Remnants of Soviet days blend with new Moscow of the big-wigs


MOSCOW LETTER:These days Muscovites have ceased gazing skyward and have taken to staring at the ground, writes SÉAMUS MARTIN

IN TODAY’S Moscow, it’s difficult to conjure up a vision of what this huge city was like in Soviet times. There are few Ladas to be seen and as for food queues, you might see one at the checkout in one of the French hypermarket chain Auchan’s 16 Moscow outlets.

A once green space off Kutusovsky Prospekt, along which the shishki (the big-wigs) flee to their dachas, has sprouted a small Manhattan of skyscrapers known as “Moscow City”. This project, introduced by the city’s former mayor Yuri Luzhkov, looks impressive from a distance, but up close a different picture emerges.

Only half the skyscrapers are occupied, some have been halted in mid-construction and the new mayor, Sergei Sobyanin, has described the complex with some understatement as a “an error of urban construction”.

Mayor Luzhkov ran the city for 18 years and oversaw a massive construction boom. Beautiful old houses were razed and replaced by appallingly over-ornate high- rise buildings that assaulted the eyes of more artistically sensitive Muscovites. In the course of this boom, Luzhkov’s wife, Yelena Baturina, who had construction interests, became the richest woman in Russia. President Medvedev put an end to all this two years ago when he gave Luzhkov the sack.

Today Muscovites have ceased gazing skyward at the high-rise monstrosities and have taken to staring down at the ground. There is good reason for this: almost every footpath in the centre of town is having its old paving stones removed and replaced with concrete setts known as plitka. There are gaps that can catch a toe or a heel and cause a nasty fall. So with safety first as their motto, the people move through the city with their heads bowed just as they may have done when comrade Stalin was in charge.

In those days, it was necessary not only to be careful with one’s eyes but also one’s mouth. The latter precaution has long since been redundant and the arrival of the plitka has become a major topic of outspoken conversation.

Many have suggested that little has changed and that Mayor Sobyanin’s wife may have started on the footpath to riches taken earlier by Irina Baturina.

The rumours gained ground so quickly that popular radio stations such as Ekho Moskvy issued statements from the mayor’s office over the weekend declaring that Mrs Sobyanina has no financial or other interest in either the factory that makes the plitka or the firm that installs them – or indeed anything with even a remote link to them.

I have negotiated my way over the dangerous footpaths of central Moscow to observe the changes that have taken place since, as Irish Times correspondent, I witnessed the last days of the Soviet Union and the early days of the new Russia.

In 1991, before a failed coup d’état hastened the USSR’s demise, The Irish Timesoffice was situated in what may have been the worst building in all the Russias. This hideous construction still stands overlooking the sprawling Taganskaya Square.

Appalling from the exterior, it was every bit as bad inside.

Screams could at times be heard from those trapped in lifts stuck between floors. When one lived on the 17th floor, however, there was little option but to ascend or descend in hope rather than confidence. In my time, as dusk fell the rats cascaded on to the streets from a derelict house. Now the rat-infested building has been replaced by the Moscow Church of Scientology.

Gone too is the nearby Great Communist Street. It is now Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn Street, perhaps the most dramatic name change in Moscow since 1992 when Bezbozhny Pereulok (No God Lane) reverted overnight to its pre-revolutionary title of Protopopovsky Pereulok (Arch Priest Lane).

But all these changes are merely on the surface. In the Metro it’s different. At Kievskaya station, mosaics of happy Ukrainians smile down at you from motifs of sheaves of wheat and abundant fruit. In the 1930s, by the way, when the station was being built, the people of Ukraine and southern Russia were starving to death.

At Taganskaya there are ivory-white porcelain plaques proclaiming the glory of the armed forces, while next door at Markisistskaya, giant red stars adorn the marble floor.

Recently the Metro returned even more closely to what it looked like in the Soviet days. All advertising posters have been removed. The rumour mill has rolled into action. Ask any Muscovite and you will be told with a knowing smile that a move is afoot to replace the ads with something that will enrich some shishkha, some big-wig.