Chapter 3: Moscow


Moscow is like the locomotive at the head of a very long train. The locomotive turns the corner long before other parts of the train. And in Russia things can change in Moscow a long time before they do in other parts of the country.
(Mikhalkov; 2003)

Moscow by night

In some countries, the capital city stands out from the rest of the country because it has a life of its own which would go on no matter what happened elsewhere. London is such a city in the United Kingdom. And the relationship between Moscow and the rest of Russia is very similar. Film Director Nikita Mikhalkov’s metaphor of Moscow as a locomotive is very apt, and actually illustrates that the differences between Moscow and Russia are even greater than those between London and the UK. Another view, particularly from outside the capital – that Moscow takes the best of everything from Russia – is neatly summed up by the former diplomat and defector, Arkady Shevchenko:

There is a Russian saying that [Moscow] lies downhill from the rest of the country – everything flows to Moscow.
(Shevchenko, p.269; 1985)

H M Grove’s claim (made a hundred years ago) that,

The Kremlin at the start of the XXth Century
(from Dobson, Grove, Stewart)

The Kremlin…is the keystone of Russian history, and the men who lived in it were those who, out of a collection of petty and weak princedoms, created the mighty Russian Empire
(Grove in Dobson, Grove, Stewart, pp.173-174; 1913)

is no exaggeration. It may be the stuff of legend that in the year 1147 Yury Dolgoruky stretched out his hand over the place where the Kremlin stands today and said that this would be where he would build his city; but in the minds of the Russian people now it was from that point on that the Kremlin started to become the heart of the country. Apart from the inhabitants of St Petersburg, the 200-odd years when the capital was not in Moscow are considered by most Russians as an aberration.

I grew fond of that grey, eclectic capital, a city unlike any other in the world, a ragged, disorganised combination of ancient, old and new built on a huge scale. Moscow is the perfect capital for the Soviet state, a clear reflection of the society’s true elements. First of all it is Russian, dominated by the ancient Kremlin at its centre, dotted still with Russian Orthodox churches, breathing its age and agelessness on almost every street and boulevard of the old city. Its chaotic combination of architectural styles – from log houses to glass skyscrapers, scattered across the landscape like dice carelessly tossed on a board – evokes the disorganised Russian character. Its pretentious new boulevards, built in recent years to prove that the Soviet system has brought old Russia to the forefront of the modern age, actually accentuate the fact that downtown Moscow is still a nineteenth-century city, dominated by ornate stucco façades with rows and rows of windows. But most of all Moscow is crowds of people, great masses surging along sidewalks with shopping bags and satchels, dressed in greys and blacks except during the short, bright summer, people coming and going with a stubborn, unsmiling purposefulness.
(Kaiser, pp.16-17; 1976)

Robert Kaiser’s description of Moscow in the 1970’s still rings true today, even with the changes which have been brought about in the post-Soviet era, such as the loss of more old buildings and the construction of a number of skyscrapers which have changed the city’s skyline. Perhaps most significantly, it is Kaiser’s assertion that Moscow “is Russian” which particularly rings true. That may sound obvious to someone who doesn’t know the city; but Moscow is Russian in a way that St Petersburg – largely designed by European architects brought in especially by Peter the Great – is not. It is exactly this Russianness which has always attracted me far more to Moscow than to St Petersburg.

Yet Kaiser’s enthusiasm for the Russian capital must be tempered by the realisation that so many of the old buildings have disappeared. Grove commented that,

Although Moscow is such an ancient city, there are now very few remains of its old buildings.
(Grove in Dobson, Grove, Stewart, p.173; 1913)

And that was a century ago. The scale of destruction of old buildings in the post-Soviet period, without bothering to do anything as tiresome as seeking permission, has been appalling. Just one example was the way in which an eighteenth-century merchant’s house was removed from where it stood in front of the boring glass and concrete façade of the Radisson Slavyanskaya Hotel. True, the juxtaposition of the house and the hotel was curious; but it spoke of history. However, history matters little to the Russian nouveau riche. When the BBC bureau was still located in the Hotel, colleagues came in one morning to find that the merchant’s house had been removed overnight and the place where it stood covered in tarmac. One could have admired the speed with which the workers had carried out their task, were it not such a crime against history.

Others regret, too, the way sites such as Red Square, which together with the Kremlin alongside it is the historic and spiritual heart of Russia, has lost its special status. A Russian friend complained to me back in the 1990’s that a scene from one of the Police Academy comedy films had been shot there; though not a religious man he saw this as sacrilege, a sign that Russia was prostituting itself for the West’s money. And it’s not only Russians who feel that way. In 2011 Leslie Woodhead was on Red Square on “Moscow Day”, the city’s annual celebration which takes place each September:

I thought back to how I felt about Red Square when I had first come here twenty-five years earlier. Walking into that huge space at midnight with snow falling, it had made me shiver – and not just because of the fierce cold. For a child of the Cold War, being in this place brought me face to face with the fearsome power that had threatened to “bury” me – in Mr Khrushchev’s chilling phrase. Being here had for me the unreality of a dream, and the grip of a nightmare. Red Square was alarming, but it was also gorgeous. The spectacular stage where whole armies could march under the blood-red Kremlin walls, past the spooky mausoleum where the embalmed Lenin still brooded over his fraying revolution, was subverted by the absurd pantomime backdrop of St Basil’s cathedral at the head of the square. The Arabian Nights fantasy of painted domes and decorated walls felt at once joyous and cruel, feeding my jumble of reactions on that first evening. It was thrilling and scary and unforgettable.


  And now Moscow Day had tamed Red Square, shrinking it behind advertising hoardings and serving it up as tacky spectacle. The square was for hire, a background for commercials, a location for balloon festivals, overlooked by the windows of the great GUM department store with displays for Gucci and Vuitton and Prada. It almost made me sentimental for the old GUM as I’d first seen it in the 1980’s.
(Woodhead, p.239; 2013)

Despite this dumbing down of the heart of the city and the country, Moscow still acts like a magnet for many Russians. The following quotation by Mikhail Bulgakov is from a work of fiction written in the 1930’s; the one by David Shipler from a non-fiction work of the 1980’s; but they both illustrate the pull which Moscow has to this day for many Russians and the compromises some will make in order to receive the treasured resident’s permit.

A flat in Moscow was a serious matter…the thought of moving to Moscow had lately begun to nag at him with such insistence that it was affecting his sleep.
(Bulgakov, The Master and Margarita, p.209; 1938)

Just as one marries into money in the West, one marries into the privilege of residence in Moscow, and the behaviour is no less conniving. It is nice if you fall in love, but not essential.
(Shipler, p.177; 1983)

The desire to go to Moscow which Anton Chekhov’s “Three Sisters” demonstrated in the late nineteenth century is still alive and well. Shipler writes about a marriage based not on love but on Moscow registration; there are other examples of couples divorcing, arranging sham marriages (for money) with Moscow residents, then divorcing the second spouse and re-marrying the first, just to obtain that permit.

The following three quotations from the 1920’s address specifically issues of that period. The two quotations from Ilya Ilf and Yevgeny Petrov are from their brilliant satire, The Twelve Chairs, and show both how peasants coming into Moscow were stunned when they saw how the moneyed classes had lived; and how, despite the supposed levelling out of society by the Bolshevik Revolution, George Orwell’s line from Animal Farm was already true: “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.” Theodore Dreiser’s comment that there was no night life in Moscow, apart from that which was hidden from public view, remained true until the 1980’s; but once the lid was blown off by the collapse of the Soviet Union, the pendulum swung the other way – for those with the money to pay for it.

There is a special group of people in Moscow who know nothing about art, are not interested in architecture, and do not like historical monuments. These people visit museums solely because they are housed in splendid buildings. These people stroll through the dazzling rooms, look enviously at the frescoes, touch the things they are requested not to touch, and mutter continually:
  “My, how they used to live!”
(Ilf and Petrov, p.121; 1928)


In Moscow they like to lock doors.
  Thousands of front entrances are boarded up from the inside, and thousands of citizens find their way into their apartments through the back door. The year 1918 has long since passed; the concept of a “raid on the apartment” has long since become something vague; the apartment-house guard, organized for purposes of security, has long since vanished; traffic problems are being solved; enormous power stations are being built and very great scientific discoveries are being made, but there is no one to devote his life to studying the problem of the closed door.
(Ilf and Petrov, p.193; 1928)

[In Moscow] There is nothing smart – no night life – unless it is private.
(Dreiser, p.77, 9 Nov 1927)

On the other hand, not only is Grove’s comment about Muscovites clearing out of the city in the summer still true –

…in the summer…everybody who possibly can clears out of Moscow, which is a wretched place to be in during hot weather
(Grove in Dobson, Grove, Stewart, p.238; 1913)

it also ties in well with Peter Pomerantsev’s remark from a hundred years later about the traffic in Moscow grinding to a halt:
The traffic has already curdled – my journey is short but this will be a long ride. A Muscovite measures out his life in jams, the day’s success or failure judged by how many hours you spend in traffic.
(Pomerantsev, p.140; 2015)

Although this can happen now at any time, it is especially true on a Friday evening in the summer when Russians head out of town to their dachas, and journeys which should take just two hours can take six or seven. But this quotation from Pomerantsev, whilst apparently tying in with the final one in this section, actually shows how funny this last one is.

What a lot of traffic there is in Moscow!
(Russian language text book, late-1970’s)

I came across this on a Russian language course in Moscow in 1978. All of us in the group from Leeds University found this hilarious: it was supposedly said by an English professor visiting Moscow – at a time when the Russian capital was one of the least busy major cities in Europe for traffic!

See also: Chapter 2, Geography, Feifer, “Moscow is the façade…”

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