Return to the Evil Empire
It seems a long time since Ronald Reagan called the Soviet Union
‘an Evil Empire’ in the 1980s. The Berlin Wall has come down. The USSR has
broken up, and Russia – the Union’s largest constituent and chief driving force
– has become a democracy, of a sort.
How much Moscow has changed in that time – indeed, how much it
has ever changed – is more open to debate. The city has been burnt down,
rebuilt, extended, remodelled as the capital of a royal empire, and, later, as
the headquarters of a workers’ paradise. But something distinctively Muscovite
seems to continue, and, you might be forgiven for thinking, hasn’t changed much
since the city was founded sometime in the eleventh or twelfth centuries.
If there’s one thing that the inhabitants of Moscow – or at
least their architects – have always seemed to have a taste for, it’s grandeur.
This sometimes demonstrates itself in odd ways. The first time you use public
transport in the city you’ll notice this. Moscow has what must be one of the
most ornate and lavishly decorated subway systems in the world. The chandeliers
and artwork that deck the stairwells and access tunnels put equivalent mass
transit systems in New York or London completely in the shade. The fact that
Moscow’s subway system is the busiest in the world – it handles a staggering
nine million people every single day – shows to just what lengths the city
authorities are prepared to go to keep their famous subways famous.
The sense of grandeur hits you again when you surface in
Moscow’s number one tourist destination: Red Square. The square is no longer
the site of vast marches and parades by the Red Army as Russia’s political
leadership look on from the walls of the Kremlin, basking in their power –
although you get the impression that Vladimir Putin, the current president,
wouldn’t be at all averse to that sort of thing. Now that the propaganda and
detritus of seventy years of communism have been stripped away, Red Square can
stop being a symbol of oppression and return to what it was always meant to be:
a piece a staggering urban design, showcasing some of the greatest architecture
in the world.
One symbol of the old regime remains: Lenin’s mausoleum. It’s
not as crowded as it used to be in the days when Soviet students and
schoolchildren were ritually hauled past the old Marxist’s embalmed body, but
it still gets pretty busy. You can visit it yourself, as long as you arrive
between nine in the morning and one in afternoon on any day except Monday or
Friday, and come face to face with a major historical figure.
Or will you? Speculation has been rife for years whether the
body on display in the Mausoleum is really Lenin or not. The old guy looks
distinctly plasticky, and the government’s refusal to comment on the status of
the corpse has led many to believe that the real Lenin has been quietly buried
somewhere and replaced with a more durable and less smelly alternative.
When you emerge, blinking, from the gloom of the Mausoleum,
there’s much more to see in Red Square. The Kremlin Museums are worth a whole
article or two of their own, and contain a vast array of art works, historical
weapons, manuscripts and paintings from over a thousand years of history.
Access to the Kremlin Museums includes the chance to visit several of the major
Kremlin churches, as well as the Ivan the Great Bell Tower and the Kremlin
If you really want to know about modern Russia, though, you
might do better to give the Kremlin a miss and head over to the eastern side of
Red Square. The State Universal Store (commonly called the GUM) is just one
example of a huge state-owned chain of department stores that used to cover the
entire Soviet world. Although the chain in its original form went the same way
as the Soviet government that founded it, Moscow GUM is still there and still
open. In fact, you can hardly miss it: it takes up virtually all of one side of
Red Square. That’s a pretty big area. In principle it’s not one store, but many
small ones under one magnificent, arched glass roof. That shouldn’t make a lot
of difference to you, though, as it’s easy to browse from one area to another
without really noticing. Don’t expect real bargains – although many of the
designer goods on display are priced out of reach of a good proportion of
Muscovites, the prices are skewed towards tourists. Moscow isn’t that cheap a
place to live, especially if you’re from out of town.
But it’s certainly grand. It may have some problems, and some
pretty rotten suburbs – but where else would you get chandeliers on the subway,
of all places?