I have just finished my one and only day in Moscow. My memories of it thirty years ago are predictably dominated by the Kremlin, Red Square etc. People have said that it has changed, well not to me. Yes, the ring roads (Moscow is a city of ring roads) were full of people who clearly were under the impression that the city was hosting a Grand Prix, and GUM, the department store on Red Square (pictured), was uber consumerist, but the City has not lost its massive dignity, the architectural homage to the big events of the twentieth century. Those commentators who claim that the end of communism has seen a rather unseemly rush to unbridled hedonism are wrong: the place still exudes a dignity that comes from suffering, and a humble expectation of further thunderclaps to come. There is great inequality, no doubt: however, one nomenklatura has simply given way to another whose currency of supremacy (money) is so much more recognisable in the West. Moscow seems huge and impressive, no doubt helped by the gorgeous weather. Its buildings feel almost Venetian in parts, shared with more Stalinist stuff that speaks of a struggle almost too desperate for this Western ponce to appreciate.
Which brings me to my thought of the day (you have a delicious amount of time with your own thoughts when on your own, even as you feel a gnawing loneliness). Everything is so extreme with Russia: the climate, the politics, the history. Looking at the (still) ubiquitous images of Lenin, he feels less a product of the international (and nuanced) religion of Marxism and more another Russian with a great idea and very little tolerance for other ideas – more like the Russian nihilists of the 1870s. Worth a Wiki.
I arrived at Moscow’s Domodedovo airport this afternoon (not the one that Snowden is reputedly holed up in). I was immediately struck by sights not common elsewhere: there were loads of russian passenger jets just rusting in the fields surrounding the runways. Going through immigration was not nearly as fearsome as the US experience, and I was roasted by 34c heat as I left the terminal building. In the taxi into Moscow there were lots of vans parked on the hard shoulder, selling stuff. We were then hit by a monster electrical storm, causing the roads to run like rivers. Nothing done by half here. I am staying in a basic hotel in the centre, whose main attraction had been the advertised free mini bar – how cool is that? Sadly said minbar consisted of the smallest can of coke in the world and some manky crisps. Serves me right.
It is almost 30 years since I came to the (then) Soviet Union to study as part of my degree, and I’m interested in seeing how things have changed. Well, my first impressions are at both ends of the spectrum. On the one hand, it still feels a brutal, elemental country where the extremes of the weather are written into every road and building you see. On the other, I am sitting in a westernised hotel, sipping a perfectly decent glass of white wine. That would never have happened 30 years ago. I embark on my first train (“Number 16” – how Soviet is that?) at 16:50 tomorrow, arriving in Ekaterinburg (resting place of the Romanovs and Gary Powers (temporarily)) 28 hours later. I am really excited by it.
I have, unusually, been spending a bit of time preparing for my trip to Russia. Not least there are the officially mandated preparations: I am so useless at filling in forms, so the visa application brought me out in a cold sweat. The thought of getting something wrong on the form and facing an implacable official to explain my apparent duplicity is the stuff of bad dreams – how do you convince them that I’m rubbish, not seeking to hide something? Anyway, form done (thanks intourist), and on to things sartorial – what kit for the train? It’ll be quite warm, but outside there will be insects the size of Wessex helicopters, so a bit of DDT stashed away might be sensible.
I’m taking the big camera, but I know I’ve got to be sensitive about its use. It is still frowned on to take photos at a station for security reasons, which gets me thinking about the Russian preoccupation with security and (from a Western perspective) slight paranoia. I suppose it comes from having been invaded twice in the last 100 years (including by the Brits), and being done like a kipper by the Germans in 1941. Fair enough then, I suppose.