The demolition ball keeps the time of the city, a metronome that swings on every corner. Building after building is being knocked down; they are building a new Moscow right on top of the old. Moscow changes so fast, it breaks all sense of reality. You find yourself lost all the time, you can’t recognize streets. You turn a corner looking for a place where you’d been to eat the week before, and in front of your eyes the whole block is being demolished. New buildings erupt over the city, burning with neon, money, and Gotham-Gothic turrets. The new skyscrapers imitate the bullying stance of Stalin-era architecture. Long before the city’s political dissidents started to scream that Vladimir Putin was creating a dictatorship, Moscow’s art critics already murmured: “Look at the new architecture--it dreams of Stalin. Be warned: the evil empire is back.”
The gargantuan central avenues are coagulated with the sludge of acid snow (the chemicals the city uses as grit burn the paws of stray dogs), and the cloying ooze of some of the world’s worst traffic. “Why don’t you use the subway?” I ask a local. She’s shocked: “But people would look at me in the wrong way--as if I was poor!” The siren-wielding black (always black) bulletproof Mercedes of the mega-rich and powerful are free to drive against the flow of traffic; they speed through the acid sludge: modern-day barons who live by different rules. This is their city, their underlings the ork-faced cops whom Muscovites call “werewolves in uniform.” The barons control the road, the orks the pavement. The orks march down Moscow’s avenues, belching out the phrase that is their mark of power: “Documents! Now!” They’ll spot you right away: foreigners gawp, Muscovites walk face-down and furious. The orks always find something wrong somewhere in your papers: a visitor to Moscow has to obtain endless stamps and registrations. They’ll threaten to take you to the station. Then comes the definitive Moscow transaction: the slipping of the bribe. But never use that word: “bribe.” Never offer money directly. Paying bribes requires a degree of delicacy. Russians have more words for “bribe” than Eskimos for “snow.” My favorite formulation: “May I use this opportunity to show a sign of my respect for you?” “Of course you may,” the orks say, smiling suddenly, and stuff the cash under their policeman’s cap. All they ever wanted was some respect.
An advertisement hangs on huge billboards over the city: a single, handsome, male eye staring out of a dark room through a crack in a door, both spying on the passersby and imploring them to release him. The ad is for one of Marat’s companies: office furniture (black sells best) to fill up the endless, just-built offices of the new Moscow. Marat (a pseudonym) looks like Dorian Gray and is one of the city’s princes. When I first meet him, he is living in one of the new Gotham-Gothic skyscrapers. He’s knocked down all the walls in his apartment, painted the inside an asylum white: “I want it to feel like a mental hospital,” he tells me. He has open-plan toilets: “I like to see how my guests react when they have to crap in front of everybody.” Marat has the walk common to many of Moscow’s newly rich: a cocky strut combined with the occasional paranoid shuffle; the sudden glance behind his back. His apartment has no signs of personal history: no old books, clothes, even cutlery. Every time I see him he seems to wear a new designer suit. A brilliant mathematician whose idea of entertainment as a child was reading through famous chess games, Marat graduated from college just as communism collapsed. He built computers and made a million. He built a bank and nearly lost it all: “The worst time is when people owe you money. No one will kill you if you owe them, but if they owe you they’d rather kill than pay. I dream of being able to go outside without bodyguards.”
Marat is not yet 40 and already a millionaire so many times over, he needs new forms of entertainment. At a club full of impossibly fashionable boys and girls all dressed in black (scared to get drunk in case they destroy their perfect poses), Marat presents his new project. His name is Vyacheslav Sklyarov, he looks like a gargoyle, and he spits and he mutters. One of Marat’s flunkies picked him up outside a railroad bar in a polluted provincial town. Sklyarov was the local madman and a prodigious scribbler: conspiracy theories, nonsense political utopias, frenetic sketches of the ideal city. Marat was inspired. “This is the face of the true Russia: Sklyarov!” Marat flew Sklyarov to Moscow (he’d never flown before and soiled his seat), put him up in the best hotel on the highest floor, and began to change his life. Marat has told Sklyarov that people in the higher echelons of power are interested in his ideas, want his advice on the future of Russia. Sklyarov believes Marat. “He’s an angel,” mutters and spits the gargoyle. “An angel!” Tonight is the presentation of Sklyarov’s book, his mendicant vision for the future of Russia. The book is published by Marat, and in the Russian political context this is a provocative, slightly dissident act—brave enough for me not to use Marat’s real name. Sklyarov mutters on the stage, and soils his pants (again) from fear. The impossibly fashionable boys and girls applaud and tell Marat he’s come up with the art project of the year. My Western values are shocked: but Marat is convinced he’s fulfilling Sklyarov’s dreams, giving him paradise.
When I started coming to Moscow in the mid-1990s, it was a flaccid, gray town, the articulation of a dismal, failed empire. Then something happened: money. Never had so much flooded into so small an area in so short a time. Moscow went from being a dirty satellite on the edge of Europe to a pulsating star. In a blink, ordinary men, boys like Marat, became tycoons, lifted up on the Russian oil geyser whose financial flows fountain through the city. They rose so quickly, they began to think themselves as somehow chosen, superhuman, God-like.
But there is another Moscow, away from the Gotham skyscrapers, the orks, the God delusions, the oppression and ambition. Take a turn away from the gargantuan avenues filled with bulletproof, always-black cars; slip through the arches and follow the old lanes, the little streets, and discover the other, tender Moscow. Here are places with names like Krivokolennaya, the street of the crooked knee, and Po-ta-poff-skaya, a word that falls like snowflakes in the mouth. But my favorite of all these is Pyatnitskaya, in English the Street-of-all-Fridays. There is no pomposity on the Street-of-all-Fridays. It is full of little two-story 19th-century minimansions, higgledy-piggledy from time, leaning onto each other like happy drunk friends singing on their way home to a warm bed. In every courtyard there is a bar, some little place with cheap vodka and smoky rooms. There are no office blocks, no narcissistic skyscrapers, no domineering malls. But there are churches. Lots of them: baroque, wooden, mannerist, their air generous and forgiving. There is an old Metro station. A large, low, yellow, pancake-shaped building around which students share beers and boys chase girls. This is the old Moscow: back in the 18th and 19th centuries St. Petersburg was Russia’s capital; Moscow was a backwater, the holiday city where you could sleep in late and spend the day reading in your pajamas.
This other Moscow has a hero, a guardian spirit. His voice is full of cracks, rough edges, sandpaper tones: just like the walls of old Moscow itself. But he is young, 30-something, with shooting hair, a scarf down to his knees, and giggling eyes. His name is Alexander Mozhayev, and he is a psychogeographer. Mozhayev skids and stumbles through the icy lanes, taking alternate swigs from vodka and yogurt bottles. He is followed sometimes by one, sometimes 10, sometimes 50 followers, held rapt by his tales about who lived where and who did what. “I never knew anything about the city I grew up in. Mozhayev is its memory,” a ginger-haired girl tells me. We climb into broken palaces where the snow wafts through the burned-out roofs: Mozhayev finds old notebooks from the people who once lived there, salvages them from the wreck. Mozhayev takes out a bottle; we follow suit. “We’re here to hold a wake, to this building, to old Moscow; all these buildings are set to be destroyed,” and so we drink and Mozhayev tells the story of the house, before the demolition ball will swing through this part of town to make room for more of Gotham and endless offices.
Sometimes Mozhayev takes his followers and they camp before the demolition ball, desperate attempts to save a wooden mansion, a baroque palace. They wave signs before the TV cameras: “Bastards: Stop Destroying Our City!” Sometimes they are successful, but rarely. Moscow is designed to devour itself: the city plan is a whirlpool with the Kremlin at the center, and the aim is to have your office, your home, your shopping mall as close to the center of power as possible. So every new generation has to tread on the heads of the previous ones, urban destruction reflecting a still-feudal social structure defined by needing to be in touching distance of the tsar, the general secretary of the Communist Party, the president of the Russian Federation. And Moscow doesn’t want its memories. On the wall of a gray apartment building by the gentle Potapoffsky is a list of all the people who lived there in the ’30s and were killed or sent to gulags during the Stalin years. Every one of the hundreds of apartments lost someone. Only one apartment was spared: that’s where the snitch lived, whose reports convicted all the others. Destroy the building—maybe you can destroy the horror of this memory, pretend it never happened: just as the new school history books of the Putin era play down Stalinist atrocities, praising the tyrant as a great leader and “effective manager” who made some small miscalculations.
“This city is built on mountains of blood and bones,” says Marat. I’m at another of his parties. He’s dressed all in white. Waiters in white uniforms serve white cocktails: they taste of fruit and ethanol. The impossibly fashionable boys and girls are all in white as well (only I, the uncool expat, am in jeans). The theme of Marat’s party is white: “This is all about my purification,” he tells me. Marat invents new, outlandish forms of personal catharsis, releases his inner demons. But Moscow is trapped: unable to look its history in the mirror, Moscow rips up its face, the demolition ball a weapon of self-hatred.
Peter Pomerantsev, a TV producer and nonfiction writer, spent 2001 to 2011 in Moscow. For walks around historic Moscow and information about destruction of its architectural heritage, contact Moscow Architecture Preservation Society, maps-moscow.com.