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Longer Latitude Journey behind the Ironic Curtain

Moscow: Manezh Square, Alek Gardens, Old Arbat, Lenin & his two Stalins

RUSSIAN FEDERATION | Wednesday, 16 September 2015 | Views [248]

The Soviet architectural hangover

The Soviet architectural hangover

After you've had your fill of cathedrals, museums and grey ministerial buildings in the Kremlin, a good place to wind down is Aleksandrovskiy Sad immediately to the west of the wall. The tempo in the gardens is low-key, no hustle or bustle. You can sit and admire the attractive, colourful gardens and chill out. Or you can take a stroll along the path parallel to the wall and see yet more extremely youthful-looking guards on duty at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and the Grotto 'Ruins' which are the sparse remnants of the original city wall (in front of the high, newer, permanent Kremlin wall).

Manezh Square isn't internationally well known in the way Red Square is, but tourists in Moscow usually find themselves here at some point as it links up with other parts of the central city such as Alekandrovskiy Garden, the Bolshoi Theatre district and Red Square itself. Manezh Square is also important to Muscovites for various reasons. The area in front of the State Museum is often the scene of public protests by Russian citizens and interest groups (it also has been the site of football riots in recent years). When I was there some people were waving protest placards next to the statue of Marshal Zhukov whilst their comrades video-recorded their actions. I couldn't read the placard's message (in Russian) but the last word was 'Putin'. What it asserted about him clearly infuriated a couple of surly combative types and a heated argument ensued which eventually provoked police intervention. The 'incident' gradually dissipated, the malcontents moved on and the placard-holder resumed her vigil, generating little interest from passing pedestrians.

I found the south-western part of Manezhnaya the most interesting section of this leisure park, in particular the series of attractive canals and fountains separating Alekandrovskiy Garden and the elongated underground shopping mall. This was a fun family area with children playing with the canal's animal statues or under the Four Seasons fountain (symbolised by four rearing bronze horses) which sprays a stream of water onto passers-by. The Four Seasons fountain is another popular venue for Moscovite newly-weds. This area is always a hub of activity with 'performers' dressed as tsars, tsarinas, a 'Lenin' and two 'Stalins' ("I'll see your Lenin and raise you one Stalin!'), all trying to coax visitors into having their picture taken with them - for a fee! The fountains have a 'circus' feel about them. As well as the impersonators of Soviet heavyweights and Romanov royals, there is an (incongruous) American Indian chief, various other spruikers and some unfortunate white doves with their tail feathers deliberately bent back so that they cannot fly away. The elegant, restored Manezh building (once a horse-riding school) and metro is on the level diagonally above the fountains.

A welcome diversion from the crowded Kremlin triangle can be found in Moskva's huge public library (nicknamed 'Leninski' due to its previous name VI Lenin Library). Blast from the past to see its rows and rows of card catalogues, a system still apparently in use on the main floor (the Russian State Library does have a digital catalogue as well!) I was a bit surprised by the level of security, electronic gates and guards in police flak jackets, but justified I guess because of the historic national significance of its collections. A slim but comprehensive publication on the workings and history of the Library is available. No entry fee but tourists should obtain a visitor's badge at the front desk.

The State Library is on the way to Arbat Street (known locally as Old Arbat), its worth the 10 minute walk as on the way you'll see one or two other points of interest, such as Moscow's first cinema. Old Arbat is a car-free plaza interrupted in the middle by a cross-road. In it you will find probably the best place in Moscow to buy souvenirs, including the widest variety of Matryoshka dolls depicting innumerable celebrities Russian and international (from Putin to Rasputin with quite a few US presidents, European heads-of-state and pop singers thrown in). Aside from momentos and shopping Arbat is a good location away from the centre to eat (a range of inexpensive options). The plaza is pleasant to stroll down, lots of street performers doing their thing, musicians, portrait artists, guys in animal suits wanting to hug you (prompting the odd awkward moments), etc. A huge mural depicting Marshal Zhurov (that man again!) dominates the western end of the street. There's usually a crowd milling round one particular Jackson Pollock-inspired artist who paints his expressive and vivid works on a broad horizontal canvas using a flourish of spray cans. For a complete contrast (and change of mood), pop around the corner at the bottom of the street into Smolensky Blvd where the festive feel of Arbat is replaced by the characteristic greyness of a remnant of the Soviet style of architecture, a tall, dour ministerial building. There is a metro station just near here (Smolenskaya) to get you swiftly back to tourism central.

Tags: city tour

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