VDNKh: Stalin’s Theme Park

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The All-Union Agricultural Exhibition was intended to showcase the success of the collective farms.

There was an immediate problem in that the collective farms were a disaster: output collapsed, there was a terrible famine and millions died. But they were Stalin’s idea and Stalin – Orwell’s model for Comrade Napoleon – was always right and his policies never failed, they were just sabotaged by “kulaks,” “Trotsky-fascists,” “imperialist lackeys” or whatever label he decided to pin on the scapegoats.

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Construction of the All-Union Exhibition went ahead, originally on 330 acres of wasteland in the northern suburbs of Moscow. It opened in August 1939, a few months after the New York World’s Fair with which it was sometimes compared.

There were pavilions to represent each of the Soviet Republics, territories and regions, all built to impress on a scale to match the General Secretary’s ego. Statues, stained-glass, mosaics and bas-reliefs spoke of plentiful harvests, well-fattened animals and happy peasants, interleaved with the corporate logos of Soviet communism, the hammers and sickles, the stars and the CCCP’s. Inside were exhibits of agricultural techniques and machinery.

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While the New York World’s Fair was quickly dismantled and slowly forgotten, the All-Union Exhibition expanded in scope and area to become the Exhibition of National Economic Achievements, abbreviated in Russian to VDNKh. It gained more pavilions, magnificent fountains and a stop of its own on the Metro.

Cosmonauts Alley leads up from the station. It is more allée than alley: a broad, straight avenue cut through parkland, lined with trees.

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There are statues along its margins of iconic figures from the Soviet space programme: the likes of Yuri Gagarin and Valentina Terashkova (first man and first woman in space), Alexey Leonov (first spacewalk), and less happily Vladimir Komarov (first man to die on a space mission).

At intervals up the centre line, there are granite plinths cut into the shape of the Soviet star, planed to an angle and topped with bronze plates, also star-shaped, detailing events from the earlier years of the Space Race (before NASA caught up and went into the lead). They are interspersed with vibrant flower beds.

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An oversize statue of Konstantin Tsiolkovsky – the original rocket scientist – stands at the end of the avenue and, beyond it, the grandly-named Monument to the Conquerors of Space, a 400-foot-high swoosh of titanium representing a rocket aloft with its exhaust plume beneath it.

The park and exhibition centre at the other side of the monument now sprawl over 2.3 sq km, roughly equivalent to Monaco and the Vatican City combined.

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In the Yeltsin years, VDNKh was parcelled up and leased out to private companies, which gutted the pavilions, threw away the exhibits and turned the empty spaces into warehouses and retail outlets.

The historic pavilions, soon half-hidden behind illegal extensions and advertising hoardings, fell into disrepair. Hundreds of jerry-built temporary structures were thrown up between them. The complex seemed unlikely to survive. There were proposals to demolish the lot to make room for a shopping centre.

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When I went in the summer of 2015, I expected to find the decaying remains of what had once been described as “the Soviet Versailles”. But, unknown to me, the authorities had recently demolished a few hundred illegal buildings and extensions, torn down the ugly hoardings, cleared out 10,000 tons of garbage, remade the roads and paths, added benches and bins, replanted the flowerbeds and restored the eighty-year-old pavilions.

It was surreal to walk among buildings evocative of the international expos that captured so many imaginations between the Thirties and the Sixties and which are still studded with Soviet iconography. They have been cleaned up and repainted, but the stonework, the stained-glass, the mosaics are original, so there is none of the sense that there often is after major restorations that you are effectively looking at a modern replica.

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The parkland around them is pleasant to walk in and full of surprises with gushing fountains and monumental gardens, a boating lake, a photo exhibition in a rose garden, a tiny Orthodox church, a Vostok rocket and Buran spacecraft, a theatre, an aquarium, an SU-27 fighter jet and YAK-42 airliner.

The BBC journalist, Martin Sixsmith, called it “Russia’s answer to Disney World, but without the rides,” but the comparison is unfair, both to VDNKh and to Disney World.

© Richard Senior 2016

Slow Boat to Amsterdam: a Sailing Diary

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In the summer of 2012, I worked a passage from Stavanger to Amsterdam on the Dutch tall ship, Wylde Swan. I kept this diary, of sorts, with the idea of writing it up into a feature:

Thursday, 30th August

Arrive in Stavanger in the late afternoon. Blustery day. Call up the number and they come to collect me in the tender and take me out to the ship, which is moored off a small island. Dutch skipper, German mate, Danish engineer, German cook.

The Swan was originally a steamship, built in 1920, on a German flag. It was a herring boat, built for speed. A Dutch outfit bought the hulk in the Noughties and refitted it as a two-mast topsail schooner – biggest in the world, apparently.

More of the crew arrive in the evening, two Dutch, one British (but born in the Netherlands).

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Friday, 31st August

Bright and sunny in the morning. Not sailing until evening so get the tender into Stavanger, look round, take photos, get lunch.

Back to the ship. Three more crew aboard, one German, two Dutch.

Sail around 5pm.

I’m on the 1pm-8pm and 1am-6am watch, so I’m on straight away. Weigh anchor. Slip out of harbour. Stop alongside another ship for the last crew member (Norwegian) to jump aboard. Get a couple of stay sails up. South, south, south…

Can’t sleep. Read until midnight. Shaken awake at 12.30. Back to work.

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Saturday, 1st September

Still heading south. Up on the roof at 4am sweating a sail down, gathering and tying. Trimming and tidying; hauling ropes and cranking winches.

Sailing ships are incredibly noisy things: banging and clanking, creaking and groaning. The wind howls across the deck, slapping hard against the sails. It means I can shout and swear when I repeatedly make a mess of coiling a sheet, and nobody hears me.

The sun is coming up and I want to stay and watch it, but I want to sleep more. It comes easily this time.

Ship pitching heavily when my next watch starts at 1pm. A few of the crew are seasick. But it’s a dull watch. Not much to do. A couple of sails up, a tack, but mostly pootling along on the motor. Cloudy and cold but no rain.

I stare out to sea for hours. It sounds dull but it’s more peaceful than anything I can remember. No rushing, no deadlines, no shouty emails.

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Sunday, 2nd September 

The work always seems to be in the early morning watch. Strong wind across the deck. Ship heeled right over. Deck soaked. Hard to stay upright. A few involuntary sit-downs. Stretch the safety net across the leeward side so no one goes overboard. Stay sails back up. Exhausting first two hours then quiet after that. Quiet and cold.

Only me and the watch leader still standing. Everyone else on the watch is seasick. I can understand it. The ship rolls and pitches and suddenly the horizon rears up at a 30 degree angle. But thankfully I don’t get seasick.

We reach Danish waters around midnight, down the coastline, past the oilfields. Rigs lit up like Harrods at Christmas. The computer shows tankers all around us but none is in sight. The watchleader shows me how to fill in the log and I do it next time.

Still cloudy at lunchtime. The last watch put up the jibs and top sail. It looks more like a tall ship should now. No mainsail though. It takes 10 men to raise it. They call it “the Bastard“.

Two thirds of the way down the Danish coast by 2pm, heading for Germany. I belatedly hoist down the courtesy Norwegian flag. We forgot about it until now. Don’t suppose it matters.

There was talk of being in Amsterdam tonight but the skipper thinks lunchtime tomorrow at best. We take it for granted now that we can be anywhere in Europe in two hours, and anywhere in the world within the day (more or less). Everyone travelled like this until a couple of generations ago. It used to take a couple of months, I think, to get to Australia.

Another quiet afternoon. Ship porpoising gently. Cruising at around 6 knots. A cruise ship going north is about the only thing I see for an hour. Not even any gulls here. The mate has resorted to cleaning the ship. Must be bored.

And then it starts drizzling.

Slight change of course to break the monotony. Re-trim. Swing on the grinder. Make a mess of coiling the sheet again. How hard can it be for goodness sake?

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Monday, 3rd September

The 1-6 watch is hard. Just as you start to get properly to sleep, some sod wakes you up and makes you crawl from your bunk and put waterproofs on.

We are in Dutch waters now, I think. Tracking 190 degrees. Cruising at 7 knots. Busy waters here. Tankers all along the horizon.

A quiet watch. Some trimming of sails, nothing too exciting. Music and tomfoolery on the quarter deck.

Dutch coast in sight at 10 30. Sun out too. The last watch has pulled the sails down. Just motoring all the way now: into Ijmuiden, through the locks and down the canal to Amsterdam. Due in early afternoon

Sunbathing on the half deck until my watch starts; sunbathing a while longer as well. Nothing much to do.

On the outskirts of Amsterdam we monkey out on the nets round the bowsprit and pack the sail. Six of us wrestle with the bloody thing to wrap it into a sausage, get it onto the bowsprit and tie a daisy chain round it. People on the bank whip out phones to photograph us.

We arrive around 3pm, throw fenders over the side and moor up. Climb the rigging – like something out of a movie – to lower and tie up the topsails.

 Grab my bag, say goodbyes and wander towards Dam Square.

© Richard Senior 2016

Paterai Prison: the Best Bars in Tallinn

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The weeds were waist-high at the foot of the watchtower; the windows were smashed, the door rusted open.

The whitewash on the main building had weathered to beige and flaked away and exposed the crumbling brick beneath. Razor wire coiled haphazardly round the edge of the roof. Windows were missing panes of glass behind the bars; some had been bricked up and a few, in what must have been administrative rooms, seemed stuck open.

Paterai Sea Fortress is a sprawling sextant-shaped building arranged – as an estate agent would say – over four floors, including the basement. It was built as a cannon battery in 1840 on the orders of the Tsar to protect the shipping lanes to St Petersburg; later it was converted into barracks, and later still to a prison. But it was long ago abandoned and left to decay.

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The main wing curves around the waterfront and looks out across Tallinn Bay. Two smaller wings extend from the rear and meet at a point and enclose a courtyard with standard Soviet exercise blocks, three metre squared, surrounded by walls too high to see over, open at the top, but covered with mesh. A gangway for the guards runs between them.

I had read that it was possible to arrange guided tours but instead just turned up and walked in. I doubt that I was supposed to, but the gate was open and the security guard never looked up.

There was an eerie silence in corridors which once must have echoed with the slamming of doors, the jangle of keys, the clunk of locks; sobs and screams, jeers and shouts, the thumps and squeaks of scuffles, running feet and the sickening thuds of batons swung with abandon.

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The paint was bubbling from the walls, and each accretion from each regime was visible; the chequerboard floor tiles were half-hidden under dust. A ventilation duct had burst open and its panels hung limply from the ceiling.

The administrative rooms had the look of being ransacked, or cleared out in a hurry by ham-fisted soldiers.  Drawers left open, doors hanging off cupboards; chairs knocked over and never picked up, the contents of files strewn across desks and over the floor. Smashed typewriters, telephones and office bric-a-brac spilling out into the corridor.

The dusty shelves in what used to be the library were bare, except for a few rows of toppled booklets, stray pages from books and screwed up newspapers with the headlines of twenty-five years ago.

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A few of the cells still had skeletal bunks squeezed in rows under vaulted ceilings – it was thirty to a cell in Soviet times. The rest were hauntingly empty, expect, perhaps, for a solitary chair and paint which had peeled from the walls in strips and covered the floor like autumn leaves.

There was nothing to stop me nosing about wherever I liked and I wandered, as if at a gallery, down each of the long, empty corridors, stepping through gates which used to seal off each section, peering into rooms never knowing what I would find inside, with only natural light spilling through windows and into the corridor through open doors, and occasionally being plunged into total darkness and having to use the torch on my phone.

One room was filled with old chairs, spewing out stuffing, upside down bunks, collapsing cupboards, more Soviet newspapers, leg braces, and the remains of a notice with a heading in Russian which my phone translated, nonsensically, as “what to do if grab”.

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Another room had a sink in one corner, missing its taps and stained dark brown, and a squat toilet whose walls were papered with fading pictures torn from magazines of young women who might well be grandmothers now.

The tiles in one room of the old prison hospital were still gleaming white, but the grouting around them was filthy with age and neglect and the paint, as elsewhere, was peeling away in sheets and the damp was blackening the plaster beneath.

Operatory lights were still attached to the ceiling, angled at the frame of an operating table and a mottled dentist’s chair. There were big broken bottles, scattered syringes and a box marked ‘ТАБЛЕТКИ’ (pills), and cabinets and machines and tables and chairs which looked as if they belonged in a hospital bay; but there were, as well, discordant notes like a flat iron, a house brick and the rusting head of a pitchfork. It looked like conceptual art.

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It occurred to me, when I was at the far end of the corridor on the top floor, that the security guard would be likely at some point – I had no idea when – to lock the front door, shut the gate and go home for the day. It occurred to me, too, that no one knew I was inside.

Perhaps I might hear the door shut; and perhaps I might be able to run to an open window, or wrestle one open, and shout down to the security guard; but, then, this was the security guard who never noticed me going in.

I hurried a little after that, down to the claustrophobic basement where one room was filled with old bicycle wheels – surreal, but I was conditioned to the surreal by then – and out into the courtyard, where I waded through weeds to the exercise blocks, then quickly up, down and along the other wings.

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In a melancholy room lined with heating pipes, spotted with damp, and lit through a small, high window, there was a trapdoor in the floor and a rusted hole in the ceiling above it where a hook used to be. This, apparently, was where prisoners were hanged.

There was no way that I was going to risk spending the night among the ghosts of this bleak and silent monolith. I made for the exit and slipped out again. The security guard never looked up.

© Richard Senior 2016

One Morning in Nuremberg

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The Altstadt was quiet on that late autumn morning. It was a few weeks too early for the Christkindelmarkt, but there was a regular market with stalls, under red and white awnings, selling gingerbread, wild mushrooms and flowers.

It was a cold morning and the customers’ breath fogged in front of their faces at the bratwurst stand as the vendor grilled sausages, stuffed them in buns and slathered them in German mustard. The wind lifted the edge of the awning.

The Pegnitz River slices the old town neatly in half, St Lorenz to the south, St Sebald to the north. Each has a venerable church with twin towers imposing themselves on the skyline of spires and turrets and terracotta roofs.

There is a choice of bridges to cross the river. Several are centuries-old. Museumsbrücke leads directly into the Hauptmarkt – the main market square – and has the best view of them all. To the left, as you walk over it, is the Fleischbrücke, standing since 1598, notwithstanding the Second World War; to the right is the Heilig-Geist-Spital – Holy Spirit Hospital – built in 1339 and beautifully reflected in the river. The low arches beneath it blend into their reflection and form the shape of spectacles.

The cafes around the square across the river had optimistally put out their tables and chairs, but no one was sitting outside that day. A tour group, wrapped up in winter coats, trooped into the square and stopped in front of the Schöner Brunnen, the gilded 14th century fountain. The guide twisted the brass ring in the fence around it with a clank and a squeak and told – I assume – the story I had read in my guidebook about it bringing good luck.

Mention Nuremberg, even now, and many will immediately think of the Nazis; but its history did not begin with Hitler’s bombastic rallies, nor end with the war crimes tribunal.

In its half-timbered heyday, it was the unofficial capital of the Holy Roman Empire, the centre of the German Renaissance. Albrecht Dürer, was born and died there; his house survives as a museum. It is one of a cluster of timber-framed fachwerkhäuser in the steep cobbled streets in the lee of the castle at the top of the Aldstadt. The shops around it sell antiques, antiquarian books and, one, garden gnomes in bondage gear, as if gnomes were not creepy enough already.

There is evidently more to Nuremberg, behind the lace curtains, than gingerbread and wooden toys.

I found that again when I started walking round the old city walls and came to a sign which purported to bar the way to under-eighteens. I was puzzled, at first; but beyond it, the windows were framed with red tube lights and the street was busy with furtive middle-aged men.

More tourists appeared in the Hauptmarkt in the quarter of an hour leading up to twelve and assembled on the cobbles in front of the Frauenkirche to watch the mechanical clock. On the hour, a bell tinged, drummers mimed drumming, trumpeters jerked up their arms, and miniature electors rotated around a miniature Holy Roman Emperor.

“Oh!”said the crowd in half a dozen languages,“… Is that it?”

© Richard Senior 2015

Modern Moscow: Red Stars and Three-Pointed Stars

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Moscow, in the popular imagination, is much as Tolstoy described it in 1881:

Stench, stones, luxury, poverty. Dissipation. A collection of robbers who have plundered the people and conscripted soldiers and judges to guard their orgies while they feast.”

In this imaginary Moscow, Red Square, the Kremlin and St Basil’s are adrift in a sea of sodden tower blocks; vodka-sozzled men are slumped in every doorway and ferret-faced youths skulk in the shadows with flick-knives, and hookers work the bars where Armani-suited ‘businessmen’ drink Champagne by the gallon while their chauffeurs keep the limos running outside.

I ought to have travelled enough, now, to know that the world is rarely as we imagine it to be. Yet Moscow still surprised.

I expected crumbling stucco, peeling paint, broken pavements and potholed roads, but that was still the Moscow of the imagination. The real Moscow was clean, well-maintained and freshly-painted. Not just in Red Square and the streets around it, as you might expect, but out to the Garden Ring and beyond.

The skyline was not the monotony of brutal concrete we are often invited to picture, but an exuberant mix of styles and periods, from the ice cream cones of St Basil’s, the towers, the spires and the domes of the Kremlin, through Tsarist-era mansions, theatres and department stores, through Stalin’s landmark Seven Sisters, modelled in part on and resembling New York’s early skyscrapers, to the smooth curves and sharp angles of corporate towers in the commercial district, like a pastiche of Hong Kong Central.

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There is no truth in the idea that the handful of big sights are all that is left of the heritage. There are cathedrals and palaces and shops and apartment blocks built under the Tsars in Neoclassical, Art Nouveau, Eclectic and Russian Revival styles, and redbrick factories built when factories were built to make a statement, and the monumental buildings which Stalin commissioned to feed his vanity. There are unexpectedly few modern buildings and no real carbuncles, at least not until you get out to the peripheries with the scrapyards and big hammer industries.

I thought that all trace of the communist era would, by now, have been carefully erased, much in the Stalinist tradition. But modern Moscow has worked round its Soviet heritage, creating juxtapositions like a frieze of Lenin on the wall of the Valentino store and an advertising hoarding for Porsche under a Socialist-Realist mosaic. Stars and wheatsheaves and hammers and sickles are everywhere, worked into railings around public parks, embossed on doors and carved into the stonework of public buildings. There are still Romanov eagles, as well.

The Yeltsin era stereotypes are outdated now. Sure, I heard Ferraris snarling through the streets, but not as often as in Zurich; and I saw homeless guys sitting by ATM’s, but no more than in London. Moscow is no longer, to the extent it ever was, just the super-rich and the desperately poor with nothing much in between.

Modern Moscow seems overwhelmingly middle-class: a city of mid-range BMW’s and Mercedes, of diffusion-line Armani and entry-level Tag Heuers, of picnics in Gorky Park with a nice bottle of wine from the food hall in GUM, of weekends browsing the New Tretyakov Gallery and contemporary art in the old Red October chocolate factory.

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Moscow, without doubt, is a cultured city; it is chock-full of galleries and theatres. Everyone has heard of the Bolshoi and the Maly – the Big and the Small – but there is also the Moscow Art, Lenkova, Mayakovska, Satire, Pushkin, Mossovet, Satiricon, Variety, Russian Army, Kolobov Novaya, Taganka, Romeni, Sovremennik and Yermolova. There were half a dozen theatres within a block of the rooms I stayed in near the Garden Ring.

Despite all the hysterical pieces I have read about violent crime, Moscow felt as safe to me as any European city, much safer than big cities in the US.

This, of course, is a visitor’s perspective. It is in no way meant to downplay the very real problems in this autocratic state. But still, after the first day there, I began to doubt whether the people back home who talk loudly and confidently about Moscow have actually been within five hundred miles of it.

© Richard Senior 2015

Rīga, You’re Lovely, but Please Let Me Sleep!

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A breeze blew off the Daugova River and tempered the munificent sun. Trams howled and clanked along the boulevards which frame Old Rīga. Cobbled lanes converged in squares with verdigrised spires, turrets and towers, gargoyles, grotesques and columns.

The sun brought out the Beautiful People. They strolled in the squares, ducked into shops and draped themselves over chairs at tables under awnings, accessorising with cigarettes and espressos; they sprawled and frolicked in Batejkalna Park across the boulevard at the edge of the old town.

It is a pleasant park on a sunny day with its sloping lawns and meandering paths and cast iron standard lamps. The Pilsētas Kanāls divides the park into two and hands out half each to the Old Rīga and Centrs neighbourhoods. A pretty wooden launch from 1907 chugs tourists along the canal. It chugs under bridges, past a fountain, through a tunnel, alongside the Central Market, then chugs out onto the river under the railway bridge and the road bridge and back through the marina, past moored yachts, and round again to the canal.

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The market was the biggest in Europe, once. Its buildings were made from old Zeppelin hangers. The stalls spill out into the surrounding streets and occupy several blocks. You can buy a whole salmon, a big sack of cat litter and a Soviet air force uniform, if they all happen to be on your shopping list.

Centrs is quieter than Old Rīga but just as beguiling. It has more Art Nouveau facades than you will see in one place anywhere else in the world, and they are as exuberant as anything but Gaudí’s Modernista buildings. Mikhail Eisenstein, father of Sergei, the Battleship Potemkin director, designed some of the more arresting, with eagles, sphinxes, lion’s heads, keyhole-shaped windows, and human faces with gaping mouths and expressions which suggest they have just seen the architect’s bill.

I had a room in the top of a townhouse right in the middle of Old Rīga. It was just a mattress on the floor of a room little bigger, but I was happy enough with that. Or at least I was until I tried to sleep and found out how good the sound system was on the late bar round the corner. Earplugs just muted the higher frequencies and seemed to trap the bass in my skull.

I got up and got dressed and went out in the end. It was a warm night and I walked round Old Rīga, then sat a table at a bar in the square and saw off a couple of beers. The music had stopped by the time I got back and I slept then, finally, for a few hours until the other guests began to get up. Whenever the heavy front door slammed shut, as it always did, it shook the whole fabric of the building; two people walking down the corridor was like a surprise attack by a battalion.

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The next night was the same, except that people moved into the room next door a couple of hours after the music stopped and the walls were so thin that their conversation was as clear as if they had been sitting on the edge of the bed.

I logged, fuzzy-headed, onto a booking site and paid a lot more than I normally would for a nice hotel overlooking Batejkalna Park. It was a lovely room and, on a normal Saturday, it would doubtless have been as peaceful as I had hoped; but that Saturday was the Rīga Festival and right across the street there was a 24-hour basketball marathon with booming commentary and amped-up EDM.

Fine, then, I thought, perhaps I will sleep when I get to Estonia.

© Richard Senior 2015

On Nevsky Prospekt

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“There is nothing finer than Nevsky Prospekt, at least not in Petersburg; for there it is everything. And, indeed, is there anything more gay, more brilliant, more resplendent than this beautiful street of our capital?” Nikolai Gogol, Nevsky Prospekt

There were once wooden blocks set into the cobbles to muffle the sound of carriages. Nevsky Prospekt, they reckoned, was the quietest high street in Europe. Not now. Ducatis howl, Porsches snarl, and a pair of rally cars crackle and pop as they tailchase towards the Neva. Smoky old Ladas keep up as well as they can.

The crowds spill out of the five Metro stations along its length and stroll across the series of bridges which span the canals while skaters and bladers weave between them and leafleters step out, proffering flyers for bars and restaurants and ‘gentlemen’s clubs’.

There are hot dog carts and ice cream carts every few hundred yards along the pavement. Tour reps stand ready with maps and tickets and credit card readers, and sightseeing boats chug along the canals which bisect the street; the commentary echoes under bridges.

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It is a four-and-a-half kilometre slice out of Russian history. Mussorgsky lived at No 13. He met at Balakirev’s apartment at No 84 with Tchaikovsky, Borodin and Rimsky-Korsakov. Shostakovich gave his first public performance at No 52; Anton Rubinstein gave his at No 30. Tolstoy lived at 147. Pushkin dropped into the cafe at No 18 on his way to the last duel of his life. Dostoevsky edited The Citizen magazine at No 77. Nadya Krupskaya lived at 97; her fiancé, the barrister’s assistant, Vladimir Ulyanov lived at 83. He got involved in radical politics in his spare time and, like Dostoevsky, was arrested for it and sent to Siberia. He returned, under the assumed name of Lenin.

Neither the Soviets, who renamed the city Leningrad, nor the Nazis, who laid siege to it for over two years, changed much about Nevsky Prospekt. Some buildings were wrecked in the War, but rebuilt – if not as they were, then at least sympathetically with the rest of the street. ‘School No 210’ was built in 1939 and is as austere as its name suggests, but it is the only Soviet building on the main strip. There remains a painted sign on the wall from the days of the siege, which reads:

“Citizens! This side of the street is more dangerous during artillery bombardment.”

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The facades of Nevsky Prospekt are still, by and large, what they were when Lenin returned in triumph to Finlyandsky Station. Some date from the time of Catherine the Great, most from before Nicholas II.

The morning air is no longer “filled with the smell of hot, freshly baked bread” as it was in Gogol’s time. Chronic shortages at the bread shops on Nevsky Prospekt sparked the riots which set off the revolution which swept away the Tsar. The bread shops would disappear, as well; and the silversmiths, the perfumiers, the French confectioners and English merchants and the civil servants who parade through the pages of Dostoevsky and Gogol.

But, when communism fell, the banks, the insurers, the luxury shops and the five-star hotels came back to this Russian Champs-Élysées. Макдоналдс, Бургер Кинг and Старбакc кофе came with them: two burger joints and a coffee shop, whose world-famous logos help decipher the Cyrillic script. Sberbank remains; so does Intourist, once the state travel agency, staffed by KGB agents, now in joint venture with Thomas Cook.

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The Art Nouveau landmark, Dom Knigi, offices of the Singer Company in Tsarist times, is still the city’s largest bookstore, as it has been since Lenin’s first years of power. Tourists flock in and go upstairs to sit in Café Singer. They cross the road to see Kazan Cathedral, modelled on St Peter’s Basilica; and stroll round the corner, along the canal, to the onion-domed exuberance of the Church on the Spilled Blood – built on the spot where a Tsar was shot dead.

Back on Nevsky, they walk a block to the west to the pink-painted excess of the Stroganoff Palace, where beef stroganoff was supposedly invented, and on, then, to the top of the street with the gleaming spire of the Admiralty building directly ahead and, to the right, the most opulent of St Petersburg’s opulent buildings, the Tsar’s Winter Palace.

They might cross the Neva to Vasilyevsky Island or head north to Mars Field and the Summer Gardens or south to St Isaac’s Cathedral, but they will, without doubt, end up back on Nevsky Prospekt.

© Richard Senior 2015

They Do Things Differently in Helsinki

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Whole sides of salmon sizzle on the grill at a stall in the marketplace down by the harbour. There are stalls with baskets of lingonberries, bilberries, cloudberries and cranberries under brightly-coloured awnings. There is reindeer meat and handicrafts from Lapland and fur hats for epic winters.

The sun sparkles on the waves in the harbour where a woman sells freshly-caught fish from her boat and a full-rigged sailing ship rocks at its moorings and a deckhand monkeys up the mast and guffawing young men putter off in a motorboat and the Soumenlinna ferry backs out of its berth and a yacht glides in with its staysail pregnant with wind.

Old Detroit cars throb down the North Esplanade past the rattling trams. It is rare to see them in Europe, at least in any number, but they do things differently in Helsinki.

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Senate Square, a block from the harbour, was supposedly modelled on St Petersburg, by a German architect, in the familiar neo-classical style. Yet its confident simplicity seems quintessentially Finnish.

Helsinki’s architects have drawn from established international schools, but interpreted them in their own way. Bold statements are rare. Helsinki is not Riga, nor Barcelona. But clean lines, smooth curves and clever details are commonplace. Everything, moreover, seems harmonious, as if the city had been planned all at once instead of evolving over two centuries.

The ethos extends beyond architecture. Design is to Helsinki what fashion is to Milan. The design district, spread over twenty-five streets north and west of the harbour, has something like 200 shops selling deceptively simple, often revolutionary, furniture, homeware, lighting and glass.

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On almost any street, you can find a store selling chairs so radical and yet so practical, it is as if centuries of chair designers have been going about it all wrong. You can find gastropubs selling craft beers and salmon and harissa burgers with pimientón-dusted fries, and restaurants with cool white walls and blonde wood tables and sautéed reindeer with lingonberries on the menu. Yet you can walk several blocks before you find an ATM. They do things differently in Helsinki.

Wherever you are in the city, you are never more than a few blocks from a park. They are not so much ring-fenced from urban development as blended seamlessly into it. You can cycle round the headland, stroll along the water’s edge watching the paddle-boarders, use the outdoor gyms, or sit with a picnic and gaze at whimsical sculptures. There are public saunas dotted about the centre and even the cheapest hotels, even backpacker hostels, have their own; many Finns have them at home.

Across the bridge from the city centre, past the iconic Hakaniemi Market Hall, the traditionally working-class Kallio district is now full of character cafes, organic food shops and hipsters. The boys wear Breton jerseys and Romanov beards, the girls vintage dresses and brogues; everyone wears hats and tatts. There was a guy swanking round in jackboots and an officer’s cap worn at an unmilitary angle, and another in the trousers and waistcoat of a three-piece suit and nothing underneath but tattoos.

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They do things differently in Helsinki, the capital of the nation which gave us the jollity of Sibelius and the irritating Nokia Tune, and Angry Birds and the Egg chair, a historically progressive state which had universal suffrage before anyone else but New Zealand, and which – in the Nordic social democratic tradition – built a comprehensive welfare state in parallel with a robust economy and one of the highest per capita incomes in the world.

Some say that it is the most liveable city in the world. I saw no reason to disagree with them.

© Richard Senior 2015

The Breakaway Republic of Užupis

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Užupis was the bohemian quarter of Vilnius, until 1997 when it declared itself an independent republic.

It was a peaceful secession, unlike Lithuania’s from the Soviet Union. No tanks rolled over the bridges across the Vilnia River. Lithuanian troops never engaged the 12-man Užupian army. The authorities did not tear down the Užupian flag (a hand with a hole in it against a background whose colour changes with the seasons). They stood by as the self-declared president appointed a council of ministers, and the new government erected signs either side of what it claimed as the international border.

But neither Lithuania nor anyone else recognised the breakaway state.

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Užupis still has the broken-brick, rotten-wood, flaking-paint post-Soviet shabbiness which has mostly been gentrified out of the Baltic states, now; but there is a cheerful, arty atmosphere amid the dilapidation. The hipsters who drink at the fashionable bars coexist happily with the marginal types who squat in the crumbling apartments. Artist and Drunkard are popular occupations.

There are no multinationals here; not even Subway, KFC, Costa and Tesco, which all must have outlets on the moon. The businesses there are, a convenience store, a dentist, a café, and several bars, restaurants and galleries, are local concerns. Most have Užupis, or some derivation, in their company name; many fly the national flag.

On one wall on a side road just off the main street, there are stainless steel boards engraved with the constitution in 23 languages. It is unlike any other constitution.

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The world would surely be a nicer place if all governments acknowledged that “Everyone has the right to love,” “Everyone has the right to be happy” and “Everyone has the right not to be afraid”. The idea would, of course, enrage the icy-hearted misanthropes who write for the tabloids. That is reason alone to promote it.

All constitutions should recognise that “Everyone has the right to love and take care of a cat” and, correspondingly, that “A cat is not obliged to love its master, but it must help him in difficult times”. Likewise that “Everyone has the right to look after a dog till one or the other dies” and that “A dog has the right to be a dog”.

Yet it is not all so enlightened. “Everyone shall remember his name” could lead to grave injustice, particularly on a Saturday night.

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For 364 days of the year, the borders with Lithuania are as open as any in Europe, outside countries like Bosnia, Belarus and Britain. But once a year, the authorities post guards on the bridges to check and stamp passports.

It is done symbolically to mark Independence Day, which falls on the 1st of April: a clear indication – if any were needed – that the founding fathers were not so much fired by patriotic zeal as kind of taking the piss.

© Richard Senior 2015

When the ‘Hotel’ Was…Something Else

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There was no sign for the hotel on the frontage, just a flashing neon sign which read “24 Hr Spa”. In case that was too subtle, a smaller sign read “men only” and – lest anyone still not get it – pulsating red lights traced the outline of the silhouette of a woman on the door.

I looked again at the email from the booking site, thinking that I had made a mistake, but the street number was right. I looked again at the frontage and this time spotted the word ‘hotel’ – отель – on one of the top-storey windows.

I was stopped at the door by a thick-set, close-cropped man who growled something in threatening Russian.

“Err…hotel?”

“Ugh. Hotel on fourth floor.”

It was an old, tall St Petersburg town house with a stone staircase which spiralled up the middle of the building and originally led off to apartments. On the landing of the second floor, there was a life-size cardboard cut-out of a smiling girl holding a sign which offered massages to men on the fourth floor. The fourth? On the third, there was more flashing neon, an arrow and the words “erotic massages for men” in English then Russian then English again. On the fourth, the signs pointed right to a spa and left to a hotel.

I turned left with misgivings, because the name was different from the one I booked and because I have never seen a hotel with a row of girls sitting in a corridor instead of a reception desk. But it was the wrong place anyway. They sent me across the landing to the spa, where there was a girl behind a bit of a desk in a bit of a dress and heels so high she probably had to have lessons in them.

Reach-ad?” she said.

Richard, yeah.”

A girl slinked down the stairs and loitered there until the ‘receptionist’ sent her away.

This is the hotel?”

“Da,” she said, as if it had not been a stupid question. “This is hotel. I show you room. ”

I followed as she clattered down the corridor past empty rooms with open doors and little inside except king-sized beds. There was one of those in my room, and a table, a kettle, an en suite and air con which, all in all, is a lot more than I am used to these days. Did it really matter, I reflected, if it was a knocking shop on the side, or perhaps more to the point a knocking shop which was a hotel on the side? In any case there was not a lot I could do about it now, except waste money on another hotel and waste time looking for it. So long as the extras were not compulsory.

The location was good, the room was comfortable; and the doorbell chimed throughout the night and the girls walked on the wooden floors in their heels and doors opened and shut and there was noisy braggadocio, hiding nerves, from the clients in reception, but earplugs shut all that out.

Then, on the last night, I was woken at five by hammering at my door and opened it to a burly drunk in late middle age and a vest. I guessed he had got the wrong room, but I slammed the door in his face and locked it again before he could state his business.

And people imagine travel to be glamorous.

© Richard Senior 2015

Image: Massimo Catarinella (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons