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.

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.