Glimpses of Moscow

Behind Lenin's mausoleumIn Hochimin City I had resisted to morose curiosity that leads a constant flow of people to stare at the embalmed body of the former Vietnamese leader, and the same thing repeated itself with Mao Ze Dong's mummy in Beijing, but surely Lenin's mausoleum couldn't be a third miss. After all, he was the first to receive attention from Communist embalmers. My descent into this macabre underworld was prepared by a half hour's waiting in the slow moving line, in a climate of religious devotion that can finds its parallel in the queues of worshippers waiting to venerate Orthodox icons. The black marble vault was lugubrious. From within a glass case Lenin's illuminated face sticking out of a black suit and an immaculate shirt naturally caught the eye, but failed to match the gloomy atmosphere all around because of its wax-like aspect, too perfect to be real.

Opposite this squat square-cut sepulchral monument in the shade of the Kremlin is the Gum department store with an ornate façade and stunning inner galleries. Closed towards the sky by glass vaults, they have fully recovered their original function of exclusive shopping mall. The perspectives that can be admired from the outside and from every floor are always interesting, but what a peculiar location to be chosen for a department store! Luxurious as it may be, it still stands opposite the very centre of political, and once religious, power, in the noblest part of the town.

The upper classes have in many countries prided themselves with a feigned disinterest in money matters and the petty occupation of trading. It was as if their abundant provision of financial means were a privilege bestowed by divine grace and not earned through material pursuits save the exploitation of other people's work. But here, right across from the former residence of the Russian czars we find the down-to-earth world of commerce and money.

Lenin’s body was the first to receive attention from Communist embalmers

However, it is a characteristic of Moscow that its urban texture lacks consistency. This heterogeneity results in drab blocks of flats rising across from stately buildings, or that gigantic bronze monument to Peter the Great (or to bad taste?) towering in the middle of the Moscova river, more suited to a theme park than the elegant central districts of a capital city. Throughout its history the city planners have sought to merge the sacred and the profane, the ugly and the sublime, the refined and the base – and have always been successful.

What is a guarantee of magnificence, however, are Moscow metro stations. In this underground world of palatial opulence, full of marbles and imposing brass decorations, the enthrallment is often the effect of enormous and elaborate chandeliers that add the final touch to the exquisite grandeur of the set-up. The platforms, where passengers inhale a pong of railway oils wafting in the heavy air, are suddenly picked up by decoration and light that is in fact a homage paid to the thousands of commuters passing in these spaces every minute. But cannot this also be considered another aspect of that strident juxtaposition between two opposites?

The Moscow underground is also the living space of all the people who inhabit it. A whole army of attendants service these spaces with the result that one never feels abandoned. The platforms are scoured by patrols of security vigilantes; the ticket windows are manned by women where other countries just have vending machines. They deftly play their fingers around groups of same-valued coins to mechanically give the change and the token that opens the turnstiles. At the foot of the steep elevators, lit by a series of neon columns between the moving handrails, more women often with a haggard look or at best weary eyes, switch their supervision between the moving flow of people and the monitors in their glass booths.

Third-age dancersUp above the ground, next to the tomb of the Unknown Soldier and the eternal flame a band was playing. A crowd had gathered all around, but a number of old ladies at the front ungraciously elbowed the bystanders back to make space for an improvised dance floor. Then, without a tad of discomfort, they acted as absolute masters of that third-age dancing club. It was not only their sagging bodies that showed the effect of time, but their clothing too opened a perspective into vintage fashion and retro accessories such as huge upside down glasses. And so their uncomely bare backs and stiff limbs drew clumsy dance steps to the tempo of the notes, and everyone looked on amusedly.