Out of Russia: Summertime in the city and the living is uneasy

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The Independent Online
MOSCOW - Mad dogs and Englishmen stay in Moscow in August. No right-minded Muscovite remains in the dusty, sweaty capital, especially in the heatwave Russia has been sharing with the rest of Europe this year.

All who have dachas of their own or relatives, however distant, stream out of the city in search of shady forests and cooling lakes. Those left behind are the unfortunates who have to work and the people the natives snootily call 'touring artists' - foreigners and citizens of other former Soviet republics. So, what relief is there for us?

If you are stuck in town, you can always escape from the searing sun by diving into the marble halls of the underground system, which is strangely bereft of the usual heaving crowds of commuters. This is certainly the best time to make a study of the metro's marvellous Stalin-era sculptures and mosaics.

Or you can buy a watermelon. In Communist times, people queued for hours for melons, which were brought up from Central Asia and kept on the streets in wire crates like cages, as if the fruit would run away unless properly controlled. Now the watermelons just lie in mounds all over the pavements and you can pick whichever you fancy. Is this a symbol of the new freedom?

But if you want to take your ease, do not under any circumstances go to a park - these days they are not imitations of the countryside, but exaggerations of the bazaar.

Take Sokolniki Park. It was laid out in Stalin's time and the martial music which used to blare from the loudspeakers at the main gate was annoying. But you could drift off out of earshot down the famous 'emerald paths' for a peaceful afternoon.

Now the park has been commercialised. At one end it bustles with cash-and-carry warehouses while at the other, crowds flock to a new exhibition of mechanical dinosaurs. The management denies it has tried to recreate Jurassic Park but the influence of the film is unmistakable. All over the park, stalls are selling plastic dinosaur toys and dinosaur balloons. 'Roll up, roll up, buy a live turtle,' shouts a trader. 'Turtles are the living relatives of the dinosaurs.'

To add to the madness, the extreme nationalist politician Vladimir Zhirinovsky comes here periodically to stand on his soap box and rant to anyone who will listen. The uniformed thugs who accompany him hardly make for a pleasant atmosphere.

Then there is the Exhibition of Economic Achievements. This is another Stalin-era park where you could walk in the gardens and look at the fountains if you were not interested in the space museum and the pavilions full of crafts from the four corners of the Soviet Union. Lately the space museum, which exhibited Yuri Gagarin's helmet and tubes of cosmic food, has been used for acid-house raves while the park has become another shopping centre packed end to end with kiosks. In a way, it is a truer exhibition of economic achievement but it is no longer a place to relax.

Neither is the Moscow Zoo. It has a splendid collection of different kinds of big cats from Siberia which you will not see in captivity in western Europe but nobody goes to the zoo to look at the animals anymore. No, you go to the zoo to buy cornflakes and get your ears pierced.

As for Gorky Park - Martin Cruz Smith would not recognise it. The riverside garden with its romantic old ferris wheel and ice rink, where the frozen bodies were found in his best-selling thriller, now more closely resembles the Blackpool funfair with giant roller-coasters and bungee jumping. All this week, the city has rocked to a fireworks festival in the park. When I heard the bangs and whizzes, I thought we were having another coup, this being August.

The formal flower beds at the front of Gorky Park soften into a less-structured area of trees at the back, amusingly called the Neskushny Sad or Not Boring Garden. Here you could always repose but friends of mine were strolling here recently when gangsters shot at them through the open roof of their car. Luckily they were not hurt.

The moral of this story is that if you want to summer in the city you should buy some pot plants, make iced tea and never leave the sanctuary of your balcony.