'Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!'

We are fascinated by the crumbling relics of lost empires

In the light of fires, collapsing buildings, sinking subs, pipeline ruptures, radiation leaks, and toxic spills, there will soon be a new aspect to visiting Russia - tourists in the ghoulish pursuit of impending disaster.

In the light of fires, collapsing buildings, sinking subs, pipeline ruptures, radiation leaks, and toxic spills, there will soon be a new aspect to visiting Russia - tourists in the ghoulish pursuit of impending disaster.

Not that I blame them. In fact I'll probably be one of them. The desire to get melancholy in the ruined cities of collapsed empires is as old as tourism itself. We've all had some sort of look at the wreckage of the Roman Empire.

And connoisseurs of cities such as (say) Algiers or Lima will know the fetid delights of other ruined European empires too. The British Empire, which never really belonged to those people we now describe as the British, but rather to that alien species from the 1930s who spoke in funny accents on cinema news-reels, is no exception to this.

It's ethically dubious, but we all do it. Guide books always talk about the "crumbling colonial-style buildings" as excellent reasons to visit places in the developing world, narrowly second to the food and the beaches. Because it's true. Nobody wants to see the new steel and glass post office in (say) Havana if the grotty old Spanish-built one happens to be standing just next door.

The places we all want to see are those stucco-fronted buildings, unpainted for years, now stained, mouldy, cracked and damp, totally unsuited to the tropical climates in which they are located: the kinds of buildings you would find pretentious and dreary in London's Regent's Park for example, but which you'd marvel over and take photos of in Malaysia or India. Yes: under torrential tropical rain, with frying chilli in the air, cows and rickshaws wandering the alleyways, and parakeets chattering from the palm trees, even your suburban house can become a tourist exhibit!

Of course it's harsh on the places themselves. What hotel wants to be described as "so bad that it's good"? It's like having people come and stare at your wrinkles, or take photographs of the holes in your socks. Just think of the possible conversations that your morbid fascination with decay could engender. Local: "What do you like best about my town?" Tourist: "The fact that it's falling to bits, that it stinks and that nothing works." Local: "But you have not yet seen the brand new Italian- built power station." Tourist: "I don't need to. We've got lots of those back home."

Who knows. One day, Chinese or Indian tourists may pick about the ruins of cities like New York or London, enjoying the old-fashioned technology and the quaint old cityscapes now dwarfed by their own state-of-the-art skyscrapers back home in Bombay and Shanghai. In the interests of global equality one might hope that they do.

But in the meantime - where ruined empires are concerned - Russia is clearly the place. Get there before it's too late.

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