Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Springtime in Moscow

Spring comes late to Moscow. When outdoor cafés in Western Europe are already bustling with people, Moscovites still wear wool and fur in March. When the winter finally retreats, the snow quickly melts, leaving slush, dirt and large pools of water in every streetcorner of the Russian capital.

This time of the year both visitors and locals are usually at some point drawn to the Red Square. The long stone-paved surface lays well guarded; it is both divinely protected, flanked on the South side by St Basil’s cathedral (of the famous multi-coloured domes), as well protected politically under the watchful eye of the Kremlin. Next to the high red wall, one cannot fail to notice a strange and brownish structure, small and low, that looks curiously out of time and out of place. It is the mausoleum of V. I. Lenin, built in the radical Constructivist style, a Soviet version of Bauhaus. There have been some talk of finally lowering the body of the leader of the Bolshevik revolution into the ground, but this is yet far from certain.

The first ten days of May in Russia are traditionally dedicated to rest and leisure. Many Muscovites then leave the city and are replaced by incoming foreign and Russian tourists. The period kicks off with International Worker’s Day on May 1st and ends with the most important event of the year; the Victory Day celebrations. Every spring the Red Square – and indeed the whole city – is spruced up for this event. On the agenda are military parades, défilés of tanks and missiles, and the salute to a dwindling number of veterans. May 9th was the day when the Soviet Union finally defeated Nazism and ended what the Russians call the “Great Patriotic War” of 1941-45. It seems collective amnesia has set in, however, with respect to the preceding Russian invasions of Poland, Finland and the Baltic states two years before.

In springtime, nature calls of course. After many months of bundling up, the sudden sight of slender Russian women gracefully strolling by in tight mini-skirts and high heels can elicit strong emotions. The popular garden of czar Alexander, just around the corner from the Red Square, is then one of the places to see and be seen.

It may be surprising for some to hear that Moscow is green. There are apparently four times as many square meters of park space in this city than in Paris, London or New York. Perhaps this is because the official city limits extend far beyond those of other big cities, encompassing both dirty run-down suburban areas as well as vast well-maintained parks. The centre of Moscow, however, is perhaps the most decidedly urban city in the world; a grey unkempt sea of stone, concrete and asphalt, only rarely punctuated by islets of green. As if to compensate though, flowers are popular all year long in a country where there is always a good reason to offer a bouquet.

Often therefore, the easiest way to get a view of nature when walking around Moscow is simply to look up at the sky, which thankfully remains blue despite the presence of heavy industry in the region. Eventually, the visitor will then catch sight of one of the “Seven Sisters” of Stalin, proudly imposing in the hazy distance. These massive buildings, spread around the city, were erected during Stalin’s last years, from 1947 to 1953. Perhaps the two most impressive ones host Moscow State University and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

These sumptuous architectural mastodons bring to mind the ambivalence in which Moscow, and indeed all of Russia, finds itself today. On the one hand, they constantly recall Russia’s difficult past; they are typical products of the Soviet times, obvious symbols of the totalitarian society. Their state-directed constructions used up resources that were badly needed in the aftermath of a war which cost the country dearly. Yet, at the same time these structures were consciously built to rival in style the most capitalist neighbourhood in the world: Wall Street and Fifth Avenue. As such, they are also exemplary symbols of the capitalist society, in the same way Ayn Rand saw the Manhattan skyline in the Fountainhead as “the shapes of man’s achievement on earth.”

The Seven Sisters thus subtly represent the stark duality of today’s Moscow; a modern high-rolling metropolis shot through with authoritarian and conservative streaks. They capture in their violent beauty the current strange combination that defines Russia at the beginning of the XXIst century: an exuberant and giddy life for a few and an often resigned and gritty existence for the rest. There is indeed a fresh feeling of spring in Moscow, but not everybody can enjoy it fully.

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