Reminders of the bad old days are Moscow tourist attractions

July 09, 1995|By Bill Thomas | Bill Thomas,Special to The Sun

Now that all the V-E Day celebrations are over, history buffs hooked on the decades of intrigue and espionage that followed World War II can relive a little of both in Moscow this summer.

The Cold War, which lasted until the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, has never been more tourist-friendly. There was a time not long ago when any visit to the capital of communism had to be coordinated through Intourist, the official state visitors' bureau. That not only meant travel and accommodations glitches, but it also virtually guaranteed never seeing many of the things that made the Evil Empire so evil in the first place.

Now, though, with traveling to Moscow easier than ever and plenty of new hotels and restaurants offering the comforts of home, it's possible to enjoy the city's vast array of Communist kitsch while living just like a bourgeois capitalist. And shouldn't that be one of the benefits of winning the Cold War?

Moscow these days is a place full of surprises, and one of the biggest for first-time visitors may be how many monuments to state socialism are still around. Statues of Joseph Stalin, Felix Dzerzhinski and other former heroes of the old regime were torn down and dumped in a city park shortly after the '91 coup attempt. But everywhere, hundreds of Lenin likenesses defiantly hold their ground. In fact, along with the resurgent Communist Party, the founder of the ex-Soviet Union, whose body remains on display in its Red Square resting place, is also enjoying a comeback.

Stalin and company have gotten a new lease on life, too. Cleaned up and in some cases remounted on their pedestals, their statues, located behind the New Tretyakov Art Gallery on the banks of the Moscow River, have been arranged into a theme park where anyone can go to relive the past or else contemplate how the mighty have fallen.

This eerie reminder of the way things were makes an excellent place to begin a one-day Cold War tour of Moscow.

For transportation, I always choose the subway. It's faster than a taxicab, and, unlike most things in Moscow -- suddenly one of the world's most expensive cities -- it's cheap.

The sprawling system's tunnels also happen to be veritable Cold War catacombs. Every station is different, and most pay homage to some great moment in Party history. Komsomolskaya (named for the Young Communist League) commemorates various phases of Lenin's career in colorful mosaics; Barracadnaya celebrates the anti-czarist uprising of 1905. My personal favorite is Revolution Square, with its dozens of bronze figures of Russians from all walks of life, each one armed to the teeth against enemies of the people.

A short trip from the statue burial ground is the real thing, Novodivichy Cemetery, the Forest Lawn of the U.S.S.R. and the last stop for thousands of state heroes. Tombs and gravestones are decorated with tanks, rocket ships and other symbols of past Soviet glory. Officially atheist in their approach to the hereafter, the Soviets memorialized some deceased bureaucrats as if they were still on the job. One high-level commissar is depicted sitting behind his desk, another is shown talking on the phone.

Cold War Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko, known as "Comrade Nyet" for his hard-line posture, is buried in Novodivichy. So is Nikita Khrushchev, who built the Berlin Wall and ruled the Soviet Union during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Khrushchev's tombstone, which features a vengeful rendition of his head in a vise, was designed by Ernst Nezvisty, an artist whose work the late leader had publicly denounced. Incidentally, Kim Philby, the British spy whose career epitomized double agentry, is planted far less memorably in Novo Kutuzovsky Cemetery on the other side of town.

No more nightmares

The Kremlin, where most of these former officials worked, is a 15-minute Metro ride away. Once the backdrop for America's worst Cold War nightmares, the massive brick fortress has lost much of its power to scare. Posters of Marx and Engels that used to hang from GUM, the Gothic shopping mall on Red Square, have been replaced by ads for Pizza Hut and Benetton. Just the same, anyone interested in an Iron Curtain experience ++ doesn't have far to go.

The nearby Hotel Moscow is a perfectly preserved relic of the Stalin era. Upscale vodka drinkers will easily recognize it as the building on the Stolichnaya label. Overlook the slot machines and central-casting Mafia types in the lobby, and you can pretend you're in a 1940s movie.

A short stroll across Marx Square -- the name-change mania that swept Moscow a few years ago didn't redo everything -- is the elegantly refurbished Metropole Hotel. Lee Harvey Oswald once stayed there while the KGB considered his job application. Room rates have gone up in the last 35 years, but it's certainly worth a drop-in to see what a little foreign investment can do.

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