As Jason Bourne hits 95kph on the M10 from Sheremetyevo Airport to Central Moscow, I’m on the back seat of his VW Passat wondering if I’ll reach my destination in one piece. This is stunt driving like I’ve never known in a city that already feels familiar. Under heavy skies, wide highways are fringed with tower blocks, toothstumps in the mouth of the Moscow suburbs, all the more prominent on this vast, flat terrain. This is cityscape on a scale hard to fathom, in spite of the taxi driver’s efforts to compress time and space as he swerves and weaves across lanes onto the M9, the main drag into town. Any faster and I’ll either be dead or by some process of divine will and magic, find myself back on the M8 and home in time for dinner.
Out of the blue, six weeks ago, I received an email from the Strelka Institute for Media, Architecture and Design in Moscow, inviting me to talk about The Devil’s Plantation. Not only is this unexpected, I couldn’t quite believe the offer was genuine. An exchange of emails soon confirmed it was. Strelka’s summer programme is based on the theme of cities and for reasons unclear, my work was identified as somehow relevant. How could I refuse?
Several weeks pass. Language and communication issues stall the process, leaving me baffled. Questions arise. What do they want from me? Who do they want me to talk to? What can I add to what is already available online, for free, at any time? If the work is to make any sense to a Russian audience, then a translation is needed. On this score, my attempts to solicit advice and support from the British Council (unhelpful), the Scottish Arts Council (unacknowledged) and the Russian Consulate in Edinburgh (unanswered) do not inspire confidence. In the same week the new chief of Creative Scotland, Andrew Dixon, proposes the export of Scottish culture as a priority, I’m on the verge of saying no and staying put.
Eventually I get some answers. The Strelka Institute is a new venture, based in what was previously the garage space of a pre-Soviet manufacturing base in Central Moscow which post-revolution was rebranded as the famous Red October Chocolate Factory. It appears one of their curators is aware of my previous work, hence the invite.
In 21st century Moscow, a city shapeshifting at taxi driver’s pace, Strelka’s aim is ambitious – to create awareness of and foster debate on how cities must change when existing models no longer work. With new developments springing up all over the city, Strelka’s inquiry into architectural aesthetics and its attempt to address alternative modes of urban living that puts people at the centre is both timely and laudable.
Whether such a dialogue can be created, let alone implemented in any meaningful way remains an open question. Perhaps the organisers should be inviting Moscow’s developers round for a cosy chat instead of yours truly.
Today Moscow’s population numbers over 10 million, whose inhabitants, not wishing to be glib, all seem to possess cars for want of a coherent public transport system. No wonder. Not when the average cost of unleaded fuel is roughly 50p per litre, compared to the UK’s current pump price of £1.15. And not, I suspect, with winters as hard and long as Moscow’s, winters beyond comparison to those in Blighty, where a few inches of snow threatens to disrupt civilisation, never mind the train timetables.
In the weeks leading up to my talk, however, I’m met with more confusion. There’s a suggestion that I screen the project before an audience in their outdoor arena – which they can’t, since as an online project it’s not designed for a big screen. The organisers then suggest a retrospective of my other films, which I nix as inappropriate and off topic. With Mercury in retrograde, in despair I decline, only to be met with a renewed appeal. My travel and accommodation needs will be met, and yes, I can bring along my partner, who helped design and who coded the site. But can we arrange visas through the Consulate in Edinburgh? Two trips later and at considerable expense, visas are glued into our passports, flights arranged, hotel booked and – fingers crossed – I’m on my way.
Having worked on my talk for over a week, I’m still unsure if I’m just imagining all of this. After an eleventh hour scramble, I work through the night before my departure, choosing images to illustrate my talk, uncertain of my target audience – ironic, since Strelka translated means ‘arrow’ or ‘little arrow’.
So here I am with Jason Bourne at the wheel, still flooring it, ducking and diving through traffic at breakneck speed, competing in the inner Moscow rally. Not in Los Angeles, not in New York, Berlin or Paris have I witnessed such traffic insanity so I take my hat off to Paul Greengrass and his crew. Approaching the city centre, as I try to grab frames in my head that match my long-conditioned perception of the city – Cold War, the era of the Iron Curtain, at the wheel, Jason Bourne, in broken English, offers only two pointers – the Moscow Dynamo Stadium and the notorious Lublianka.
Even at this pace, it still takes the best part of two hours in manic traffic – and jams – to reach my destination, the Aquamarine Hotel, situated south of the Moskva River, a part of town equivalent to say, London’s Southwark. The hotel – new, aspirational, of the type favoured by businessmen striking deals – is situated in a complex of homogenous corporate development not, I suspect, the model of urban construction favoured by my hosts.
By map, never forgetting Harry Bell’s mode of navigation, I walk with Owen to the venue shortly after arriving since I feel the need to announce myself prior to the event. Public transport beyond our reckoning, we go by foot, tentatively feeling our way down a set of offshoot roads leading towards the city’s core. On the map, inner Moscow is divided by circular water passages, mirroring its ring roads. The place I’m staying in is located in the Garden District, close to a canal.
On the way, the feel of the place – the buildings, the people – is not exactly exhilarating, but still uplifting, exotic even, in spite of illuminated signs for both Pizza Hut and McDonalds
Still, I’m glad to see kiosks, small shops and cafes operating. When the UK government denounces outdoor alcohol consumption, in Moscow I side with the people who see it as perfectly normal to pass round a bottle of voddy or down a couple of beers. In a city where a small glass of wine in an upmarket bar costs a tenner, who can blame them? As social intercourse goes, arguably the streets are preferable to being chained to a plasma screen. In the hotel, the only TV on offer, apart from pay-as-you-go porn, is the usual: CNN, Bloomberg and BBC World, a travesty of TV news reporting.
The current, irreversible laws in Western Europe regarding smoking and alcohol don’t yet apply here. Smoking is still permitted in certain indoor venues, with cheap fags imported directly from the US.
Opened only three weeks ago, The Strelka Institute sits on the Bersenevskaya embankment, a narrow road where cars nudge each other in both directions. Passing up a concrete slope, I enter a courtyard with a wooden amphitheatre facing a stage area, behind which is a yet-to-be-finished block designated as office space. As yet there’s no defined gallery but a couple of rooms function as lecture venues. The main attraction, however, is the bar which, judging by the prices, is aimed at a moneyed, upmarket clientele.
I deliver my talk on the evening of June 9th and despite the late slot, attract a reasonable audience, most of whom appear to have a good grasp of English, while a simultaneous translation is provided. Juggling my notes, I soon discard them, preferring spontaneity and direct eye contact, while pushing aside the dread realisation of how long it’s been since I last spoke in public.
By this point backing out is not an option, so I tell the story of Glasgow’s Secret Geometry, of Harry Bell and Mary Ross, of the city and its architecture, of murder and remanence and my own compulsion to solve the mystery. Are the Russians getting it, I wonder? At one point I raise a laugh by revealing how Glasgow stood in for Moscow in a film. By the end, I win a round of applause and note how the post-gig reaction is being recorded on camera. Later in the bar, I learn that attending lectures is currently a hip pastime among Muscovites – and much to my relief, those I spoke to said they enjoyed my tale.
At the end of the evening, Strelka’s Press Officer, the delightful Konstantin, leads us over the bridge spanning the river and passing the Church of Christ the Saviour, faithfully reconstructed after the end of Communism. Waving down a passing car and as is customary in Moscow, Konstantin strikes a deal with the driver to deliver us back to the hotel.
The following day is reserved for sightseeing. Fortunately the sun’s out as we – me, Owen and a fellow guest speaker, Dr Heyden Lorimer, Senior Lecturer at Glasgow University’s Department of Geographical and Earth Sciences, do our own drift in the city. Entering a church, we witness a service, complete with a trio of singers and a gold-robed Orthodox priest. Heading towards Red Square, St Basil’s and the Kremlin – must-sees on this briefest of visits – en route, at a small bridge, we witness a sight apparently common in Eastern Europe: a metal tree festooned in padlocks, signifying lover’s vows.
Later, Owen and I venture into GUM, Moscow’s legendary department store, under whose elegant arches upmarket concessions today replace what was once a vast, if poorly stocked shop, the butt of Western jokes during the Cold War. Moving on, we pass the Duma, noting how the trappings of Communism prevail – the old insignia still evident.
Today the flag of the Russian Federation is usually accompanied by the old Czarist crest of the double-headed eagle. The Red Flag, appropriated post-revolution, erased the Imperial emblem, replacing it with hammer and sickle. Twenty years on, the eagles have returned.
Later that afternoon, having reunited with Heyden, we enter The Most, a bar and restaurant situated close to the Bolshoi Ballet and owned by Strelka’s main benefactor. The interior, got up in the French Rococo manner, looks authentic enough, the service as exquisite as the deserts on offer but whose prices, I suspect, are unaffordable to the majority of Moscow’s citizens.
The following day, while walking in a more workaday district, I note a man sitting on the pavement. He is wearing army uniform, a small rucksack at his side, his face, the face of a young man completely traumatised, his stare blank. He has a cardboard sign, presumably a plea. It then dawns on me that in my brief exposure to Moscow, he is a rare sight, an active beggar. After walking 50 yards or so, I suddenly stop and, retracing my steps, I offer him money. He refuses, but I insist. Spasiba, spasiba – thank you – he replies.
The circle is complete. I recall my first trip to Glasgow in pursuit of Harry Bell’s theory when I encountered Chris, the ex-soldier I met outside Buchanan Street bus station, another abandoned soul who, having served his country, was left on the street, physically scarred and post-traumatic, dispossessed and lonely. No words can convey the anguish of these men, or the impotent rage I feel when confronted with the lies of governments that deem them so expendable.
The ride back to the airport is less exhilarating. Back in Glasgow, the following day I read a piece in The Guardian about the mayor of Moscow, Yuri Luzhkov, who by all accounts – mainly tales of corruption – is about to be deposed after 18 years, a story not dissimilar to that of our own recently departed Council Leader, Steven Purcell. It would seem the two cities have a lot in common. As the song goes, there’s no place like home – that is, apart from Moscow.
As a postscript, I note in today’s Herald a piece relating to another Russian story – the recent Red Road flats suicides and the difficulties faced by the relatives in having the remains repatriated. Words fail me.