Monday, 29 October 2012

Moscow City

It has been snowing, though rain last night cleared much of it. Last year we didn't have snow until well into December. It seems to have been snowing over much of Europe, so it may just be an autumn cold snap. 

There is a cluster of glass towers on the north bank of the Moscow River, about 4 kilometres west of the Kremlin, called the Moscow International Business Centre, or Moscow City.  It was conceived in 1992 and much construction activity has been going on there since, though not without hiccup. The world's tallest tower, to be named Russia Tower, was planned for the site. Construction began in 2007 but the project was scrapped after the global economic crisis.

That hasn't stopped Mercury City Tower, which is still under construction, from becoming Europe's tallest building at 339 metres and Federation Tower will be even higher at 506 metres.

The cluster of glass towers that comprises Moscow City. Mercury City Tower, currently Europe's tallest, is the gold building on the right
I don't mind glass towers, depending on their context. A city like New York is defined by its towers - take them away and there is no New York.

I am, however, less keen about artificial little clusters of skyscrapers that look as if they were dropped into a city from outer space. Even though they are only 4 kilometres from the Kremlin, these buildings feel kind of isolated and there is nothing worth mentioning at street level - just cold canyons. Stalin's towers were at least congruous with the other ponderously grandiose central Moscow buildings.

A Metro spur line has been constructed to the development, notable for being the only underground line on which one has to wait ten minutes for a train. There are two stations, one of which emerges at the ultra-modern AFIMALL shopping complex. This is a good place for coffee on a cold winter's day - there is a Starbucks right next to the fountain (say what you like - I don't mind Starbucks coffee - and they are one of the few cafes in Moscow that don't permit smoking).

Fountain in the AFIMALL shopping centre within Moscow City.

Most fascinating is the collection of giant matryoshka dolls on the top level of the mall, under a glass dome through which the towers can be seen.

Giant matryoshka dolls in the shopping mall. And you thought you'd seen all that Moscow has to offer.

Thursday, 11 October 2012

Vagankovo cemetery

Winter is coming. The temperature has dropped to single digits with the arrival of October. The skies have been grey all week and it rains, on and off, most days. 

The Russian word for umbrella is zont, which I think is great. Looking down from our balcony one damp afternoon I noticed that many of the women in the streets carried zonts with fashionable colours and designs. They looked like little mushrooms moving about. Wendy had a boring black zont, so we went zont shopping on the weekend and bought her a very colourful new zont showing Parisian street scenes.

About 3 kilometres northwest of the Kremlin is a large cemetery called Vagankovo, which was established in 1771. It is a short walk from metro station Ulitsa 1905 Goda.

Particular burial grounds have long reflected one’s status in Russian society. This tradition was continued during the Soviet years. The most prestigious burial place is under the Kremlin walls, pride of place going to Lenin, who has a mausoleum in Red Square (after nearly a year here I still haven’t queued up to inspect his remains). Nearby are buried other significant characters such as Stalin and Brezhnev.

If you didn’t quite cut the Kremlin Walls mustard, but were still a big wheel in the Soviet machine, then Novodevichy cemetery was where you might aspire to push up daisies (all complaints about the idiomatic stew in that sentence will be ignored). Interestingly, Khrushchev was buried in Novodevichy and not at the Kremlin. That sort of thing tends to happen when one falls out of favour before one dies in a totalitarian state. 

Vagankovo was a bit further down the status ladder - a place for prominent artists, musicians and sportspeople. I won’t bore you with a list of people you’ve never heard of, you can find that sort of stuff elsewhere on the internet. 

Some memorials to people you probably haven't heard of.

I’m sure the irony of all this ultimately futile status-seeking in the supposedly egalitarian Soviet Union is not lost on you.

Vagankovo is also the happy hunting ground of many ordinary folk. Unlike the Anglo-Saxon headstone, which blankly offers only a name, some dates, and perhaps a little poem, Russian memorials typically carry engraved pictures of the departed. This is a tad disconcerting, but also quite touching. Considerable expense went into many of these memorials. Often, I expect, by people who could barely afford it.

I found the images unsettling at first. But they do add something very personal and real
 The cemetery is a pleasant place to stroll on an autumn afternoon. Tree-shaded lanes branch into paths branch into little tracks that weave between the jumble of plots. Most are defined by black, wrought iron fences. Here the grass and weeds have grown wild, there a plot is tended and tidy. Perhaps a little bench and a small rose bush. The occasional person wanders silently by, clutching a trowel and shriveled bunch of flowers.

The lanes are perfect for some quiet reflection

If you want to read more about cemeteries in the Soviet Union, this is an interesting article: