Showing posts with label Sightseeing. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Sightseeing. Show all posts

Tuesday, 8 May 2012

Russian buildings are falling down...

I love old buildings. If I ever manage to scrape together enough money to buy a house, I want it to be an old one, which I will then fill with old furniture and sit around drinking tea out of an old cup whilst listening to old music. So I find it fairly distressing that many of the older buildings in Moscow, and in Russia more generally, are in an appalling state of repair. As I've said before, it's not like they have that many to start off with. Yes, Russia would be the ideal place to have one of those annoying property shows where an obnoxious, over-privileged family moan about the difficulties of restoring a old house whilst complaining that there is nowhere to put the horses. If someone actually made a programme like that in Russia, I might even watch it.

Why are these buildings falling down? Russia is not a poor country, so if the government wanted to, they must have the money to repair them. Many of the buildings are right in the centre of cities, so apart from being historically valuable in themselves, they are sitting on incredibly valuable land. It's also interesting that the delapidated buildings are not evenly spread across the towns and cities I have visited. Last summer I started in Vladivostock and over the course of six weeks or so, made the trip to Moscow, stopping off in various places along the way. Vladivostock, Irkutsk, Tobolsk, Kazan and Moscow contained an awful lot of buildings in dire need of repair. Khabarovsk, Ulan Ude, Krasnoyarsk, Yekaterinburg and Nizhny Novgorod not so much. Maybe it would be possible to create a corruption or incompetence index for local governors based on the number of buildings falling down on their patch.

Vladivostock. Doesn't look too bad until you realise there is a plant growing out of the roof and the decoration around the windows is starting to fall off.
I didn't really take that many photos of buildings falling down in Vladivostock, partly because I didn't know that it was going to become a major theme of the journey, and partly because it seemed somehow rude when I had just arrived in the country. In hindsight, however, Vladivostock was a total disaster zone. The roads looked like an earthquake had just passed through - great chunks of tarmac were jutting out at different levels at the edges of the roads, buildings had been half torn down and then abandoned, and if you arrived by sea, like I did, your first view of the city was this:

Exactly. After having said all that, you probably won't believe that I really liked Vladivostock, but I did. It has so much potential, and I want to be the mayor.

Irkutsk. There were still people living in this building.
Irkutsk - "the Paris of Siberia" had large areas filled with beautiful old houses. Unfortunately, many of them looked pretty much exactly like this one, where the building has started sinking into the earth, and not just the window frames, but the actual walls had started to decay. Some houses had sunk so much it was no longer possible to open the doors on the ground floor. Even without this, the difficulty with Russia is that the climate is so extreme that buildings need constant upkeep. In Moscow, where the winter is milder than Siberia, they had to get busy repainting all the fences once the snow melted. A coat of paint only lasts a year. Unfortunately they chose to paint the ones near me in bright pink and violet stripes, but that's another story.

Tobolsk. Right at the bottom of the hill on which the Kremlin perches.


Tobolsk. The funny thing is the plaque on the corner says the building is an architectural monument.

A word of advice: don't go to Tobolsk. Yes, I know the guide book says that there is a beautiful old town there, but in fact it has been almost entirely demolished and replaced with empty apartment blocks, leaving only a few ruins half-sunk into the ground and covered with netting. There is a Kremlin, but you can get into just one of the buildings, and the only person in town is a mad old bone carver who carves things from the mammoth tusks he finds lying around the place. He used to work in a beautiful old building, but then it fell down and he had to move round the corner to one almost as decrepit, but not remotely beautiful. He is really friendly though, and he'll let you have a go at carving bones if you ask nicely.

Kazan. On the high street.

Also on Kazan high street.

Kazan high street is a bit of a disaster, no? These buildings have already reached the point of no return.
Aah, Kazan. A place that according to the guidebook is extremely rich due to its oil wealth, but when you get there you find that this somehow doesn't fit with the fact that half the buildings are falling down and the toilets in the cathedral where the Virgin of Kazan icon is held are just holes in a raised platform, with the waste falling straight onto the ground below. The last picture is of what used to be the grandest hotel in the city. How did they let it get into such a state?

Suzdal. This is a painting on the inside wall of a church, but it is so degraded you can't even made out what it is anymore.

A nunnery in Suzdal.
I've mentioned Suzdal before, and it really does have that trapped-in-time feeling. The churches are stunningly beautiful, the air is clean, the streets are quiet. It is basically paradise. Except for the fact that you get the impression that your grandchildren won't be able to see it like this. There is a fine line between slightly faded in a melancholic-for-past-glories kind of way, and just run down, and some buildings in Suzdal have gone straight over that line and not looked back. Part of the problem in Suzdal is that so many of the buildings are churches, and the Russian church must already have a list a mile long of buildings that need repairing. Judging by what I have read about the position of the Orthodox church under Communism, it must have been both financial and politically very difficult to do any repair work on churches in the USSR, so they are probably now playing 70-year catch-up.

And this is all before we even get to Moscow. All of the following pictures are within two blocks of the Kremlin. You can't see much in the photographs, but under the netting the buildings look pretty much like the picture of the hotel in Kazan - only the brick structure of the building is left without any of the beautiful mouldings.

This building is just behind Театральная (Teatralnaya) metro station. Right next to Red Square.

You might think the netting means they are repairing it, but judging from the amount of rubbish that has built up inside the netting, I don't think anyone goes in there much.

The church on the far left? That is on Red Square.

A block down from ГУМ (GUM - big shopping mall)

This is over the other side, nearer Christ the Saviour cathedral.
It's difficult to know whether things have got better or worse, as I wasn't in Russia in the 1990s. Possibly they are improving. My grad school WMD professor had, in a previous life, negotiated nuclear weapon reduction agreements with the USSR. He travelled frequently to Moscow in the 1980s and 1990s, and he said at that time chunks of masonry used to regularly fall off buildings. I think that is much rarer now.

Anyway, it's not as if other countries have always taken good care of their historic buildings. Just look at London, which over the years has employed some of the most criminally stupid town planners known to man. And if you read what Charles Dickens had to say in Pictures from Italy, his account of his travels in the country, you realise that a large number of the monuments he saw were falling down. He describes how a particular cathedral was "odorous with the rotting of Correggio's frescoes in the Cupola". I'm pretty sure that wouldn't be the case now. So maybe Russia is like Italy 150 years ago, and 150 years in the future, all of these places will be sparkling. It's just a pity for me that I won't be here to see them.

Sunday, 6 May 2012

What happened to all the stately homes?

It's easy to imagine, when walking around parts of Moscow, that the entire city was founded by some sort of crazed builder cerca 1950. There are a lot of identically run-down apartment blocks that were originally put up as short-term solutions to the accommodation shortage, but which have somehow managed to limp on into the modern day, despite the fact that everyone is continually expecting them to fall down. One day they will, and everyone will have the satisfaction of telling their friends, "I told you so."

Residential block, Moscow:
Not architecture's finest hour. Photo from
In reality, however, Moscow is at least 850 years old, and probably older. Unfortunately, there is almost nothing left that is actually old, because people invading Russia have a nasty habit of burning the place to the ground (I'm looking at you, Golden Horde and Crimean Tatars), and if it looks like they might forget, the locals do if for them (see Napoleon). However, the French left 200 years ago, which gave the local aristocrats about a hundred years to get down to the serious business of building stately homes before they were all massacred by the Communists. So what happened to all the stately homes?

A lot of them are still here.

Просмотреть Усадьбы на карте большего размера

Map created by

I know - that is a lot of stately homes. And they turn up in the most surprising places. For example, every day when I get the tram to school, the route is basically down one street and turn right, but at one point the tram tracks take a massive detour round a big red building.

This is the good half of the building. Has a bit of graffiti and blocked up windows, but otherwise intact.

Definitely some sort of gate.
The building itself is semi-derelict. On the other side to the photo, it is bounded by an overgrown garden and most of the windows are smashed in. But it definitely looks like it was once some kind of gate house. And if you walk down to the road, the picture is even clearer.

So what was it the gate house to? Well, through the trees on the other side of the road you can make out some sort of big house, but I'm pretty sure they don't want visitors. Partly because there is a sign saying Institute of Theoretical and Experimental Physics, which is the kind of thing people like to keep secret, and partly because if I jump up and down by the fence surrounding it I can just about see what is on the other side - two more fences. Three fences in a row is generally a keep out sign (although my friend says that if you go round the side there is a place where the fences are broken and you can climb through). Until I summon up the courage to do that, according to Google, this is what I am missing out on:

Photo from

Photo from
Not too bad, right? I should have been a Russian physicist.

The estate is called Черёмушки (Cheryomushki - this is still the name of the tram stop there), and although the origin of the name is not definitively known, the most common story is that it comes from the word черемухи (cheremukhi - bush cherry), which supposedly used to grow here. This may be complete rubbish, however, and there are other stories, even other plants, that could have given the estate its name (including черемошка - cheremoshka - wild garlic). Although you do have to think, would anyone really have named their estate "wild garlic"?

Anyway, when I was trying to find out the history of the place I read possibly the most boring essay ever written since the beginning of the world, which I will now summarise for you: in the last four to five hundred years, not much happened here. Legend has it that the manor was originally owned by Boris Gudanov, and it then passed through a series of families, none of whom appear to have spent much time in the place, because they were all so rich that they had multiple estates. A couple of them were hanged by their feet and then thrown off buildings, probably when someone realised that, as a method of execution, hanging someone by their feet is exceedingly slow. The only other interesting person to have owned the estate was Duchess Anastasia Golitsyn, who was a favourite of Peter the Great, was at one point arrested for treason, and ended her days being a clown for the Empress, whom she used to make laugh by crawling around on her stomach picking up gold coins. From this we learn that she had no pride, and the Empress was a sadist. 

Eventually the estate was bought by the Yakunchikov family, who renovated it in 1909 to look like it does today, although the red building the tram goes round is actually older, from the end of the 18th century. After the revolution the place was nationalised, the house stripped and its contents sent to Moscow. Yankunchikov did survive though - he emigrated in the early 1920s, so if he has any descendents, they are probably now members of the Assembly of the Russian Nobility (there really is one - their webpage is here). According to some people, Trotsky lived in a very aristocratic style in the house from 1918-1922, complete with servants etc, but I couldn't find anything that would corroborate this. The estate became a collective farm, then a rest house, then a training centre for military vets, and then after the war it housed the omnious-sounding Laboratory No. 3, which later became the Institute of Theoretical and Experimental Physics.

Схема усадьбы Черемушки
This is what the estate used to look like. To the bottom right is the gatehouse the trams now go round. Photo from
Unfortunately, in the mean time, the area around the main buildings changed from the above picture to a collection of hideously ugly apartment buildings, one of the first regions in Moscow to experiment with the sort of low-cost, no-soul housing developments than later became common. At the time, however, the government was very proud of it. They even commissioned Shostakovich to write an operetta about the place in 1958.

This type of apartment block is, thankfully, out of fashion. But it did manage to provide the plot for the Russian version of It's a Wonderful Life (in that it's happy and shown at Christmas) - Ирония Судьбы (Ironia Sudbi - the Irony of Fate). In this film, the hero gets incredibly drunk and ends up getting on a plane to St Petersburg by mistake. He is still drunk when he gets there, but because in Soviet times there was not much variation in street names between cities, and no variation at all between apartment blocks, he manages to get a taxi to "his" apartment and even unlock "his" front door and fall asleep in the place without realising that he is, in fact, in completely the wrong city. The real owner of the apartment then comes home and hilarity ensues. They eventually fall in love and by the end of the film it looks like they will live happily ever after. Of course, they made a sequel twenty years later in which it transpired that in fact they hadn't got married and instead had spent the time being miserable.

Sunday, 22 April 2012

I have a spare cold war bunker to sell you...

What do you buy when your country starts selling off everything it owns, and it owns everything? This was a decision that various now-oligarchs had to make in the 1990s, and it turns out the correct answer was oil, metal or media companies. Everyone with the correct answer - pass go and collect a billion pounds (also the eternal hatred of most of your compatriots, but don't worry - you can always move to London).

Some people, however, made more...unusual, perhaps imaginative choices. For instance, at least one person decided that what they had always wanted was a bunker or two designed to withstand a nuclear attack. Preferably in a good location...ooh, and wouldn't it be nice if it had some fake marble pillars? "Fear not", said the government, "we have just the thing". A short while later, probably after slamming his head repeatedly into a wall for not going with aluminium smelting firms, said owner had to decide what to do with his 50-year-old metal tunnels under the ground. And the answer was....wait for it...a bar.

The best place for a party...a nuclear bunker with the shiniest red sofas money can buy
Unfortunately, that left him with another 7000 square metres of bunker to use. Having almost certainly bankrupted himself on red sofas, the cheapest thing was to leave the rest exactly as it was and then charge tourists for seeing it in the "original" state...and so the "Milestones of the Soviet Era" tour was born.

Actually, I'm both being unfair and conflating two separate bunkers, so I will now stop. The tour I went on spent five hours exploring two sets of bunkers - one built in the 1930s as a place for Stalin to escape to if the Germans entered Moscow, and one built in the 1950s to ensure continuity of government and telecommunications in the event of an American nuclear attack. Since they were both in Moscow, I couldn't help thinking that the former was fairly useless - if the Germans entered Moscow, surely the obvious thing would be to leave Moscow completely and retreat eastwards, not just across town.

According to the tour guide, whose had a bit of a thing for Stalin's "leadership", the whole of the Moscow metro was built as a cover for the construction of a series of underground command points, bomb shelters and storage facilities that began in 1933 when Hitler came to power. [Part of the preparations was a factory that could go from making pasta to making gunpowder in fifteen minutes, which I think is utterly brilliant]. A plan to build a massive 120,000-seater stadium and sports complex near Измайловский (Izmailovsky), a former imperial hunting lodge, was used to distract from the immense amount of work needed to build a back-up central command post there. Ultimately the bunker was finished, but work on the stadium was abandoned in 1939 and never restarted. It is now one of those bizarre places filled with small kebab shops that make everyone wonder who on earth would come all this way for a kebab. [Answer based on what I saw: no one] Underneath the stadium is a series of tunnels and rooms, including parking spaces and fuel for 150 tanks. What they actually let you see is the main conference room (the first room you come into) and the two rooms on either side of it - Stalin's study and his dining room, and then a couple of rooms now used for conferences/ as a cafe.

Unfinished stadium used as cover for the building of the bunker. Complete with guns on the field to shoot the losers.

Main conference room in the bunker with fake marble pillars (actually I think these are rather good - I still want to learn Venetian plastering).

The conference room has a special dome over the circular table so that Stalin's voice, which was naturally very quiet, would be amplified without him needing to strain himself. Facing away from the entrance, to the left was Stalin's study, which contained a desk, couch, map of the front, strange multi-player chess-like gaming-table and pictures of Lenin, Marx and Engels (the latter two look almost identical).

Stalin's desk in his office. There is a map of the front behind him, and Lenin's picture keeping an eye on him to his right.

It looks like something Gandalf would play, but it was actually it was one of Stalin's favourite games.

To the right was the dining room, which Stalin had decorated to look like a Georgian tavern, because he liked those. He also apparently liked artistic representations of himself, because pictures and sculptures of him were everywhere. I like busts on pillars, but personally I would have chosen my favourite Roman emperor (Julian II). However, there's no accounting for taste, especially Stalin's, who appears not to not have had any at all, judging from the monstrosity of a statue in one of the adjoining rooms. If you can look at the picture and not think, "what the hell is that?", there is something wrong with you. I may be being too harsh though - the heads may have been added later by the guide, who, as I said, was a fan.

Stalin: A man fond of Georgian taverns...and his own head

Irrefutable proof that having near-unlimited dictatorial power does not bring you taste

The bunker was linked to the Kremlin in Moscow by a 10 mile underground road. The plan was that Stalin would come here from the centre of town, and then either stay and work here (this is what actually happened in December 1941 when the Germans were bearing down on Moscow), or, if this was too dangerous, he had one of three options. Plan A was to fly out from the airfield next door. Plan B, in the case of bad weather, was to leave on the secret underground railway to the East. Plan C, in case of bad weather and the train breaking down, was to fight the Germans to the death using his 150 tanks. Not a bad set of plans.

The other set of bunkers, which is located near Таганская metro station (Taganskaya) was built in the 1950s when the possibility of the US launching a nuclear strike on Moscow seemed like a real threat. From an unassuming entrance off a quiet street, you then pass through a 50cm thick, 6-ton door before descending 60m (18 storeys) to the tunnel system. The depth of the bunker hit everyone at the same time, around the -10 storey mark on the staircase we were walking down, as the group suddenly realised that we would have to WALK UP the same way to get out. There was grim silence from that point on.

The tunnels and rooms are mostly empty, because in the 1980s the government decided to repair and update all the technology in them, and this was still going on when the funding dried up in 1990. At this point the whole project was mothballed until they sold off the bunkers, but there are a couple of rooms that have been reconstructed - including one with a reproduction nuclear-missile-launching interface, where you can go through the motions of pushing the red button and then watch an American city being blown into smithereens on a large screen above you. I'm not sure whether this is meant to be fun or not. As I am really pretty fond of America, I found it moderately disturbing.

The most depressing working environment ever

Work on repairing and updating the tunnels was called off in 1990 half-way through the process
This is where they ran into the seven dwarves coming from the opposite direction
Pretending to launch nuclear missiles against the US...what larks!

Now you see why the place needed updating

Desk of telecommunications operator. The machine on the right is for morse code, complete with little tapping thing.

We eventually emerged from more tunnels into the bar, where we were served a traditional meal of beef, buckwheat, tea and vodka. It was pretty good, but getting back to ground level was even better. Being in a bunker, even for a few hours, makes me realise how much I like grass and trees and the sound of birds, and how quickly I would go insane if I were trapped underground. And not just because I have seen The Descent.

Sunday, 18 March 2012


This was three weeks ago, but I’ve only just managed to borrow a cable to transfer my photos from my camera to my computer. Maslenitsa is a week long religious and folk festival before the start of Orthodox lent. It may have originally been a festival to celebrate the Sun and the end of winter. Nowadays it is the last week in which Christians are allowed to eat milk, cheese and other dairy products before Lent, so people make pancakes all week long.

I went with my roommate to Suzdal, a town on the Golden Ring. Suzdal is the Russian version of Lacock, in that it has been protected from development and hence is used in all period dramas, with the locals often roped in as extras.

We got there on the Friday night, after an epic journey from Moscow bus station that took us 6 hours and involved passing three car crashes, all to cover the same distance as from London to Nottingham. I suppose this is why the oligarchs have helicopters. On the Saturday morning though, the horrendous journey seemed worth it. Suzdal was covered in snow, and not the way Moscow is where it looks like someone has spray painted the snow deep brown, but snow like in movies, which somehow never gets dirty or slushy.

Nativity of the Virgin Cathedral

Believe it or not there a river in this picture

We traipsed down to the open air architecture museum, where the day began with a parade that involved some people in traditional costume and other people dressed as geese, followed by Round 1 in the Goose Fighting competition. Unfortunately, these geese were lovers not fighters, so it took a lot of coaxing from their keepers before they started biting each other. As I understand it, technically it is supposed to go to First Blood, but the audience got bored way before that and started yelling, so the organisers ended the fight and determined the winner based on points (I have no idea how that works). 

Next came climbing up a pole to grab a prize stuck at the top. Presumably for reasons of increased grip, most participants seemed to think this was best done wearing as few clothes as possible. I should note that it was pretty cold, probably twelve below zero or something, with a biting wind, and it snowed pretty much non-stop. If you made it to the top, apart from the adoration of the crowd, you got a roast goose. 

How to get hypothermia in pursuit of a goose
Throughout the day there was traditional music and dancing, sledging, rides in horse-drawn sleighs, a game which involved hitting your opponent with a pillow until they fell off a log, and a never-ending tug-of-war. There were no teams, passers by just piled in on whichever side looked like losing, and then left when they had had enough, to be replaced immediately by others. And whenever it all got too cold, you could buy hot pancakes and tea, spiced wine or sbiten, a honey-based drink. Alternatively you could go and sit in the wooden church, which was warm (this option was very popular).

Trying to knock your friend off a log with a pillow

Jingle bells

Not sure why there was a sword fight but hey...

Massive snowball fight which resulted in the total destruction of the snowhouse (this was the aim)

The following day was pretty much the same but in a different location, and ended at around 4pm with the burning of the baba, a figure of a woman who personifies winter.  After that, everyone rapidly disappeared, and we were left with another mammoth journey back to Moscow, during which we left one person behind after stopping for a toilet break in the middle of nowhere.  Travelling in Russia is not without risk.

Goodbye, Winter!