That's the way the city crumbles

Sunday, September 1, 2013

My work days have been long lately, so my time to do blogworthy things has been minimal. And though most of my time has been spent at work, or in transit between work and hotel, there's one thing that I keep noticing about Moscow.  If I were to phrase it politely I'd say the place has an somewhat unkempt air about it.  Unmanicured.  Scruffy.  If I was going to phrase it in a brutally honest way, I'd say it's kind of, er, falling apart.  Crumbly.  Decaying. So today I have some photos that might illustrate what I'm talking about, and some random related thoughts.

First let me say that I don't mean the entire city is on the point of collapse.  There are lots of areas that are neat and clean and all spruced up.  Certainly I've been in cities that are in much worse shape than Moscow. (Africa, I'm looking at you.)  Especially in the centre of town there's not much that differentiates Moscow from a western city. (Ok, that's a lie.  There's the Cyrillic for one thing.  And the fact that I've never seen a black person on the street who wasn't a Ceremonies employee.  And there's the bizarre glut of 24-hour flower shops, which is a whole other blog post.)  But if you look closely, even in the more affluent areas, it's just, ummm, untidy.  Corners of concrete are chipped and uneven. Construction works are generally not barricaded and random holes in the pavement are not unusual.  Grassy spots are usually one third grass, one third weeds, one third bare and rarely mowed.  Areas that would be neatly paved in a Western city are often just packed dirt.  Paint is peeling.

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This sidewalk outside the office is typical.

Maybe it's a hangover from the Soviet Era, when I'm guessing that people had more pressing issues on their minds than whether the ceramic tiles in the passageway to the Metro were cracked and the lawn mowed. Maybe I'm hanging around in crummy areas.  And I suspect that things are gradually improving.  But still, below are a some photos I've taken as I'm going about my business.  I haven't been seeking out all the dingy spots - these were all taken on the way from the hotel to the metro:

Random holes in the paving, semi-barricaded.

Volleyball anyone?  This sports ground is definitely operational, but you wouldn't suspect it from the sign.

It's just... decay.

I love this.  In a way, the city is bathed in a sort of wabi-sabi aura.

Because I've been running with the Moscow Hash, I've also had a chance to check out four different big public parks in the city and my observations about Moscow hold up there too, though in the case of parks I'd say it's less a case of things falling apart and more that Moscow's just got a different style.  My perceptions are probably a bit skewed since I've been living in London for three years (Hang on… THREE YEARS?  When did that happen? Have I fallen into some kind of time warp from watching too many back-catalogue episodes of Dr. Who?).  Parks in London can sometimes be manicured to the point of absurdity.  Think about the shaped topiary and the formal gardens and all those Capability Brown-style composed vistas… that's definitely not Moscow.  It's not unusual to find all kinds of different activities in a park, but in general there seem to be fewer big open grassy areas and more areas of natural trees and undergrowth and rough pathways.  I suspect a Moscow park could be ten times the size of an English one as require half the gardening staff.  Moscow's green spaces are a whole lot more Assiniboine Forest than they are Hyde Park.

Not a single topiary Lenin in site.  What missed opportunity.

Adding to the general aura of untidiness are these big ventilation tubes I've noticed running overground.  (I apologise for not having a photo because of the aforementioned work hours... I'll try to remedy that.)  For now, imagine a large galvanised steel tube, maybe two feet in diameter.  The sort of thing you might expect to see suspended from the ceiling in an industrial building, expect that it's running along outside, propped up on blocks.  I have no idea what's in them.  Heated air?  A city-wide borscht distribution system?  Refugees being deported in some kind of human-sized pneumatically propelled capsules?  There's one I find particularly amusing because there's a point where it runs right across a sidewalk, so they've built a little wooden stairway and platform for pedestrians to walk up and over the pipe. Then the tube makes a vertical-horizontal-vertical trip over a driveway to let vehicle traffic pass underneath it.  This strikes me, in my limited experience of the country, as very Russian.

And yet for all my rants about crumbliness and decay, they also seem to be quite concerned about keeping things clean.  Our two-story office has several cleaners (all women, of course) who roam around gathering dirty coffee cups and cleaning them by hand before then putting them in the dishwasher.  And I was walking down the hall once and saw one of them scrubbing the wall because there was a scuff on it.  Another time on a run I saw a woman with a bucket of soapy water getting ready to attack a random section of a low granite wall outside the Metro station.  And though it can take hours to get your food in a restaurant (no, really) the same wait staff will swoop in on an empty plate like a vulture on a fresh carcass. I've had waiters pull my coffee cup towards them on their way past to check if it's empty so they can take it away.

Also, there are people employed to sweep the sidewalks all over the city.  They have those pushcart rubbish bins on wheels, but the amazing thing is that they're equipped with brooms that look like they come straight out of a fairy tale.  They are literally made out of bundles of twigs.  And they don't just sweep paved areas, they also sweep those areas of packed dirt. They sweep the dirt off the dirt.

Russian Street Cleaner
This isn't my picture, but it is genuinely what a 21st Century Moscow street sweeper's broom looks like.

In other news, I went on a river cruise last weekend with a bunch of people from work.  It was too dark and too fast-moving to get any really decent photos but after the cruise we went to the cocktail bar at the top of the Hotel Ukraina, which is in one of Stalinist Seven Sisters, a series of famous building in Moscow that are particularly iconic.  My Watermelon Fizz cocktail by itself was excellent but probably not worth the astonishing cost, however, coupled with the architecture and the view over the city lights, it was almost worth it. (Actually, it was totally worth it because I didn't pay for the drink at all.  My boss paid for the round and I think it only cost one of his kidneys.)

The Hotel Ukraina, with something that appears to be a pink bat-signal coming out of one of the side towers.  This shot was taken from inside the moving boat through a curved glass window in poor light, so who knows what's going on there.  Regardless, it's an impressive building, especially if you're peering out of one of those tall windows at the top with a strong yet fruity cocktail in your hand.

And finally, just to keep RobH from yipping, here's a shot I forgot to include in the Metro blog from a few weeks ago, with me posing at the base of a huge statue of Belorussian partisans at Belorusskaya Station:

I resisted the suggestion that I stand directly under the man's outstretched hand so it would look like he's patting me on the head.  And I stand by that decision.


Anonymous said...

Your blog is so interesting I'm really being educumated! Ax

Anonymous said...

How about a close up shot so we can marvel at all that wonderful hair. rh

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