MOSCOW DAYS : Cold comfort from a dead man in winter

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The Independent Online
One of the pleasures of an early morning walk in my neck of the woods is the chance to commune silently with Ho Chi Minh for a minute or two. His moonish face shines out of an oval monument that stands, like a large up-turned bronze coin, on the corner a few hundred yards from our monolithic apartment block.

For several years, he has stood there, casting an unmoving eye down on the tide of people who tramp out of the nearby metro station to mill around the scattering of kiosks, flower stands and vegetable stalls that mark Trade Union Street at its junction with Dmitry Ulyanov Street (named after Lenin's brother).

At first, when I moved into our flat in south Moscow 15 months ago, I felt that Ho Chi Minh was an ugly presence, an outdated reminder of the Soviet Union's cynical support for the nationalist government in North Vietnam with the dual aim of maintaining the Communist empire and containing the United States which - just as indefensibly - was launching massive bombing raids on behalf of capitalism.

I placed him in the same category as the guards who control the barriers that separate our compound from the outside world, or the women who sit morosely in glass booths just inside the entrances of our building, inspecting every new arrival with a beady eye - a stark reminder of a darker era.

But now, contemplating his features on a bright blue winter's morning, I see him differently. With his goatee and little smile, he is an island of stability, a bastion of permanence in a restless and fretful landscape.

Everything around him is changing. When I arrived, he used to stand opposite the Hanoi, a down-at-heel gambling joint that had a spectacularly bad restaurant, staffed by a waiter so gloomy he could barely bring himself to present you with a menu. Its small clientele appeared chiefly interested in drinking into the night, and hobnobbing with young hostesses.

That has gone. Ho Chi Minh now stands opposite an establishment called Rocky-111, a chic wine bar which seeks to draw in passers-by by playing rock music from a loudspeaker which is padlocked to the front door, lest someone make off with it. Young people gather around wooden tables to drink Corona beer, and to listen to the resident band. You could almost be in London or Paris, were it not for the obviously down-at-heel population in the streets outside.

Not far away, down Dmitry Ulyanov Street, where once stood a clapped- out repairs shop whose staff still used an abacus to tot up their debts, we now have a salon where affluent Muscovite women can be waxed and plucked and trimmed in a parlour so modern that it has suction devices in the walls which whisk up discarded hair.

Further down the street, on the corner of a peeling, off-pink apartment block, hangs a small bile-coloured sign showing a female silhouette in repose. This advertises the other new arrival in the neighbourhood: a sex shop called Casanova.

Pornography was outlawed by the Communists, but it has been seized on with enthusiasm in capitalist Russia, finding a market even among a population which earns less than $200 (pounds 124) a month. But even here there is a Soviet touch: a sign in the door says it closes at 7pm, so paying little heed to the rhythm of the average libido, or the best way to make money - for the Moscow streets do not become really feral until a fair amount of vodka has flowed through the city's veins - usually after 10pm.

But the most striking development lies up Trade Union Street where we now have an enormous, overshadowing concrete and glass skyscraper housing a Russian bank, topped by a revolving green orb. I suppose this should be applauded as an example of the investment that Russia so desperately needs.

But, looking out of the window from my ninth-floor apartment, I cannot help feeling differently. I used to boast that, on a clear day, with binoculars, you could make out the towers of the Kremlin. All right, I know it's pitiful - but it made me feel as if I had a finger on the city's pulse.

But now, as I was silently complaining to Ho Chi Minh only the other day, all you can see is that hideous bank. He seemed to sympathise.

Phil Reeves