Sunday, 13 January 2008

The great outdoors - near Khimki

It being the quiet Sunday immediately after the long New Year holiday, and not too cold (-2C), I set off on the bike for the forest. The first thing I came across was these three ladies in towels only and slippers standing outside this building, smoking. Though it was clearly a sauna, or banya, I was so astonished that I had to turn back and take a picture. Seeing me coming back, they retreated inside, and also I was forced to take the picture while cycling, so it is not much to look at, but it illustrates Rob Leitch's (from Mull, but living in St Petersburg) motto for Russia: "Expect the unexpected!"

Next I found these houses in the old part of Khimki, which was built in the mid-1950s when the Communist idea still had some genuine adherents. Khimki was a closed town then as it had aerospace industries in it--it still does--and many "secret" factories. These were some of the more attractive houses for the privileged workers who manned these high-tech plants and were better paid than average for thier contribution to the struggle against capitalist encirclement. They were probably desirable houses when built and, even now, might make nice homes if properly restored, or even maintained. But they are owned by the municipality and so are decaying tragically.

Then I headed out into the forest. The snow-covered tracks are wonderful for cycling on, and they go on for miles and miles. This is completely untrammelled nature, yet only three miles from the centre of Khimki, and not even as far out as the airport. Any further, and you are in total wilderness. One wonders how SNH's fatuous Landscape Inventory would categorise this ground. The picture below is of a shallow lake, with bullrushes round the edge. Doubtless it provides grand duck hunting in the season, as well as many charming places for discrete picnics at other times of the year.

Beyond the lake, I came to the first of new коттеджи (Cottage) developments, of which there is an almost infinte number round Moscow. I cycled up the hill and in through the back, which the viewer will see is open to the forest. I then nosed around taking pictures and having a look. After that, I cycled to the gate and had to ask the astonished guard to let me out through the high-secrity gate pictured at the bottom.

Saturday, 12 January 2008

The great outdoors - in Khimki

Hunters are keen on camouflage. In Russia, the hunting shops seem to feel the same: at least the one in Khimki does, offering a forest scene to confuse the unwary customer who might be looking for a way in. The tell-tale sign is the diagonal handle amidst the trees. Pull that towards you (на себе) and you will be admitted to a world of exotica. The front room, immediately below, is for fishing and and related activities, with, on the right, a rack of awls for boring holes in the ice of frozen rivers. The back room, in the pictures below that, is where the guns are kept. There is a rather wider variety than I remember in, for example, Jimmy Campbell's shop in Bridgend on Islay. But that stocked Isles of the West too, so he's excused.

Thursday, 10 January 2008


While walking from the Manezh in the Aleksandrovsky Gardens, where there was a rather unremarkable exhibition of Moscow-based photo-reportage (no wit, too many posed pictures, and not enough beauty--I think "ugliness", being "Western" is cool--круто), to Kitai-Gorod, I went through Red Square and saw this enchanting scene. The ice was being prepared for the 4 p.m. session. Prices to skate are from £5 to £10, depending on time, and skate hire is £5 (children are much less). With the huge Christmas tree and the Kremlin walls over to the right, and GUM illuminated to the left, it must make an enchanting scene at night. Eat your heart out Anna Karenina!

Tuesday, 8 January 2008

A day out on the bike

It being the last day of the holidays, and a clear blue sky, I thought I would get out on the bike for an hour or two of brisk exercise amd tgry to photograph the ice-fishermen who sit on the ice on rivers in Russia and drop lines through holes which they bore with awls. I cycled down through the pack in Khimki where this T-34 tank is displayed. It was -16C, so although the sun had been out all day, the snow even on the sunny side of the tank had not melted.

Next stop was the church in central Khimki--yesterday (7th January) having been Christmas Day, Old Style--in front of which there is this rather nice little ice rink. The church is being restored, like so many in Russia, and I managed to evade the hawk-like gazes of the old ladies pottering about within and photograph the ceiling, as shown below, which has been recently repainted. The Orthodox Church seems to have a lot of money: I gather much of it from oligarchs who are laundering souls at the same time as money.

Down on the Moscow-Volga canal, the ice was about six inches thick. This was one of the first big projects which Yagoda undertook for Stalin--the other had been the largely useless Baltic-White Sea canal. It was completed in 1937, soon after which Yagoda was replaced by Yezhov, put on trial, then shot. In court, he is said to have shouted out, "I built two great canals for you, Stalin!" According to Fitzroy Maclean, who attended the trial (Bukharin was the main target), Stalin could just be discerned, behind a gauze curtain, lighting his pipe while his former servants pleaded with Vasily Ulrikh (see below) for their lives.

The book about the Butovo Polygon, which I mention below, has an interesting section about the construction of the canal, most of which was done by GULAG labour, excluding the engineering. It gives a chronology which is, roughly, this:
27 March: Water first flows from the Volga into the canal
6 April: The water in the Moscow part of the canal canal reaches the planned level
17 April: The water throughout the whole 128 kilometers of the canal reaches its designed level
22 April: Stalin, Voroshilov, Molotov and Yezhov inspect the works
28 April: All the engineers responsible for building the canal are arrested, including the designer S. Firin
2 May: Grand opening of the canal, attended by Stalin and Molotov, including a procession by river flotilla from the Moscow river to the river port at Khimki
Subsequently: the total of arrested technicians and engineers reaches 218, almost all of whom are shot.

There seem to be no fishing on the canal at all today, though there are many holes revealing the presence of fishermen in recent days. Instead there are strollers, like the two elderly people above, plus skiers, and the marks of some skaters. I see the spoor of a snow-bike and even, slightly to my surprise, another bicycle. I am pleased to see I can move more quickly than the skiers.

I stopped after a few miles as the light was going and photographed this church. Next time, I shall start earlier, not stop in any churches and make a lot more distance. It is a fantastic place to cycle, being completely flat and without motorised traffic. Lots of people were walking along the bank, and I even saw a man, naked from the waist up, doing exercises amidst the trees at the edge of the canal.

Final picture, of a the setting sun reflected off a block of 1970s flats, not far from where the Moscow-St Petersburg railway line crosses the canal. Incidentally, the long neglect of Soviet years shows in the broken-down state of the canal banks. Millions and millions will have to be spent to bring the works up to proper standards.