THE FULL MOSKOVY
The telephone which sits on the coffee table of my hotel, the Tsentralnaya, has CCCP and a star emblazoned on the heart of its dial. The whole thing is red: a commie batphone. A Nevsky radio squats atop the television. I reckon it rolled off a Novosibirsk production line as the Beatles released 'Love Me Do'. Babushkas patrol the hotel's threadbare carpeted corridors, looking surly. Even more so if you happen to venture into the floor's communal toilets, stocked with that toilet paper usually reserved for baking trays.
In the mid-1930s, members of the Communist International and their families awaiting show trials were among the Tsentralnaya's 'guests'. Of the 2000 or so delegates who attended the Party Congress in 1934, two-thirds would be imprisoned over the next five years. Many were herded out of the Tsentralnaya in the middle of the night to a prison truck disguised as a baker's van -- "a Stalin's dozen"?
Above the huge new underground shopping mall close to Red Square, the heirs to the heroes of the Battleship Potemkin were getting drunk on a Sunday summer's afternoon. A fleet of them were moored to various benches, in various states of dress and undress. Some wore archetypal blue and white striped tops, or else hats topped with red stars, while others had given up on decorum altogether and swaggered about shirtless. An old woman swooped about them like a seagull, trying to nab their empty beer bottles for her recycling roubles.
On a nearby bench, a sailor dozed blissfully, splayed across its length, an arm propping up his head. As his arm slid, he pushed his hat further and further askew. Perhaps he was dreaming about his girlfriend. Or maybe his ship. He wore a serene, enviable smile, only offset by the dribble of sick which had smeared his navy blue shirt, and slid onto the flagstones below.
Russian families ambled across the cobbled expanse of Red Square. I'm not sure whether many were Muscovites. Some must have been. But most toted cheap cameras and dressed awkwardly. The square is huge, as wide as Trafalgar and nearly the length of the Mall. The twisted, fantastical Mr Whippy domes of St Basil's Cathedral loom over its southern end, while the crenellated red-brick walls of the Kremlin stomp down its western side.
Close to the wall, at the square's middle, lies the entrance to Lenin's mausoleum. It's far less impressive than I expected it to be. But then, it's grander inside. It's a simple, dumpy cube of red stone. Above the door, it simply reads 'LENIN'. Even though the State went against the great man's widow's wishes ("Do not raise monuments to him, or palaces to his name"), and built obsequious monuments on every available piece of land, I suppose she could be pleased with this understated entrance. She might not have been so happy about the Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov impersonator hanging around near the entrance to the square. Tourists pay a few roubles to have their photos taken with him, along with his white-bearded mate, 'Marx.'
The country's "New Russians" were out in force. The men bluster into their phones a lot, and the women teeter a lot, while parading their jewellery, cleavage and upper thighs. The men go for shiny suits, shinier shoes and barometer-sized watches. The women look so 'kept' it's a wonder they aren't on leashes. They sit at terraced cafés in the more chichi parts of town, feigning nonchalance while personifying boredom. Their BMWs and Mercs are marshalled into rows outside the Gucci and Armani shops like the Soviet tanks of yesteryear.
In St Paul's Cathedral in London, a plaque for Christopher Wren reads "If you would see his monument, look around." If you would see the "New Russia", look underground. I've now witnessed two examples of the city's nightlife. First I visited the infamous Hungry Duck. In the Time Out Guide to Moscow, the place warrants its very own boxed entry. Unfortunately (I think), the management has changed since the heady days of the late 1990s. Then, the place was famous for allowing hordes of women in for free and then plying them with cheap drinks and cocktails while male strippers whipped them into a right old frenzy. After a few hours of this, the club would let the men, who'd been not-so-quietly baying at the door, inside. The result was predictable, and the fights, toilets, diseases and debauchery, legendary.
My Monday-night visit was tame enough, though the strippers seemed enthusiastic enough, and the semi-professional prostitutes which buzzed about me even more so. Until I told them I was a journalist. "Journalist," one said, "no good. Never pay!" So at least I now know how to put them off.
The other end of the spectrum, or thereabouts, is a club called Zeppelin. According to my sources, and in view of Moscow's relentless revolving door of club openings and closings, Zeppelin's survival as a 'top place' is remarkable. It's now been open all of a year and a half. Refused entry by a breed of doorman that Moscow excels in rearing, highly-trained in the art of 'face control', we had to wait for the right friend to whisper in the bouncer's ear. Inside, it was dark, loud and fun. I only managed to locate my bottom jaw when we left about an hour or so later. The rest of the time it dragged along the floor, as I fumbled to understand how quite so many stunning women could be in one place at one time.
As we made our way out of the club to find a taxi (every car's a taxi in Moscow), we walked behind two guys who were obscenely, cartoon-network wide, in bulging white T-shirts and combat trousers. They bulldozed along, either side of a beautiful, dinky, platinum blonde who didn't even reach their shoulders. They were all holding hands. The mind boggles.
Although it can sometimes feel as if everything the communists held sacred has been sacked or overturned by Moscow's "Generation P" (P for Pepsi, as coined by the Russian writer Victor Pelevin), not everything has gone. On the north side of the Kremlin's wall lies the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. An eternal flame flickers there, guarded by a young soldier and ringed by wreaths. About five hundred metres away is the new, brash shopping mall, with its beer gardens, tacky statuary and loud music. But here, there was a hush. It's one of the few places I've been in Moscow so far where it was calm. Everywhere you look buildings are going up, pavements are being ripped up and cars churn the avenues. But here, the atmosphere was taut, fraught with emotion.
Some older couples and bent old men stood silently, and up to my side came a woman with her young son of six or seven. She ushered him to the front, and pointed at the monument. Did his father fall in Chechnya, or an uncle, or was it his great-grandfather in the Great Patriotic War? I can't say. Despite all the brazen swapping of CCCP for CocaColaCultureProgress, the immense sorrow and grief of the Russians for those lost in their wars can't be effaced so easily. Sadly, even today in post-Party days, the war in Chechnya is still taboo, despite tens of thousands of young Russian conscripts meeting their deaths there. Only recently have veterans of the war in Afghanistan been allowed to commemorate their comrades in even a small way. In Russia, there are lies, lies and damned lies, and then there's their speciality field: expedient historical revisionism. Some things, unlike young men, die harder than others in this country.
Further down the Moscow river from the Kremlin, the city's dynamic and controversial Mayor Luzhkov has had a monument to Peter the Great erected. Peter was the first European Tsar, shocking his courtiers and countrymen by deciding to tour western Europe incognito. He worked in ship yards and learnt all sorts of trades, and then came home to begin his city of St Petersburg. He was an epic man, both physically -- he was 6'7'' -- and metaphorically -- his coronation party went on for over a month -- though his bulk was topped with a pee-sized head.
Luzhkov has been at the forefront of regenerating, and some would say reinventing, Moscow. Although criticised for his connections with the mob (the 'mafiya') and his strong hand politics, he "has got things done" and is hugely popular. However, many grumble at his ideas on architecture which he likes to call "Moscow Style": a pot-pourri of turrets, towers, columns and capitals. The vast Orkhotny Ryad underground shopping mall (cost: $350 million), slap bang next to Red Square, is a symphony to kitsch worthy of Liberacci. His rebuilding of the monolithic Christ the Saviour Cathedral - the original was demolished by Stalin in 1933 to make way for a never-built Palace of the Soviets - cost about the same. The murals alone are said to contain over 100 kilos of gold leaf.
But his monument to Peter is on another level: it's a 60-metre maritime-themed extravaganza. Arcs of water foam at its base, upon which jumble a melee of hulls, masts, waves, ensigns and rigging. On top of that, Peter stands at the prow, boldly staring down the river towards the Starburst-sponsored big dipper in Gorky Park. He's clad in genuine Russel Crowe Gladiator garb, with a golden scroll held aloft in one arm. Behind him, and seeming to topple over him, another set of sails and rigging rise up. In Moscow, where every school of architectural style is represented in its full glory - from Neo-Classical through Empire and on to Russia's take on Art Nouveau - and where the bleak carbuncles of Stalinist hotels and skyscrapers already blight much of the city's skyline, the monument to Peter has earned its place in the "Kinder Surprise" school of our century.
On the river's south bank stands the Central House of Artists building, a forgettable white block which wouldn't look amiss on London's South Bank. A garden rings one side of it, dotted with sculptures, benches, trees, the odd terrace café and smooching couples. There are all sorts of sculptures, from Henry Moore-looking reclining bodies and children playing games to anonymous busts on plinths. By far the most interesting however are the reason the park has become known as the Graveyard of Old Monuments. There are three or four Lenins, a decent Stalin, two Brezhnevs and some lesser members of the Politburo. Amongst these was a stunning, stainless steel globe, with its hammer, sickle and star, brimming with explosive chrome thunderbolts. Hidden away, I also found some six-pack, chisel-jaw soldiers with Kalashnikovs, and an amazing tank flanked by flying paratroopers.
Probably the most famous statue in the park is of "Iron Felix" Dzerzhinsky, the founder of the KGB - or 'Cheka' as it was then (it's had 17 name changes so far, but who are they trying to fool?). It once stood in front of the organisation's infamous Lubyanka headquarters, where it became one of the first victims of 1991's sea change: it was torn down by the crowds. Of all the communist statues and monuments in the park, only Dzerzhinsky's looks out to the river. And what does Felix spy? The monument to Peter the Great - probably Moscow's greatest symbol of its new, capitalist present.
It's staggering to realise how far Russia has come in the last ten years. They'll still lock you up for a year for possession of marijuana; in many parts of the old State apparatus and aparatchiks are firmly entrenched; the KGB has been renamed the FSB - big deal. Russia still has a long way to go. But I've found few greater parables for the now-and-then, old-and-new dialectic which currently pervades this city than Iron Felix and Kinder Peter, eyeing each other across the Moscow river.
And you can't help wondering, in this country where change is measured on the Richter scale as opposed to the suited greyscale, if Peter will last longer than Felix. One thing's for sure. In 75 years' time, when Russia's population is expected to have fallen by over half, and male life expectancy to have dropped below 60, Peter's bright gold scroll won't look so shiny anymore.