What picture do you have in your head of Moscow? If you have never been, perhaps it is like mine: dark, threatening, sombre people and brutal buildings. And how was this vision built? Through films and news reports from the Cold War era. Who hasn’t seen the parades through Red Square? Who hasn’t heard about the eavesdropping, being tailed, the bureaucracy? The image has not been improved by recent killings of opposition folk: Alexander Litvinenko poisoned in London in October 2006, the journalist Anna Politkovskaya shot in Moscow in October 2006 and in February 2015 Boris Nemtsov shot in the back as he walked on the Bolshoy Moskvorsky Bridge.
The image of Moscow as dark, dangerous and mysterious may have been created by novels as well. In the first of the three discussed the Moscow location is an essential feature.
- Gorky Park by Martin Cruz Smith (1981)
This is set in Moscow in 1981, the time of Brezhnev. Corruption is rife. There is an uncomfortable relationship between the Moscow city police and the KGB. Three bodies found frozen and mutilated in the snow in Gorky Park lead through the city, briefly to the border area beyond Leningrad (now St Petersburg) and ultimately to New York. It was the first in a series featuring investigator Arkady Renko.
The novel is mostly played out on the city’s streets and its buildings: offices, hotels and apartments. I read one climactic scene, a near-drowning in the University ponds, on the day we visited.
Martin Cruz Smith illuminates the physical appearance of Moscow in the early 1980s. Much of what he describes is still present.
Soviet gothic was not so much an architectural style as a form of worship. Elements of Greek, French, Chinese and Italian masterpieces had been thrown in the barbarian wagon and carried to Moscow and the Master Builder Himself, who had piled them one on the other into the cement towers and blazing torches of His rule, monstrous skyscrapers of ominous windows, mysterious crenellations and dizzying towers that led to the clouds, and yet still more rising spires surmounted by ruby stars that at night glowed like His eyes. After His death, His creations were more embarrassment than menace, too big for burial with Him, so they stood, one to each part of town, great brooding semi-Oriental temples, not exorcised but used. The one in the Kievskaya District, west of the river, was the Hotel Ukraina. (101)
Gorky Park by Martin Cruz Smith (first published in 1981), available from Simon & Schuster 559pp
- Snowdrops by AD Miller (2011)
Snowdrops is a depressing story as no one in it behaves well. The narrator is confessing to his fiancée, but you feel he is unlikely to be forgiven by her. Miller describes Moscow in the first decade of twenty-first century, and the corruption in housing and the big oil companies. Snowdrops considers corporate and individual corruption through the narrator’s role in them. Weaknesses that leads to corruption are not only money, but also sex, fear, a need for attention, wanting to be right, fear of being wrong.
Two Russian young women pick up Nick on the Metro and take him for a ride, using his services as a lawyer to defraud their victim of her flat. The Cossack takes Nick and his fellow lawyers for a similar ride with investments in oil production. In both cases Nick gradually becomes aware of the scam, but does not speak out and prevent them. He colludes. It’s a grubby story.
The narrator meets Maria on the Metro, as he waits on the platform at Revolution Square, ‘where the civilian statues are – athletes, engineers, bosomy female farmhands and mothers holding muscular babies’ (8).
Snowdrops by AD Miller (2011) published by Atlantic Books. 273pp. Shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2011.
- The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov (1966/7)
Translated from the Russian by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky.
For a view of Moscow in the early 1930s this novel of satire and phantasmagoria is hard to beat. Its subject are Stalin’s regime, which was approaching the height of its power, the madness and menace of the regime and the chaos it caused. I couldn’t tell you the story, it is outlandish and hard to follow. At the time I read it I noted that ‘after the mayhem in Moscow it got easier to follow, and I even found myself thinking I might go back to the beginning’.
This book captures the borders of the familiar world with a dystopia and made me wonder about some aspects of our visit to Moscow. The drive from the airport to the city centre for example. Four of us were crammed into one car. The driver shot forward immediately, as he did every time he saw a meter of road. In the dense jam on the route into Moscow he went off road onto the hard shoulder and positioned our car is such a way that other cars could not cut back in, holding a shouting match with one driver whose car was 2 cms from ours. When we reached Mscow he shouted at us. None of us understood Russian and he had no English. Perhaps we had a sightseeing tour. As he left us he blew a raspberry for we did not give him a tip. I have only been more frightened in Malta, where we drove round U-bends on the wrong side of the road, in defiance of traffic rules and gravity.
The Master and Margarita generated spontaneous approaches from people on public transport when I was reading it. The impression it left with me added to the sense that in Moscow everything might not be what it seems, something was lurking …
The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov (first published in 1966-7) and republished by Penguin Classics 396pp
And has it changed?
There is still violence on the streets of Moscow. You might notice that the memorial on the bridge where Boris Nemtsov was shot six months before is close to the domes of St Giles Cathedral and Red Square.
Armed men still parade in Red Square. These men were rehearsing for a Moscow Day celebration.
And Gorky Park is still popular, full of young people and a delightful place to visit with its dancing musical fountains, young people and kiosks.
Moscow was a surprise to me despite these. I found it was a lively and accessible city, with beautiful metro stations and helpful people just getting on with it.
You can find a list of 10 novels set in Moscow in the Guardian. It included classics such as Boris Godunov by Pushkin, War and Peace by Tolstoy and Three Sisters by Chekhov.
Also see Trip Fiction site to find location-based fiction.
Previous travel and book related posts on this blog are:
Judenplatz, Vienna (March 2013)
Tales from the Vienna Streets (July 2013)
Berlin Stories (Oct 2014)
Amsterdam Stories (Dec 2014)
Bookword in Alsace (May 2015)
Coming soon: St Petersburg (Sept 2015)
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