Vote! Vote! The Kremlin wants you to vote!

Considering that Putin has hardly bothered electioneering at all this time, the impending Russian presidential poll is instead marked by a carpet-bombing campaign of adverts intended to try and get people out to vote. Of course, the subtext is “for Putin” but the main thing is to address the turnout factor, especially as opposition leader and charismatic non-candidate Alexei Navalny is pushing for a boycott. So the city is bedecked with billboards, video displays, posters in every corner, even imprecations in schools and added to till receipts…

Otherwise, I have only seen billboards for Zhirinovsky’s nationalist-murderclown LDPR and Grudinin, the non-card-carrying Communist Party millionaire-comrade. At least the latter has real policies (many actually quite credible and creditable) rather than just saying “LDPR. Zhirinovsky.”


All Aboard the Victory Train!

Maybe it’s a degree of desensitisation that creeps in after a few months here, but while recognising the fetishisation of the Second World War and its (ab)use for political purposes (yes, Park Pobedy, I’m looking at you), there are some expressions of this I find rather charming. After all, the Great Patriotic War undoubtedly was a very big deal, and Russians do have reason to be proud of their role in defeating Nazism. One such expression is the theming of some metro trains, trams and buses, like the one I rode in today, dedicated to the Hero-City of Minsk. Kiev and Odessa were also named as Hero-Cities then (and are still remembered in the memorials by the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier). I wonder if they have their own metro trains?

Chutzpah, po-Russky, and some deep, repressed doubts

Russians are, I think it is fair to say, typically not prone to English-style under-statement. Especially in the current geopolitical snit-fest, I suspect they have (over-)compensated for feeling under-appreciated and misunderstood by the outside world by dipping into an extraordinarily brazen and vainglorious vein of nationalist propaganda. I confess I have a soft spot for it, it is redeemed by its irredeemable crassness, appealing for the depth of its unappealing unsubtlety. I was reminded of this yesterday when coming upon this mug:


“He Gave Crimea Away!” (Khrushchev)


“He Took Crimea Back!” (Putin)











Some things are so terrible that, if you are anything like me, you just have to have them. Anyway, it is not as though this is a one-off. There is a whole industry and socio-geopolitical meme: From the Crimea murals liberally dotted around Moscow, to the whole cult of the “polite people” (as the “little green men” who seized Crimea were known over here), to the t-shirts exalting everything from the ruble to Foreign Minister Lavrov, to Putinka-brand vodka (can you imagine Auld Cameronian whisky or Obamania hard cider selling?).


A “Polite Person” action figure

Most of this is not inverse-chic for the tourists; you find the worst/best examples in little out of the way metro underpass kiosks and the like. And it presumably sells, else why so much of it around? In part, I presume it does represent genuine patriotic enthusiasm, delight in Putin’s manly rule. But the over-the-top tone of so much, the desperate need not just to exalt all things Putin’s Russia but actively to cock a snoot at everyone else, that to me suggests something at once depressing and encouraging.

I can’t help but feel that it speaks to a deep-down knowledge that of late Russia has taken a wrong turn, has lost its moral compass and geopolitical surety. The need to shout patriotism and defiance so loudly is, surely, more than anything else to drown out that quiet voice of doubt?


A Night at the Bolshoi, and meeting the fanaty of the ballet


Russian football fans, the fanaty, are notoriously passionate, unruly and often violent. (Like the Brits, and the Italians, and the…). Now, no one threw any flares, or wielded iron bars, but there was an interesting kinship to be found with them in the audience at the Bolshoi. Let me explain.

Earlier this month, I made my first trip to the ballet, and to see Swan Lake at the Bolshoi, at that. I was expecting the theatre to be sumptuous, and it absolutely was, a dazzlingly imperial palette of red and gold. The staff, in classic Russian style, ran the gamut from friendly and helpful to decidedly neither (not least the cloakroom attendants who snarled us away when we dared approach them, given that we had unaccountably and selfishly failed psychically to divine that their coatracks were full).

The performance was visually stunning, and the sheer physical conditioning of the dancers amazing to someone who, let’s be blunt, had never really devoted much thought to the matter. But I must say–and not to minimise the spectacle of theatre and performance alike–what surprised me the most was the audience.

Largely done up to the nines, as one would expect, but younger than I had anticipated. Lots in their 20s and 30s, and not necessarily groups or couples, but also two or three girls or, sometimes, guys. More to the point, though, was the exuberant enthusiasm and, I presume, expertise they displayed. Accustomed more to restrained Anglo-Saxon audiences, where polite applause between acts is the norm, I was taken aback by the often uproarious applause and calls out, not even just between scenes but in the middle, when a dancer completed presumably some especially difficult move or pulled it off with unwanted aplomb.

Thinking about it, in their genteel and well-dressed way, this felt more like an audience of sports fans at a match. Passionate about the process, well-versed in the players and the game, able to see and appreciate a particularly good kick, throw or move, and not shy about recognising it. The fanaty of the Bolshoi, an unexpected extra find on my first venture into the realms of the ballet.


It’s the Infrastructure, Stupid!

Snow!Yesterday, 12 January, serious snow finally hit Moscow, bringing real winter to what had been an unusually mild season. Suddenly the city is virginal in its snowy gown, but not for long, and the speed with which Moscow returns to normal says something about Russian attitudes to state, society and priorities.

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Dozer blade on the front, rotating on the back. The poor snow doesn’t stand a chance

A citizen of the United Kingdom (where infamously trains have been stopped by “leaves on the line”) and who works for the most part in New York (where even the lightest drizzle sees panicked locals donning rubber boots and scurrying under cover, as if convinced they are water-soluble), I have always been impressed by the efficiency with which Moscow deals with snows that would paralyse London or New York. Men and women are out in all hours shoveling pavements, pushing dangerous accumulations of snow off roofs, and operating a weird and wonderful array of machines, from quotidian mini-earth-movers to mechanical beasts built to shovel snow into their maws or mulch down slush with rotating brushes. Icebreakers ply the Moskva, for heaven’s sake!

The very fact that dozens of flights in and out of the city had to be cancelled itself speaks to the conditions. Other airports may shut down at the lightest icing-sugar dusting of snow, but Sheremetevo and its siblings are typically made of sterner stuff.

Of course, a city which faces a lot of snow would be expected to learn how to cope. It also helps having a reservoir of cheap, hard-working Central Asian guest workers on whom to turn. And, needless to say, Moscow is by Russian standards a very rich city (though London and New York are hardly impoverished by any meaningful standard).

However, I think it also speaks to national and cultural priorities and expectations. In the main, the Russians ‘do’ infrastructure. Sure, the national road system is in a pretty poor way; a 6-hour drive I once went on to and from the Seliger lakes probably represents one of the more dangerous and uncomfortable things I’ve undertaken for a while. But in part that reflects the sheer task of maintaining a little less than a million kilometers of road, especially given often-destructive weather patterns and, in particular, the massive levels of embezzlement in the highway building and maintenance sector.

Separate the problems which relate to legacy (cheap, nasty bridges built in the 1960s and 1970s, for example), to a lack of resources, to corruption, and to scale, and Russia’s record is not at all bad. On an urban level, it is actually pretty impressive. Of course, Moscow has its rightly fabled metro, but generally Russian cities tend to a high level of urban public and private transport, are clean, and when one comes to the intangible infrastructures of internet and cellphone, again the country comes out ahead of many richer Western nations.

By comparison, the United States, a country of phenomenal capacities in so many ways, from technological innovation to philanthropy, has rubbish and expensive cellphone coverage, abysmal city-cleaning standards, and a railway system which can politely be described as an embarrassment. Amtrak trains are comfortable, but woefully slow, and delays abound. Why? Many of the USA’s roads are also of indifferent quality, so even Americans’ (in)famous love for their cars may not be answer.

I suspect that in part it may reflect fundamental assumptions about the role of the state and the importance of collective goods. Infrastructure is, pretty much by definition, a common good, and doing it well tends to involve elevating the collective over the local and the individual. Today’s Russians are hardly Soviets, but they have a more European notion of the importance of the former, while the Russian state is much less bound by legal and other constraints in how it goes about doing its job of governing.

Setting aside the military, the US approach is that as much as possible should be handled as locally as possible, and if it can be on the back of sponsorship and philanthropy, so much the better. Hence, Amtrak: the challenge is not buying faster trains, it’s the fact that upgrading the line is a legislative nightmare, not least because of local interests – and I don’t see Bill Gates looking to sponsor a few hundred miles of railway.

If the US approach is to get out of the way and let locals do it – whether or not they can – then the Russian approach is much more to get the locals out of the way while the state does it. Sometimes that works very well, but it’s also, as is evident, a recipe for massive corruption, inefficiency and political string-pulling (Moscow does so well to a considerable extent as a vampire, sucking the blood out of much of the rest of European Russia).

Still, as the snow continues to fall, I’m happy enough to see the legions of city employees out clearing it as quickly. Usually when people are looking for examples of Russian excellence they look to mythologised determination in war, culture (ballet, Dostoevsky, Tchaikovsky, and so on), or maths, computing and hard sciences. But let’s not forget coping with the snow, building metro systems, and operating fast, excellent, cheap internet, too!

Russian Life in a Cemetery

2016-01-11 11.42.51A deep-frozen but sunny January day, so what else is there to do but to head to the nearby Vagankovskoe Cemetery? After all, there’s often a slice of a country’s or a city’s histories to be found amongst their dead.

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Vagankovskoe is best known for being the final resting place of iconic Russian balladeer-songwriter-actor-icon Vladimir Vysotsky. He died in 1980, and it’s an irony enough that he’s here, surrounded by stolid generals and their equally stolid wives. However, for me the tragic irony, the “Wild 90s” cast in marble, was to see the gravestone of Vlad Listev, the liberal journalist and TV chief gunned down in 1995 in what was probably a political/mob hit (then it was even harder to tell the two apart) and Otari Kvantrishvili, ‘Otarik,’ the Georgian gangster, wrestler and rapist, assassinated in 1994 when he over-reached and tried in effect to make himself godfather of Moscow. Guess which one of them has the larger and more opulent gravestone?

Generally, poking round a cemetery is a fascinating way to spend a frigid hour. All the Communist Party apparatchiki with their Christian gravestones (I suppose living through Stalinism was a great teaching moment in hedging bets and never risking angering a guy at the top). The central avenue seemingly dominated by sporting heroes, many clearly still remembered by fans coming to leave football scarves and other tokens. The march of fashion, as Soviet-era memorials — either simple headstones or chunky iconographic menhirs, depending on the eminence of the departed, give way to the era of full personalisation.

Then we get the gaudy and the grand. The distinctively Russian pictures of the dead on the headstones (I don’t presume for a moment the men were all gangsters, but frankly the pictures, often showing them casually dressed, manage to make them all look like thugs and chancers.) The tawdry, the tender, and the genuinely touching. The strange sight of graves wholly encased in metalwork (I have to ask — to keep something out…or to keep something in?).

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So, to keep something out or to keep something in?

All of them jumbled together, as the sheer acreage of mortality threatens to overwhelm even the extensive space here. And yet the space is well tended. The paths are cleared of snow; flowers flash their bright signals of memory across the marble and granite; the gravestones are all well-tended and clean. Compare that with a British cemetery, typically a mix of the new and the crumbled, the upright and the unsteady. It’s not that the British don’t care about their dead, but more than Britain is happier with the idea of their slowly fading into the landscape and history.

Russia, though, still wears its history much more (self)consciously, whether burnished like armour (the Great Patriotic War being the obvious example) or borne like stigmata (Stalin, ironically, fits into both categories). It may be a terribly stereotype, and a cliche at that, but ask an average Russian about Peter the Great, and I dare say you’ll get a rather more extensive answer than if you ask a Brit about his contemporary (and almost equally important in a different way), Charles II.


Glass + Ice + Winter Sun. A kind of magic.


Mikroraion Life

Living for a week in Kotel’niki, a still-emerging residential suburb in south-eastern Moscow, at the very end of the metro system, has given me a chance to experience life in a modern mikroraion, a ‘microdistrict‘, that very Soviet/Russian unit of city planning. Before I move closer into the centre of Moscow, here are some entirely subjective and no doubt superficial observations of the ‘Opytnoe pole’ (‘Practice Ground’) settlement.


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Down here? See, right down in the bottom right-hand corner

As Moscow expanded, and rent/house prices were pushed up (though the economic crisis meant rents fell 8% in 2015), the pressure to build affordable housing meant a sprawl outwards. The result has been a rash of adequate but frankly tackily-built complexes on former industrial property, replacing crumbling Soviet apartments or, as in the case of Kotel’niki, on rural land. The interesting thing is that this was clearly once the domain of well-to-do families as scattered around, in the metaphorical shadow of the 17-storey blocks of flats, are substantial, well-built houses from the late 19th and early 20th centuries, presumably with land and views. Those times have gone.


Where did our lands go?

The apartment blocks loom in their own henge of concrete menhirs. Some effort has been made to use colour and changing designs to give the colony at least a minimal charm, but there is a sharp limit to quite what such cosmetic measures can do, not least given that the many buildings tend to follow one of many three standard designs.

There are a lot of people living here, and as usual in such clusters there are various small businesses on the ground floor. A mix of produkty food and drink stores, and the characteristic Russian concentration on shoe shops, a 24-hour flower place, and — a sad sign of the times or the local population — also a 24-hour lombard, or pawn broker’s. There is a rather grim looking ‘cafe’ — bar — and a ‘coffee shop’ that is actually a portakabin serving plastic cups of hot drinks that appears wholly and sporadically patronised by Central Asian workmen from nearby construction sites.

Still, the very reason why this development is here — cheap land — has also meant that bordering on the microraion is that other delight of modern urban sprawl, the out-of-town shopping centre. So, there is a 24-hour Real hypermarket, a massive Castorama DIY store and a random selection of little booths around them, selling everything from fireworks to iPhone cases.

The idea is that these residential neighbourhoods represent pretty self-contained communities and certainly all the basic consumer needs are met, but there seems little (if any) other amenities, from places to eat (unless you count the Sbarro pizza chain at Real) to anything even faintly cultural. Oh, there is a tented tennis club on the way to the metro. Clearly this is a place to sleep, to cook, to watch TV more than to live. The hipsterisation of central Moscow, the bubbling vitality and liveability which is such a mark of the city’s troubled renaissance, is definitely not evident here. But then again, when people talk about the life of New York, they really mean the restaurants and happening of north-eastern Brooklyn and southern Manhattan, rather than the ugly residential streets of Staten Island or most of Queens.


You can get the necessities, of course. You know, like crossbows and high-power air pistols.

If you want that, then it’s a 45-minute metro journey into the centre for you. Thank god for the metro: I said ‘still emerging’ above because the shiny new station only opened in September. It has to be said that the Moscow model of metro building (“how many new stations per year?”) contrasts very strikingly and refreshingly with the New York one (“how many years per new station?”). Nonetheless, presumably most of the local residents bought their flats here (and most do seem owned, not rented) before then, hence the number of cars clogging up the streets.


Kotel’niki metro

Those local residents seem to be disproportionately 25-35 year-olds. That makes sense: a kid, maybe a baby just growing up, they need a bit of space and can’t afford prices closer in. (The kinds of cars they own is a decent index of affluence: precious few of the SUVs and luxury imports you’ll see inside the Garden Ring girdling central Moscow. Rather, ageing and baseline smaller Fords, Renaults and Toyotas.)

At night, after the evening commute back, the place is very quiet considering how many people live here. It’s not just because of this development (though I think to a considerable degree), but in the past ten years, the population of Kotel’niki township has risen from 18,000 to 41,000. It’s not at all a dangerous or worrying quietness (I once saw a cop in the metro station, but that’s all), just the little death of the commuter suburb once everyone is ensconced in the kitchen or in front of the TV.

Not a bad place to live, though, and still a growing one, although at a slower rate I’d imagine given the economic crisis. There is that feeling of living stranded in between a forest and a building site, and the rough edges include paths to the metro that are still just mud tracks, drifts of rubbish, and a skyline of cranes and building skeletons.

Coat_of_Arms_of_Kotelniki_(Moscow_oblast)Not bad, but anonymous and soulless. Kotel’niki means ‘Cauldron Makers’ and even its coat of arms is three golden cauldrons on a green field. However, the real root of the name is probably from the use of kotel, cauldron, for marshy lowlands. I suppose ‘Marshylowlandtown’ didn’t have quite the same appeal. Given that one of its component villages is one built around a sand pit and associated factory turning silica into brick which is called Silicate, though, I don’t know if euphonic naming was always the main concern.

Kotel’niki actually has a history dating back to at least the 17th century, but there are few traces of that now. The estates of the Belaya Dacha (‘White Cottage’) mansion build by General Balk-Polev at the beginning of the 18thC, for example, now house an agricultural firm (itself due to be flattened for more housing) and a glitzy outlet shopping mall.


The only substantive relic of the past that I know of around is the 17thC Kotel’niki Kazan Cathedral, but as it is at the opposite edge of the town, an hour’s walk away courtesy of the detour necessitated by a railway line in between, I may not get to it. Otherwise, with the exception of one abandoned tower (above) that for all I know is a 1950s water cistern or the like, and the odd house here or there still untouched by bulldozer, this is largely virgin territory. Brave new suburban world.


The Ukhtomsky Factory: the limits of Moscow’s gentrification

There are some amazing gentrification and repurposing projects which have transformed some of Moscow’s old industrial land, especially such hipster havens as the Red October chocolate factory site and Winzavod. Now Mayor Sobyanin is also looking at the sprawling Zil car plant site and whereas his predecessor Luzhkov seemed only really interested in shopping malls and office complexes (a cynic might say because of the corruption opportunities there), Sobyanin is also keen on amenities, liveability and creating the kind of startup, cultural and quirky sites that are making Moscow an exciting global city.


There are, of course, sites which have yet to be transformed. Some like the AREMKUZ municipal bus repair depot I explored last year are essentially ruined and abandoned. Others, like the A. V. Ukhtomsky Agricultural Machinery Plant in Lyubertsy, are stuck somewhere in the middle, neither DUMBO nor derelict.


Founded in 1899, it expanded under the Soviets thanks to the demands of collectivisation under Stalin and the Five-Year Plans. It stretched along a kilometre between Oktyabrsky Prospekt and the suburban rail line and even by the collapse of the USSR, by which time it had become essentially bankrupt, it had 18,000 workers. Workers were sacked, hours were cut, wages were not paid, and a variety of underground cottage industries arose in its crumbling buildings, not least run by local crime gangs. And down it slid into closure.


Now, well, it’s no longer empty, but it’s hardly thriving, either. It’s a mix. On the one hand, crumbling buildings, empty lots, kilometres of rusting pipes, potholed roads. The central spinal road that runs through the site is called Sixty-Five Years of Victory Street; the trouble is that this that Ukhtomsky really only had about twenty-five victorious years after the end of WW2, by a decade of stalemate and some twenty-five years of defeat.


“Sixty Five Years of Victory” is a bit of a stretch…

On the other, a variety of often-forlorn efforts to make use of the space, but seemingly unplanned. No art sites here. Largely it’s the kind of businesses that need cheap space and don’t have to worry about foot access, such as carwashes and garages and industrial machinery retail. (I was almost surprised not to see a paintball arena.) There are some grim looking cafes that I imagine simply cater for the local workforce. And a few other incongruities, including a couple of book-and-stationery shops (which I was saddened but not amazed to see empty).


Pipes, pipes, and more pipes



Full marks for trying, but this isn’t the kind of place, I confess, I’d go to order a cake


Stalin-era log-built workers’ dorms

In a way, this is sad, in a way it’s OK. Lyubertsy is quite far from the centre and not well-placed for the all-important metro. This is not the obvious and attractive place to go. But at present what Moscow needs is housing and what the struggling economy doesn’t need are bijou boutiques and performance spaces. Sites like Ukhtomsky might offer options for DUMBO-style residential development — a refreshing change from the current mania for massive, and I suspect shoddily-built apartment blocks — or other economic development. But the presence of these kind of sites does give the city to grow without expanding. They may not be as suited for prestige development as Zil and the like, but there’s hope for something to be done with what is, after all, at present a shabby and rather sad reminder of the deindustrialisation of a country whose forebears were driven by dreams of industrial modernity.


Lyubertsy: moving on from war and thuggishness

For my first week in Moscow, I’m staying at a flat in Kotelniki, a new suburb right out at the end of the purple metro line to the south-eastern extents. Given that I tend not to be in this part of the city, I thought I’d take advantage of the opportunity today to go explore Lyubertsy, a blue-collar township now engulfed by the metropolis, as I hadn’t yet seen it.


The etherial delights of Lyubertsy. Or: everything you needed to know about Lyubertsy in one picture

On one level, this is hardly surprising as Lyubertsy is hardly known for its picturesque charms and cultural glories. Quite the opposite, it is an industrial/post-industrial — the former Ukhtomsky agricultural equipment factory deserves a photo essay in its own right, to follow —  and bedroom suburb, a mix of decaying khrushchyovka blocks and some newer but equally undistinguished apartment blocks and formula shopping and office blocks.

On the other hand, it has played a pretty significant role relating to two of my pet subjects, the (Soviet) Afghan War and organised crime, so it is fitting that I get there in the end.


Great Patriotic War memorial in Lyubertsy

In the 1980s and 1990s, Lyubertsy was notorious for the youth phenomenon of the same name, young working class men who worked out together and formed gangs which consciously set themselves against the counter-culture emerging especially in the centre of Moscow. They would head into town on marauding raids to find and beat up long-haired ‘khippis’ and other such degenerates. Not surprisingly, many also graduated into organised crime, and for a while they were amongst the shock troops of the slavic underworld in Moscow, always ready to tangle with the Caucasian gangs in particular. Since then, the neighbourhood has changed, and the Lyubertsy gangs are no more (even if some of their values of patriotic thuggishness have emerged in new forms, from the Cossacks to other street movements), but this is still perhaps its main claim to fame.


“Glory to the Russian Air Forces!”

The town’s blue-collar character and macho youth culture conspired to ensure that a disproportionate number of its young men ended up conscripted and served in Afghanistan. The sad corollary, of course, is a disproportion of casualties.


This is now engraven on the urban landscape, from street names such as Ulitsa Voinov-Internationalistov (Street of Soldier-Internationalists, as the troops sent to Afghanistan were known), to the impressive war memorial in said street, a Mi-24 ‘Hind’ gunship, one of the iconic weapons of that war, on a pedestal.