Wednesday, 22 October 2014

Crocus City & Old Arbat

As I have picked up my pen again, and with less than 5 weeks to go before we return to Australia, I am inclined now to write a few posts about places of interest in Moscow that I had intended to cover earlier.

An inch of snow settled on Saturday. It is -4 degrees C and snowing again today. And still only October. Returning to an Australian summer next month is sounding pretty good. 

First, though, some people have asked whether anything has changed for us here with the sanctions and other Ukraine related goings-on. Short answer – no. 

The supermarkets are still well-stocked, though the produce is, understandably, oriented to Russian tastes, which don’t always align with ours. Muscovites have, for example, a preference for root vegetables and red meat - it has not always been easy to find green, leafy vegetables. 

There has been no overt hostility to us as English-speakers and nobody has singled us out for targeted rudeness. 

So, from an expat’s day-to-day perspective, I wouldn’t have realised there were any sanctions in place had I not known from watching the news and seeing the rouble’s exchange rate steadily drop on the ubiquitous neon signs around the city.

One of the numerous currency exchange signs found around the city. Given the rouble has dropped almost 25% of its value against other major currencies over the past few months, I am surprised they remain so brightly lit.
In fact, an observer could be forgiven for becoming a tad confused about Russia's economy. I took the Metro out to the Crocus City Mall today ( see earlier post dated 21 July 2012) and was surprised to find this very fashionable mall has been massively extended. Included in the new section are a skating rink themed on New York's Rockefeller Centre and an indoor 'Times Square'. Someone's obviously got some $ (sorry, roubles) and for a nation always squabbling with the USA, more than a few Muscovites seem to retain a fascination with things American.
'Rockefeller Centre' in Moscow. New indoor skating rink at Crocus City

Moscow's indoor 'Times Square'. Crocus City.
 On to the topic of the post - Old Arbat features in every tourist guide book about Moscow. It is possibly the most famous street in Moscow and was once inhabited by the nouveau riche, nobility and various bohemian and artistic folk. Wonderful buildings. It is now a long pedestrian mall a couple of kilometres to the west of the Kremlin. 

Part of Old Arbat
 However, as a tourist magnet, Old Arbat has become a long strip of expensive souvenir shops, cafes and stalls. It is also often over-crowded in good weather. Which doesn’t mean it’s still not worth visiting – but if time is an issue I would instead recommend a stroll around the beautiful pedestrian streets closer to Red Square – such as Kuznyetskiy Most, Nikolskaya Ulitsa and Kamergersky Pereulok. The architecture in these is just as stunning – if not more so.

Arbat busker - no rap dancers here, thank you.
Street artists abound

Poster and book stall next to a handy toilet. These particular pay toilets have sprung up all over the city recently. Men more typically seem to use the outside of the structure to avoid the expanse of opening the door.

Friday, 10 October 2014

Volgograd (Stalingrad)

 Having heard I had recently been to Volgograd, I was asked if I would write a post about the city. I guess tennis players can temporarily come out of retirement, so I will do the same.

My doing so does not represent any change in my view about Russia annexing part of a neighbouring country.

By the way, anyone stirring up separatism in Russia can face up to 5 years in jail. Bit of a double standard there, wouldn’t you say?.

Volgograd is better known to the world as Stalingrad. In the winter of 1942/43 the Sixth Army, pride of the Wehrmacht, was surrounded by the Russians, besieged and crushed. A quarter of a million Axis soldiers were killed or captured. Vast numbers of Russian soldiers died. One of the turning points of the war.

I watched the BBC series ‘The World at War’ some years ago and had more recently read Antony Beevor’s book ‘Stalingrad’, so could not pass up the opportunity to see this historic city while I was in the neighbourhood.

During the course of the battle Stalingrad was completely trashed and subsequently rebuilt. If I had been placed blindfolded in today’s city and then asked where I was, I might have guessed some suburb of Moscow. There’s not much left of the pre-battle city.

Volgograd sprawls for many kilometres along the western bank of the wide and lovely Volga River. Beside the river the bank rises fairly steeply a little way, then a few kilometres of low rolling country before the endless, flat steppe. The most hilly area is called Mamaev Kurgan – a site of ferocious fighting. On the highest point a monumental statue ‘The Motherland Calls, has been erected. Constructed in 1967 (by the same engineer who designed the Ostankino Tower) I had been keen to see this statue since I saw pictures of it some years ago. It did not disappoint. Still the largest statue of a woman in the world – it is gigantic.  Apparently it stands purely under its own weight - it is not fixed to its foundations, and there is some concern about shifting. 

The Motherland Calls

The grain elevator was also another high vantage point fiercely fought over. It is still standing. I had seen pictures and film of the grain elevator, battered and under attack by the Germans. It was an interesting feeling, standing there, actually looking at this same building over 70 years later. 

The Grain Elevator under attack

The Grain Elevator today

More poignant, though, was finding the final headquarters of Field Marshall Friedrich Paulus, commander of the 6th Army. The Univermag Department store still stands and in its gloomy basement Paulus finally decided to surrender. Even more surprising, an unassuming metal door leads to some steps and down into that same basement, now a museum. And there is Paulus’s room….small, cold and dingy. He must have wondered how it had all come to this.

Soviet troops outside the Univermag building
The Univermag building in 2014

Last Headquarter's of the 6th Army in the Univermag basement
Field Marshall Friedrich Paulus's room (the red dots are to stop people walking into the glass)

Paulus on his way to surrender

One building, the old Flour Mill, was left intact to show the state of the city after the conflict. Unfortunately, it had a high fence around it while I was there and work was going on inside. It does not seem to have occurred to whoever is managing this work that a viewing platform to allow the public see this very significant site would have been helpful. A number of other people were also wandering around trying to get photos over the fence.

The Flour Mill - built by Germans in the late 19th century, trashed by Germans in the mid 20th century. All makes a lot of sense.
I don’t normally write this much in my posts, so I’ll finish at the Barmaley Fountain. There is a famous photograph from the battle, this fountain of children dancing around a crocodile against a dramatic contrast of ruined buildings. The fountain survived the battle, but some dimwit in the 1950s had it removed. Last year a near identical statue was installed in the same place, in front of the Volgograd railway station. This station was bombed by a terrorist last December – repair works still go on.  

Iconic photo of the Barmaley Fountain

Reconstructed Barmaley Fountain. If you look closely you'll see that while they are quite similar, there are many differences of detail.