For today’s inspirational location, Andrea Bennet revisits Moscow, giving a fascinating behind-the-scenes insight into the city.
Most of the action in Galina Petrovna’s Three-Legged Dog Story takes place in Azov, an ancient southern Russian town with an almost Mediterranean feel. But I needed my septuagenarian heroine to have an adventure, so I sent her and a pal on the train up to Moscow – an 18-hour journey to a city defined by contrast.
Moscow underwent huge change in the 1990s. When I first visited in 1991, just as the Soviet Union was crumbling, it was grey, dirty and threadbare. There was hardly a light bulb in the place, and darkened shop fronts displayed little but dust and dead flies. By 1995, when my novel is set, the golden cupolas had been polished, the dusty old museums revamped, and city-centre shops were bursting with garish products that, unfortunately, few Muscovites could afford. As the red stars atop the Kremlin towers glowed afresh, restaurants and nightclubs – both brash and glitzy, and bohemian like my heroine visits – were cropping up like mushrooms in cellars, attics, ex-cinemas and churches alike.
The old and the new, Slavic and western, the strange and ingrained, was colliding in Moscow. I wanted to reflect this. So, my heroine both admires the view of the glittering jewel-like city from the Lenin Hills, and goes clubbing, to one of those clubs where you knock on a dour old door and then get transported to a rather shabby wonderland. This was the place: in mid-90s Moscow anything could happen, and frequently did. I remember a prominent middle-aged politician turning up at 1 am at a house party I was at – for no apparent reason. And then there was the gay club in a former Pioneer (think Scouts) building that drew patrons from all layers of society and where each night ended with a duo of synchronised swimmers performing in the large (but not that large) tropical fish tank. The performance always ended with them whipping off their trunks, to rapturous applause.
This wonderland of the strange contrasted with the authoritarian air of many of Moscow’s buildings, for example Stalin’s sky-scrapers, known as the Seven Sisters, spiking the horizon and visible from almost anywhere in the city. They were beautiful, craggy, and grandly malevolent. And then there were the 1960s office blocks, ministries and stations: all hugely solid, they dwarfed the little people struggling to get in and out of their doors, their important bags and papers in hand. I couldn’t help contrast the chiselled jaws and cherry lips of the Soviet citizens depicted in mosaic and paint in the Metro stations with the sagging faces of the down-and-outs begging or dozing in their doorways.
I suppose, through this trip to Moscow, I wanted to show a little of the way ordinary people had to fit in as best they could at this time, caught between the old ways, the Soviet expectations and Yeltsin’s crazy “free” decade. It was a time of tremendous opportunity for some, especially in the capital. But for many, the Yeltsin era was also a time of confusion, loss of identity and, ultimately, disappointment.