The visceral, shadowy evocations of Moscow—by subway, rail, and pavement—in Hamid Ismailov’s The Undergroundhave inspired me to revisit some images and words from my own time in Moscow, a few years ago, in the dead of winter. The city of the 1980s and 1990s that Ismailov describes was still visible, but new influences—in particular, the dazzling wealth enjoyed by some in the Putin era—had clearly altered the terrain. The following is adapted from a piece published in 2008.
In February, the city is filthy with almost-black snow. It drifts from the streets and overwhelms the sidewalks. Drainpipes pour water on the pavement that instantly turns to ice. No one lays down salt. In a few days, a half-dozen guys with shovels will show up, scraping away for hours without making any real progress. The passersby each have to find their own elusive footing; they try to keep themselves upright without making direct contact with the concrete. From the flat roofs, other men with shovels send the excess snow and ice hurtling downward without warning. The traffic moves incautiously through the intersections, spinning off more filth. Cars race forward, just to idle again in mid-block traffic.
But then, a black—always black—sedan or jeep will ride through, gleaming. There isn’t a speck of dirt or soot; even the tires are clean. This seems impossible when you look at the sputtering, gray Russian cars, or even the plentiful German and Japanese imports, none of which could make it a few feet without succumbing to grime. Somehow, though, these cars manage to stay pristine, unspoiled, unimpeded. They travel along their own privileged plane: above the pollution, the crowds, even the weather.
In the Soviet era, the city devoured itself to build monuments to the State. It was sheer laziness and disorder that saved even small parts of the old city, wrote the Polish journalist Ryszard Kapuściński. “Old Moscow vanished from the face of the Earth,” he recorded, “and in its place rose heavy and monotonous, although powerful, edifices—symbols of the new authority.”
To Aleksander Pushkin, Moscow was a “faded dowager queen," a place of maternal comfort, a link to the past, a keeper of common secrets. If Petersberg was the court––the seat of law, power, control—than Moscow was the kitchen: a place where the Russian unconscious was fed, a city of bread and feasts and plenty. Moscow was the repository of the Russian past and the capital of its soul, or so it's remembered. The keeper of family lore, a place of arcane habits. It was a place that trafficked in the ineffable, which also means in traded in eternity and death, both as inseparable from the past as a mother's embrace.
The big, messy, enveloping village was replaced by something more forbidding, harder, and inescapably masculine. Planners gouged out wide expanses and filled them in with imperial kitsch or numbing, geometric monotony. But the monumental architecture has its own kind of anxiety. The structures' self-importance gives them away; they are too insistent on their own immorality. In Moscow, I understood exactly what W.G. Sebald meant when he wrote that "out-sized buildings cast the shadow of their own destruction."
Some of the older buildings—like the nineteenth-century Euoropeanized facades in soft pastel colors, or the Gothic-Byzantine hybrids—have been revived quite elegantly. On the other hand, the new, post-Soviet constructions reflect what novelist Tatyana Tolstaya calls “the dreams and fantasies of people who made their fortunes yesterday and haven’t read anything but children’s books.” There's something paradoxically unpretentious about structures with no agenda but to project success and stature.
As you walk up Tverskaya Street, leading away from Red Square, you may have to struggle to picture the rather austere Soviet streetscape that was replaced by neon, with expensive stores, hotels, and foreign banks. This part of town can be shockingly opulent. By any standards, and especially compared to Moscow's rougher outer edges, the city center is an island of abundance and luxury. The key demographic here seems to be exceptionally tall women wearing animal skins. The more of the animal still attached, the better.
If you can see the old Tverskaya in your mind's eye, or even if you cheat and look at an old picture, it's easier then to imagine what many locals must feel when they walk this street. You can imagine feeling a part of your life has been painted over; even if you are turning the same corners, crossing the same intersections, wandering out of habit towards a shop or bar that doesn't exist anymore. Being surrounded by young people who don't remember any different might only add to that dislocation.
Everyone who writes about Moscow does so, in one way or other, as a stranger. Often the writer came here from somewhere else and, even after a lifetime, is still adjusting to the city's codes. By 1900, three-quarters of the population had been born somewhere else. For artists especially, Moscow was, and is, a place of pilgrimage and aspiration. A Ukraine-born novelist, now almost thirty years in Moscow, told me over coffee, "We're like the French: everyone is born in the provinces, but hopes to die in Paris."
Because it's been through such enormous changes, catastrophes, and wild revisions, Moscow can also make strangers out of its natives and long-time dwellers. In a place that ruptures, breaks, and rebuilds at such a terrifying pace, any sense of belonging is always somewhat conditional, always inherently fragile.
Writers, especially, have found themselves with a new standing, with a new set of rules. "You can write what you want, but you won't be read," is how one author described the current arrangement. "Now a writer is just a writer. A respected professional, but with no prospects and no moral influence."
Something else stands out about literature in contemporary Moscow: the city itself, as it is today, seems largely absent. There are plenty of works about the past and speculative writing about the future. But the Moscow of today feels largely vague and remote. By no means an expert, I tested this impression as often as possible. A prominent editor who "discovered Russian literature after Perestroika" thought writers were still slowly digesting the Soviet experience. I heard similarly from others: there is still so much to say that could not be said before or could not be understood before. The present is always changing but, in Russia, so is the past.
A few days later, the topic came up again with a group of younger writers. A poet, a Moscow native who had been tutored in English since childhood, suggested that fiction depends on a wellspring of shared experiences, of unspoken codes and familiar gestures, of unifying memories. In Russia today, he said, no common bonds exist. In the Soviet Union, there was a broadly shared culture into which one was initiated in childhood. Today it's gone and nothing has replaced it, especially nothing resembling a shared vision of the future. Poetry was thriving, they agreed. Poetry is the language of the inner life, while fiction is a medium of empathy and commiseration.
This winter in Moscow, especially, it felt like more big changes were on the way. The Russian economy was, and still is, in turmoil. In decadent Moscow, the signs of recessions were mostly muted, but many were expecting the worst. Rumors were spreading; more than one person had heard from friends that people were selling their posessions on the streets of other cities, like Petersberg. One writer I met, who described herself as a liberal, said that this climate was making it even harder to imagine an alternate path for the country. They knew just how bad the Soviet and authoritartian models could be, but they also saw that the Western alternatives were more vulnerable and imperfect then they once had imagined. Russians liberals had nowhere to turn, she said, neither East nor West.
February twenty-third used to be Soviet Army Day. They've kept the holiday as a generic celebration of masculinity, sometimes called Man's Day. One quasi-official explanation goes like this: “All men and boys are praised as eventual defenders and helpmates.” There was a celebration in Red Square, near the ice rink where average-looking teenagers mindlessly showed off Olympic-style maneuvers.
The festival had a revivalist tone: not for the Soviet era, but for a a stylized Russian folk culture with costumes, food, and dancing. A teen pop group in Cossak garb sent all the young concertgoers into a frenzied dance. In too-high heels and too-tight jeans, they made large circles and moved in traditional steps. Some of the rowdier boys went into the center, folding their arms and kicking their legs, half-dancing and half-sparring. Even though it was below freezing, a few boys took off their shirts.
You don't see the image of Vladimir Putin projected around the city as you would have with leaders in the Soviet days. His authority is a quieter sort. But there were some pictures of him at this festival. He's not commanding in a physical sense, but there is something compact and controlled about him that seems formidable. His is exactly the kind of head that Roland Barthes had in mind when he described an old film about Julius Caesar: "One of those Roman foreheads, whose smallness has at all times indicated a specific mixture of self-righteousness, virtue, and conquest.”
In Red Square, you are surrounded by relics and reminders of old faiths. Some are gone for good, hopefully, and some have endured. The church at the northeast corner, for example, is usually full. You can watch the visitors cross themselves on the way in, and exit with their backs to the square, never turning away from the church door. Right across from Lenin's tomb, in front of the Kremlin, is the GUM department store, filled with exclusive western boutiques. These stores, I'm told, are much emptier then they were a few months ago, before the recession started. There is no line to see Lenin, but the tourists usually come back when the weather turns. The competition among symbols tilts towards different favorites at different times; it seems foolish to bet on which will win tomorrow, or the day after that. As Pushkin said: “If a Russian doesn't believe in God, it's because he believes in something else.”