Out of Russia: Visiting Moscow? Take a walk on the wild side

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The Independent Online
MOSCOW - 'Ah Arbat, my Arbat, you are my melody, you are my Fatherland, you are my joy and my sorrow.' So goes the ballad about Moscow's most famous street, by the dissident bard of the Brezhnev era, Bulat Okudzhava. When he wrote the song, the Arbat was a place where the intelligentsia gathered in each other's flats to read and discuss banned literature. What would Okudzhava make of the Arbat now, sleazily alive with traders, pickpockets, beggars and musicians as young as seven years old busking to earn a crust?

The Arbat, in the very centre of the city, is a barometer of Moscow life. I am fortunate to live there, able daily to observe its glory and its shame.

I rent my apartment from an old woman whose father, a builder, organised the construction of labour camps for Stalin. That is how she comes to have a flat in the heart of town. In those days, before the New Arbat highway was built, Old Arbat Street was the main road running down to the Kremlin and only people regarded as loyal to the state were allowed to live so close to the seat of power.

By the 1960s and 1970s, when Okudzhava was at the height of his popularity, the terror had slackened. Russians were still not completely free but if they were discreet, they could read what they wanted in underground publications and speak their minds in a narrow circle of trusted friends.

In the late 1980s the Arbat, converted from a road down which romantic old trolley-buses rattled to a tacky pedestrian precinct, became a stage for glasnost. Ronald Reagan went on a walkabout here and American and Russian children covered a 'peace wall' with hand-painted tiles. But Mikhail Gorbachev's policy of openness had its limits. The first entrepreneurs to appear on the streets of Moscow were the young men of the Arbat who sold nests of matrioshka dolls painted with the faces of Kremlin leaders, from Lenin to Mr Gorbachev. The former president invoked a law against insulting the head of state but he only succeeded in forcing the trade underground.

Now Russia has a free market, which means that, on the Arbat, anything goes.

At the top of the street, between a McDonald's on one side and, on the other, a pastel-painted mansion where Pushkin once lived for a few months, you can join the crowd of shoppers and beggars listening to a jazz band. Further down, Hare Krishna members chant and seek converts. A child cellist and two women singing folk songs compete in vain with the din of the Hare Krishna drums. Outside the Vakhtangov Theatre, you can sometimes see a rockabilly band or break-dancers, but the regular act is three cheeky lads putting dirty words to Soviet songs. See also the Bolivian folk ensemble, the little boy who plays the clarinet like an angel, the teenage heart-throb singing Beatles songs and the woman offering pony rides.

And if you walk here often enough and are very attentive, you will also start to recognise the sinister men who arrive at evening to take their cut from the hats of the entertainers.