Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Moscow's Reminders of the Past

Soviet-era relics are endearing to the visitor, but some think that they're symptomatic of a country that has been slow in changing.
By Blake Evans-Pritchard
  • Guards marching outside the Kremlin. (Photo: Violetta Polese)
    Guards marching outside the Kremlin. (Photo: Violetta Polese)

For some locals, Moscow's famous 1950s skyscrapers - a fusion of baroque and gothic architecture rising out of the capital's smoke-clogged streets - are a grim reminder of Stalinist repression and the Cold War era.

For others, they represent a refreshing departure from the rest of the urban sprawl: the dilapidated and drab apartment blocks of the communist years interspersed with the slicker and more modern mirrored buildings that have been thrown up over the past two decades.

Josef Stalin, the country's former president, commissioned the building of these seven skyscrapers, nicknamed the Seven Sisters, in order to prove that the Soviet Union was every bit as powerful as the capitalist countries in the West.

Our taxi driver told us how, one day in the early 1950s, Stalin had been driving past the tallest of these skyscrapers - the Moscow state university - when he asked his cavalcade to stop.

The building should have a spire, he barked at his chief architect. Why doesn't it have a spire?

So a spire was duly built. Without one, the building had looked very much like a classic New York skyscraper. Which, of course, it was - the technology that had been used to build these high-rises was exactly the same as that used in New York's building frenzy.

The Seven Sisters don't just represent Moscow's struggle for superpower supremacy. They represent a contradiction between rejecting western capitalism and embracing its know-how.

In August, it will be exactly 20 years since Boris Yeltsin famously climbed on top of a tank outside the Russian parliament to denounce a coup that threatened to return hard-line communist party members to power.

The coup faltered and then collapsed, marking the definitive end of the Soviet era and ushering in real democratic change.

Two decades on and the country's communist past seems a distant memory. Last year, Forbes magazine, an American publication, placed Russia second in the ranking of the world's highest concentration of US dollar billionaires, accounting for a third of the 300 located in Europe.

Next year, the country is expected to finally join the World Trade Organisation, WTO - a sure sign that Russia has been accepted into the ranks of the world's free market economies.

But some things remain unchanged. During my visit, it was around 17 degrees below freezing. Sometimes, the temperature can fall as low as -35. Driving through the Moscow streets, eddies of snow pirouetting in the lamplight I found it hard to understand how people could live in such cold.

Inside Muscovite homes, though, it was a different story. The temperature was unpleasantly high. When I asked our host if it could be turned down a little, I was told that the thermostat could only be adjusted centrally - a throw-back, no doubt, to the days of Soviet collectivism.

So we slept with the windows open, freezing air mingling with the disagreeably stifling heat within.

Another reminder of the past can be seen at the foot of escalators in subway stations, where women sit in small glass cubicles watching the coming and going of passengers.

It seems likely that the escalators would work perfectly well without such supervision, but we are told that apparently pointless jobs like these were vital during the Soviet era for maintaining full employment.

These relics of the past are endearing to the visitor, but some think that they are symptomatic of a country that has been slow in changing.

The country is still run by an elite group of politicians, far removed from the lives of ordinary people.

When revolution and turmoil started sweeping through the Arab world earlier this year, people in Russia started speculating whether the time was ripe for a similar revolution in their own country.

At a wedding - which was the reason we had come to Russia in the first place - I sat next to a Ukrainian woman, who certainly thought a people's uprising would be a positive development in Russia.

After all, in her own country, an uprising in 2004, which came to be known as the Orange Revolution, had taken a stand against the old guard - although things have not changed as much as people hoped and President Viktor Yanukovych, who the revolution had sought to depose, returned to power in 2010.

"It seems unlikely that there will be a revolution in Russia, though," she eventually conceded, perhaps a little wistfully. "People here don't like change all that much."

Twenty years ago, when revolution ousted Russia's communist leaders, chaos ensued - and millions of people lost their life savings in the economic turmoil of the 1990s.

A political elite which doesn't tolerate dissent may now run the country, but at least things are stable. The country is marching inextricably towards entry into the WTO. People are starting to become more affluent. In central Moscow, wealth and opportunity surround its soviet-era skyscrapers, and few people want to take any risks with economic security in the hope of adding more democracy into the free-market mix.

Blake Evans-Pritchard is IWPR's Africa editor. 

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