x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

Looking for Lenin

Feature Does Moscow retain the legacy of Vladimir Lenin, the man who had carved the Soviet Union out of the Russian empire and served as its first leader?

In the first photograph I saw of him, he was already dying. Strokes had robbed him of his voice and reduced him to a wizened man in a wheelchair. He was fading. Vladimir Lenin, the man who had carved the Soviet Union out of the Russian empire and served as its first leader now languished on a dacha in Gorki, south of Moscow, paralysed and speechless. When the photo was taken it was 1923, Lenin was months away from death but had already predicted the terror that Stalin would bring.

Lenin's look haunted me. He was lost in his own mind, unable to comprehend the scale of what he had set in motion, unable to stop it. He looked like another Russian ruler at a pivotal moment of history, Ivan the IV, Ivan Grozny, whom the West called Ivan the Terrible, the 16th-century ruler and first Tsar of Russia. The rumour went that Ivan IV, in a moment of anger, struck his son and heir and killed him. In the great Russian painter Ilya Repin's imagined recreation of the scene, the ruler is clutching his son, frightened, possessed, suddenly aware of the vast ripples of his small action.

Repin's painting is in front of me, swamped by bodies in the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow and the world that Lenin created is outside, slowly fading. It was Lenin who, by moving the Russian capital back to Moscow after years when the Tsars ruled from St Petersburg, had recreated this city. Almost a century on, the legacy of Lenin is slowly being lost in the maelstrom of the New Russia, a giant fuelled by energy reserves. The last time the analysts totted up the numbers, Moscow had pushed past London and Tokyo as the most expensive city in the world. Muscovites feel it; the streets tingle with energy and urgency as they embrace the shiny ornaments of materialism. "We are like children," one Muscovite tells me. "We see everything in the world and we want it now."

Is there anything left of the world Lenin created, of Moscow's Soviet past? I think the answer lies north, on the other side of the Moskva River, among the teeming tribes of materialism up and down Tverskaya street. That way too lies Lenin, lying as he has lain for decades, in Red Square. But before I get there, I need to find the remains of the Soviet past of this city. I work my way along Moscow's inner ring, in ever shortening spirals, lines like a child's toy on the map of Moscow's 20th century.

I start in the wrong place. From the high vantage point of Sparrow Hills, Moscow curves out, the metropolis on the Moskva. Dotting the city are the most visible remains of the Soviet Union, Stalin's Sisters, seven vast skyscrapers built in the 1950s to dominate the skyline. They dominate it still. The largest of them, and for a time the largest building in Europe, stands behind me, the Moscow State University, a building dedicated to advancing human knowledge built on a superhuman scale. There is nothing impermanent in its vast strokes of concrete and immovable statues: each one of the Seven Sisters looks built to withstand the end of the world, a symbol in concrete of Soviet aspirations to permanence. It looks as if it would outlast humanity itself.

But humanity outlasted the Union. The remnants of its past have been dismantled, taken away to be bartered. I follow them to the city's largest market at Ismaylovo, east of the centre. I am running late, but so is the Russian journalist I am meeting, so I wander across the road to the Hotel Ismaylovo to drink coffee, passing older women in thick coats laying out toys on the ground for sale and soldiers in green uniforms, jostling and pushing in the snow.

Ismaylovo is the largest hotel in Europe, a small city of towering grey and black window specks. It is Soviet to its core. There is no attempt at beauty, only functionality. The buildings are named after letters: Alpha, Beta, Gamma, Delta and Vega. Inside everything is wipe-down functionality: white and cream on the walls, pink and beige in the bedrooms. In the vast courtyard between the buildings is a Chinese restaurant, a cabaret show, small kiosks selling kebabs and burgers and a supermarket. Small microbuses drop off men in leather jackets with Central Asian features and crowds of older tourists descend from ageing coaches. Here, they can shop, sleep and eat without crossing a road. Everything is sufficient and little more.

When the journalist arrives, I embrace her and people look on. She shows a Slavic disregard for everyone not in her eyeline. Together, we wrap ourselves in scarves and tramp around the open-air market, crunching the snow underneath and slipping forward with sudden, sharp moves. The wind is biting cold and the traders are forlorn, in no mood to talk. They thrust their hands deep into their coats and dip their chins into their scarves; only their eyes are visible and beckoning us to look.

Much is the same. Stall after stall of the intricate red and gold of khokhloma plates and bowls; matryoshka dolls, the nesting dolls that come in endless designs, ranging from the ornate to the kitsch: here are all the leaders of Russia, starting with Putin and ending with a tiny thumb-sized Lenin; here is the war-on-terror set, Blair and Bush, bin Laden and Ahmadinejad. Deeper in the market, up a muddy set of stairs, are the old statues, posters and trinkets of the Soviet Union. Every home had them, busts of Lenin and Stalin, old medals and paintings. Once the Soviet Union vanished no one wanted them. "Every stall looks like my grandmother's house," the journalist says. "We grew up with these things. Who buys them now?" They end up here, having been sold on for a few roubles during the hard times of the 1990s. But that was more than a decade ago and now the few that remain command a high premium. Capitalism at work even on the stones of the communists. There are posters too from the Soviet era, bold primary colours and strong-jawed men, pointing the way to a better future. At what price, I wonder. "Two thousand roubles," the trader says. This is what happened to the Soviet past, I ponder as we sit in a small cafe and sip tea, exchanging pidgin Russian words and English sentences with swarthy men from the Caucasus.

The closer I get to Lenin, the less I see him. I walk through the curving, parabolic arches of Arbatskaya metro, the hall between two platforms decorated like the living room of a long-dead tsar, gold leaf and cream walls and intricately designed light fittings. A young woman in glasses and a fur hat sits reading on the thick wooden benches, curled up as if in her bedroom rather than a metro station. Stalin called the stations the people's palaces and built them ornate and imposing; there is peace, light and calm down here, but little warmth. Upstairs is a different story.

The New Russia lives in a metaphysical glare: if no one sees it, it doesn't exist. Consequently, it screams at you from billboards and advertising posters, from garish shop displays, strutting women, an endless parade of black Hummers, Porsches and Audis. Up and down the shopping district in Arbat Street and Tverskaya it pushes and pleads, at once aloof and cloying. Billboards with alluring women have replaced the socialist realism of the Soviet era, where the masses wore indistinguishable clothes but were always happy and together, round-shouldered and ready to work. The people depicted now are different - in these posters for perfume and clothes everyone is alone, one woman, one man, one watch. They even look different; their bodies are angular, the focus is the flesh. The murals of New Russia promise life without work, eternal leisure, endless parties and nights in satin sheets. The irony is you have to work very hard if you want it.

The words of the moment - the words of the decade - are exklusivny and eliteny, exemplified by Tretyakovski drive, a small cobbled street just off Tverskaya, packed with an alphabet of luxury brands, Bulgari and Gucci, Armani and Tiffany. There are handbags for a year's salary, carefully sculpted dresses for a decade's and no shortage of people to buy them, even with the recession. Black-clad bouncers glare at customers, barring entry until the last second; shop assistants inspect every inch of clothing, hunting for imperfections. This is a world of appearances. The reclusive billionaire and the casually dressed dot-com tycoon need not apply: wealth is only wealth if you flaunt it.

In Turandot, an opulently designed restaurant modelled on a Baroque palace, I meet Valerie, an events promoter who worked in Berlin. He tells me the defining nature of the city's latest incarnation. "Whenever I open a new restaurant, I make sure to keep it empty for two weeks," he says. "If anyone rings for a table, I say 'I'm sorry, we are totally full, maybe next week'. Really, there is no one inside, but after two weeks of saying no, the lines outside are packed and everyone wants to come." Opportunity for all is a relic of the past. New Russia is defined by who is excluded.

There is no greater symbol of the new Moscow than the Ritz-Carlton, the latest and most lavish hotel in the city. It literally glossed over the Soviet era, built on the site of an old Intourist hotel. Now it is firmly on the international business and fashion circuits that Moscow relishes, lauded by Tatler and Condé Nast readers, a place to spend $15,000 (Dh55,500) for one night in the Ritz-Carlton suite.

Here, from the sanctuary of the hotel's 11th-floor lounge, I pick at sushi, the imported staple of this new world and watch the snow drift carefully across Red Square. The sky has dimmed over Moscow and the lights of the night ooze across the city. He is down there. Having circled this city, I dip under the red arches of the Resurrection Gate and into Red Square, into a blaze of light. Every arch, curve and corner of the luxury department store GUM's facade is scored with lights; an electronic halo, lightening the black sky around it. The carefully constructed luxury of St Basil's Cathedral looms ahead of me, its onion domes curling with primary colours like ice-cream stripes. This public square, hemmed in on all sides by business, politics and religion, seems like a metaphor for Moscow.

At its heart is a simple mausoleum bearing five letters in red. The simplicity of Lenin's tomb set against the lights of commerce and the domes of history: the juxtaposition jars but in it I understand this new incarnation of Moscow. Muscovites have not uprooted their Soviet past in a rush to a western present; they have uprooted it digging for their own heritage. Moscow had been an elite, opulent city for centuries before the tsars moved the capital to St Petersburg. When the Soviet revolution began, Red Square looked much like it does today. The square that defines Moscow had been defined by the 16th century, by Ivan the Great, who built much of the Kremlin, and his grandson Ivan the Terrible, who built St Basil's Cathedral.

By moving the capital back to Moscow, Lenin was not starting again, but continuing where Muscovites had left off, centuries before. I think back to the photograph of Lenin in his dacha, dying, and realise he wasn't haunted by not being able to stop the resurrection he started. He was haunted at not finishing it. Moscow's long journey out of its Soviet sleep has been a journey to its own past.