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?
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.
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).
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.
On the one hand, the “expat’s eye” book has a long and sometimes-distinguished pedigree (heavens, one could even make the case that the tenth book of Pliny the Younger’s Epistulae could be considered an expat’s take on Bithynia-Pontus, first century Roman Turkey). On the other hand writing one means having to navigate a tricky route between blandly affirming “we’re all the same under the skin” banalities like a moralizing Disney special, and falling prey to the kind of patronizing Orientalism that ultimately brands Johnny Foreigner as being a splendid chap but not altogether civilized or grown-up because He’s Not One Of Us. The best of the genre, though, manage to highlight the genuine quirks, cultures and characteristics of its subjects without feeling to need to patronize and in the process not just entertain but also enlighten. George Mikes’s How To Be An Alien remains, in my mind, a classic study of the English which, even though it freely exaggerates and caricatures (“Continental people have sex lives; the English have hot-water bottles”) nonetheless is in so many ways spot-on about the, um, “English Condition.”
In this company, Lenin Lives Next Door, by 20-year-veteran US expat in Moscow Jennifer Eremeeva, is a an excellent addition to the canon that says much about the day-to-lives and aspirations of today’s Russians, still stranded between Soviet legacy and uncertain future, as well as the world of the expat in such a country. Everything from the art of constructive dismissal, Russian-style, to the invisible but iron-hard social hierarchies embedded within expat book clubs is rightly fair game.
What can a photo tell us? Here’s a little ledge on the lift shaft in our apartment block. The stairwell is clearly often used for a quick smoke — what’s the point of a malodorous and carcinogenic habit if you can’t share it with your neighbours? — and this would equally clearly be soneone’s favoured spot. I assume someone, anyway, given that the discarded packs are all the same type. Is this an elegant repurposing and appropriation of the existing architecture? (You can tell I am married to an urban sociologist.) An example of the perfect equipoise between slovenliness and punctilio? (“I will throw away my dog-ends and packs, but not just willy-nilly.”) Or simply an illustration of the fact that communal spaces in a Russian apartment block receive distinctly little love and attention, let alone cleaning.
I am tempted to take a plastic bag down and clear it myself, but (a) I would feel strangely transgressive applying my alien values and (b) I am genuinely curious to see both how quickly the dog ends add up and what happens if the ledge gets full. The inner ethnographer wars with my inner cleaner.
Postscript: 28 January. Today one of the dom staff came and cleaned the stairwell, including the ledge ‘o many dog ends. Does this mean that it’s cleaned but very rarely, that the secret smoker worked very hard to build up his or her collection in between cleans, or that the dom management reads this blog? I think I can exclude one of that trio of explanations.