Spirit of old Russia reclaims new Moscow

After six years, Rupert Cornwell returns to find a city transformed - up to a point
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The Independent Online
Could this be Moscow, the child asked, his face pressed to the window, eyes staring with disbelief, as the night-time city flashed by, a stream of lights, bustle and abundance where once all was drabness?

The child was me, returning with a Labour Foreign Secretary after six years to the city I left during the death throes of Communism. That much was obvious then, even to a child.

But this new jumble of first impressions was stunning. Karl Marx seemed to have surrendered to Marlboro Man, dirty snow ploughs to a forest of cranes over a renascent city. Far more important, albeit slowly and not without discomfort, a world view is shifting too.

The monuments of central Moscow, touchstones of the national mood, tell their own story. Where once stood an all-year heated swimming pool there is now a gilded entrance to heaven itself. Stalin knocked down the Cathedral of Christ Saviour in the Thirties and wanted to replace it with a gigantic Palace of the Soviets. But the marshy ground could not stand the weight and Josef Vissarionavich's poor subjects had to make do with a pool.

Now, just like the merchant classes who dotted medieval Europe with cathedrals, Moscow's new elite, in the shape of mayor Yuri Luzhkov and a clutch of supporting financiers, have built their monument to the Almighty - a replica, only larger, of the former church.

Mr Luzhkov is a wonderful, disorienting example of the old's seamless metamorphosis into the new. Watch him holding court this week for the visiting dignitary, and the Soviet Union might not have died: the same configuration of delegations confronting each other across a long table in an even longer room, the same furnishings - even Mr Luzhkov himself, a hugely popular entrepreneur now as he tarts up the city for its 850th anniversary later this year, but in looks and demeanour every inch the apparatchik.

Only the portrait at the end of the room is different. Ten years ago, a Foreign Secretary would have been contemplating Lenin. Today, none other than Peter I stares down on proceedings: yes, Peter the Great, adorning the mayor's office in a city whose superstitious, semi-Asiatic ways he loathed so much he built a new capital 300 miles to the north, on Russia's one maritime outlet to Europe.

And Russia's most determined Europeaniser has been grounds for another Luzhkov spectacular, a hideous 150ft tall monument consisting of a statue of the Tsar balancing precariously on a pile of ships' hulls. It is meant to commemorate the 300th anniversary of the foundation by Peter of the Russian navy - though what, one might ask, has Moscow to do with that? A few days ago, Communist extremists threatened to blow the thing up in reprisal for plans to remove Lenin's body from his mausoleum, but they subsequently backed down.

So as the Communist tundra melts, and Moscow at last races into the late 20th century, it is to the late 17th century that it looks for inspiration. And thus is confusion piled upon confusion. The Russia of the General Secretaries lives on not only at City Hall, but in a host of other ways. Red stars still adorn Kremlin towers and the statue of Lenin rampant still bestrides Oktyabr'skaya Square. And even though the embankment where the British embassy stands has returned to its pre-revolutionary name of Sofiiskaya, a marble plaque reminds that until lately, for 30 years, it was called Moriza Toreza, after the postwar French Communist leader Maurice Thorez.

Listen to politicians and academics here however, and for many of them, too, history's downsizing still jars. "Mercifully we have stopped being a superpower," one Duma deputy told me. "We are learning to be a European power." But it was very dangerous, he warned, "to put Russia in a position where it perceives that others see it as weak. Russia will have no choice but to go its own way. Not against Europe, but not with Europe."

This was no Zhirinovsky speaking, but a member of the liberal and Westernised Yabloko faction, on the issue of Nato enlargement. The ministerial press conference provided a similar cameo. Sitting next to our Foreign Secretary was his Russian counterpart Yevgeny Primakov, adviser to defunct politburos, apologist for Saddam Hussein and living relic of Soviet superpowerdom. Then Robin Cook began his setpiece statement: "Russia ... largest of all the European nations."

The point could not have been clearer. And Europe surely it must be. Forget Mongol hordes and Russia beyond the Urals. The future is the European landmass where 85 per cent of the Russian population lives, the Europe of fast foods and mobile phones, and one day, who knows, membership of the European Union.

But a moment later you wonder. Just along the street from the British embassy is an ornate entrance way facing the Kremlin. It leads into a courtyard. Inside is a rusting red ZIM limousine, precursors of the sleek black ZIL which ferried Robin Cook around Moscow. It must be 40 years old, and surely untouched for the last 20 of them.

Beyond is a smaller, half derelict church used for theological studies. The cracked windows have been repaired with boards and pieces of cloth, saplings sprout from its roof. All around are piles of discarded household junk, and the unkempt vegetation of the Moscow high summer.

The scene is neither communist nor capitalist, neither European nor Asiatic. Just unalterably, eternally Russian. It would have driven Peter mad.

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