Friday, 29 April 2011

Just before I fly away for a couple of weeks, wanted to share with you some of the paperwork required to enable business entry into the United States. Russia is (rightly) criticised for its byzantine, obscure, ever-changing visa and registration rules and regulations. But - well - look at this....

cheesy celebrations time

Left everyone at work watching the Royal Wedding and have come home to pack, as I am going to the US tomorrow. Which means I will miss both May Day and Victory Day. I really enjoyed the latter last year - endless novelty - but now realise that all the posters and street decorations are basically wheeled out the same each year (something that may be obvious to everyone else since it is what we all do at Christmas, Easter etc.)

Anyway, if you want to know more about Victory Day before 9th May, you can see all 1 hour and 30 minutes of lat year's parade, filmed by Russia Today. And check out Little Bone's post about getting caught up in the rehearsals for this year's extravaganza.


Another sign of Spring for me, is the change in street cleaning utensils (about which both winter and summer versions I seem to have a strange obsession). As the sun begins to shine, the shovels and scrapers and ice-breaking crowbars are being replaced with little swish brooms and wheelbarrow variants.

We have also had a subbotnik* in the public outside areas at work - which I missed - and meanwhile the Mayor is talking about cleaning up the decaying entrances and yards of Moscow's housing blocks. This would be a massive investment as a huge amount of housing has been left to decay in the post-soviet period (and was not well looked after in soviet times) so I am not sure I believe it. And of course the public zones of stairs and entrances have suffered worse. A public campaigning group called чистый подбездChisty Podyezd/Clean Doorway has been getting people to post pictures to their website of bad examples, and giving prizes to the worse!

* to quote directly from Wikipedia - "Subbotnik and voskresnik (from Russian words суббота [suˈbotə] for Saturday and воскресенье [vəskrʲɪˈsʲenʲjɪ] for Sunday) were days of volunteer work following the Bolshevik seizure of power. The tradition is continued in modern Russia and some other former Soviet Republics.[1] Subbotniks are mostly organized for cleaning the streets of garbage, fixing public amenities, collecting recyclable material, and other community services."

spring signs

After being - very briefly - in an extraordinarily sunny and blooming London, I have eagerly been looking for signs that Moscow is getting its own Spring. I remember this lady from when I moved into the block last September (although this is my first sighting this year). She always puts her foldaway chair in exactly the same place, and sits in it for most of the day at weekends - interspersed, as here, with short walks to the path. 

Thursday, 21 April 2011

Cosmonauts day - missed it

Yuri Gagarin's first flight into space still has a fantastic resonance - I found myself looking at endless news footage on YouTube from April 1961; lots of early colour footage, space machines riveted together out of bent sheets of metal; and big telephones.  Then saw this, about the Kremlins celebration gala last week. And so wish I could have been there. 

Thursday, 14 April 2011

a fancy food shop

Every time I go to the famous wonderfully over-the-top neo-baroque-style food shop called Eliseevskiy on Tverskaya I attempt to take a decent photograph of its lurid and artificial glamour - along with the other tourists snapping away  - but the results are always unimpressive. (This is, by the way, where I found the pink and green easter display, shown below.)

I go a lot because ... and this will only be relevant to a tiny proportion of the population ... it is the only place in Moscow I have found that does gluten-free foods; well actually just g-f plain biscuits, but better than nothing.

easter coming

I keep forgetting about easter. My london friends are already plotting their easter breaks, whilst here we wait until the May holidays (from May 1st = Labour Day to May 9th =Victory Day) for time off.

Of course, this is not because people are not religious; to the extent that many restaurants and cafes provide lenten (orthodox fasting) alternatives at this time of year. It is just that easter sunday will come and go without much impact on the working week. Meanwhile,  the same kind of stuff you get everywhere- eggs, chocolate, bunnies - are in the shops.

rainy day breakfast

Treated myself to breakfast in my local cafe - Tsurtsum, within the Winzavod art centre - in response to the continuing dampness and drizzle. This was very comforting as it is the closest I come to replicating my london life; sitting in an easy chair, at my laptop all (late) morning, with a series of cappucinos to hand. Nothing special about the place, just nice.

Also bought myself a new woolly hat. Lost mine 2 weeks ago, which was just a little too soon. Thought I could hold out (a kind of punishment for my stupidity) but fed up already with cold ears and numb cheeks. Hat not special either, just nice. So thats good.

Tuesday, 12 April 2011

lift guy

I have been trying surreptitiously to take a photograph of this guy for ages. He lives in our goods lift at work. Well of course he doesn't actually live there, and I cant tell quite how often he is 'at home', but it looks like his job is just to sit in the lift at all times. He doesn't help with loading and unloading (which anyway doesn't happen very often) but he does have the minimum comforts of life - except any daylight, of course.

I guess because wage levels here remain so low, bosses can afford to employ people to do, basically, nothing.

Monday, 11 April 2011


This post was going to be about the new Mayor's (rumoured) campaign to stop illegal street advertising in the city. But first I have to mention that - after a false spring - it has rained and snowed almost all weekend. The English language may have many different words for snow, sleet, hail etc; but this was mainly like what I can only call 'fast snow', a kind of thick, white, cold rain. Today we have grey skies and a more desultory snowfall, but it is still horrible. Thank you for listening.

As to outdoor advertising signs, I merely pass on a story doing the rounds - that people are just pretending to do up their apartment blocks, so they can get the money from the banners on scaffolding that result. And I say 'rumoured', because since Sergei Sobyanin hit town he seems to be aiming at putting a lot of space between his intentions and those of the previous incumbent Yury Luzhkov; also saying he is going to do something about the (impossible) traffic, stop knocking down old buildings and control new development better. We wait to see the outcomes.


Yet another unexpected food opportunity seems to have suddenly arrived in my locality - a new branch of an indian/vegetarian* cafe and shop chain. It is called Jagannath and has a pretty basic buffet, but is also fresh and cheap ( The original, on Kuznetsky Most, has a sit-down restaurant also.) Since there are very few Indian - or vegetarian - restaurants in Moscow, this is a real find. Although didn't really notice the food because was chatting nonstop to M.

*The only other vegetarian place I know is called Avocado but maybe readers can suggest some others?

another side to design

Of course, the other side to design  -in a place without a history of consumerism  (and where, even now supply is very uneven) - is that most ordinary people make do, don't throw things away, and are very inventive in fixing things with bits of string.

The results are not pretty, neat or clever. But such repairs and 'innovations' do, for me, reflect a certain enjoyable directness here Thus, the common response to any suggestion is not the more typically English one (which involves discussing the difficulties and issues your suggestion raises) but instead a very straightforward  "of course" or "why not". 

Saturday, 9 April 2011

worked it out

Think I have worked out what the smell is.  In some kind of vague spring-clean operation, a woman had been going around filling cracks and covering  the base of the whole estate in thick grey paint. And it stinks. Maybe its an anti-infestation thing, I have no idea (and I am trying really hard not to mention the slapdash nature of the work).

I still need to find out more about how the whole post-Soviet housing situation works. With privatisation in the 1990s I guess many people - at least those officially registered in Moscow - were just handed over their flats. But now, how is maintenance paid for? Here, its a bit rough, but it seems to happen; I have been to other places where the apartment interiors may be beautifully done up, but the hallways and stairs are almost in ruins. And the stories about buying a flat, only to get into the (often fraudulent) quagmire around who owns and/or is registered to that particular apartment, are completely terrifying.

Wednesday, 6 April 2011


And whilst I am grumbling, I had to avoid the film crew yet again on my block staircase putting up yet more mock graffitti (remember I live in a trendy slum) and the lift was broken as usual.

Actually, what really annoys me about the lift is that it exemplifies the problems of Soviet design (and, probably, post-Soviet maintenance). You will note the lift buttons go up to 9. This block has only ever had 7 floors. A small thing, but somehow immensely irritating.


Don't know if it is because I am grumpy with a cold, or because as the snow melts accumulated detritus - buried for several months - is now exposed, but the air smelt oil-stained today and I was reminded of just how polluted this city is. The local railway station too, which is a natural haunt for the homeless, the poor and stray dogs,  seemed grimmer than usual.

But maybe its just me feeling stupid. I have been wondering for ages what these old women do all day, standing aimlessly around with their trolley bags in the cold. Except that they occasionally rummage for, and then hand over, plastic bottles full of a clear liquid.

where design is a dirty word

Am becoming increasingly aware just how differently designers sit in the public imagination here. Design is considered a bit trivial, designers very much minor characters to their clients demands.

Of course, in Soviet times industrial and product design never really got a foothold within the complexities of a poorly functioning, state-led demand economy where consumer goods were always shoddy and in short supply, and any change just meant more problems. Architectural design, meanwhile, provided a symbolic and decorative celebration of the new communist world,  as well as a criticism of modernist and functionalist architecture elsewhere which was only 'expressing the callousness of the capitalist industrial monopoly.'* 

So designers were not/are not seen as offering a valuable service as they do - or think they do - within consumer society by creating innovative and useful things; they are instead either individual (artistic) visionaries or just people who get paid too much to make things look prettier.

But, then, of course, there is also a hidden history of design; of designers who worked inventively within the state system (such as VNIITE in the 1980s) or outside of it, for example, the more famous Paper Architects of the same period. And joy of joys, one of my colleagues worked with VNIITE and has been bringing me in magazines from this time. Design (because connected to capitalism) remained a dirty word, and the subject was named aesthetic engineering or technical aesthetics - but the work is adventurous and clever; and in the brave early days of perestroika when it was possible to have your own design studio and ideas, some beautiful (and crazy) things appeared. 

Shown are examples from Vladimir Telyakov's Futurological Objects series 1983-89, taken from Constantin Boym's New Russian Design; from where the quote used here is also taken. With thanks to Alexey Sinelnikov.

Saturday, 2 April 2011

Cathedral Square

I have to thank V and K for - finally - making me go to the Kremlin, and in particular for showing me Cathedral Square and the six various churches that surround it. This is definitely a must-see for tourists. Although Italian renaissance  architects were imported to do some of the work (and you can see traces of their impact), the overall effect is of a long continuity and tradition with Byzantium and medieval artistry. The interiors are covered in their entirety with scenes from the bible; and in each case a larger-than-life God stares down (and seems to look you directly in the eye) from the central dome. Terrific. 

10-of-the-best: no. 2 State Kremlin Palace

In the late 1950s and early 60s Khrushchev built a massive, modernist, glass and concrete 'palace' for communist party meetings, right within the historic Kremlin. The scale is monumental, with seating for 6,000 people, and not surprisingly the building is not well-liked, given that a considerable part of an older Russian heritage was destroyed to enable its construction.

But I love it. This is not so much because of the building design itself (although there are some fabulously classic Soviet murals) but more about the sheer scale of the whole 'mass' experience. I first visited in the 1970s to see the Bolshi Ballet perform, and was literally swept away; first by the huge crowds pouring down symmetrical sets of stairs to divest themselves of coats; and then by the same crowds moving upwards to the main concert hall itself.

This experience is repeated at the interval; this time everyone surges upwards to the largest room I have ever seen, where buffet-style, these 6,000 people simultaneously snack on Russian champagne and slices of bread and cheese/caviar/meat (at least that's what it feels like). Have visited much more recently, and enjoyed it in much the same way.

I should note that none of my Russian friends and colleagues seem to share this same enthusiasm, nor many of my English workmates; that seeing an event here is not cheap; and that it tends to the extremely popularist - right now they are running Michael Flatley's Lord of the Dance. But, well, to me, attending an event here is still a great way to capture something of the country's Soviet past.  The proper post-Soviet name is the State Kremlin Palace (GKD/гкд in Russian), although most people still know it as the Kremlin Palace of Congresses. Moscow-in-your-pocket is an easy place to start to see what's on and this is usually a good site for buying tickets.

more beautiful people

Found myself at a cocktail reception yesterday evening. Organised by Christies, the event was presumably aimed at promoting the art auctioneers to Russian art collectors again - a sign that the financial crisis is seen as on its way out here. Slightly miscellaneous artworks on the walls by Andy Warhol, Cindy Sherman, Claude Monet, Ilya Repin and Lucien Freud among others; but mainly I was staring at all the beautiful people (and the scrum of photographers).

My problem being that I never recognise celebrities on my own home-ground, let alone Russian ones. So no idea who these women are, just love/want their poise and style.

Meanwhile I showed my lack of class by wearing jeans, getting VERY over-excited at the Chanel No.5 goodie bag and going on to Moo Moo* for dinner.

* Moo Moo/ му му is one of two main chains of buffet-type 'cheap-n-cheerful' Russian food restuarants, decorated in a 'Russian village'/ cow motif style. The other is 'Mongolian style', called Elki Palki/ёлки палки.