Sunday, 8 July 2012

towards a finale

So, all that is left to do is to decide on the final 'tenth' for the 10-of-the-best series. The minor problem is that these have got a bit out of order on this blog; the bigger problem that I cannot decide between many different places that have not yet made it to the list. There is VdnKH, the All Russian Exhibition Centre, with its massive Soviet-style park of elegant regional pavilions, and their peculiarly Russian transformation into masses of tiny stalls. (All with the added benefit of being in close proximity to the Space Museum, the outrageously dated Hotel Cosmos, and the glories of ice sculptures in the winter.)

Or the fabulous new interior of the Stanislavsky Theatre (shown here, part of a stylish refurbishment of the whole factory). Or any of the new and developing contemporary art centres, also in renovated factories - Winzavod, ArtPlay, Flacon or Fabrika. Or - of course - all the many fab places, especially nightclubs, that I never frequented during my extended stay in Moscow.

At this very last moment, then, all suggestions welcome for 'number 10'.  

somewhere not to go

A last task in Moscow took me to the building site that is Moscow City. I suppose this means I can tick it off my list of unseen sights. Can't think of anything else to say.

ulitsa O.G.I.

Can't quite believe how many new sights/sites I have fitted into this trip. N and I took me to the Ulitsa OGI bar, which I thought had closed down, but it is still there, nicely hidden in a yard. This is sooo famous, designed by one of Russia's most radical art-architects, Alexander Brodsky, and I think one of his best pieces of interior work, being both strong conceptually (as part  of his ongoing commentary on the difficulties of making architecture in the Soviet Union/Russa) and a comfortable, easy to occupy bar.

I managed to take quite poor photographs of this interior -so go to Yuri Palmin Photography for great pictures of both this and other Brodsky projects. 

.....ways I will never be Russian

1. Bundling up before going out - whilst still inside -  in the whole kit, boots, coat, scarf, gloves, hat, even just to go outside for two minutes. Not stripping off any of these layers, even on the metro which is like an oven, in order to keep as much of your own body heat in as possible.
2. Remembering to take off one's shoes when visiting someone's flat, and working out when to wear slippers or not.
3. Having a fatalistic response to even the most outrageous behaviour (whether everyday or political) 
4. Having the most amazing sense of humour based on a mixture of self-deprecation, poetry, anarchy and - sometimes - just outright weirdness
5. Being able to live somewhere where there is not even the slightest idea of the importance of health and safety (or sustainability or any of those other generally shared public values )
6. Understanding that the role of the state is not to be there to make people's lives better, but to  defend the security of the state, by whatever means. 

.....ways I have become a little more Russian

1. I am (a little) more direct in my speech, and much more aware of how confusingly vague English people are in their talk
2. I have an increased preference for silence over swarmy and mainly meaningless conversation-filling chatter
3. I say Oy when I bump myself, and cannot remember what noise English people use.
4. I walk more like a Russian in the winter, that is to say, incredibly fast, although I cannot yet manage that stiff legged, no knee bending gait. (I am also a bit confused that Muscovites seem to have a much slower summer strolling speed, would like clarification on this).
5. I have become addicted to compote making, brewing up my own tepid berry juice rather than buying it from the shop in a box.  
6. I like the cold. Especially crisp snow and brilliant blue skies. (Actually this is probably quite un-Russian as all the Muscovites I know complain bitterly about the winter).
7. I want a (old fashioned) dacha, which is truly a proper way to live, especially when you spend the week in a city which is endlessly difficult.
8. I am fed up by how much English people fail to realise just how privileged we are to live under the rule of law, and instead complain endlessly about being hard done by.
9. I have always like vodka, but now I like it a lot.
10. I don't trust the banks anymore.

10-of-the-best 6: boat trip

Also got taken on my first summer boat trip - absolutely loved the winter icebreaker boat version - which must be one of the best ways to see any city. There are various cruises, but we went on the shuttle boat (with several stops) from Novospasskiy bridge to Kievskiy Vokzal (Kievskaya station). 

at the pub

Rounded off that evening in a slightly surreal way by going to watch the European Cup final (Spain 4 Italy 0) in what turned out to be an absolutely authentic English pub, run by a friend of mine and her husband, just near Red Square.  Watched football and drunk English beer. Lovely.

sunday walking

Finally did the walk along the Moskva River embankment, something I have wanted to do all my time in Moscow. Started from the Kotelnicheska Embankment building - one of Stalins 'seven sisters' skyscraper buildings (thanks to staying there with the endlessly generous N + I) - on a lovely sunny Sunday afternoon. Then strolled past the Kremlin to Ostozhenka ( a district nicknamed the Golden Mile and home to both wealthy mansions and some good contemporary architecture).

The only problem, besides the incessant drone of traffic, is actually finding a way to get onto the riverside path itself. There seems to be only one underpass on the whole stretch. And the only alternative is a weird zebra crossing arrangement where you go half-way across one crossing, and then have to wait in the middle, in order to go via another crossing set at right angles to this one, whilst the cars zoom past curving either to your left or your right. Me and a young Russian guy both hovered at this mid-way point, unsure whether we wanted to risk our lives. And - as at other times when I have tried to cross a Moscow road - he followed the safety-in-numbers attitude, by grabbing my arm and hauling me out into the traffic...before the lights had changed. I tried to hang back, gesticulating wildly at the lights, but he took an even firmer grip, yelling 'Together, or I will die', and across we went with cars careering around us and hooting madly. 

And then, when we got to the river itself, he wanted, of course, to walk with me and practice his english.

Saturday, 7 July 2012

new garage

As also mentioned before, one of the reasons for the Gorky Park make-over is investment by Roman Abramovich. This includes a planned conversion of a derelict 1960s modernist restaurant (for his partner Dasha Zhukova) into a new Garage Centre for Contemporary Culture, now that the old one that she created has been closed down. Architects Rem Koolhaas  and local firm Form Bureau have been given the job - with Koolhaas saying at the press conference, “Neglect is quite picturesque and offers insights into the beauty of decay,” pointing out that he planned to keep the original tiles, decoration and other “traces of Russia's recent history.” Amazingly we got to look around the building site, I think just because the security guard was bored. The basic two storey concrete shell and main staircases are tatty but still intact, and it already feels like a perfect art gallery. 

To see the Koolhaas/OMA proposals, click here.
To see the planned temporary pavilion by Japanese architect Shigeru Ban, click here. 

more summer in gorky park 2 - sunbathing by the moskva river

more summer in gorky park 1 - beach volleyball (where the ice rink is in winter)

mafia picnic

Not only did we have a marvellous picnic, but I finally learnt how to play mafia games. In it, people in the group are either ordinary citizens or mafia (red or black cards) and then there are other roles to complicate things. The final aim is that either all the good citizens die, or that they manage to kill the mafia (although the game is inherently loaded against this outcome). So you play out a series of days and nights (during which citizens have eyes shut, mafia can see and choose who to murder.) During each 'day' everyone discusses who is the mafia, and makes accusations.

Of course this circles the difficulties at the centre of a corrupt society; if someone talks to much, that can make them seem likely to be mafia, as they are trying to point the blame elsewhere - but of course if you say nothing then you are also likely to be mafia, because you are trying to stay invisible. So the game is actually about hilarious, philosophical, joyfully argumentative talking.

Just a reminder (from my previous post on this subject) that you can read the original Mafia Games rules here and a more detailed explanation and brief history on Wikipedia.

gorky again

I have extolled the virtues of Gorky Park before, but I have to mention how good it has become in the summer. A short(ish) walk from Strelka/Red October, the park has also become a 'to be seen' place. So much going on now, besides ice cream and drinks stalls, cafes and restaurants. There were always two ponds and a fountain, but now the fountain performs to music and the lake is full of pedalos - just as the paths are full of bicycles, skaters, dancers, wheelie cars, table tennis tables, and the green bits are loaded with chairs and platforms and pavilions. 

10-of-the-best 5: Bar Strelka

Even in the brief time I have been away, the Moscow art and design scene seems to have blossomed (it being the summer obviously helps). Finally made it to Bar Strelka, for an evening drink on the high-level outside terrace overlooking the river; definitely one of the coolest places to be right now. In fact the whole Red October factory island is buzzing. Read a brilliant piece by the author Gary Shteyngart ("Born in Leningrad, U.S.S.R., in 1972, I have been coming back almost every year since my late twenties to poke fun at my birthplace"). He calls Strelka the centre of 'the Snob universe', Russia's very own glossy for the cultural elite; but also hopes (hopelessly) that places like this can be part of making the country more 'normal' - for "If Russia can become a normal country, then maybe my past can be normalized, too" .

For more cool spots outdoor eating and drink spots, read this from moscow-in-your-pocket.
For more about Bar Strelka, and the Strelka Insitute, see this video.  

'High-Quality standarts'

The Izmailovo hotel is a massive, ugly, high-rise, Soviet-style complex with its own internal shops and restaurants; divided into 4 blocks (Alpha, Beta, Gamma, Delta of course) each with some version of a  large atrium/fountain/dramatic sculpture/grand staircase, all covered in thin, shiny glass, marble, metallic surfaces and patterns; so a place which I readily recommend if you like that kind of thing. And their website is also a joy. 

'at least one surreal thing a day..'

Made it back to Moscow at last, for a week. Still so much in love with this place. If anything, even better going back as a tourist - knowing where I am but not being exhausted by the normal difficulties, just enjoying the many weirdnesses relative to bland old London. Which included a 4 hour traffic jam from the airport to the hotel, thus arriving at midnight, only to then remember that the hotel named on the visa voucher was just there to make it easy to get a tourist visa*, not because I was ever intended to stay. So no booking. Had to borrow the cash off of V to get a room for the night (no credit cards taken).

But good room, and inexpensive for Moscow. Plus, right next to Izmailovo Park, which I never got to before, partly out of a lack of enthusiasm for its over-hyped and (mainly) tacky souvenir market. So never quite sussed that it is a small-scale Russian-style over-the-top Disney-World. Ridculous and brilliant.**

* For those not in the know, if you travel to Moscow planning to stay at a friend's place, then you have to go through a nightmare arrangement involving personal invitations and separate registration processes. So, instead, everyone uses travel agents that just randomly name a hotel, just for the paperwork.
** Go here to see (slightly dated but nice) photographs of the Izmailovo market stalls. 

Friday, 9 March 2012

goodbye Moscow, hello London

Very late getting around to putting up this picture; time has just flown by since I got back to London. Still got lots to say about life in Moscow, and planning to be back there soon.

Oh, and had my very first celebrity interview - read it here!

Alla dancing

And then on my final, final night in Moscow had the honour of being invited to the most lovely dinner with my neighbours. Well in fact, at this very last moment, they were trying to match-make me with A who was widowed some years ago, whom I have often met in the lift with his dog, and who speaks no English. Turns out he is an artist, trained in the Soviet fashion on repetitive (and suitably heroic) drawings of Lenin, and then copying from Great Works - one of his Fragonards has pride of place on the wall. Also neo-classical frescos on his ceiling, and a mural in the kitchen, topped off with some wonderful pre-revolutionary furniture and an artfully arranged branch and curtain combination which was probably the height of interior fashion for the cultural elite in the 1970s (or 50s).

The meal was the usual leisurely and pleasurable consumption of caviar, salami, cheese, black bread, fruit, compote and (of course, lots of) alcohol. Much toasting, mainly to the future of A and me together, and to good times had in Moscow. And to me coming back and staying with A. Etc. Which was followed by him getting out his guitar and serenading me with gypsy and hooligan* songs. And some dancing. Fabulous.

For a sample, on balalaikas, with a quartet in full evening dress go here.


One of many wonderful 'last meals' before I leave, this one with L and friends, at Ragout. She is the most uber-trendy person I know (she knows all the best London cocktail bars) so as you can guess, the food at this place was gorgeous.


A day out to Skolkovo Innovation Centre - Moscow's answer to Silicon Valley. Really only the landmark building exists so far (by David Adjaye Architects), the Moscow School of Management, which is a weird cross between an airport and a conference centre. We were shown a surreal promo video, which not only offered some of Russia's 'crooks and thieves'* as examples for MBA students to follow, but also had interviews with past students on field trips saying such things as 'the chinese have slitty eyes'.

*What Alexander Navalny has famously called Putin's United Russia party

Sunday, 5 February 2012

some things I dislike about Moscow - smelly hallways

It is a sad but accurate fact about Moscow that almost all communal hallways in housing blocks smell bad. N suggested rotting potatoes as a description, to which I would add top notes of stale air, chemical paint and very elderly dust. This is not just in the more poorly built apartments; N lives in one of the Stalinist skyscrapers, built originally for the Soviet elite. And I recently had the honour of visiting the flat of Nikita Khruchshev's family on Tverskaya, which was very beautiful inside, but still had a relatively shabby communal staircase and hallway - and that smell. 

the art of parking 4: the complete tuck

One of the things about having been in Moscow for over two years is that - mostly - I no longer notice the anarchistic creativity of the parking compared to other European cities. However, was impressed by this full right-angle tuck and its complete blocking of the pavement (and by the evidence from the broken manhole of previous car-parking activities.)

still missing things

Err, planned to go on the protest march yesterday, but then felt too unwell to go anywhere. Don't know if its the anxiety of leaving, exhaustion from work, too much partying, or simply getting the a sore throat.... but anyway, ended up watching the demonstration on BBC, CNN, RIAN Novosti and RT. Great to see so many people out.

Lots of talk about the freezing weather conditions of course, most obviously witnessed in the utter misery of body language displayed by CNN's Phil Black and BBC's Steve Rosenberg (pictured), both obliged to report to camera without hats or scarfs.

Screenshot taken from BBC News item.

Friday, 3 February 2012

cold feet

Around minus 20 degrees, and this old guy is still coming out to feed the pigeons the very last of his bread crumbs. Another nice example of the generality that Russians (especially the older generation) will never throw anything away. But also a bit worrying, as I am pretty certain that he seems to be out and about in just his socks.

smile please

I have to include this photo of V from that evening - mainly because of the surreal experience of absent-mindedly testing out my very-cheap-compact-camera's 'smile recognition' mode on him; and finding out that it really would not take a picture until he actually smiled, and then doing it automatically without any input from me.

As for V, it went totally against the grain for him. Not the smiling bit, which he does a lot, but being forced to smile against his will by a machine.

*Finally found the definitive article on why Russians do not smile in public; consisting of 14 separate, detailed points. The meaning of a smile? Why do Russians smile so seldom?

even the dogs

Even the dogs (well the domestic ones) have their own outfits. This suit courtesy of U and O, to whom many thanks for a lovely dinner.

some things I love about Moscow - headgear heaven

This current bout of seriously cold weather means that both the eccentricity and furriness of headgear has expanded exponentially. I could hat-watch (and coat-watch) all day, especially on the metro, where the sheer density of shuffling crowds brings every kind of person - and thus assemblage of 'fashion' items - into one closely compacted viewing space. London can't even begin to match it....  

Wednesday, 1 February 2012

ballet again

Y very sweetly took me to the ballet the night before last. Swan Lake at the Stanislavsky theatre. Fab - pretty camp, with glorious over-blown sets and some real pantomime moments (especially, as it should be, the evil sorcerer).  

new hat...

Seem to be obsessively buying 'Russian' things including - finally - a proper fur hat. Err, with ears.

Sunday, 29 January 2012

10-of-the-best: no.4 Gorky Park

Gorky Park is in a constant process of re-invention right now, which is partly about an (almost first) attempt to make Moscow a more liveable city and partly about some weird deals between the Kremlin, the mayor and an oligarch or two (so what is new?)

The initial stage, commissioned through the Strelka Institute (set up by oligarch Alexander Mamut), was to add in some new urban designish elements - benches, more up-market cafes, an outdoor cinema and a summer 'beach', whilst clearing the last of the mini Coney Island type fairground rides from the river frontage. Then this next stage, which is AMAZING! There is now the biggest and best skating area I have ever seen, a mixture of different rinks linked by ice ways, all framed by some quite neat wooden and colourful pavilions and bridges.*  I note that their website has a fab, that is to say quite hammy, animated CAD walkthrough (skatethrough?) crooned over by Louis Armstrong.

The stage to follow in the Spring is the shift of Garage from, well the garage (Melnikov-designed constructivist) it was in, to here. This is publicised as beginning with a pavilion by Japanese architect Shigeru Ban, then a  temporary home designed by Rem Koolhaas’s Office for Metropolitan Architecture (OMA) together with Olga Trevias/Form Bureau, which will convert the Park's concrete 1960s Vremena Goda (Four Seasons) restaurant, long abandoned. After that,  Garage will come to "occupy a nearby 8,500 square meter hexagonal pavilion. The historic 1920s pavilion of six sections with a courtyard (was) first constructed to house the first All-Union Agricultural Exhibition.."

So, of course, this leads to interesting questions. Well of course the usual one as to whether it will happen. And then there is the cash.  It was already known that Roman Abramovich has had a hand (and money) in the re-development of Gorky Park and now his girlfriend Dasha Zhukova, the owner of Garage, is moving in there too. As Andrew Osbourn put it in the Telegraph earlier this year: "using part of his estimated £8.4 billion fortune to turn (Gorky Park) into a showcase for the Russian capital is an undertaking likely to further endear Mr Abramovich to the Kremlin which regularly urges oligarchs to plough some of their fabulous wealth back into society". But then - maybe - they are also getting some real estate in return.

* I took the photo just after the ice had been cleaned, hence the emptiness. In fact, each winter since Soviet times, the paths of Gorky Park have been watered and left to ice all winter. I have only not skated there in the last couple of years because it always seemed as full as rush-hour in the Metro. Having a refrigerated bed has meant that this mild winter has not caused a problem; and the rink is just as full as it was in past times. 

Go here for more about the Gorky Park facilities and a list of the best other ice rinks in Moscow. 

10-of-the-best: no.3 Solyanka

Dragged V to Solyanka (the restaurant, not the road or club) for Sunday lunch today, which in fact is much too uber-trendy for his liking. But I have to have it on my list of best non-mainstream-tourist places to hang out, just because it shows that Muscovites* also have cool, contemporary cafes where you can sit all day with your chums, the newspapers and/or your iPad - and with your kids if you have them; that is, that there is life beyond the superficiality of most tourist-class restaurant bling and chintz.

And if you prefer something more cozy and even less showy, then there is always People Like People/Lyudi Kak Lyudi/люди как люди, just around the corner.

*Actually some Muscovites don't like it, because the original started out in St. Petersburg.

Saturday, 28 January 2012

I hate auchan (but it is very cheap)

And then what did I do but end up - for the first time in Moscow - in an enormous, packed Auchan/ашан supermarket where I found myself buying (much cheaper) valenki anyway...

getting the boot(s)

As the Moscow News guide said, there is a street market alongside Donskaya Ulitsa, selling mainly food but also these valenki - traditional felt boots. Sorely tempted even though my luggage is already stuffed full. And what can I do with valenki in Islington, north London?

sad but true

Went to visit the Shukhov Radio Tower today, which was top of my list of things to do. Why you may ask? Because it was the most amazing bit of 1920s engineering, a lightweight steel lattice grid, completely radical at the time: and because Alexander Rodchenko took some fab photos of it.  It is also under threat of demolition and I am an architectural junkie. I took a walk, based on this one from the Moscow News, although in reverse, that is, coming out of Shabolovskaya metro station first (the tower is directly opposite) and then going to Leninsky Prospect - not the prettiest bit of town, but quite representative. 

Also made me realise that I may be in Moscow, but I am a typical Londoner - I have my patch and don't go much beyond it. So in two and half years here have only infrequently been south of the river or over to the Arbat and the west-side. OMG, so much still to see.

the summing up begins

Of course the trouble with leaving anywhere is the urgent need to sum up experiences, to finish all things still undone, and to run around attempting to see many places as yet unvisited. This is going to have (a not necessarily wonderful) impact on the remaining pages of this blog.*

Throughout my stay, I have been refusing the lazy stereotypes of Russians in general and Muscovites in particular - that is, that they are gloomy, beaten down by a history of Suffering and yet also an Enigma ('a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside a ... etc., etc'): and that, given time, underneath they are completely wonderful ('when you get to know them'). Russians themselves, of course, also partake in these bland definitions of national identity, both seriously and with a considerable amount of rich, melancholic humour: just as the English resort to images of polite eccentricity, and the French to superiority and chicness.

But, because of recent history, people from outside this country seem to persist in caricaturing Russians, blurring the normal diversity of most ordinary people with either their government or with only tiny sub-cultures - the oligarchs, siloviki ('heavies') and mafia. Meanwhile, plenty of other sub-cultures, like the hipsters or gopniki, don't even get noticed elsewhere.

That doesn't mean there aren't real differences, but these, to me, are most interesting in how they play out in the everyday - in our various body languages and habits, and in attitudes and assumptions about how to survive and make sense of the world(s) we live in. That is what I have been trying - and failing - to unravel.

 But if I had to make one lazy stereotype about Russians, it would not be about glumness or stoicness, but rather what I can only call a kind of unconstrained mischievousness... encompassing melodramatic yet self-deprecating humour,  story-telling, unselfconscious silliness and  a certain contrariousness.** Unlike the rest of western Europe and America, though, which does not differentiate between public and private identities, this is mainly kept for family and friends (except perhaps by contemporary artists). Think Norwegian or Icelander, mixed with some Irish. Or am I talking nonsense?***

* I am also aiming to add more to as many of my 'mini-series' as possible, including 10-of-the-best, the art of parking and city bingo.  So, busy busy busy....
** There is also something mischievous embedded deep into politics, which there becomes both surreal and manipulative. See 'Putin Pranking himself'
*** Although the blog Mission to Moscow no longer functions, atethepaint's 50 facts about Russians is still there (as are the many comments). One 'fact' is about the Russian proverb Наглость - второе счастье; one translation is 'impudence - the second happiness' - which is something like what I am suggesting.  There is also a fab YouTube video from the We love Russia series, - you can see the complete set here  - for  some great brilliant, hilarious examples of exactly this crazy mischievousness. 

Thursday, 26 January 2012

time to go...

Spent some time idly watching this woman attempting - with much difficulty - to climb the steep embankment of the railway, on her way across the tracks. This is a common shortcut, which can even get quite crowded, and a regular 'desire line' forms. However on this day the usual path had been momentarily obliterated by a light snow fall and this woman cast of sideways, getting stuck in an awkward patch and continually losing her foothold. After several minutes she took off her gloves in an attempt to use her hands, and some time after that she made the sign of the cross. And then, finally, she got to the top.

I don't understand quite why people take this route; it is not near a train station, so I don't think it is about avoiding fares. So where are they going? Can someone tell me? Meantime, it seems quintessentially Russian - to deliberately take another even more difficult path rather than just follow the proscribed, err, legal one (that is, under the railway bridge and along the road).

And - somehow - it sums up many things about being here, now that I am about to leave. New job starting in London in three weeks time. So, sad to go and so happy to be going home. 

more snow cleaning operations (but hardly any snow)

Despite unexpectedly minor snowfall this winter (although glad to say we are at last having those incredible pale blue icily clear skies, with eye-watering-frozen-nostril-hair temperatures of minus 15) the snow cleaners are still out in force. Have stopped myself showing you yet another picture of road snow-gobbling machines, but here are some humans whose job it is to repeatedly jump out of a van and sweep snow off the top of tram-stop shelters.

And even this is just a substitute for what I really wanted to show you, but didn't have a camera at the time. For there is the fab snow-clearing train, a proper-sized train but which is a symphony of snow-gobbling front end, together with a conveyor belt carriage, followed by a long sequence of carriage-shaped but roofless snow containers. All, of course, mainly empty of snow since there isn't much.

Saturday, 14 January 2012

On the way back had a one night stopover in Beijing. Definitely where the next Masters of the Universe live. An extraordinary combination of, on the one hand, chaotic, endlessly entrepreneurial everyday life (selling everything* and operating at every level from people riding sellotaped mopeds to owners of shiny polished black Mercs); and on the other, totally organised mega-scaled infrastructure development - not pretty, always overlarge, but well-built and smartly finished - and new buildings going up everywhere. Makes Moscow feel quite normal.

*As evidenced by the fact I got caught a mere three minutes from my hotel by the Beijing art student scam, an activity ubiquitous and famous enough to have its own entry on Wikipedia.

happy new year (and happy 'old' new year of course)

Amazing time with my daughter in Sydney, including an island picnic watching the New Year fireworks. Lovely. I can't help wishing that you could bottle whatever it is that makes for laid back, sunny-mannered, easy going Australian life - as a present for Muscovites to inhale from periodically. Not all the time of course,  just now and then.