Sunday, 16 May 2010


Although Moscow is clearly a world-class capital city, there is a surprising reverence towards foreigners. Whilst the trend for employing non-Russians - particularly in business and design fields - as an (expensive) status symbol is waning, being English definitely still gives one a bit of kudos. Since I have been here, I have been a judge for a design competition, been interviewed on Russia Today, been part of another TV video, had my photo in design magazines, and have now been asked to give a talk at Garage Contemporary Art Centre. I do know that this is mainly because I am not only a foreigner but also available (that is, I don't have to be flown in at great expense), but nonetheless the degree of attention feels a bit overwhelming - and just a bit flattering.

10-of-the-best 7: Gorky's House

Got taken to what is usually called the Gorky House Museum in tourist guides. And it is fab. A brilliantly gorgeous example of Russian art nouveau architecture (Russian modern) by Fyodor Shekhtel, who should be just as well known as Charles Reenie Mackintosh, Antonio Gaudi, Hector Guimard and all the rest.

The building is also known as the Ryabushinsky Mansion - the original clients - who were themselves a very interesting turn-of-the century family. Then that 'restless man' Maxim Gorky lived there from 1931 to 1936, a reward from Stalin for returning to the Soviet Union.

Meanwhile Fyodor Shekhtel fell out of favour after the Revolution - Art Nouveau was despised by Soviet critics of the period. Many of his Moscow mansions were leased to foreign embassies, so were (and are) inaccessible to visitors. But there is still a lot of Art Nouveau in Moscow, and this small house one of the most beautiful examples.

Handy hints for travellers 10: just don't!

Okay, probably a mistake but in my ongoing intention to eat new things, I bought caviar-flavoured crisps. And I wish I hadn't. You should only do this if you really really like prawn cocktail crisps and would like at least twice the intensity of taste.

Monday, 10 May 2010

photo icons

Icons 1960 - 80 is a photographic show currently running at the Lumiere Brothers Center for Photography, a new place which opened last month at Red October, with a bookshop, a gallery, and - I think - a lecture hall, library and café, (but which weren't open when we went). These are all black and white portraits and reportage-style images of celebrities from the days of the Soviet Union. And as usual, in my experience of Moscow exhibitions, hundreds of pictures are crammed in (nobody must be left out) with no room to breathe or to separate out the really fine work from the more mediocre.

But overall, very interesting. The work suggests an awareness of the most famous western celebrity photographers such as Avedon, Snowdon and Bailey, but filtered through very different conditions. As Google Translate cutely re-writes the Lumiere Brothers Photography Centre description: “Many of the photographers not only removed the elite, but they themselves belonged to her. How, for example, Vladimir Musaelyan, Brezhnev's personal photographer for thirteen years, or Yuri Krivonosov, thanks to which viewers will see rare shot Arkady Raikin in the studio ... High-class pros, they were outstanding personality, who put their relationship with the stars.” The famous, then, tended to have their own photographers (who were also celebrities), and while there is nothing too outrageous in these photographs, they are often both intimate and lively.

But the strange thing; whilst a 20 year period is covered nothing really changes. Everything has a kind of tentative 1960s look; you keep finding yourself checking the dates on the picture captions and being surprised/confused. Russia always tends to be shorthanded through the figures of Lenin and Stalin; people from other bits of Europe tend to forget the stagnation of the Khrushchev and Brezhnev years. Not only has artistic development here being thwarted by the threats 'cultural intellectuals' have faced, but also by the fact that very little 'happened' creatively in Russia across that 20 years; this whilst much of the rest of Europe and the US was being hit by flower power, feminism, anti-racism, punk, post-modernism etc., etc., etc. For me, this is what I notice most about these photographs, what gives them - as a totality - a strange, almost melancholic, feel.

I went to this show with Phil who is a photographer. See his work here.

Sunday, 9 May 2010

fireworks time (at a distance)

After a sunny day - and I still can't deal with the idea that Moscow is very hot in the summer so I now have sunburn - we are in the middle of a cracking thunderstorm with black clouds and torrential rain.

But, because I wanted to share, I got a very wet arm by sticking my little camera out of the balcony window, to bring you this snap of the Victory Day fireworks. Pretty difficult to see I know, so you will just have to believe me (and imagine for yourself the splashes of reds and greens as well as whites, and the loud bangs and the drunken singing going on all around.)


What was inspiring - and also sobering - was the presence of many elderly uniformed and be-medalled veterans in the crowd. Victory Day (День Победы Den Pobedy) commemorates those who died in Great Patriotic War/WWII and celebrates survivors and veterans. People carry flowers - mainly carnations - to give to any veterans they see. Sobering both because it is a reminder that in what became the Soviet Union (USSR) an unbelievable number of people - 26.6 million - lost their lives in that war. And because here are individuals who witnessed the regimes of both Hitler and Stalin, as well as the more recent upheavals of Gorbachev, Yeltsin and Putin. Hard to imagine what lives like these have been like.

The photographer, James Hill, has been taking portraits of veterans on Victory Day over the last 4 years. He currently has an exhibition of this work at the Moscow Museum of Modern Art (MMOMA) until May 23 2010, as part of the current Moscow Photobiennale. For some examples click here.

crowd scenes

What I did see was lots of crowd anticipation at the beginning- and also people leaving, packing up flags and instruments and things at the end. The atmosphere was terrific, everyone relaxed in the sun and having a good time. And every type of Moscovite, from elderly gentlemen dressed up in ancient dark suits and homburg hats, through to young skateboarding dudes, women tottering along on their high heels in hot-pants with children in tow, plenty of families and - most surprising to me (which shows just how it easy it is to imagine the stereotypical russian as a shapka wearing, black coated, slightly depressive winter type of person ) - lots of people in sleeveless tees, shorts, flip-flops and even hawaiian shirts.

missed it!

Well, a beautiful sunny day today with a clear sky and a light breeze, so perfect weather for Victory Day. Embarrassed to admit to it, but I missed the parade itself. First there were control checkpoints for getting close all along the Tverskaya route; and then having blagged my way into Red Square I managed somehow to find myself beyond the cordon again (due to a being distracted by nipping into Zara in GUM probably!) And then, by the time I made my way back to Pushkin Square, everything had already gone by.

So I have to watch the Russia Today video on YouTube like you ( whilst taking note of an - accurate - comment posted beneath that "RT really did a horrible job on this one. Instead of a bunch of un-informed amateur commentators they should have just TRANSLATED what was said in the loud speakers for everyone to hear at the parade".)

Friday, 7 May 2010

smoking (extra)

You see, a city of smokers, but kind of neat and tidy with it, in an ad-hoc make-do-and-mend kind of way......


Smoking is still pretty common here; and cheap - 20 cigarettes are about 35 - 40 roubles (under £1) even for imported brands. But although it is still allowed in public places people tend to smoke outside, or at least (as in our building) by an open window in the stairwell. So, while there may be a bit of a fug in a restaurant or bar, its nothing compared to what it used to be like everywhere.

In fact I have just been watching the classic Cracker British TV series on DVD - written mainly by Jimmy McGovern and made in the early 90s - with the magnificent big-in-every-way Robbie Coltrane as the hard drinking, chain-smoking criminal psychologist. And you can hardly see the actors for the smoke. This, of course, in a gritty Manchester sort of way, not your Mad Men ironic, post-modern kind of smoking action. Made me quite nostalgic.

on new architecture

Contemporary Moscow has taken both post-modernist architecture and what has been called capitalist realism to its ample, chaotic, sometimes ugly, and often corrupt, bosom. I have been resisting showing examples of this work, which takes its references from surface style rather than substance, and is as happy to plastic coat re-versioned Stalinist skyscrapers and giant baroque Faberge eggs as it is to stick a new Tatlin's tower atop a roofline or throw extra classical columns at any large piece of glass facade.

However, my collection of architectural photographs seems to keep expanding, so I have decided it is time to start sharing.

(I note that capitalism realism is also the title of a new book by Mark Fisher, who uses it to describe contemporary Britain. On the day the UK elections produced a hung parliament, it seems an appropriate read.)

Saturday, 1 May 2010

wishing I could hear more everyday stories

Today we went to visit the flat next to my old flat, which I have watched builders going in and out of for several months. So, on the off-chance and as I was leaving, I enquired as to whether it might be for rent.

Well, we met the owner, an elderly engineer. The one-roomed flat, which had been his mother's, still has Soviet period fixtures and fittings. Visiting it was like being in a time-warp compared to the IKEA corporate flat I have just left (or the shiny 'capitalist realist' style interior I now occupy). I loved it of course - it would make a great 'matching set' with my 50s modernist flat in London - but there was a complicated story about how he and his wife would like to rent it to me, so I could help the grandchildren with their English (and because they have had good times in London on a cultural exchange), but that his daughter was keen to use it as extra space for these children and their artistic activities, so no decision could yet be made. Photographs of his grandchildren and my daughter were duly studied and cooed over, and other stories were swopped particularly about a shared interest in architecture - of which more below.

This led , after we had left, to talk about both the housing market in Moscow and the stories it offers about people's lives here. In many ways Moscow is like London; housing is now very expensive, such that those who 'came into' property before the boom have the potential to live off the additional income from renting it, whilst those who missed out can no longer 'get in' and must pay around 50% of their income for somewhere to live.

Only in Moscow what people now own - mainly following the privatisation of the 90s - depends on how their parents were employed during the Soviet period. So, if your dad or grandfather was in the KGB or some other high-ranking official, then you may now well have the keys to a huge flat in a Stalinist skyscraper. I don't know about the engineer's family, but his wife is the daughter of Vladimir Shukhov, who designed some of the earliest hyperboloid structures, including the famous Tower named after him (just this fact alone is very exciting to me, for which I apologise), so they have another, inherited flat.

And then this led on to stories about other people I work with, including one whose father was Stalin's helicopter pilot. Because, in Soviet times, you only got permission to move to Moscow legally if you were a key worker or part of the power structure. Which means, I guess, that there is a greater 'density' of such personal histories here.

tales of the unexpected 3

I know. An elephant and a teddy bear with poles up their bottoms. What is that for exactly?

more food preferences

One of the things I love about Russia is how seriously they take their mushrooms. You can buy many varieties fresh, dried, in glass jars and frozen. There is also a pretty good 'standard' mushroom and potato salad. But now I have discovered a great ready-made chips-and-mushrooms mix which may not look that exciting but smells and tastes gorgeous. Recommended.

wearing the ribbon

Tried to take a surreptitious photograph of these young women on the metro - obviously unsuccessfully - because I wanted to show the black and yellow ribbon tied around the handbag of the girl in the middle. This is a georgievskaya lenta, or St George's Ribbon, worn - like the poppy in England - to commemorate bravery during the War, and a lot of people are wearing it, usually in a single, crossed loop.


Victory Day, next Sunday 9th May, is a big and important affair, especially with this being the 65th anniversary of the capitulation of the Nazi Germany to the Soviet Union in the Second World War (known here as the Great Patriotic War).

The preparations are serious too. Moscow News has a story about the replica of Red Square which has been built in the village of Alabino, south-west of Moscow, for training soldiers over the last two months. And Ria Novosti, the state owned news agency, has a must-see video (if only for the glories of the voice-over) entitled Repainting military equipment for Victory Day parade.