Friday, 11 May 2012

Victory Day (День Победы) - Part 1

As you may know, Hitler lost World War II. This result is celebrated every year in Russia on May 9th, and Wednesday was Victory Day +67 years in the Great Patriotic War. So Happy Victory Day for Wednesday. If you are thinking, "That was a really long time ago - they need to get over it," I advise you not to voice those thoughts to a Russian - it is a really big deal here. Thousands of people turned out for the parade down Тверская (Tverskaya), and all over town people were wearing orange-and-black striped ribbons, which is the symbol of victory (it represents the Order of Saint George, the patron saint of Russia). Russians mark this day because the Soviet Union lost around 25 million people in the war. If the total number of people killed in the war was 60 million (usual estimates 50-70 million), this means over 40% of the dead were Soviet citizens. 14% of the entire population of the USSR was killed, compared with less than 1% of the UK population and 0.3% of the US population (although some countries lost almost as high a percentage, amongst them Greece and the Baltic Republics, and Poland lost an even higher percentage of its people). In some towns taken by the Germans, literally every single inhabitant died. Over one and a half million people starved to death in St Petersburg. The Soviet Union sacrificed possibly more than any other country to defeat Hitler, and they don't think that the rest of the world appreciates that enough. 

One the other hand, it is slightly weird to see banners around Moscow proclaiming "USSR Victory", or hear the defeat of Hitler described as "a gift we gave the whole world" - victory in WWII was kind-of a joint effort. Once, when we were discussing what foreigners think about Russia in my English conversation class, one of the women came out with the statement that "British people think that there have only been three people to rule Russia well - Peter I, Catherine II and Stalin." I almost choked on my biscuit. Apart from the fact that I doubt most British people have even heard of either Peter I or Catherine II, let alone hold considered opinions about their leaderships skills, I am pretty much certain that people in the UK don't, in general, have a favourable opinion of Stalin. When I explained this, as tactfully as I could, she responded with, "But Stalin won WWII". So maybe there is just a general lack of appreciation amongst all the old Allied powers about what the others did.

Regardless of the historical rights and wrongs, in mood the day is a lot like Independence day in the States, with a bit of Memorial day thrown in. People give speeches about how great the country is, and there are concerts and fireworks displays.

It all starts with a huge military parade, 1.5km long, with 14,000 soldiers and 100 units of heavy equipment. It was invitation-only - at least in Red Square, and we were advised to stay away from the whole thing, as the centre of town is currently hell, what with all the soldiers, police, barriers everywhere and the protests going on. I was in the centre on Sunday (for the final parade rehearsal), and Monday (to generally wander around), and it took an age to get anywhere. Every street you started down turned out to be blocked at the end, and if you think walking past policemen makes you feel guilty, try walking past large groups of soldiers. I had the permanent feeling I was about to be arrested and/or shot.

The final rehearsal on Sunday should have been just like the parade, only with a lower probability of being crushed by swarms of people. The noise was incredible, as was the clouds of black smoke these things give off as they move. I suppose being environmentally friendly isn't a priority for tanks.

Everyone getting bored waiting for the rehearsal to begin. We were two hours early, so it was a long wait.


Despite having a Master's with a focus on Strategic Studies, I know nothing about military equipment. Some sort of amoured vehicle?

Big missiles

Very big missiles, normally with nuclear payloads according to the people standing behind me, who said they needed them to shoot at the US. They were joking (I hope)
One of the helicopters that flew overhead in formation. The flag weighs 1.8 tonnes
This was only the second military parade of my life - the first being last November, also in Moscow. That one was to commemorate 70 years since the parade of 1941, and used only equipment from that time. Tanks were an awful lot smaller then.

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.

Tuesday, 1 May 2012

The prosody of Russian poetry

The guy who lives next door to me likes love songs by 90s US boybands. I know this because he sings along to them at high volume late at night or absurdly early on Sunday mornings, mispronouncing half the words. Occasionally this is loud enough to wake me up, at which point I lie for a while in bed, debating the merits of turning the other cheek and why it is that I am still capable of getting so angry at things like this. Eventually I yell "замолчи" (zamolchi - shut up) and then "shut up", since English is the international language of shouting. If this doesn't work I jump out of bed and bash the wall several times with my fists, which isn't recommended, since the building is alarmingly flimsy and every time I do things start falling from the ceiling. By this point I am normally laughing and he usually shuts up, so everything is ok.

In my more awake moments, I think I should be more considerate of his attempts at karaoke, since the way he feels about the Backstreet Boys is probably the way I feel about Russian poetry. He loves the way the lyrics sound, and I think the prosody of Russian is beautiful. Listening to Russians recite poetry, or really just speak Russian at all, is like listening to a song. It's one of the things that attracted me to Russian in the first place. One the other hand, since my accent is not terribly good, I'm sure I would cause Russians exquisite pain if I were to recite poetry at them. At Christmas my school had a "talent show" of the type I abhor, where overly-jolly administrators bully participants into ritually humiliating themselves in front of an embarrassed audience. A couple of people decided to recite Pushkin, so I watched the Russian teachers to see how they would react. Several of them spent the time wincing whilst rubbing their eyes, and one had her head in her hands. Russian is only beautiful when spoken by Russians, I guess. Or maybe they just feel the same way I do about talent shows.

Anyway, I don't think you need to be able to understand the words to appreciate the sound [in fact, since one of the parts of the brain that responds to rhythm and is involved in emotional reactions to music is the cerebellum, a part of the brain we share with, for example, reptiles, there is a possibility that crocodiles would also like Russian poetry].

So here are two of my favourite Russian poems, one by Lermontov, and one by Pushkin. They are both fairly short, which makes them easier for me to remember. Learning poetry is a good way to learn vocabulary, since everything is easier if it rhymes. Plus then you have something to recite at tram stops to save yourself from death-by-boredom whilst waiting for your tram to show up. Translations into English obviously not done by me.

Lermontov - Парус

  Парус by ayearinmoscow

Белеет парус одинокой
В тумане моря голубом!...
Что ищет он в стране далёкой?
Что кинул он в краю родном?...

Играют волны - ветер свищет,
И мачта гнётся и скрыпит...
Увы, он счастия не ищет
И не от счастия бежит!

Под ним струя светлей лазури,
Над ним луч солнца золотой...
А он, мятежный, просит бури,
Как будто в бурях есть покой!

A single sail is passing, white
In blue and oceanic haze.
What does it seek in foreign seas?
Why has it left its native bays?

The waves are playing. Wind is wailing
Against the bending, creaking mast.
Oh no, it seeks no happy future
And does not flee a happy past.

The azure waves roll out beneath it,
The solar gold above it glows,
And yet this rebel begs for storms
As if a storm could hold repose.

Pushkin - Я вас любил

  Я вас любил by ayearinmoscow

Я вас любил: любовь ещё, быть может,
В душе моей угасла не совсем;
Но пусть она вас больше не тревожит;
Я не хочу печалить вас ничем.
Я вас любил безмолвно, безнадежно,
То робостью, то ревностью томим;
Я вас любил так искренно, так нежно,
Как дай вам Бог любимой быть другим.

I loved you; even now I must confess,
Some embers of my love their fire retain;
But do not let it cause you more distress,
I do not want to sadden you again.
Hopeless and tonguetied, yet I loved you dearly
With pangs the jealous and the timid know;
So tenderly I love you, so sincerely,
I pray God grant another love you so.

Wednesday, 25 April 2012

How to find a Moscow address

On my first day in Moscow I was told to go five stops on the tram from where I lived to find the school. The trouble was, once you got off the tram it was impossible to find out the names of the streets, because most of them didn't have signs, and the numbering system appeared to have been put together by someone who couldn't count. Without a map or internet on my phone, I was reduced to asking random passers-by:

Me: Excuse me. You don't happen to know, by any chance, where no. 24/35 K-- street is, do you? (polite questions in Russian are generally phrased as negatives, so rather than "could you tell me" it would be "couldn't you tell me" etc)
Local: There are a lot of streets round here with that name, so really, it could be anywhere.
Me: Oh.

Actually, as is almost always the case, the girl I stopped was incredible nice, and stayed with me whilst we asked a series of other people, none of whom knew either. After I'd recruited four people to my cause, we eventually found someone who had heard of the school. Guess where it was? Right across the street from where I was standing, of course. Ho hum. Sometimes I forget that I am supposed to be smarter than the average bear.

The reason I got confused is that Moscow uses a different method of building numbering from the UK. There is a similar system in Ulaanbaatar (Mongolia), where I once spent three increasingly frustrating hours trying to find a hotel, despite the fact that there are only two roads in the entire city. The problem, of course, is that there aren't REALLY only two roads in Ulaanbaatar, it's just that there are only two roads on the map (because these are the ones with names). To use a Moscow example, the address of my school is 24/35 K-- street. It is on a street corner, so it has two numbers, one for each road. BUT there are five other buildings which are also 24/35 K-- street, and most of them have multiple entrances. Even within one entrance there are often multiple businesses. Obviously, not all six buildings can be on the corner of two roads - they together cover an area roughly the size of a city block. So there are small roads criss-crossing the interior of this block. These, however, are not counted as roads and are not named on maps.

This system has two results. Firstly, distances between numbers on streets are much longer than you think. If you are at no. 27 and you need number 37, this is likely to be quite a walk, not just five houses down. Secondly, if you want to find an address, you need to know the street name and number, the building number, which entrance you need, and then the number of the apartment or business. Basically an address will not do - you need a description of how to find the place. Or alternatively Google maps, which knows everything.

Anyway, I am off to Tokyo for a wedding tomorrow, so I won't be updating for a few days. Moscow weather has finally caught up with the rest of the world, decided to skip spring entirely and go straight into summer. A couple of weeks ago the temperature jumped 15 degrees in one night, and has been 20 degrees or so every day since. Since this is almost exactly the same as the temperature in Tokyo at the moment, this is ideal for me.

Monday, 23 April 2012

Tricking your brain into learning vocabulary

I like grammar. This may put me in the minority, but I think there's something fascinating about understanding how sentences work, and the ways you can twist and play with words and word order to emphasise different things. I love learning a new grammatical construct and then feeling that there is now a whole new group of thoughts I can express.

What I don't love is learning vocabulary - mainly because it can never, ever end. There are always more words to know, and as soon as you learn them, you will forget the old ones. I used to try and learn vocabulary in lists, but this is no good at all, because my brain outsmarts me and remembers the words in sequence rather than each one separately connected with a meaning. Thus I can tell you the Russian word for "prophetic", but only if you've just asked me to translate "to whine", because these words happened to come up in the same lesson at school. Clearly a non-starter.

Possibly the rest of the world has known this for years, but I came across a programme that temporarily gave me the lead in the arms race between me and my brain, by randomly asking me words from a list I have inputted. It then remembers which ones you got wrong and asks you them more frequently in the future compared with the words you got right. It also automatically assumes you will forget words after some time, so it repeats everything every month or so. In case anyone else would find it useful, it is called ProVoc, and you can download it for free here.

Of course, in the medium term my brain found a way of getting round this. It now appears to operate on a group basis instead of sequentially. So it now knows the word for "prophetic" only if we have been previously discussing words from the Chekov story Дама с собачкой (Dama s Sabachkoi - Woman with small dog).

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.

Tuesday, 17 April 2012

Update: Why Putin is a crab

So I am now in a position to be able to tell you why Putin is a crab. He gave a press conference a while back during which he stated that he had been working "как раб" (like a slave), but several journalists, either accidentally or otherwise, misheard him. They thought he said he had been working "как краб" (like a crab), and reported his words as such. Cue internet proliferation of pictures with Putin's head superimposed on the body of a crab.

Diction is very important for politicians.

Monday, 16 April 2012

Google and what people want to know

If the futility of life is starting to get you down, and you feel yourself sympathising with Pechorin more than is strictly healthy, I suggest you look to Google to restore your affection for the human race. I like to type in "why" to Google, because it then suggests the most popular continuations of this question. These questions form the current preoccupations of humanity (or those parts of humanity with access to a computer). And then I like to do this in different languages to see if it makes a difference:
Why am I…?
…is the sky blue?
…so tired?
…is the sky blue?
…always tired?
…is the sky blue?
…an idiot?
…is a blonde standing at Hamburg port?
…so happy?
…a Christian?/ sad?
…is Picnik closing?
…a vegetarian?
…is the sky blue?
…pay more?
…so tired?

These are the most popular questions. Spain gets two answers because of the two verbs "to be" (assuming my limited memory of Spanish is correct). Picnik is a photo-sharing website, and I think the German question about a blonde is part of a joke.

I'm sure you could do this for hours, but I don't know any more languages. I tried doing this with Google translate for some countries, but you never know with Google translate. Either their translation is off or the Greeks are googling why Greece was given the opportunity to rise up against their government and attain the 5th dimension, whatever that means. Although I suppose rising up against the government possibly IS what the Greeks are googling.

The reason for the sky being blue appears to interest a lot of people - this question was at No. 1 in US, UK, Russia and France, No. 2 in Spain and Australia, and No. 3 in Germany and Italy. It was the only question all countries had in common, although variations of "why am I so tired?" were also quite common, appearing at Nos 1 and 4 in the US, 1 and 2 in the UK, No. 2 in Spain and Italy, and No. 4 in Germany. The French and the Russians apparently get enough sleep. 

Anyway, the point of all this is that you see how much you have in common with the rest of the human race, i.e. most of them are exhausted as well. The Spanish are depressed - "why am I so sad" appeared at numbers 1 and 3, and the French are lonely - "why am I single" appeared at number 1 and "why am I alone" at number 2. And the Russians are all voting for Putin...well, maybe. "Why am I voting for Putin" was actually higher than "why am I an idiot", but I ruled this out because, judging by the results, I think it is a statement rather than a question, i.e. it should be read as "why I am voting for Putin". The second most popular question beginning with "why?" in Russian was literally "Why is Putin a crab?" but since this doesn't make any sense, there must be something I am missing. It's not zodiac signs, but it must be something.

Oleg Menshikov (Олег Меньшиков)

Last Tuesday I went to the theatre to see my favourite Russian actor, Олег Меньшиков (Oleg Menshikov). It wasn't a play, more of a monologue of him talking about what music has meant to him throughout his life, accompanied by a band playing his favourite pieces. I didn't understand a single word he said, because his usual talking speed seems to be about fifty times that of a normal person, but the music was nice, and it was interesting to see him in person rather than on TV.

I can't think of who the equivalent of Oleg Menshikov is in the UK or US, possibly because I am appalling bad at anything to do with modern life. When I moved back to the UK in 2009 I kept seeing all these headlines about someone called Cheryl Cole, a person I had never previously heard of, and after a month I was so annoyed that I actually had to google her. But it's also possible that no equivalent to Oleg Menshikov exists, and this is because (trying not to sound like a teenage fan here), he is really, really talented. He speaks French and English as well as Russian, he dances, he sings and he plays the guitar and the piano and God knows what else. And when I say he plays the piano, he doesn't just play it a bit, he REALLY plays the piano. I think he must have a clause in every film contract he signs that he gets to play the piano, just to show off how good he is.

One of my favourite of his films is called Восток Запад (East West), in which he stars with another actor called Sergei Bodrov Jr (now sadly deceased). Sergei Bodrov Jr had a PhD in Art History. He wrote his thesis on "Architecture in the Venetian Renaissance Painting". So there are several (well, at least two) super-intelligent and cultured Russian actors. It's people like this that make you feel like a failure as a human being.

Back to the theatre. The female spectators outnumbered the men by about 30:1, and at the end of the performance so many people went up to the front to give him flowers, that he couldn't carry them all, and had to go and put them down and come back on stage and carry on collecting bouquets. He had to do this three times. Three times! That is what you call popularity. But what does he do with all the flowers?