Beneath the towering walls of the Kremlin, Marshal Zhukov sits on a great bronze horse, trampling a swastika. In front of his statue, on a sunny afternoon in June, sat a full-size Mickey Mouse, available to have his photo taken with adoring Russian toddlers. Next to the man in the mouse suit stood another cartoon character, soliciting passersby for photo ops.
“What is that next to Mickey?” asked a Russian friend of mine, as we observed the scene.
“It’s someone dressed up as a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle.”
“Ah. And please to tell me what is mutant turtle?”
How can one be expected to explain Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles to a middle-aged Russian woman?
“Let’s just say that its presence is proof that you definitively lost the Cold War.”
Moscow has changed a lot in the past 15 years. The Kremlin, of course, is still there, but then it’s been there for over 500 years. St. Basil’s Cathedral is still there as well, and a good thing it is, with its candy-colored cupolas piled all around. Many are surprised to discover that even Lenin is still there in his low red mausoleum, as well preserved as ever. (He can be visited every day except Monday and Friday, between 10 a.m. and 1 p.m.) However, there are many new additions to the capital as well.
One of the more interesting of these is Manezh Square. Many years ago, the small Neglinka River served as a kind of moat for the northern approaches to the Kremlin. (The much larger Moscva River constituted a natural defense on the other side.) In the early 19th century, the Neglinka River was driven underground, running through a decidedly unromantic pipe beneath the pavement. During Soviet times, the area above remained relatively undeveloped. In the early ‘90s, the popular mayor of Moscow, Yuri Luzhkov, decided to renovate the area. He uncovered part of the river and transformed it into a long, flowing fountain studded with bronze statues of Russia’s favorite fairy-tale heroes. He also built Moscow’s first modern shopping mall, complete with a food court serving all manner of junk, and he lined the newly uncovered river with a kind of promenade upon which one can find cafés and, in a final gasp of surrender, a McDonald’s. At the far end of the whole shebang, he erected a fountain featuring three horses, with a little circular walkway around half of it, over which spout streams of water, which are just unruly enough to get you seriously wet if you decide to walk underneath them.
This has become a mecca for the youth of Moscow. While the shopping center is already somewhat passé ever since the creation of newer, larger temples to consumerism, the long fountain that is the Neglinka, and the cafés and restaurants that line it (including the McDonald’s), serve as an evening meeting point for thousands. The majority of these seem to be between the ages of, roughly, 18 and 25. The men are accompanied by cans of beer and the women are accompanied by the men, who are doing the kinds of silly things that young drunk men do in an attempt to impress, or at least capture the attention of, young women. The young women seem to put up with this and even giggle from time to time, which spurs the men on to do even sillier things, such as wading out into the fountain to speak with a bronze Ilya Murometz, or some other fairy-tale figure.
It is an appealing fountain, this little stretch of the Neglinka River. The bottom is tiled with mosaics of fish, and groups of multicolored lights shine up through the water, giving the entire thing an otherworldly glow. The fairy-tale heroes strike interesting poses: crowned frogs affront witches, bears battle wolves, swans rise from the depths. If one can ignore the drunk Russian males wading among them, they make a very pretty tableau.
Little marble staircases lead down to the water’s edge, and the fountain itself is spanned by white bridges, leading over to the cafés. On the other side is a wooded park, between the fountain and the walls of the Kremlin. Between the trees are expanses of grass, upon which couples sit or lie in various stages of relationship-building, ranging from stilted conversation to sucking on each other’s tongues. Either way, cans of beer are nearby.
At the end of the Neglinka Fountain stands the fountain with three horses, with its spouting walkway. There’s a little plaza here, where on two occasions I observed impromptu tattoo parlors, where a bare-chested man painted images onto those willing to part with a few rubles. (I had better things to do with my own rubles.) His patrons were generally well-pierced, sporting neo-punk hair. Behind them, people hesitated before walking along the curved walkway behind the statue, under the spouting arcs of water: some people squinched up their eyes and ran through, emitting little shrieks as they got wet; others hunched their shoulders and walked through forcefully; yet others (all males) pretended not to notice, sauntering along as if to prove their immunity to water. All of this is unnecessary, of course, since one can just as easily go around the fountain on the other side and not get wet at all.
There is a noticeable lack of older people at Manezh Square in the evening (not during the day, when the mix is more typical, and the shopping center is bustling with all kinds of consumers). Of course, all cities have their young spots and their old spots, places where the different generations go to lead their different lives. Moscow is, perhaps, somewhat extreme in this. It’s been almost 15 years now since walls started falling, and many of the evening denizens of Manezh Square don’t even remember what it was like when the dead man in Red Square was still a hero, instead of simply a tribute to the embalmer’s art. They don’t even recognize the irony of having a teenage mutant turtle slumming for rubles in front of Zhukov’s statue. Just as my own generation became rapidly sick of hearing how tough things were during the Great Depression, they may be losing patience with their parents’ tales of the Soviet era, and simply want to go someplace different to show off their latest eyebrow stud and get a picture of Elvis painted onto their calf. Who can blame them?
For a more mixed sampling of Moscow evening demographics, you may want to head over to Arbat Street, which is just a few minutes’ walk from Manezh Square. Arbat Street is a pedestrian walkway leading out toward the west, ending at Smolenskaya Boulevard. It has always been a center for artists and the kinds of cafés they frequent. In fact, according to another Russian friend, some of the portrait artists have been plying their trade there for over 25 years. Governments may come and go, but the same artists will continue to take your money for a quickly sketched portrait. That kind of stability can be comforting.
Arbat Street is lined with pleasant places to have a coffee, as well as with cheap restaurants, usually serving pizza. And, of course, there’s another McDonald’s. One Russian proudly proclaimed to me that Moscow is the site of the second biggest McDonald’s in the world, which is further proof that they lost the Cold War, although in this case I refrained from pointing it out. Since Russians do not make good pizza, and since only tasteless rubes would eat at McDonald’s while traveling to a foreign country (please excuse me if you’re a tasteless rube—I meant no harm), you’re much better off eating Russian food. Or, for a highly unusual treat, try a Georgian restaurant, where they will serve you a variety of tasty dishes that are entirely unrecognizable, accompanied by lots of different kinds of leaves.
Arbat Street is not to be confused with New Arbat Street (or “Novyy Arbat Street”), which is an entirely different matter. New Arbat Street is a linear emporium of gambling parlors, electronics shops, a casino or two, and glitzy restaurants. There is also a sports bar/sushi restaurant, which is not an entirely reassuring combination. New Arbat Street was the place to hang out during Soviet times, as it contained restaurants and bars for foreigners, largely populated by the children of the diplomatic community (as explained to me by a Serbian who grew up in Moscow with his diplomat father and who had many unsavory and titillating experiences there). Today as well, New Arbat Street is a swinging place for Muscovites of all generations: the older generations (or at least those with money) frequenting the casinos, and the younger generations skateboarding along the large sidewalks.
Whether at Manezh Square, Arbat Street, or New Arbat Street, modern Moscow shows its face in the evening. It’s still shaking off the torpor of 65 years of a decidedly unfun system, but it is doing so with vigor and even a kind of frenzy. Who knows? Maybe 15 years from now, next to the statue of Zhukov trampling a swastika, there will be a statue of Mickey Mouse trampling a hammer and sickle.