talking of copyism

Talking of copyism; was taken on a visit to the Moscow Architectural Academy today. Somehow very shocking to see fine art students still drawing from plaster busts, and architectural students still taking 3 months to do intricately beautiful measured ink and wash drawings of classical and neo-classical details.

A bit of culture

Went to Winavod today. This is a converted wine factory, now the site of commercial art galleries and – today – hosting an event called Design Acts. Lovely spaces made in and across the series of brick-built 19th century buildings and much interesting work to see; as well as my first sighting of the trendy Moscow crowd- the event was heaving. Some great reportage photographs by Sergi Maximishin and some fab animation shorts. The Russians have a bad name for creativity in the West, tainted with the bling factor of the new rich, and the continuing emphasis on copyism in the art and design academies; but it is clear that a new generation is attempting to pull away somehow.