Deeper Than Oil: The Arbat – home to snowmen, sometimes

© RIA NovostiMarс Bennetts
Marс Bennetts - Sputnik International
I’ve been living for the last five years or so in an apartment just off the Old Arbat, Moscow’s main tourist stretch.

I’ve been living for the last five years or so in an apartment just off the Old Arbat, Moscow’s main tourist stretch. It’s also the gathering place for a bizarre collection of street musicians, beggars, old women selling cats and dogs, socialites, and the odd pickpocket or two.

One of Moscow’s oldest streets, it was the nineteenth-century haunt of poets and other bohemians and both Alexander Pushkin and Nikolai Gogol lived in the area. By the time I moved in, it had long been transformed into a place devoted to souvenir shops, bars and restaurants offering food from all over this merry, merry world of ours. But it remains possessed of an infectious energy, and there is nowhere else in the Russian capital that I would rather live.

The street musicians are probably what you’ll notice first if you come for a visit. There are some pretty professional groups, but there are also a host of random yodelers, off-key opera singers, incompetent Dixieland jazz groups, and malfunctioning human beatboxes. The whole works. It’s actually the less professional ones I enjoy the most, to be honest.There is an pleasantness to unpleasantness that is often overlooked.

The entire street used to be taken up with souvenir stalls selling all kinds of dubious “Soviet memorabilia.” The rumor went that the “KGB watches” that every stall had a box or two of were produced in a factory not far from Moscow. But today the stalls are long gone, banished by former Moscow Mayor Yury “Honest” Luzhkov in favor of bookstalls. I was never too fond of Luzhkov, but this was a pretty good decision – you can find some real gems if you spend a while browsing. Not so long ago I came across a 1930s Soviet guide to city planning packed full of details like how much tinned meat a worker would need to survive on, and other fascinating trivia.

The Arbat is also home to a number of theaters, and some of my neighbors are well-known Soviet – and indeed Russian - actors, which always impresses my mother-in-law, whenever she comes to visit. Despite being big stars, they are always pretty friendly and nice, even though I once dropped a half a bag of cat poo on one of them in the lift.

Half-way up the Arbat is the Vakhtangov Theatre, an imposing Soviet-era building that – some winters at least – hosts a street snowman festival. It’s actually quite unnerving walking home late at night through the midst of dozens of snow men and women. Did that one just blink? Turn its head? Best not to think about it.

The scores of restaurants and cafes on the Arbat mean that my two-year-old daughter, Masha, is now a connoisseur of central Moscow eating establishments and tries to drag us off for a pizza at every available opportunity. I just hope she waits a bit longer before she starts checking out the bars.

One of my favorite places to eat on the Arbat in the summer is Mu-Mu (Moo-Moo), a cheap restaurant chain that serves good Russian food. It’s next to a bronze statue of Bulat Okudzhava, the Soviet-era singer whose song “Oh Arbat, My Arbat” ("Oh Arbat, my Arbat, you are my destiny, you are my happiness and my sorrow”) is mauled every day by at least three dozen street musicians. Mu-Mu boasts a model of a cow outside its door. Hundreds of people take the opportunity to pretend to milk it every day. And get photographed doing so, as well.

At the other end of the Arbat there is a fast-food joint that has, in the time I’ve been living in the area, been home to at least three other cafes, as well the headquarters of socialite Ksenia Sobchak’s political movement, or something. Like most projects that open in the building, it didn’t last long. I often wonder if the site is cursed. Or perhaps the rent is just really high.

The Arbat also used to be a good place to get pulled over by corrupt cops looking for a bribe for non-existent document violations. But the cops have been pretty quiet on that front in recent years, ever since someone high-up told them that wasn’t actually part of their job.

And, of course, there’s the Viktor Tsoi wall, dedicated to the lead singer of the New Wave group Kino, who died in a car crash just before the split-up of the Soviet Union. The authorities have painted over the Tsoi-related graffiti on a number of occasions, but it comes back soon enough. For some reason, I often get asked directions to the Tsoi wall. It makes me feel good to point the way out, and I often experience an odd sense of gratitude to those people who ask for help finding it. As if they have, to quote The Great Gatsby, “casually conferred on me the freedom of the neighborhood.”

And what a neighborhood.

Anyway, that’s where I live. Not sure why I’ve spent the last 800 words or so telling you all about it. But it was either that or a piece on mountains. And someone else has already done that recently.

The views expressed in this article are the author's and do not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.

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From lurid tales of oligarch excess to scare stories about Moscow’s stranglehold on Europe’s energy supplies, the land that gave us Roman Abramovich and Vladimir Putin is very rarely out of the news. But there is much more to modern Russia than billionaire tycoons and political conspiracy. Marc Bennetts’ weekly column, Deeper Than Oil, goes beyond the headlines to explore the hidden sides of the world’s largest, and often strangest, country.

Marc Bennetts is a journalist who has written about Russian spies, Chechen football and Soviet psychics for a number of UK newspapers, including The Guardian and The Times. He is also the author of Football Dynamo: Modern Russia and the People’s Game (Virgin Books).

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