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.

Unidentified packages 2

This purchase is only a little odd, but just shows how we get so used to what is ‘normal’. I think crisps and crisp related items should be salted, not covered in sugar. Just thought I would mention it.

Cash economy

Have discovered a minor but important difference. Everything is done in cash here (we get paid in cash at the end of the month in a brown envelope). Paying the deposit and first month’s rent is a bit of problem, with plastic cards more of a difficulty than a solution. Since I can only draw out a certain amount each day from the ATM – and with only some banks such as Gasprom and SBER not charging a fee - I have been haunting the local cash machines all week accumulating roubles – and living off my lunch vouchers for food.

Even handing over large wads of cash seems clumsy, I’m just not used to counting the stuff.

(and have just discovered that I am being charged a fee by my bank account)


Flat-hunting is a great excuse to be nosy about how other people live. In Moscow, of course, almost everyone lives in a flat, although some also have a summer house/dacha to escape to at weekends. Rents are high – currently around 45, 000 - 55, 000 roubles (about 1000 GBP) a month for a two room flat (that is, living room and one bedroom), so many Russians share; but on a British-level salary I can just about afford this on my own.

Entrance doors and common spaces seem uniformly pretty bleak, not grubby exactly but very shabby and unkempt, with hallways smelling of old cabbage. Lifts feel very rickety, some rather ineptly ‘glued’ to the outside of buildings. Lots of clanging heavy metal doors to be navigated with several big keys which I assume are left over from the economic collapse here at the beginning of 1990s when things were pretty hairy for a bit. (I haven’t asked anyone to check – it is just that Moscow feels reasonably safe right now)

Inside the few I visited was the usual private rented mix of miscellaneous furniture, from overstuffed, heavy and overdone to a few bits of cheap tat. Kitchens and bathrooms, though, have all been done up to high standards, and of course electricity is subsidised so heating is not a problem. I went for a compact IKEAed place on the seventh floor with a slightly bleak and ‘in-lived-in’ feel, because it has a fantastic view of two of the seven Stalinist skyscrapers – called the Seven Sisters here – and is a great location, about 15 minutes walk from Red Square. Now plan to add more IKEA in an attempt to make it homely as there doesn’t seem to be other ways of getting at secondhand furniture.

Some of my colleagues meanwhile have found themselves a two room flat in one of those Stalinist skyscrapers I see from my window, which is extraordinary. The rooms are huge with very high ceilings, chandeliers, oak parqueted floors and big glass doors. The flat has been decorated in the Moscow signature red/black combination with wallpapers of different abstract patterns, for example squiggles of black on a rich red background. Luckily the rooms are big enough to take it (just). The owner has it because her grandfather was in the KGB. There is also a mysterious door at the back which leads into a black hole. Until we get a torch we are making up lots of stories about KGB escape routes and hiding places.

Unidentified packages 1

One of the commonest games of being in another country is ‘guess the product’. Deciphering pictures and text can have some unexpected results; this is my first surprise – butter that turned out to be brown. My own fault really, this package was next to others with clear pictures of yellow butter, but I liked the wrapping so I bought one that turned out to be chocolate butter (at least I think that is what it is.)

Lines of escape

One of my new colleagues speaks such perfect old-fashioned English that it is difficult to remember he is Russian. It turns out he learnt it from the BBC world service; as he says, he wanted to do it really properly as one of the only ways out of “Iron curtain” times. There are still echoes of that longing to escape – and the importance of learning the English language to do so – from many people I meet. People who have studied or worked abroad, or who want to (England, America, but also India). People who see more opportunities elsewhere, but who are also fatalistic – realistic?- about getting out, about having visas revoked without much explanation, about the unavailability of jobs in the current financial situation.

And it makes me and the other English people I am working with, seem like strange beasts. What reason could we possibility have to want to make the journey in the reverse direction?

Handy hints for travelers 2: metro

The other thing that everyone said before I got here is that you need to count your stops on the metro, because there are very few signs on the platforms and the announcements may be difficult to understand. What they didn’t say is that at each stop, the announcement tells you what the NEXT stop will be. This is helpful to indicate you are going in the right direction, but certainly confusing for a Londoner where the tube system tells you which stop you have arrived AT.

(Actually, now I ave been back in London for a few days I notice that they also announce the next stop on the tube; something I have clearly never noticed before!)


I have to mention breakfast at the hotel. The food isn’t bad, it is nutritious and based on carefully measured portions. But things like flavour, taste and variety are not a central issue. There is something about 3 fried eggs, a piece of cheese, a piece of salami and a pot yoghurt which soon ceases to appeal. I find myself fantasising about carrying a little handbag kit containing a bottle of olive oil, salt, pepper and maybe some mayo. That’s what comes of coming to Moscow with all the history and culture of a fully-fledged consumer economy behind me, rather than a centrally planned one. Maybe the supposedly new Russia of conspicuous consumption hasn’t reached this hotel yet.

Handy hints for travelers 1: alphabet

Everyone I talked to before I got here says that the most important thing is to learn the Cyrillic alphabet. They are right. Russian letters are phonetic and only pronounced one way (unlike English) so it is pretty simple. Feel a real fool though, as I painstaking spell out each word, especially as they are often very like the English or French equivalent, for example, стоп stop and старт start.


Being driven into Moscow and already trying to locate it in and against other European cities. My image of Russia has been so blurred by that sense of the otherness of communism, that I really didn’t expect it to feel so normal. Much like any large German or Eastern European city, but crossed with Nordic light and colours (ochres, sky blues, mint greens). Sprawling monumental neo-classical blocks, wide boulevards rattling with trams and trolley-buses.  Cleaner and less shabby then Budapest. Hints of Instanbul (easy to forget that Russia has borders with the Baltic, with Europe, but also with Asia, China, Japan, the Artic.)


And then just when I was settling into a city like Berlin/Helsinki, we reached the hotel. Which for reasons that were not quite clear, seemed to be in the centre of a military barracks. It also has an interior with peculiar interests, fluctuating between an off-key attempt at bling –bronze statues, waterfalls and flounced curtains (by the lift) - art celebrating heroic aspects of the locality (some weird displays in the foyer); and grubby plush crimson and gilt chairs in the restaurant, oh and a grandfather clock that is also a fish-tank. So, of course, I love it.


Except for the mosquitoes.


Going, going

What a fab flight for someone who loves flying, all the way up the western edge of Europe following the coastline and then over the top of the world - a curving blue and cloud horizon - and only finally southwards after St. Petersburg, creeping up on Moscow from behind.


And (unexpectedly) lounging in an almost empty business class, absent-mindedly listening in to the international business elite – 2 groups of 2 young men, as sleek and elegant as seals, impossible to pin down by nationality, just well-ironed and confident in their privilege. Also a shabby elderly Englishman who conformed to stereotype by turning out to be a diplomat (at least, that is the passport queue he joined at Domedevedeo airport).