Saturday, 8 December 2007

First year, miscellaneous

Finally, for 2007, a few images which have escaped categorisation elsewhere...

The view from half-way up one of the highest buildings in Moscow now, where one of the British accounting firms where I work, has its offices. The Moscow river is in the middle ground and the famous White House, seat of some parts of the Russian federal government, is at the top. This was the building Yelstin's forces shelled during the failed attempt to assert parliamentary government over presidential diktat in 1993.

This is the little church (of Nikola in Khamovniki) near Tolstoy's Moscow property, which is yet another museum I have yet to visit. It is hard to photograph as it is surrounded by other buildings. By contrast, nothing much but mud and wreckage surrounds the sheds at the end of the purple Metro line which takes me to and from Planernaya station every working day. Large parts of Soviet-era Moscow look like this. It is a miracle anything works: yet the metro is actually far more reliable than the London underground, whose sheds, I imagine, are a lot smarter than this.

Below is what it so me one of the most hideous buildings in Moscow, though one of the most lavish--the two often go together in Modern Russia. It is the reconstructed Cathedral of Christ the Redeemer, which is a replica of the original, built in the 1880s to commemorate the defeat of Napoleon, and which was blown up in 1932 as part of the reconstruction of Moscow along Soviet lines. It was here that the great Palace of the Soviets was to be constructed, with its 300-foot high statue of Lenin on top. But the ground could not take the projected weight, and money ran out, so the project was abandoned after only the foundations had been dug. In the 1950s the hole was converted into a massive, heated, open-air pool, which became known popularly as the swimming pool of Christ the Redeemer. When I visited the Cathedral with some friends, the Russian lady accompanying us was told not to speak to me and my friend from Scotland about the church, especially in English, as she was not an accredited guide. The official who said this, a smart young man who looked like a Mormon might in Russia, was entirely serious. This is a good example of the fact that the Russian church today has the most oppressive and unpleasant officialdom of any institution in this country that I have had contact with. The hideous car outside, for a wedding, seemed to me entirely appropriate to such an ugly-spirited place.

Below is part of one of the sales counters in an ecclesiastical outfitters to the south of the city centre, very close to where Walter Duranty used to live.

Other aspects of modern Russian life are much more appealing...

This is an advertisement for a mobile phone--Motorola--in the parking lot outside our local supermarket.

And finally a Russian street scene such as the pedestrian encounters fifty times a day.

And very finally, a foreigner: it is seldom hard to tell the difference. Standing in front of one of the million Moscow building sites, he, like me, was waiting to get the marshrutka to the largest foreign-owned media publishing company in Russia. He was tapping his right foot impatiently.

Tuesday, 23 October 2007


Three miles south of the MKAD, just off the Kashira highway, lies the village of Vidnoe. Nearby is the hamlet of Sukhanovo. It used to be part of the vast estate of the same name, which was owned by the famous Volkonsky family. In the middle of the hamlet lies a seventeenth-century monastery, called St Catherine’s. It is a peaceful spot, with all the buildings carefully restored in recent years. The visitor would never know that this place used to be the most feared prison in the whole Gulag system.

Nearby stands the neo-classical mansion which was built in the early nineteenth century for Prince Peter Volkonsky, who had commanded the Russian troops at Austerlitz and subsequently became Chief of Staff in the Russian Army. After the revolution, a desirable property like that was naturally taken over by the new rulers, whose notions of proletarian equality were flexible enough to include setting themselves up in the palaces of former princes.

In the case of Sukhanovo, it was Genrikh Yagoda, the head of the NKVD who ended up here. In 1936, after allegedly plotting to kill Stalin, Yagoda was succeeded in his grisly post and princely properties by the strangest of all the blood-thirsty men who ran the NKVD: Nikolai Yezhov. It was he who, when out walking in the grounds of Sukhanovo, spotted the monastery and thought it would make an ideal prison.

It was (then) surrounded by fields and therefore far from prying eyes, yet it was close enough to Moscow to be easily reachable for an evening’s torturing, which was what both he and his successor, Lavrenti Beria, used to like to do when winding down after a hard day’s arrest-warrant signing at the Lubyanka. So common did this practice become in the 1940s, that the prison became known popularly as “Beria’s dacha”.

Yezhov supervised the Great Purge in 1937, but was soon on the other side of the wire himself as an inmate of what was by then known as Sukhanovka. In the Gulag Archipelago, Solzhenitsyn says that prisoners in Lefortovo, Butyrka or the Lubyanka were told that if they did not co-operate with their interrogators, they would be sent to Sukhanovka, which was “the most terrible prison the NKVD had”.

Yezhov was only 5 foot tall, but he used to threaten his victims by making a strangling gesture and saying, “I may be small but I have hands of steel, because they are the hands of Stalin.” After he was incarcerated in the underground cellars of Sukhanovka, he pleaded with his interrogator, “Shoot me, if you like, but do not make me suffer agonies.” When he was finally taken away to be shot, in February 1940—in a building in Varsonofevski Lane, not far from Kuznetsky Most metro station—he collapsed completely. His legs gave way and he had to be dragged screaming, crying and hiccupping uncontrollably to the execution room, with its sloping floor (to ease the task of washing the blood away) and wall of pine logs (to absorb the bullets).

Today, St Catherine’s Monastery echoes to the sound of the Orthodox liturgy, rather than the wet slap of rubber rods on blood-drenched bodies. When the church is silent, the only sounds are of the wind in the trees round about and the quiet slop-slopping of the shoes of the monks as they cross the quadrangle inside the huge, ancient walls. The old interrogation block now contains expensively modernised “cells”, as they are called without any sense of irony, for the monks. Everything inside is warm, clean, carpeted and tastefully furnished. The refectory has beautifully painted Biblical scenes on all the walls. The kitchen is a miracle of stainless steel and micro-wave ovens.

The only evidence of the monastery’s hideous past is a cross and memorial stone in the gardens and, if you look further, outside the walls a pair of crumbling, two-storey buildings which used to house the prison guards.

After Beria’s execution in 1953, shortly after the death of Stalin, Sukhanovka ceased to be a political prison. In 1958 it was turned into a psychiatric prison. Then it became a barracks for the nearby training college for the Moscow militsia (they train these guys?!). In 1991 it was returned to the church, though in a ruinous condition. The rumour is that the main building had, in the 1940s been used as a human incinerator.

The restoration task was enormous. But teams of volunteers, funded generously by the church, have undone the damage of the locust years. It is hard to believe that the place was as smart as this even in 1918 when it ceased to be a monastery (the church was used until 1931). There are lots of excellent photographs showing all stages of the reconstruction work in the lavishly-illustrated book which visitor can buy for a mere 170 roubles in the kiosk on site. It describes the whole history of the monastery from its foundation in 1658 to 2002 when the memorial to the Stalinist repression was unveiled. These can be seen in the foreground in the top photograph.

Sukhanovo - the monks' refectory

Sukhanovo - the prison

Above is one of the two, identical buildings which used to house the guards for the prison, now decaying in the middle of a forest of maple trees. The lower picture shows the block which used to house the prison cells.

Sukhanova for petrol heads

Round the back, beside the garages, I found an old ZiM which dated, I was told, from 1955. Apparently, it still runs. Beria used to drive a Packard. Even if this car had been older, it would have been too modest for the great man (who, incidentally, played football for Georgia in his youth).

Butovo - the killing ground

From Sukhanovo it is less then ten kilometres to a place called Butovo, where in the 1930s there was an NKVD firing range, or полигон ("polygon"). In 1937, at the time of the Great Terror, Nikolai Yezhov, the successor to Yagoda and Beria's predecessor as head of the Soviet secret police, started shooting people on a huge scale at this site, which was then in woodland fifteen miles or so from the then southern edge of Moscow. Many of the prisoners who had been tortured and/or tried at Sukhanovka prison, were transported the short distance east to Butovo where they were shot and their bodies shoveled into mass graves. One of them is shown in this picture. The heaped ground, perhaps fifteen feet wide and a foot high, stretches fifty yards or so through the trees. In total, there were nearly 21,000 people shot here between early 1937 and late 1938. The place is now a memorial ground, and was visited by the Russian President, Vladimir Putin, in November 2007.

Butovo - the killing ground

This picture shows part of the display board near the entrance to the Butovo Polygon. The blue strips show the tranches where the bodies were buried. The whole area is perhaps five or six acres. The previous picture is of the long, slightly kinked trench to the left of the plan around and slightly below the middle.

Butovo - the killing ground

The table is also displayed near the gate at Butovo, and it shows the number of people shot here every day between August 1937 and October 1938, when the madness started to abate, largely due to the increasing lack of any vaguely plausible victims. Alongside are pictures of some of the people killed, as shown above the table here. A beautifully-produced, 500-page book, full of fascinating illustrations and reproduced documents, gives a full history of the tragedy that took place on this spot, along with a great deal of interesting context and background information. Though sold on site, it is probably available only in Russia. Published in 2007, it is called Бутовский Полигон: Книга Памяти жертв политических репрессий ("Butovsky polygon: a book in memory of the victims of political repression"). The ISBN is 5-93547-008-X. Below is an illustration in the book. It is the signature of a man called Pavel Troitsky, on the left as it was before his arrest, on 29 October 1937, and, on the right, as it was on the night after he was interrogated.

Butovo - the killing ground

This is the cosy, intimate little church which has been erected near the gate of the Polygon. Across the road is a large, more modern church which was completed this year, and is shown below. The lady in the photograph would not let me enter until she had finished sweeping the steps. There were no other visitors on the occasion I went to Butovo. In side the church was, to my taste, very beautiful.

But, for all the archaeological work that has been done at Butovo, it is not known just how extensive the mass graves are. It is known that some extend outside the fence of the current memorial park, out into the forest which used to surround the area. Today, there are modern houses all around, and the threat apparently exists that some will be built onto of as yet undiscovered mass graves. Below is picture of one of the graves which extends outside the fence, into the as yet undisturbed woodland. But given the rage for building in and around Moscow, and the money at stake, how long will this place stay undeveloped? The relationship between history and the present/future in modern Russia is such that cottages will probably conquer any conscience about the catastrophes of the past.


This is the new memorial church which is one of the more bizarre buildings I have seen in Moscow. The inside (see below) shows the lavishness of the funding, but also an almost chilling sense of cleanliness, order and control. It did not, to me, have any sense of spiritual expresion--not unlike the massive but ghastly Christ the Saviour Church in the central of the city. Perhaps I am missing something, but I preferred the little wooden church, whose interior is shown above.


Perhaps one should not be unfair about the new church. At least it has in its grounds the cross, shown on the left in this picture, which was made from wood taken from the original GULAG camp on the Solovetski Islands. It was brought to Moscow by way of every labour camp on the way, with appropriate ceremony. But then again, maybe I was not being unfair because I was ticked off by a gardener for standing on his lawn when taking this photograph. In the anti-septic, strictly "face-controlled", turbo-anal mood of the nouveau riche in Russia today, it is very much "Keep off the Grass": almost like England!

Sunday, 30 September 2007


Every picture I have seen of the recently reconstructed palace at Tsaritsyno on the southern outskirts of Moscow has shown a massive, pseudo-Gothic building with a few people in the foreground. When I visited the place recently, I found the opposite: a massive crowd with a few pseudo-Gothic towers in the distance. Admittedly it was a Sunday afternoon; admittedly the weather was sunny, warm and pleasantly autumnal, with the feeling that this was probably the last time to get out in shirt-sleeves before the onset of autumn. But really, the crowds! A Russian William Powell Frith could have painted a modern version of “Derby Day” there. So the first point about Tsaritsyno is make sure you visit when it is cold and gloomy, and definitely on a week-day. In fact, that will probably enhance the effect of the extraordinary buildings. Perhaps snowy weather would be the best.

Tsaritsyno has a long and interesting history. It first came to prominence in the seventeenth century when the Streshnev boyar family were recorded as occupying four villages in the area, collectively known as Чёрная Грязь, or Black Dirt/Mud. Later the estate passed into the famous Golitsyn family who built a large manor house there.

But Peter the Great hated and feared the great boyar families, confiscating this one and passing it on to Prince Dmitri Kantemir, the former ruler of Moldova. The Kantemirs avoided Kremlin intrigue and concentrated instead on beautifying their houses, pavilions, lakes and grounds at Чёрная Грязь to such effect that when Catherine the Great visited in 1775 she felt she had to own it. Along with her reputed nymphomania, she also displayed the related quality of almost uncontrollable acquisitiveness. In a less wealthy woman it might have ended up as kleptomania. Within three weeks of setting eyes on Чёрная Грязь, the estate was hers.

Within three months of acquiring the property, Catherine had commissioned the architect, Vasily Bazhenov, to design and build a completely new ensemble of palaces, pavilions and other buildings, including bridges, gates and stables. She specified the Moorish-Gothic style, which was then in vogue in western Europe. Bazhenov is known today for having designed the Pashkov House, which became the Old Building of the Lenin Library. It stands, newly restored like Tsaritsyno, on high ground overlooking the Alexandrovsky Gardens and the Kammeny Most.

Catherine renamed her new estate and work started immediately, continuing until 1786 when Bazhenov was sacked. Some people think that part of the reason was that he was a Freemason. After the Pugachev Revolt in the early 1770s, Catherine had come to regard all secret societies with great mistrust. She had part of Bazhenov’s palace demolished and appointed Matvey Kazakov to replace him.

Kazakov subsequently became famous as one of the most influential architects of the new Moscow which was built after the great fire of 1812. He designed the Moscow University building and the Kremlin Senate, as well as famous Hall of Columns at the bottom of Tverskaya Street. He has been compared to Quarenghi in St Petersburg. But his talent never bore fruit at Tsaritsyno because building stopped again, almost as soon as it had re-started, this time due to lack of money. The reason was the outbreak of the second Russo-Turkish war in 1787, which followed Catherine’s annexation of the Crimea.

At this point, the creative history of Tsaritsyno stopped. The building was never completed, falling slowly into disrepair. Parts of it were used variously as a hospital, rest-home, museum, unofficial nature reserve and home for the drunks of south-west Moscow. Today it is a lavishly appointed pleasure park for Moscow’s emerging consumer society. Over $15 million has been spent on restoration in the last ten years, and it shows.

Even if the crowds are so dense that you cannot get into the palace, it is worth visiting Tsaritsyno simply to see the fountains, which are spectacular. I recommend taking the Metro to Орехово (Orekhovo) on the green line, then walking back through the grounds, past the palace and down to the lakes where the fountains are. It is then a short step to Царицыно (Tsaritsyino) metro station, on the same line. Apart from the fact that this route in generally downhill, it also means that you will save the fountains for last.

Sunday, 16 September 2007

Kremlin Zoria

The night after the wedding we all went to see the Kremlin Zoria, a festival of military music inspired by the Edinburgh Tattoo, but held in Red Square. This was the first Zoria--the word is Russian for tattoo--and ran for four nights only. It was organised by a history teacher called Vitaly Mironov who travelled in the 1990s to Paisley and fell in love with Scotland, and its culture, history and approach to military reverance, which he thought had a lot on common with the Russian attitude. He helped bring the Russian Navy Band to the Edinburgh Festival in 1998, and was helped by Brig. Mel Jamieson in organising the Moscow event.

Kremlin Zoria

And pipe bands stole the show! There were 350 pipers, drawn from Scotland, South Africa, New Zealand, Canada, Australia and other places. "It is great to see not only Scottish bands, but all our people," I remarked to Tanya, surprising her that I should consider "our people" to include "folk from furth of Scotland". The absolute highlight of the evening was this gentleman playing Amazing Grace, later accompanied by the other 349.

Kremlin Zoria

This was the Russian President's Guard. There were also troops dressed up in Napoleonic-era costume, as well as Germans, Italians, Danes and many others. My impression of this group was that they were not so well-drilled as the old Kremlin guards that I remembered from Soviet times marching out to Lenin's tomb and back again.

Kremlin Zoria

Some of the other spectacular acts came from the Caucasas and Central Asia.

Kremlin Zoria

Is there anything to write? An extraordinary moment.

Kremlin Zoria

Of course, being Russia, it all ended with fireworks.

Kremlin Zoria - the true spirit of piping

In the stand, we sat near a small group of Transvaal Scottish officers, some porcine and white, others super-porcine and black. The blacks looked bureaucratic but dignified; the whites sort of half-furtive, half-apologetic. In the queue to get out, I asked one of the black Generals what he thought of Moscow. "Very nice," was all he would say. Polite but cold. By contrast, I overheard one of the white officers--they all seemed to have "pips for Africa"--saying to another, "Hey! Let's all meet in the same bar we were in last night." After we walked out of Red Square, we found (yet another) Baltika tent with lots of Transvaal Scottish pipers and drummers standing round drinking beer. I bought a glass myself, while waiting for Tanya and the others to catch up--they were watching Italian flag-wavers performing very artistically in medieval costume outside the old Lenin Museum building over the way. On the spur of the moment I shouted out to the musicians, in half-remembered Afrikaans, "Play us a tune, man! Give us Sarie Marais!" They looked duly astonished, but a couple of them laughed, conferred, picked up their instruments and started playing the great song: "Bring my terug na die ou Transvaal / Daar waar my Sarie woon". Others quickly followed suit. The Italians were over the way with their fifes and drums, making a cultured but moderate noise, but when the pipes got going they took over the whole square. They gave us Flower of Scotland and many other old favourites, including Nkosi Sikelel' iAfrika, with the drums played like tom-toms. The whole show carried on for the next half an hour. The crowd which quickly gathered staying until exhaustion set in, close to midnight. I don't think the Russians had ever seen anything like it--a brilliant finale to an amazing evening. This was, for me, the true spirit of piping: informal, noisy, lightly alcohol-fuelled and politely swaggering. Thinking about it always reminds me of the great pipe tune: "A hundred pipers and a' and a', a hundred pipers and a'! / We'll up and gie them a blaw a blaw, we'll up an' gie them a blaw!!!"

Sunday, 24 June 2007

Moscow miscellaneous

Red Square -- where else? (These Moscow misc. pictures were not all taken on the date given.)

Moscow miscellaneous

How times have changed! Outside the History Museum, I spotted Lenin hanging out with Nicholas II. When the lion takes time out to have a smoke with the lamb, can the Age of Aquarius be far behind? Later, when Valdimir Ilich took his cap off, it occurred to me that he bore a striking resemblance to Maxwell MacLeod.

Moscow miscellaneous

Summer is here and fountains are everywhere. These are on the branch of the river that flows past one of my teaching places, opposite the statue of Repin in Bolotnaya Square, on the Vodo-otvodny Canal, not far from the Kremlin. The bridge in the picture is known as the Luzhkov Bridge, after the Mayor of Moscow, since 1992, who enables everything and who calls forth bridges where hitherto bridges ran there none. The tented structure to the left is a summer restaurant, which is erected in spring and will be dismantled in the autumn.

Moscow miscellaneous

This is a view of the Ivan Veliky church in the Kremlin from the square outside Kropotkinskaya metro station, taken from the base of Engels's statue.

Moscow miscellaneous

This is the same church viewed from near the famous Дом на Набережной or House on the Embankment. This was an elaborate, Washington-style apartment house built in the mid-1930s just across from the Kremlin, where Stalin's elite lived--or did until they were whisked away in the early-morning bread vans for a less luxuriously existence, first in the Lubyanka and later, if they were very lucky, in the lumber camps or salt mines of Siberia.

Moscow miscellaneous

This is the small but charming Church of St Nicholas, with the west front of the House on the Embankment behind it, larger but less attractive, though one of the most desirable and expensive addresses in Moscow today.

Moscow miscellaneous

This, of course, is the grand-daddy of all Moscow churches, St Basil's Cathedral in Red Square (see also the first picture in this section). It was commissioned by Ivan the Terrible in 1555 to commemorate the capture of the Khanate of Kazan on the Volga from the Tatars, a victory which cleared the way for Russia's expansion into Siberia. It is said that Ivan was so pleased with the final result that he had the architect, Postnik Yakovlev's, eyes put out and his hands cut off so that he could not build anything comparable for anyone else. Rumours of this sort came to the ears of Queen Elizabeth I of England, whom Ivan once expressed a wish to marry. Apparently they influenced her decision to refuse the Tsar's hand. (Where, I have often wondered, would they have lived if they had got married? It is hard to see her in Moscow or him in Whitehall Palace.) Four hundred years later, Stalin was asked by Lazar Kaganovich whether it would not help facilitate military parades to have St Basil's demolished as part of the Soviet reconstruction of Moscow in the 1930s. Stalin is said to have curtly dismissed the suggestion.

Moscow miscellaneous

Moscow not only has churches and cupolas, but cars: three million of them at the last count. This is part of the so-called Garden Ring, near the Paveletskaya railway and metro stations. The ring was originally a defensive earthwork surrounding the city about a mile and a half from the Kremlin. After Napoleon, it was made into a boulevard with gardens in the middle. Stalin had the gardens ripped out and a ten-lane trafficway built. That was large then; now it is far too small. Parking is free in Moscow--no meters, no yellow lines, no wardens--so if you can stand the jams, it makes sense to drive. Massive numbers of people do, and so the jams expand. It's a cruel world when you're allowed to seek your own convenience, rather than being forced onto the crowded (though cheap and very fast) metro, the often dilapidated trams or the busses with their blaring music and even greater crowds at rush-hour (часпик).

Moscow miscellaneous

The reason there is so much traffic in Moscow, is because there are so many people. Fifteen million of them, I gather. Since I last visited, in 1991, the population of the city has grown by more than the entire population of Scotland. This picture gives some idea of the consequences. The Kremlin is in the middle, with the Ivan Veliki tower "conspic.", as they say on the Admiralty charts. This picture was taken from the 29th floor of the Swissotel, south-south-east of the Red Square.

Moscow miscellaneous

This one was taken from the roof of the Foreign Languages Library, one of my favourite places in Moscow. I like it not because of the the Foreign Languages Library, which is old-fashioned and hard to use, but because of, first, the English Language Law Library on the top floor, which is run by Olga Sukhova, a lady who deserves a medal for being one of the most helpful state employees in Russia (or anywhere). Secondly, I like it because of the American Centre on the second floor, run by another very helpful person who deserves credit, Marissa Fushille, from El Paso, Texas. She runs the best English-language lending library in Moscow (with a lot of interesting material on the American legal system), making the British Council (downstairs) look hick and provincial--it is also embarrassingly unfriendly in a wannabe-snooty, "red brick" ex-pat English sort of way. You get the impression that the "Anglo" staff there would be happier in Torremolinos drinking bleedin' Watney's Red Barrel, and moaning about greasy, emaciated dagos with 9" hips...

Moscow miscellaneous

This the St Basil's and the Saviour's Gate of the Kremlin from the same vantage point. In the background is the Ukraine Hotel