Moscow Takes You Back in the USSR

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Bucket List Worthy  

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Red Square is the centerpiece of Moscow with the Kremlin and Lenin’s tomb. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

From May 6 to 22, the 2016 IIHF World Championship will attract international hockey fans to Moscow. The capital of Russia, co-hosting this year with St. Petersburg, last had the annual showcase of the world’s top 16 hockey nations in 2007. Let’s take a look back at what the vibe was like then in Moscow – inside and outside the rink – in this article originally published nine years ago.

The availability of McDonald’s hamburgers and Madonna’s music has made Moscow more welcoming to comfort-craving North Americans, but when I visited the city in April and May to cover the 2007 IIHF World Hockey Championship, I wanted to find out what traces of the old Soviet empire and its heavy-handed collectivist mentality linger.

I couldn’t have started my quest in a more inappropriate place than the Korston Hotel, where I stayed for nearly three weeks. It was radically different from the now-demolished Rossiya Hotel, a 3,200-room Brezhnev-era monstrosity off Red Square that housed me on my 2003 trip to Moscow, and the 1985 incarnation of the Grand Hotel Europe in Leningrad (now St. Petersburg), where bathroom taps came off and change at the gift shop was dispensed in the form of Danish chewing gum on my first visit.

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The Korston Hotel in Moscow is easily identifiable with its colourful neon facade. Photo: Korston Hotel

The four-star Korston sits near the Sparrow Hills in southwest Moscow, within eyeshot of such Soviet landmarks as Moscow State University, the tallest of the city’s seven Stalinist “wedding cake” buildings, and a huge steel statue of cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin. It sports a massive neon facade that would do Las Vegas proud. Guests pass through metal detectors every time they enter, presumably to deter feuding mafiosi. The lavish breakfast buffet offers everything from chocolate cake to fresh kiwi fruit, and the sprawling, smoky casino contains almost as many suggestively clad hookers as slot machines, not to mention a pricey strip club called 911.

Though the Korston embodies the decadent side of modern Russia, some old-school bureaucratic tendencies are as entrenched as Lenin’s tomb. For instance, buying a postcard at a US$300-a-night hotel sounds simple. But when I tried to do it, two middle-aged women mysteriously shooed me away from their newsstand, even though it was supposed to be open. A blond clerk at the front desk responded to my inquiry with “Room number?” and then called a bellhop, who ran off and then returned to tell me I’d need to visit a nearby (but hard-to-find) bookstore.

Another time, I hit a basement karaoke bar with colleagues. The absence of clearly marked prices should have warned me. After singing for two hours, we were slapped with a bill for 3,600 rubles ($150), which led to an argument and the summoning of hotel security. Eventually we settled on a still-ludicrous 2,600 rubles ($110). Suffice it to say that although 2.5 million tourists come to Moscow each year, the barriers often seem as daunting as they were in Communist days.

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Host Russia lost in overtime to Finland in the 2007 World Championship semi-finals. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

I spent countless hours at the brand-new 14,000-seat Khodynka Arena, writing about the Russian national hockey team’s attempt to win its first gold medal since 1993. It ended in disappointment for them when Finland ousted the host country in the semifinals. However, the Russian anthem was played eight times after tournament victories, and evidently I wasn’t alone in not knowing the words. Russia ditched the triumphant martial melody of the Soviet anthem in 1991, but readopted the old tune with new lyrics in 2000. Those lyrics were flashed on the Khodynka Jumbotron to help the crowd avoid singing phrases like “the mighty Soviet Union.” (Note: in 2016, World Championship games will take place in Moscow at the 2015-built VTB Ice Palace.)

Some old habits take extra effort to break. On November 7, for instance, the 90th anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution that vaulted Vladimir Lenin into power will not be commemorated. That date remained a national holiday until 2005, when the Russian government replaced it with Unity Day (November 4), marking the 1612 liberation of Moscow from Polish-Lithuanian armies. Most observers feel the change was meant to create more distance between contemporary Russia and the shadows of its Communist past.

The country’s contradictions are fascinating. Former Russian president Boris Yeltsin, who died on April 23, 2007 at age 76, vocally opposed bringing back the Soviet anthem’s melody. Is he spinning in his grave? I visited his burial place to check. Although Mikhail Gorbachev’s successor saw his approval ratings plummet during the ‘90s due to the floundering economy and the war in Chechnya, he seems more popular in death than in life. Close to 20 huge wreathes sat behind Yeltsin’s flower-strewn grave in Novodevichy Cemetery, not far from Nikita Khrushchev’s, and tourists and Russian sailors clustered to take photos.

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The VDNKh exhibition grounds are a popular getaway for Muscovites on sunny days. Photo: Michael Kauffmann.

Other photo opportunities abounded at VDNKh, the former Exhibition of Economic Achievements established in 1939 in northeast Moscow. Now an amusement park, it’s an ideal place to surround yourself with the still-beloved remnants of the “radiant future.” To find my way around, I’d brought a 1979 travel guide by Progress Publishers from home. Little has changed with the statues, fountains, and grandiose pavilions, but nowadays, you can have your picture taken with a costumed Shrek character next to a Lenin statue. “LINKIN PARK 4 EVER” is spray-painted at the base of a Soviet space rocket. The old Radio-Electronics Pavilion has been converted into shops hawking western irons, TVs, and digital cameras.

It wasn’t dining cafeteria-style on beet salad and kvass (a fermented beverage) at Zhiguli, the USSR–nostalgia restaurant on the Novy Arbat, or viewing the famous socialist ceiling murals at the Mayakovskaya metro station that showed me most clearly why Russia remains tied to the Soviet legacy.

May 9 was Victory Day, commemorating the 1945 defeat of Nazi Germany in World War II. Every Russian TV channel ran coverage of the ceremonies in Red Square that morning. Two days later, I was chatting with a 25-year-old Russian PR woman at a party hyping her country’s bid to host the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi. We abruptly went from discussing the contents of her iPod to her asking emotionally: “Did you know the Soviet Union lost 20 million lives in the war?” Her great-uncle, a war veteran, had recently died at age 85, and she missed spending Victory Day with him.

That slice of Soviet history was more vivid to this young woman than Remembrance Day is to most Canadians over 40, let alone to those in their 20s.

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About the Author: Lucas Aykroyd

Lucas Aykroyd is an award-winning Vancouver travel writer and public speaker. His work has appeared in the New York Times, the Washington Post, and National Geographic Traveler. To engage his services, visitlucasaykroyd.com.

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