In April 2010, with support from Arts Council England, Richard traveled to Moscow and the Star City cosmonaut training centre as part of the research process for Kosmonaut Zero. The trip was recorded in web diary format.
23rd April 2010
Friday 23rd was a long flight, with a quick transfer in Helsinki Vantaa, an airport devoid of activity and food, but also exceedingly clean. Note to self: trying to read Metro signs in Cyrillic after a 12 hour flight will require some concentration…
Right now: in the foyer of the hotel, having a surreal moment as a bride dressed in white lace has just walked past smiling like a bride should.
The centre of Moscow is full of tourists with police everywhere too, not surprising after the recent bombings. Found the shopping mall under Red Square a little too much like home.
So why this trip? It is research for Kosmonaut Zero, a novel due out in 2011. Trying to get a flavour of Russia as it was 40+ years ago. The new book is inspired by two sources, one an article I had published 12 years ago called The Cyborg Mystery – about NASA’s plans in 1960 to fit astronauts with mechanical pumps and body parts to enable them to go into space without spacesuits. The other source is the urban myth of Soviet Russia’s Lost Cosmonauts. More on that here.
One of the mock-ups of the Soviet space shuttle, Buran, makes a rather odd addition to the rollercoasters and ghost trains in Gorky Park. It sits by the Moscow River and seems like it’s there because no one could think of anywhere else to put it. On a cold Sunday at the end of April, it doesn’t get many visitors.
The spacecraft is a relic. The new Russia is fast becoming an outpost in the global village and devours the achievements of the previous empire, only to then recycle them as tourist destinations. Moscow has a space history museum, a KGB museum and a Cold War museum in an underground bunker.
Perhaps the future was never going to be one of lunar colonies and space stations: it’s as if Concorde, Buran, the American Shuttle, Apollo – all these visions of science-as-art, they shone for just a few years only to end up as items on tourists’ itineraries.
Today I sheltered beneath Buran to hide from hailstones and a biting wind, wondering why it was here on earth and not doing what it was built for up in space.
Finding the Moscow of 40-odd years ago is a matter of peeling back the layers. Most of the architecture remains the same, except now it has been retro-fitted with advertising hoardings: vast neon signs for mobile phone companies cling like leeches to the granite and stone.
Imagine the Chrysler Building in New York with an immense Samsung sign running down the side of it and you get the picture.
The metro system is another amazing Soviet construction. It is vast, multi-layered – a city beneath the city. To get a perspective, imagine New York’s subway or London’s underground, give them some steroids and again, you’ll get the picture.
Today, I visited the forrmer KGB / now FSB headquarters in Lubyanka Square. Across the road from this still-feared institution is a poignant memorial to the thousands who were executed in purges throughout the 20th century. Photographs, flowers and notebooks commemorate those who died, just a couple of hundred metres from the headquarters of the organisation that did most of the killing.
The scale of Moscow is what is most striking. It’s as if it’s designed to make the individual feel as small as possible. Perhaps that was the idea…
This is Yuri Gagarin’s office at Star City, preserved just as it was on 27th March 1968 – the day he was killed in a plane crash. Even the clock on the wall is stopped at 10.31am, the moment of the accident.
It’s been a remarkable tour around Star City, which is still a working military base where cosmonauts from all nations train for their work in space. The visit that I chose, organised with Rus Adventures, was the ‘museum tour’ as Kosmonaut Zero is set in the late 60s.
The guide made the comment that for her, coming to Star City is like coming to the old Russia, with everything very neat and very organised, as if provided by an unseen, benefic state. One got the sense that as much as some embrace the change in this country, there is also nostalgia for how things used to be.
Perhaps here at Star City is the Russia that I’ve been looking for. The long drive out took me away from the new Moscow with its neon signs, designer stores and SUVs. Out past Communist-era apartment blocks, along bumpy roads and through the birch forests.
Star City is quaint and understated – with just a single guard minding the gate. You would never guess at what goes on here. Only the roar of jet engines hints at what lies inside. If this place were in the west, you have the feeling it would be branded to within an inch of its life. Instead it is a gateway, both to space and – through the artefacts of the early Soviet space programme – to an empire from another era.
It’s been an exceptional trip. Barely scratched the surface of this monumental city. Whether it’s the recent Metro bombings, or the impending 65th anniversary of the Great Patriotic War, the city seems to have an edge – police and soldiers are everywhere.
One gets a sense of a nation discovering itself and flexing its muscles – only yesterday, Prime Minister Putin quipped on TV about eating Ukrainian politicians. Brave words, considering the ongoing fall out between the two countries over whether a famine inflicted by Russia could be considered genocide…
One also gets the sense of a country looking backwards and forwards at the same time – I surf the internet a few hundred yards from Moscow’s first McDonald’s. And yet the spirit of the May Day parades persists. Later on today, the young men and women of the Red Army will rehearse for the upcoming celebrations of the country’s victory over Nazism.
So the old Soviet Union is still here. In Red Square, in the metro, at Star City and at the Lubyanka, where the FSB has announced this week that citizens who are ‘uncooperative’ will in future face fines and imprisonment. In this kind of city, it’s not hard to envisage the world in which a young KGB officer called Marina Mernova might have existed.
All images © Richard Evans, 2010.