Eastern Cities

Daniel Brooks

I’ve long had a fondness for eastern European cities. There is something unique about them. I once visited Cracow, Poland in the early 80’s during the winter when it was about as eastern European as you could get, encased in fog, smelling of coal and with everyone walking around in dark overcoats. Moscow is an eastern European city as well, because of its history and the way it feels. The question is why? What makes Moscow….eastern?

The Centre of Hamburg

Let’s start by looking at a western city, to compare. I’ve been fortunate to visit Hamburg often. There is nothing eastern European about it. The center of Hamburg is next to a lake around which solid, nicely designed German buildings are arranged in a row, all the same height. Many of these buildings prominently display the names of solid German corporations and banks. The lighting is tasteful but bright. Everything fits in, as neat as a pin.

I remember once taking a group of Russians on a tour of Hamburg. The bus had a tour guide who showed us the city center, port and red-light district. It was difficult going; we were hung over and it was pouring rain. At one point the bus stopped at the offices of a large German insurance company. All Hamburgers are proud that such a company was formed in the city during centuries past and rose to global fame. The Russians were miffed. How could an insurance company have anything to do with the heritage of a city?

Hamburg and Red Square are worlds apart. Red Square makes an impression of government power, as opposed to commercial might. On one side is St Basil’s Cathedral, commissioned by Ivan the Terrible. Ivan substantially expanded the power of Muscovy from a city state into a regional power along with committing acts of subjugation and terror. He intended St. Basil’s to be unlike any church built in Russia, or Russ as it was known then. It’s a cacophony of towers, spires and colorful mosaics. Legend has it that after the church was built in 1551, Ivan took out the eyes of the architect of St. Basil’s so that he couldn’t make another one. To the right is the Kremlin walls, a monolithic edifice with clean lines built in 1495 by Italian masters. In front of the Kremlin wall, facing out onto Red Square, is Lenin’s tomb where the Soviet leaders stood on top of Lenin’s remains to demonstrate their mastery over his legacy. Today, the leadership of Russia does the same thing when military parades are held on the broad expanse of Red Square in front of it.  Moving to the right is the State Historical Museum, designed in the late 19th century as an exhibit hall. It is neo classical, made of red bricks and not lacking in turrets.  On the other side of Red Square is GUM, Russia’s ornate and very premium shopping area. It was commissioned by Catherine II and served as a trading centre until it became an elite shopping centre under communism. Today, it sells high end goods. The ice cream sold in GUM is affordable but that’s about it.

St Basils Cathedral, Moscow

Last week I met with friends in a restaurant believed to be one of Moscow’s finest where we could see the city from above. The food was expensive and bland, but the wine wasn’t half bad. Our waiter was a pompous ass. The view, however, was magnificent. The restaurant sits on top of a building in the middle of Moscow and from it, much could be seen. Sitting there, drinking our Crimean Pinot Noir, we decided that Moscow is eastern European in part because of the light. It’s not as lit up as many other cities around the world and has its own ambience. The windows of the apartment buildings give off a soft yellow. This is a city where people believe in curtains and the walls of many apartment buildings are thick, making it dark and mysterious with soft yellow light coming from the flats. From one perspective, it’s a bit gloomy, from another, it’s romantic and inviting.

A view down the ‘New Arbat’ c. 1970.

Some of Moscow’s architecture is brutal, especially the mass-produced apartment buildings constructed during the Khrushchev and Brezhnev eras. Buildings from the Stalin era left a considerable mark on the city. While Stalin was busy nationalizing the economy and terrorizing the Soviet population, he found time to be deeply involved in designing the city of Moscow. Many of the designs of apartment and office buildings all over the city were approved by Stalin and in some cases, he was personally involved in the final outcome. The main streets leading to the centre and along the embankments of the Moscow river have a high number of these traditional Stalinist buildings, many of which were built using German prison labour after World War 2. The metro was built during the Stalin era as well and much of it could accurately be called Stalinist. The apartment building I live in is considered to be Stalinist, the name given to a building such as ours and not its inhabitants. 

Buildings and streets constructed in the Stalinist, Khrushchev and Brezhnev eras are combined with buildings that were designed in the 1930’s and going back from there to the 11th century. This combination of styles, cut through by the communist preference for wide streets and massive monuments, makes Moscow eastern, for better or for worse.

Kazansky Railway Station, with the Hilton Lenindradsky Hotel on the right

Moscow’s train stations are uniquely Russian, designed mostly at the turn of the last century. The city has nine such stations, placed in the city in the direction of the final destinations of the trains. For example, Leningradsky train station, built in 1851, is in the north, in the direction of St Petersburg. Kiev train station is in the south of the city. The train stations are ornate and mostly built before the revolution. They smell like creosote and diesel fuel. In winter, the train stations are smoky. It feels as if time has stood still in them. When boarding the train, people in spiffy uniforms stand at the entrance of each car to laboriously match everyone’s train tickets and passports by hand. I hope no one replaces them with turnstiles and bar codes.

Moscow is a sea of new construction sites these days. It always has been, in all the years I’ve lived here. Down the street from our apartment building, several city blocks have suddenly been taken over in the past year by new hotel, office and apartment buildings. They are well designed, upscale and would not be out of place in any major city around the world. Many lament the appearance of such generic. Meanwhile, much of the city is undergoing road construction. Suddenly, a hole will appear in the ground of a road or sidewalk with a wall around it. Men in special uniforms go down below the city and do something with the pipes. After that, the hole is closed up. Constantly being rebuilt might not be the reason Moscow is Eastern European, but it certainly is a prevalent fact of life. Perhaps one day, someone will be writing a history of how all this construction work in the 2010’s ruined Moscow and made the city like any other. I hope not. 

Daniel Brooks, 12 April 2019, copyright