i've been to moscow three times in the last month or so working on a new project, and when i'm here i've been working late night after night, so i've had no energy for blogging. there were no photographs because the work laptop i was carrying, being windows :P was very heavy and i didn't have strength or space to lug my big SLR around as well. so this trip i bought a nikon coolpix s700 to stick in my pocket. it doesn't do a bad job, although i miss the wider angle on my SLR lens - struggling to get the whole church in across the street when i could have easily made it with the SLR - also a factor when shooting videoout the taxi window, although the quality is much higher than my phone - something which isn't apparent in the compressed versions on youtube. [the other challenge of shooting video in moscow is that one is either bouncing along at 50mph or at a complete standstill for ten minutes at a time in a traffic jam between trucks.]
when in moscow one always has to work at a thousand miles an hour, because of the limited trip duration, so i tend to crash mentally and physically when i get home. but it's not all slog though - here's a glamorous moment in the city space bar [stills here]
the view wasn't as good as it could have been, because it was snowing. bar manager bek narzibekov, seen putting the finishing touches to a cocktail and explaining it to the customers, is now recovering after being poisoned, probably by a business rival. the young guy who grins at the camera is my work colleague dimitry, who knew bek when he was one of london's top bartenders/managers.
the photographic story that emerged this time was mostly about capitalist neon. in the same vein, the golden apple 'boutique hotel' where we stayed is rather pretentious - check the zip-and-thong curtains in my room!
the first is a 15-minute journey from the apartment into central moscow on tuesday evening to view the new office behind the TASS building - you'll recognise where i took photographs. the route takes us across the river, past the kremlin, down novy arbat and the casinos from the january movie, and through 18th and 19th century streets past churches and mansions. the beginning is a little frustrating, we got stuck in traffic on the bridge - it's hard to keep a video interesting when stuck in traffic, but i didn't want to break it. the taxi radio soundtrack makes up for it. taxi radio is so much part of the distinctive atmosphere of a city, for travellers - the local sound.
the second video is part of the journey to the airport through the suburbs. you'll recognise some of the places i took photos in march. i made the mistake of having a window open - the phone picks up the rumble of wind rather than the radio. it's strange that the human ear works the other way round - we hear the music and not the wind. is this how the ear works or is it how the brain processes? the wind rumble spoiled another video clip, in which the taxi radio played 'boogie wonderland' as we drove past the statue of lenin. it's almost worth restaging.
by the way i've kept the videos small because they look better sharper. enlarging them seems to lose more than it gains.
the sunshine, the greenery and the long hours of daylight make moscow a much nicer place in summer. moscow has a severe hotel shortage, the prices are exorbitant whenever something is happening in town [and there is always something happening], so we rented an apartment just south of the centre, overlooking ploshchad gagarini and about fifteen minutes drive from federation tower. it worked out very well, there was nothing you wouldn't have in a hotel apart from the absence of towels. the apartment was very hot, but the traffic noise was so great that you couldn't sleep with the windows open. great view though.
the problem of these trips is always the lack of sleep. we arrived mid-evening [having left london at lunchtime, due to the time difference]. by the time we had settled into the apartment and waited for our moscow business partner to show up it was past midnight. by the time we had eaten it was 1.30am and our partner was trying to persuade us to meet up with other business contacts. we dissuaded him with considerable difficulty, but for some reason he then wanted to walk back to the apartment, which took until 2.30am. and we had to be up at 7.30am for meetings starting at 9am! the problem is, we do two types of business when we're in russia - the kind that happens in meetings in offices at 9am, and the kind that happens in restaurants at 1am. they have incompatible timescales.
being professionals, we made it to the 9am start - and found that our items had been removed from the agenda for the day. it seems that the basebuild people running these meetings had failed to communicate with our people that the agenda had changed last week. so my trip was largely in vain since my colleagues could handle the rest of our business. we observed the meeting for as long as seemed courteous, until it became clear that we were wasting our time and left to pursue other matters.
but the evening was pleasant. we visited our partner's new offices at the back of the TASS building, went to a little soviet-era bar for a drink, then wandered through the nicer parts of town looking for somewhere to eat. somehow this took longer than it should and again we were eating at 1am in a swanky italian restaurant, waiting for a real estate contact to turn up. so four hours sleep again.
by contrast the next day we went for lunch at the soviet-style canteen next to the moscow city site. the photos don't capture the dingyness, the synthetic-ness, the unappetising smells, the glutinous stew. it was hilarious. 1960s school dinners. the drink looked like it had something decomposing in it, but it turned out to be dried fruit. the flypaper over the servery would get the place closed down anywhere else. it was cheap - about £2.50 for the meal. the turquoise trays destroy the appearance of any food - wonder where we can get them for the new building? ;) more seriously, this is the russian lunch culture - all sit down together for a cooked meal on a tray - which causes us problems in federation tower as there isn't the room to seat everyone at once. they don't go out for sandwiches or eat at their desks. this will be difficult to solve.
and then we went up to levels 57 and 58 - notionally to see the VTB signs, but we were mostly interested in the views. the contractor's lift that crawls up a track hanging off the face of the building is a little scary - ten floors is fine, when you're 50 floors up with nothing around you and 10 to go you are trying not to think about what happens if those little motors and cogs fail.
and then i headed for the airport to get the 9pm flight. all went well until heathrow. a gas leak had closed a runway earlier, and now a lot of flights were coming down at once. we were 20 minutes late landing. then we had to wait on the plane half an hour because there weren't enough staff to connect a gangway to the plane! then we had to wait three hours for our baggage - 1am in the baggage hall at terminal 1, stifling heat, crowds of angry people, three staff and no announcements - seemed like a complete failure of management. i had been up since 7.30am moscow time, so it was 4am by my body clock [after two nights of four hours sleep]. my luggage arrived just as i was thinking about going home without it and coming back the next day. i got home at 2.30am. i emailed the office to say i was sleeping in.
this time we did the airport run in daylight, so you get to see the concrete jungle that is the moscow 'suburbs'. brutalism in moscow is bigger and more brutal than anywhere else. it's worth looking at the photos in large size to feel the scale and see the lack of build quality.
there were the usual surreal moments:
the property agent showing off the leather interior, sound sytem and acceleration of his new porsche cayenne - we hurtle through central moscow to the sound of sinatra singing 'new york, new york'
bouncing through the neon streets crammed into the back of a 'gypsy cab' - in this case an ancient lada with a weathered armenian driver. the roof is lined with leopardskin wallpaper, spotted with pictures of tiger heads. i tried to take a picture on my phone but there isn't really enough light. my good camera is inaccessible - and i don't want to use flash in the confined space.
we are on the way to the airport, rather late because of the traffic. we'll be there in ten minutes so i have put my camera away. suddenly the traffic stops on both sides of the freeway - it looks like an accident. a couple of guys run by with guns. drivers get out of their cars to look [and smoke]. we curse, expecting to miss our flights. a police car comes along the hard shoulder, misjudges and falls into the ditch. it's at 45 degrees and won't be got out in a hurry. suddenly it's over and the traffic starts moving. what happened, we ask our driver. just gangsters shooting at each other on the road, he says.
the serious side of this trip was exhausting. four consecutive meetings on thursday, all important and difficult. two in a day would be plenty, four is too much. 9.30am to 7.30pm, half an hour for lunch. i have to concentrate hard all through, because everything is being translated and it's important to keep track of who is saying what and how they're saying it [many people are speaking but there's only one translator]. there's far too little to eat and [especially] drink, and add jetlag. i've not yet recovered after a weekend at home.
but it wasn't decided until the end of friday afternoon. having told us for weeks why they couldn't arrange a certain meeting in time, somebody decided at friday lunchtime to attempt to arrange it for tuesday. whereupon i pointed out to them that they had until close of business london time [and it's already three hours later in moscow], or i would not be able to get plane tickets and accommodation to fly out on monday morning. and so it proved.
but it suits me better not to go next week. i'm curating the next grace, and the next gracelet, and trying to recover from being ill.
tired after working later than i'd like to tonight. half the team are off sick and there's loads to be done for the presentations in moscow next week. it's a vicious circle: people are ill because they overworked, so there are too few people and everyone is overworked.
but refining a design can take an unavoidably long time. there are two aspects. first, one sees that something is not working overall, and one sees the general solution. but there is always some corner that will not fit easily into the new shapes. so then the painstaking marquetry begins, turning things this way and that, the pipe that cannot be moved but is in the wrong place, the basins too near the door, 100mm here and there, the awkward corridor. it's like doing a jigsaw puzzle - one can see that there is a solution somewhere, but getting it will be a precise matter. it works or it doesn't work. and the client will immediately pick up anything that isn't convincing. so you work on.
it's not clear whether i myself will be going to moscow next week. the meeting i was to attend seems unlikely to be arranged in time. there have been a lot of emails back and forth today about this.
moscow is perhaps the most disturbing and fascinating place i've ever been. how to describe it? a grey, brutal concrete environment, decaying and polluted - such is the legacy of communism - ruthlessly defaced by hypercapitalist neon and giant billboards. science fiction is the obvious reference point - blade runner without the design restraint. plasma screens pump out insane imagery, billboards cover entire buildings. to speak of 'bad taste' implies that some notion of good taste is available. the colours and shapes of the neon, the randomized ahistorical mishmash of the architecture are simply from another planet. the cyrillic alphabet, similar yet unreadable, adds to the science fiction effect. it feels as if it were a parallel future - or a foretaste of the real future for us all in an ecologically wrecked world.
the shock is moral as well as aesthetic. i'm not about to defend soviet communism, but somewhere in there was an ideal about equality and a society not based on consumption. and in moscow consumerism has raped the corpse of that ideal and sits gloating upon it. the pretty bits of moscow barely hold their own - above the kremlin, a neon samsung logo three storeys high. imagine the same next to the white house, or buckingham palace, to get the idea. maybe in twenty or thirty years all this will be normalised, tidied up - but for now it's out of control. all one's inner pictures of the place from the cold war days are trampled.
my reaction, looking out from federation tower, was "this is hell" - but a vision of hell is as thrilling, in its way, as a vision of heaven. the suburbs, especially, are infernal. giant slab blocks, twenty or thirty storeys high and half a mile long, row upon row - nothing else, no little streets to soften the blow, only factories and power stations, the smoke from their burning going up for ever and ever. one suddenly sees why the glitzy fantasy of high-end consumerism is so appealing - in a place where aspiration is desperation not naff - but the five-storey picture of a diamond-encrusted watch on the derelict concrete tower only adds to the hellish quality.
nevertheless, red square is the only place i've ever had that naive tourist thrill that some get from big ben or the tower of london. i never expected to be there, where the bbc correspondent stands, where the old guys watched the tanks and missiles go past. for most of my life it was unattainable.
temperatures are barely freezing, and the snow that might make it all beautiful has not come this year. they put an antifreeze on the roads, which makes a grey sludge that gets on shoes and clothes. cars are completely covered in it, and few people clean any more than a few patches on the windows to see out of. apparently they wait for the spring rains to wash it away. so even the cars are grey. the traffic is appalling, and often gridlocked. when it moves, muscovites drive like maniacs, barging in and out of lanes. collisions are frequent, and since neither party is allowed to move their car until the police have arrived this only adds to the congestion.
my photos don't really capture the best/worst of the place. when i wasn't in a meeting or a restaurant i was in a taxi, trying to take pictures while bouncing along at 50mph. in any case moscow isn't a place to wander around with shiny consumer gadgets being a tourist. if the robbers don't get you the police might. the one time i walked back to the hotel on my own at night [the others had gone to a karaoke bar with a furniture salesman] i took this, but my phone camera is slow and i rushed it for fear of the people hanging about on the street. i then hurried down the underpass - the main roads are eight lanes and you must use the underpasses - walked through a door and came upon a guy being beaten up by security, while a group of frightened street people looked on. i was glad to make the hotel. if i want to photograph the place properly i'll have to have a local minder.
this video Download MOV00070.3GP
[1.3Mb, 1 minute 15 sec long] shows the neon overload - but the background is not vegas-style hotels but this. this one Download MOV00098.3GP
[11Mb, 11 minutes long] is a taxi ride from the centre to a suburb, in an old lada with a slightly crazy armenian driver. it ends on the same shot as this photo. the soundtracks are slightly surreal - amy winehouse on the first, the rolling stones on the second - but so is much of moscow.