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RETRO RUSSIA

Commie Kitsch

A nostalgic tour of remnants of the Cold War era

July 28, 1996|BILL THOMAS

MOSCOW — Russia's recent presidential election may have been a victory for Boris Yeltsin and democracy, but, nevertheless, about 30 million Russians voted for Yeltsin's Communist Party opponent, Gennady Zyuganov.

If a lot of voters in the former Soviet Union are nostalgic for the old days of socialism, they're not alone. Visiting Westerners, hooked on the intrigue and the espionage of the Cold War, can still find ample reminders of both this summer.

In fact, Cold War attractions have never been more popular or more accessible to tourists.

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 virtually guaranteed never seeing many of the things that made the Evil Empire so feared in the first place.

Now, though, with getting to Moscow easier than ever--more than a half a dozen Western airlines fly there daily--and plenty of new hotels and restaurants, it's possible to enjoy the city's vast array of Communist kitsch while living just like a bourgeois capitalist. And, after all, shouldn't that be one of the benefits of winning the Cold War?

It may surprise first-time visitors to Moscow to see how many monuments to state socialism are still around. Statues of Joseph Stalin and other former notables of the old regime were torn down and dumped in a city park shortly after the 1991 coup attempt. Just the same, hundreds of Vladimir I. Lenin likenesses defiantly hold their ground; the founder of the ex-Soviet Union, whose body remains on display in its Red Square resting place, is enjoying a comeback in the wave of nostalgia.

Stalin, Nikita Khruschev and Leonid Brezhnev have gotten a new lease on life too. Cleaned up and, in some cases, remounted on their pedestals, their statues, located behind the new annex of the TretyakovGallery on the banks of the Moscow River, have been arranged into a sort of theme park where anyone can go to relive the past or merely to contemplate how the mighty have fallen.

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

I spend roughly six months a year in the city and have found the best way of getting around to be the subway. It's faster than a taxi cab and, unlike most things in Moscow--suddenly one of the world's most expensive cities--it's cheap. True, a bomb exploded in one Metro train recently, but all in all the subways are still the safest means of transportation.

Then, too, it's worth keeping in mind that crime--like pickpocketing and mugging, which flourish in some sections of the city--is virtually unheard of in the well-policed subways. (For an update on security risks regarding travel in Russia, see Travel Advisory on page L21.)

The sprawling system also happens to be a veritable Cold War catacomb. Every station is different, and most pay homage to some great moment in Communist Party history. Komsomolskaya (named for the Young Communist League) commemorates various phases of Lenin's career in colorful mosaics; Barrikadnaya celebrates the anti-czarist uprising of 1905. My personal favorite is Revolution Square (Ploshchad Revolyutsii), 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. Novodevichy Cemetery, is the Forest Lawn of the former USSR, and the last stop for thousands of state heroes. Tombs and gravestones are decorated with tanks, missiles and other symbols of past national glory. Officially atheist in its 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 Novodevichy. So is 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 vice, 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.

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The Kremlin, where most of these former officials worked, is a 15-minute Metro ride away from the Novodevichy cemetery. Once the backdrop for the West's worst Cold War nightmares, the massive brick fortress has lost much of its power to scare. Posters of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels used to hang from GUM, the gothic-style shopping mall on Red Square. The pictures of the fathers of socialism have now 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.

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