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Back in the USSR – Moscow the Soviet way

In a city obsessed with sushi, designer hand bags and partying with Ukrainian models, travel author Peter Moore went to Moscow to see how much of the Soviet spirit remained. Here are his tips on getting back to the USSR.

Moscow Metro Hall, courtesy of Peter Moore

HOTEL

I wanted something boxy and dour, set over at least 12 floors with a babushka looking after each one.  In a perfect world my babushka would chain-smoke, neglect her cleaning duties and sell the toilet paper to Georgian gangsters. Unfortunately, most of these establishments have now been turned into business hotels and charge upwards of £200 a night.

Not so the Hotel Asia. It was set in a 15-storey tower block opposite the metro station on Ryazansky Prospect and boasted a hunting style pub and Ukrainian folk restaurant with easy walking distance. Its web site offered the choice between renovated and unrenovated rooms. I chose the unrenovated option and got a time capsule of Soviet hospitality circa 1973. There was a rug on the floor, a divan as my bed, peeling wall paper and a metal tray with two cut glass tumblers. My floor had its own babushka too but she let the side down badly by greeting me each morning with a cheery zdrasvooytyeh (hello) and changing the sheets on my bed daily.

Fish beer, Moscow. Courtesy of Peter Moore

EATING

My quest for a typically Soviet dining experience was slightly more difficult. When I asked my hotel babushka where she had dined during Soviet times she said she ate dumplings at home. Now she and her husband ate at My-My. Pronounced Moo-Moo, it’s a chain of self-service restaurants where you can stuff yourself for a couple of quid. My babushka liked the black and white bovine theme, especially the one in Arbat where they had a fibreglass cow out front.

A friend gave me the number of Nathan Toohey, the restaurant reviewer for the Moscow Times. He took me to Glavpivtorg, a faithful recreation of the beer restaurants popular with apparatchiks during the Soviet Era. It is authentic right down to the pretty girls in homey green skirts and lace blouses who met you at the door. Upstairs the thick leather chairs are reminiscent of a gentleman’s club. There’s wall-sized map of Russia and huge desk topped by three Bakelite phones should you wish to conduct a thermo-nuclear war. You can drink beer, eat prawns, whack a dried Caspian Roach fish against a stick and pretend it’s the Cuban Missile crisis all over again. Maybe that’s why it’s so popular with high-ranking officers of the FSB, the new security service, whose headquarters is conveniently located on Lubyanka Square, just down the road.

Another popular spot with the boys from the FSB is the Sword and the Shield. It is known locally as the KGB Club. CCCP badges adorn the poles outside and the emblem of the former secret service department is proudly displayed in the window. I thought it was meant to be ironic, like Maxim’s the soviet-themed pizza parlour in Budapest that serves Stalin and Lenin pizzas. But when I tried to take a photo of the life-size portrait of President Putin in a karate outfit hanging over the stairs I was brusquely informed that it wouldn’t be such a good idea. The decor isn’t satirical. It’s homage.

Moscow Metro, courtesy of Peter Moore

TRANSPORT

Getting around Moscow the Soviet way was easy. I just took the Metro. It has 165 stations and carries 9 million passengers a day. Moscow is supposed to be one of the most expensive cities in the world but a single ride to anywhere on the network only costs 17 roubles (about 34p). A card of twenty rides will set you back 200 roubles (£4). It’s also the largest repository of Soviet art in the world.

When Stalin ordered the construction of the Metro he envisaged it as a showcase of his particular brand of socialism. H G Wells told him to save the cash and buy 1,000 London buses instead. Stalin ignored him and peasants and workers were shipped in from all over the country to build it. The Communist Youth League pitched in as well. And the Soviet Union’s finest artists were recruited to decorate the stations.  It is not an exaggeration to say that each platform is a work of art.

The Metro caters to every taste. Want a bit of a pompous classicism mixed in with Empire style and Moscow Baroque? Then head for Komsomolskaya on the Circle Line. Bronze statues of revolutionary heroes more your thing? Try Ploshchad Revolyutsii. Art Deco stained glass? Novoslobodskaya. Vulgar gilt? Kievskaja. A mosaic of workers admiring the red tractor they have just built? The central hall at Novokuznetskaya. If you’re not sure what school of Soviet art appeals simply do what I did and get off at every station on the circle line. The sumptuous marble benches at every stop are a perfect place to people watch.

Moscow Heads, courtesy of Peter Moore

STATUES

Statues and sculptures were the mainstay of public art during the Soviet era and a few have found a home in Park Iskusstv, an unassuming garden that sits beside the Moscow River. Here you’ll find eulogies to soviet women carved in stone, metallic celebrations of the space race, a bronze Soviet adviser pointing the way forward to his noticeably shorter African and Asian comrades. There’s a couple of Lenin’s, the Felix Dzerzhinsky that was torn down after the failed 1991 coup, and a three-metre high Stalin. The statue of Stalin is backed by rows of faceless stone heads behind barbed wire. It’s a tribute to the millions that lost their lives in Gulags and a sobering reminder that my Soviet nostalgia was an indulgence afforded to someone who had not lived through those times.

For more about Peter, his books and his travels, visit his website at www.petermoore.net

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