Moscow chips away at the old Bloc

Now that Russia is busily rewriting its history, see the Soviet sites while you still can, says Neil McGowan
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The Independent Travel

In case you missed it, this year has been Leningrad's - sorry, St Petersburg's - 300th anniversary. The former capital created by Peter the Great has spent much of 2003 improving its image, which has involved erasing traces of the Soviet Union. The current capital, Moscow, though, is a fine place to view Bolshevism's folie des grandeurs, especially with the 86th anniversary of the Great October Revolution marked next Friday, 7 November (an anomaly explained by the fact that the Gregorian calendar was in force under the Tsars). Don't delay: Russia has been rewriting its history since Trotsky was airbrushed out of the Revolution. They're rapidly tearing down what remains of the Workers' Paradise.

ARRIVING: true aficionados will fly Aeroflot, even though the plane is now an Airbus or Boeing. You arrive at Sheremetyevo airport, whose surly babushkas, 40-watt bulbs and ceiling apparently made of old cake-tins are pure Brezhnev-era nostalgia. Take care not to fly BA or Transaero - you'd arrive at the pristine new Domodedovo airport, whose efficiency and smart design completely undermine an authentically sovok experience. Literally, sovok means "owl", but now it is a word play on "Soviet", implying Soviet era tat or junk.

SIGHTSEEING: some people think the Kremlin is some kind of bunker or military HQ. In fact, it is a 17th-century fortress that was little changed (except for an ugly building that served as the Council of Soviets) by Soviet power. The rumour that there was a secret tunnel leading from the Kremlin to KGB headquarters is probably fanciful, but Soviet-searchers will find the same walk above ground a fruitful one.

The Hotel Moskva's asymmetrical appearance is said to result from Stalin signing off two contradictory architect's designs while in a drunken stupor, so they combined both schemes. Already shut down, by February next year the hotel will be just a hole in the ground. Few tears will be shed. Revolution Square itself features the Metropole Hotel, where Lenin's spin doctors concocted a fictional meeting with his Mongolian counterpart Sukhebaatar. The revolutionaries scheduled the Bolshoi Theatre (across the road) to be burnt to the ground. Instead, it was used a venue for public meetings, and it was here that Soviet government was declared. At the top of the street, you reach Lubyanka Square, home of the KGB. The flat roofs of the building form a circle. Soviet prisoners were exercised on top of the building - unpopular prisoners might "accidentally" fall to unseen deaths in the courtyard. The KGB Museum here (pre-arranged groups only) whitewashes the organisation's brutal history.

Let's backtrack to Petrovka. Where Alpha-Bank now stands there used to be a public lavatory. In the Communist era the Ladies was occupied by black-market traders, and became the best place to find fashionable women's clothes. The cops - all men - never thought to go inside. The Great Petrovsky Monastery, further up the street, was turned into communal housing by the Soviets.

WHERE TO STAY: hurry to catch the final closing-down months of swirly-carpeted rooms at the Hotel Minsk (Tverskaya 22; 00 7 095 299 1213, minck@ chat.ru). At $40 (£27), this is the unintentionally-retro best room deal. The Hotel Pekin (Bolshaya Sadovaya 5/1; 00 7 095 209 22151) appeals to spook-spotters; it was built as KGB offices in 1947 but never used. "Enter/Wait" lights still hang above each door.

Moscow's skyline is dominated by seven skyscrapers in "Stalin baroque" style. Two are hotels where you can stay in fading Soviet grandeur. Hotel Ukraina (Kutuzovsky Prospekt 2/1; 00 7 095 243 3030; $95/£63 twin) is an unwitting Soviet-theme hotel right down to the hookers in the bars, a phenomenon no longer found in normal Moscow hotels. The Hotel Leningradskaya (Kalanchevskaya 21/40; 00 7 095 975 1815) lacks its sister's river views, but is just two minutes' goose-step to the Komsomolskaya Metro.

WHERE TO EAT: Soviet eateries, thankfully, have almost disappeared. However, the grand old Aragvi Restaurant (Tverskaya 6; 00 7 095 229 3762), where Party bosses caroused, still operates. The marble-clad halls and clandestine chambers are worth a visit. They still serve the Georgian food that Stalin, a regular guest, enjoyed. A vast spread costs about $50 (£33) per head. Opposite is the Mayoralty, from where Lenin addressed the masses.

WHERE TO DRINK: there is still no monument to Mikhail Bulgakov, the author of The Master and Margarita, the seminal banned novel of Communist-era Moscow. But you can drink his health at the Master and Margarita Tavern on Patriarch's Ponds (Patriarshie Prudy), where Bulgakov lived and set the book's nightmarish opening scene. Go late at night and you may find a jam session; theatre musicians gather here after shows to play a few fiddle numbers.

GETTING AROUND: to see the most sumptuous Soviet excess you need just seven roubles (15p). The Moscow Metro was a Soviet-era project, conceived as a mass transport system with stations that would be "Proletarian Palaces". The happiest hunting ground is around the Circle (Koltsevaya) Line. Kievskaya station is a riot of Ukrainian-inspired wheatsheaves, with murals showing fanciful scenes of Russo-Ukrainian comradeship. Novoslobodskaya is gentler, with stained-glass panels highlighting Soviet culture. Komsomolskaya ("Young Communist Party") has ceiling artworks showing "youth" taking a leading role - for example, applauding speeches by Lenin. Change at Kurskaya for one stop on the dark-blue line, to the most "Soviet" station of all - Ploshchad Revolutsii ("Revolution Square"), where every platform arch is guarded by heroic figures of an idealised proletariat.

Emerge from here on a Sunday and you'll see disgruntled socialists demonstrating outside the Lenin Museum (now closed) in favour of reviving the USSR. What you won't see is the secret Party Metro. Its lines run in parallel with the civilian system, giving fast and secure passage from the Kremlin to the premier's dacha in the elite suburb of Barvikha (Boris Yeltsin's favoured hangover hangout) and the bureaucrats' exclusive airport, Vnukovo-2.

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