Out of Russia: The ghosts of Stalin live next door

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The Independent Online
MOSCOW - I've never met my landlord. The closest I came was a glimpse of his dog-eared Soviet passport. His daughter showed it to me a few days ago just before we signed the lease. She wanted to prove he was still alive. The passport gave his date of birth as 1915. The photograph inside, though, showed a far younger man, unsmiling, with a blank banker's face and cropped hair. It must have been taken decades ago, probably about the same time he moved into his apartment on the Kotelnicheskaya Embankment.

Everyone in Moscow knows the building. You can't miss its 24-storeys of Gothic bombast, faced in granite for the first five and then studded with parapets, spikes and spires further up. It was built by convicts, one of seven skyscapers commissioned by Stalin after the war to form a necklace - or perhaps a noose - around the centre of Moscow.

For all its height, though, the building squats rather than soars, its top floor pierced by a spear bearing a huge stone star, its massive walls heavy with statues of heroic workers masquerading as ancient Greeks. The building's weight squashes everything, overpowering the nearby House of Klapovskaya - a noblewoman's mansion used until recently for seminars on atheism - and the puny 16th-century domes on the Church of St Nikita next door. Even the Kremlin, half a mile down the Moscow river, seems to cower in its shadow.

And this was just what Stalin wanted. The building was not merely an apartment block but an entire political creed set in concrete. Its residents were not tenants but the elect. Stalin's chosen few. Of course, no one likes to talk about this now. Everyone is a democrat.

Stalin's ghosts, though, are everywhere. They shuffle in from the cold, still dressed in long dark overcoats as if ready to appear at the drop of a hat on the rostrum at Lenin's tomb. The call will never come; their day has passed. The only summons they might get is to appear before the Constitutional Court to talk about the misdeeds of the Communist Party. Most seem too old for that, forgotten by even their foes.

The tenants on Kotelnicheskaya Embankment had everything provided for, almost as if they expected a siege: a bakery, a fruit shop, a post office, a hairdresser's and a cinema.

How my landlord came to live here, I don't know. His daughter seemed pleasant enough and gave no hint of having anything to hide. Whatever skeletons he might have tucked in the closet at the end of the hall, I'd rather not find out about. Whatever he did, though, he did it well, well enough to be rewarded with a panoramic view of the Moscow river, moulded ceilings, a bathtub deep enough to drown a horse, two chandeliers and heavy metal door handles.

The country may be in chaos, but somehow at Kotelnicheskaya Embankment the old order survives: halls are still swept, light-bulbs are still replaced and Izvestia still gets pushed under the door every day, even though it has long since abandoned the certainties on which it was founded.

Change, though, is beginning to creep through the cracks. The currency of privilege has changed. Dollars have replaced service to the state. Favours once in the gift of Khrushchev or Brezhenev are now secured by estate agents with portable phones and foreign bank accounts. The old guard is moving out, making way for a new Moscow elite with wallets full of hard currency.

For foreigners, the change is a joy. Moscow has become a city like any other - a city with crime, crooks and con-men but also a city where Kotelnicheskaya Embankment and other fortresses of party privilege are no longer off-limits. Sadly, for most Russians, they still are. Just as most were never cunning, crooked or perhaps talented enough to gain entry in the past, most will never get in now either. They earn roubles, not dollars. The currency of power has shifted. Old hierarchies, though, remain.

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