People of Europe, don’t go to Moscow. You may think you are prepared, with your ultra-light down gilets and ankle boots, your vague memory of a school performance of Chekhov’s Three Sisters, your last-minute listen to Sting’s 1985 classic “Russians”, with the line that blew my, I mean your, teenage mind: “Russians love their children too.” But you are simply not tough enough. Stick to Lisbon; St Petersburg, if you’re feeling adventurous. But not Moscow.
Important revelations tend to happen alone: in the bath, under an apple tree, on Mount Sinai. For me, the realisation that we soft westerners are unsuited for Moscow occurred on the snowy runway at Sheremetyevo airport, as I shiveringly unfolded the cheap Japanese packable jacket of which I was so proud, then noticed that every other passenger in the shuttle bus wore an immense black padded coat, with serious fur action around the collar, and woolly hat. Chins tucked into scarves like resigned pigeons, they stood in silence. It was time for my hoarded Aeroflot cereal bar. It tasted . . . fine; utterly familiar. And then, as all bored bibliophiles do, I read the wrapper and found, in otherwise faultless English, the words: “May contain fragments of bones.”
London has weather, occasionally. We can sometimes sledge or sunbathe on Parliament Hill; the Euston Road gets quite windy. But a Muscovite journey to work, September to April, involves temperatures of minus-10, -20, -30, and corrosive Russian road-sleet with, because of the ferocious central heating, the necessity of a quick-change tropical-weight outfit in one’s bag. Every museum has a vast cloakroom where great-grandmothers organise your snow-boots; each bar employs a tired dad to help you on with your layers. We tut at sluggish pelican crossings; in Moscow, popping across the road means dodging 10 lanes of Lexuses and limousines. We moan about going home for the holidays; here, one’s family can be a nine-hour flight away in Russia’s far east.
But it is Moscow’s architecture that knocks feeble westerners for six. Not the colossal glistening monuments, such as the 80ft-high stainless steel Worker and Kolkhoz Woman statue, or even the weirdly brilliant Graveyard of Fallen Monuments, in which heroic smelters, butch generals and miscellaneous bits of Lenin stand, waiting for history to repeat itself. It is the brain-numbing scale of mundane buildings: ordinary apartment blocks 20 storeys high and 10 flats wide, in groups of six or a dozen; offices like Death Stars or gleaming phalluses; the enormous governmental temples on the banks of the Moskva river, dark except for their crenellations.
With such an excess of space and workforce and materials, why limit oneself? Best of all is the recumbent 1,000-apartment Ship House, built for power-station workers to withstand nuclear attack (no right-angles, super-strength glass).
Strangest of all is The Exhibition of the Achievements of the People’s Economy, known as VDNKh: a vast Stalinist park built to showcase the glories of the USSR, with pavilions dedicated to each Soviet republic and major industry. Once a place of patriotic pilgrimage, it’s now in limbo: the Imperial War Museum meets 1970s sci-fi paperback art. Ten minutes’ bracing walk down a windy boulevard brings one to a mighty steel Uzbek colossus, golden fountains, pavilions devoted to rabbit-breeding and radio-electronics, and a beekeeping display, all linked by frosted walkways.
But, because this is Russia, there is always scope for alcohol and, with it, a taste of romantic sadness. In the Armenia pavilion I breakfasted on Ararat cognac, walnutty baklava and Turkish coffee served by tired women with fringes and housecoats, before admiring the stands selling Armenia’s glories: painted ladles, hand-carved pipes, beautiful Soviet second-hand books, a world of jam.
Then it is back to the subway, past the huddled warmth-seeking pensioners, down the vertiginously endless escalators to an echoing Stalinist amphitheatre or a splendid constructivist hall, lit by torches or chandeliers or chrome zigzags, lined with fluted steel, pink granite, orange marble or, at Mayakovskaya Station, Aleksandr Deineka’s mosaics: fighter planes, cherry-blossom, Zeppelins above the Kremlin, factory towers, lapis skies and smoky pink sunsets, heroically gay pole-vaulters.
Through these romantic shrines to Soviet glories hurry cabbies from Turkmenistan and Azerbaijan; acclaimed translators earning £240 a month; the offspring of teachers confined to the Gulag for ludicrous crimes; grannies who have lived through repression, stagnation, perestroika, hope, financial collapse and colossal economic inequality. Londoners can hurry to Ilya Kabakov’s installation at Tate Modern, “Labyrinth (My Mother’s Album)”, for a glimpse of an ordinary family’s privation and loss, but let’s not kid ourselves we can understand.