Moscow: New Landmarks and a Monument to Kitsch

In 1995, Moscow felt like the one place in Russia where money was absolutely pouring in. Post-Soviet capitalism was born here, and a flashy, in-your-face upper class had turned the city into a moneyed playground. Fancy restaurants had blossomed, purring Mercedes roamed the streets and high-end fashion stores were already commonplace.

Ten years later, other cities are slowly following suit -- but Moscow is still the king of the money hill. Part of that is due to Mayor Yuri Luzhkov, a bald, compact fireplug of a man whose goal is to make Moscow into the envy of the world. One way he aims to do this is by funneling cash into gigantic new landmarks, a few of which David and I checked out on a recent stroll around the city.



The Cathedral of Christ the Savior has risen once again on the banks of the Moscow River. (David Hillegas)

First, we came across the Cathedral of Christ the Savior, a sprawling Russian Orthodox church on the northwest bank of the Moscow River. This is an exact reproduction of the original 19th-century cathedral, which was dynamited by Stalin in the 1930s to make way for the biggest skyscraper in the world. Unfortunately, the land was too unstable to support the skyscraper, so a giant outdoor swimming pool was built there instead.

As the joke goes, generations of grandmothers used to tell their grandkids, "Oh, children, there used to be a beautiful church here, but now there's just this awful swimming pool." Now, grandmothers tell their grandkids, "Oh, children, there used to be a beautiful swimming pool here..." More seriously, some have criticized the rebuilding effort as spending too much money -- reportedly $360 million -- on building one new church, when thousands of smaller historic churches across Russia are in need of renovation.

Whatever one's point of view on the matter, there's no denying that the cathedral itself is gorgeous, with its gleaming gold cupolas, white marble exterior and massive bronze doors. The interior, with its riot of gold leaf, marble and exquisitely painted domed ceilings, is also stunningly beautiful.

The same cannot be said, unfortunately, for another new landmark, just across the river. I'd heard about the new monument to Peter the Great, and heard it was an absolute monstrosity, but I wanted to reserve judgment until I saw it for myself.

Readers, it is an abomination.



The towering monument to Peter the Great has raised eyebrows among Muscovites since it was erected in 1997. (David Hillegas)

I first saw it from a distance, while gazing idly to the south from the cathedral. It's so monstrously outsized, it looked surreal. Towering more than 300 feet into the air, the monument is comprised of an apparently life-sized sailing ship, perched on a column of stylized waves and ship prows that resembles nothing so much as the stem of a giant mushroom cloud. Bestriding it all at the very top is a colossal Peter the Great, dressed in a Roman toga and clutching a golden scroll.

As a monument to Peter the Great, the statue is of, shall we say, questionable merit. As a monument to kitsch, it is picture-perfect -- especially with the karaoke party boat that's docked right in front of it. But one thing is certain: it's something people talk about when they come to Moscow.

Tomorrow:  We track down MC Pavlov, the "Godfather of Russian Rap," to find out what he's been up to since 1995.

By Lisa Dickey |  November 1, 2005; 9:30 AM ET
Previous: Mall Culture and Fast-Food Wonderland | Next: Moscow: Rap Star MC Pavlov. Part I

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When I was recently in Moscow I heard that the Peter the Great monument was supposed to comemmorate Columbus' discovery of the new world, but that there were too many people upset by that, so they changed it to Peter the Great.

Whatever the story, it IS a truly awful monument.

Posted by: DC reader | November 1, 2005 10:21 AM

I was in Moscow last December and stayed in the President Hotel. The view from my room was the Christ the Savior Cathedral and The Peter the Great Statue. A telling view of the new Russia.

I heard a similar story of the statue. It was actually a gift from Spain to Haiti to commemorate Columbus' voyage. The people of Haiti hated it so much, they sold it to Russia..with a new head...and it became a monument to Peter the Great. Not sure how true that is, but it does make for a great story.

Posted by: DC | November 1, 2005 10:44 AM

That's what Russia really needs. Another orthodox church to teach reactionary nonsense. Russians have labored under the unholy burden of orthodox Christianity for a thousand years. The only good thing about the Soviets was that they tried (alas they failed) to destroy Russian orthodoxy.

Posted by: candide | November 1, 2005 12:45 PM

If we're telling stories about that truly awful statue, I've heard 1) that it was commisioned by Luzhkov because he is a patron of the artist, 2) because of this statue, there is now a city commission which must authorize all new monuments in Moscow, 3) that it is nicknamed "Gulliver", and 4) that it is so tall it has a blinking red light on top to warn low-flying aircraft (unfortunately, or fortunately, I wasn't in that part of the city at night to know for certain).

Posted by: another reader | November 1, 2005 03:13 PM

These stories about the statue highlight something about Eastern Europeans that I've noticed: they love to gossip and tell unsubstantiated stories about things, especially about government things. I lived in Romania for a while, and they all just love it -- you say anything about anything, and five people will have completely unsubstantiated stories about how it's somehow related to the mafia or something equally absurd. The two favorite topics, I've learned, are homosexuality and people's wives. Everyone "knows" that former prime minister Adrien Năstase is gay, but no one can cite an iota of evidence ("Oh, everyone knows it! You don't have to believe me -- ask anyone!"), just the same that everyone "knows" that the former dictator, Nicolae Ceauşescu, was totally subservient to his wife, Elena, and that she was the one running the show.

Posted by: Stephen | November 1, 2005 03:28 PM

Thanks for your comments, Lisa. I invite you and everyone to check out my flickr portfolio of everything you mentioned - even an indoor photo inside Christ the Saviour - I didn't know it was forbidden to take fotos, and I got yelled at - but beautiful nonetheless. And yes, the Peter I monument is a behemoth, but my local friends didn't complain, and neither did I. I thought it was cool. I think the cheesy amusement park and the PEPSI ad next to it are more garish.

My flickr photos that have Christ the Saviour and Peter are found at http://www.flickr.com/photos/chapman/sets/1078840/

Posted by: kuzmich | November 1, 2005 04:17 PM

Hey, why no picture of the monument to kitsch? Lisa, you tease!

Posted by: Adriana | November 1, 2005 10:45 PM

Sorry, all - the photos are coming! Please check back in shortly! As for the rumor about Luzhkov being a "patron of the artist," it's certainly true that the sculptor, Zurab Tsereteli, has been hired to do millions of dollars worth of projects around Moscow since 1995. He also is the designer of a giant teardrop-shaped monument to the victims of Sept. 11, which has caused a stir of its own in the US...

Posted by: Lisa Dickey | November 2, 2005 12:17 AM

I was a student studying abroad in Moscow during the fall of 1995 and returned again in November of 2000. I was amazed at the changes that had occurred during that brief span of time.

One of the biggest changes was that it felt safer. It seemed that one could not go anywhere in 1995 without crossing the paths of "flatheads" or young mafioso. I even had to walk over a crime scene in 1995, complete with the body of a crime victim.

But in 2000, this same fear and trepidation was absent. I am under no illusions that crime is still a serious issue in Moscow. But I felt hope in the changes and optimistic for the city and its citizens. I'm hoping the postings for this article show even more improvement since 2000 and will eagerly await them.

Posted by: Chris Cagle | November 2, 2005 06:19 PM

I have heard another name for the statue of the Peter The Great - "Oilman" (Neftianik). Ship looks like an Oil Rig from far away. Some part of Moscow's prosperity comes from high oil prices. Consequently, it is nice monument to the worker of the oil industry.

Posted by: Alex | November 3, 2005 02:36 AM

The author of the Peter the Great statue is Zurab Tsereteli, currently also President of the Russian Academy of Fine Arts. A "koniunkturshtch" already successful in Soviet time. For another piece of kitsch of his hand, go to the UN in New York and look for a St Georges fighting dragons in the guise of Pershing II cruise missiles. It looms large left of the gate to the garden.
Tsereteli does not lack self assurance: he has his own self-glorifying museum in Moscow and a thought provoking web site (www.tsereteli.ru).

Posted by: daeng | November 15, 2005 10:27 PM

The statue is actually not all that bad and only time will tell whether it fits the city. When the Eiffel tower was just erected it has also drawn lots of criticism but now it is a symbol of not only Paris but the whole France!

Posted by: Yuri in MD | November 25, 2005 12:08 AM

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