Stalin’s Seven Sisters

Unmistakably Soviet symbols of Stalin’s megalomania… Visible proof of Stalin propaganda’s shift to nationalistic patriotism after the Second World War… And maybe even phallic metaphors of Stalin’s quest for recognition…

The Seven Sisters are seven skyscrapers that were built just after the war (when the Soviet Union in ruins had nothing better to do…) as a response to Stalin’s concern that foreign visitors would not be too impressed when visiting the Soviet capital.

They are still standing there, glorious and pompous. More tall buildings have grown around them including the super modern towers of Moscow City, but they are still a key part of Moscow’s urban landscape.

KOTELNICHESKAYA EMBANKMENT BUILDING (halfway between Kitay Gorod and Taganskaya)

This is my favourite Stalin Sister, perhaps because it’s so central and clear. It’s an appartment building and I’m dreaming of living on one of the top floors!

Photo September 2017

MOSCOW UNIVERSITY (metro Universitet)

This one is iconic, with its giant star at the top. Non less stereotypical is that gulag labourers were involved in its construction…

Picture February 2010

UKRAINA HOTEL (metro Kievskaya)

Now a Radisson hotel, this one is open to visitors and the entrance hall is really impressive, with a fabulous Revolution painting on the ceiling. Radisson has a ship that sails the Moskva river which can be a great way to see more of Moscow.

Photo July 2016
Ceiling painting inside the hall. Photo July 2016

LENINGRADSKAYA HOTEL (metro Komsomolskaya)

Another hotel, a Hilton this time but the Soviet name is still written on its top, this one has a distinguished, more feminine look because of its pinkish colours.

Photo July 2016

KUNDRINSKAYA SQUARE (metro Barrikadnaya)

What I love about this one is the grace of its decorations and spires. Unlike all other Sisters, it also has a little garden with a fontain at its foot, which makes it a pleasant place to stop for ice cream.


Photo July 2016

KRASNYE VOROTA BUILDING (metro Krasnye Vorota)

White and inmaculate like the Soviet regime, this one has a beautiful hammer and sickle sign at the top of its base.

Photo July 2016
Photo July 2016


And last but not least, this wonderful building inspired by the big American skyscrapers of the 20th century is not so delicately decorated, but so massive that it makes the Empire State Building look quite skinny. That’s Soviet generosity…

Photo September 2017

100th anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution… The authorities have closed Red Square

The October Revolution took place on 7 November 1917, exactly a hundred years ago, but the anniversary won’t be celebrated in Russia.

There has been a lot of discussions in the past few days whether this is right or not, published in media of all sorts like these vox pops from the Moscow Times, and Russians don’t seem to agree on the question.

Red Square this morning. Closed.

Well, the authorities have made it easier for all: this morning in Moscow, Red Square is closed, and surrounded by a whole lot of regular police, riot police, and horse police.

The message is clear.

Disappointed locals and tourists.

I had decided today would be a good day to finally take the time and go to Red Square to pay homage to Vladimir Ilitch Lenin whose dead body has been kept here for 93 years. But the Russian authorities didn’t let me in.

So I did what is always allowed in Russia, and even recommended: I went to the underground shopping mall underneath Red Square, and got my nails done. In Red, of course.

100th anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution D-1… craft beer with KGB view

The October Revolution took place on 7 November 1917, exactly a hundred years ago in 3 days, but the anniversary won’t be celebrated in Russia.

At this occasion, I’m showing you how much Russia has moved on. Whilst there are still tired Soviet symbols everywhere in the country, clearly the grass has regrown and these symbols have lost all meaning, becoming just a background for a new society.

This is how recently a craft beer place opened its doors in a 6th floor on Lubyanka square with outdoor terrace just across the haunted KGB headquarters.

This place where endless innocent souls were tortured and forced to confess uncommitted crimes before disappearing to hundreds of prisons and gulag camps under Stalin times, is now just a pretty building you can admire whilst you sip your double IPA. Cheers!

Craft beer from local Jaws brewery with KGB headquarters in the background.

100th anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution D-2… They’ve replaced Lenin by Jesus!

The October Revolution took place on 7 November 1917, exactly a hundred years ago in 2 days, but the anniversary won’t be celebrated in Russia.

At this occasion, I’m showing you how much Russia has moved on. Whilst there are still tired Soviet symbols everywhere in the country, clearly the grass has regrown and these symbols have lost all meaning, becoming just a background for a new society.

In Magadan, in Far-East Russia, there used to be a square with a big Lenin statue, like in every town of the USSR. It was at the heart of Magadan, in its most central neighbourhood.

Things started to change in 1985 when a huge Orthodox Cathedral was built.

A big Lenin statue looking towards an Orthodox Cathedral, that was a bit funny, wasn’t it?

Lenin has to be removed and this took a while but finally happened in 2010. And they replaced it by a statue of Saint Innocent of Alaska.

In Russia, you can’t just remove a Lenin and make it disappear; this is a delicate subject. Best case scenario, you move Lenin to a further spot somewhere in town; and in Magadan, they chose to place him… by the KGB headquarters.

Poor Lenin…!

The Orthodox Cathedral in Magadan. During 25 years, Lenin was standing here and forced to look at this religious building.
Lenin is now somewhere else in town, just by the KGB building (the one you can see on this photo)
Instead of Lenin now stands this statue of an Orthodox saint, Innocent of Alaska.

This is how a religion slowly replaced another!

100th anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution D-3… Poor Karl Marx

The October Revolution took place on 7 November 1917, exactly a hundred years ago in 3 days, but the anniversary won’t be celebrated in Russia.

At this occasion, I’m showing you how much Russia has moved on. Whilst there are still tired Soviet symbols everywhere in the country, clearly the grass has regrown and these symbols have lost all meaning, becoming just a background for a new society.

There is a massive statue of Karl Marx in Teatralnaya Square, in the heart of Moscow. It shows Karl leaning on a big stone that bears the inscription “Proletarians of all countries, unite”
But Teatralnaya has finally been renovated and is now the theatre of many street activities and street markets. Karl Marx now stands at the heart of the consumption society…

How I realised, by a sunny afternoon in Tbilisi, that I may be a travel snob

It was a tough and rewarding day travelling, and I was over the moon. So proud of myself – this was exactly what travel is to me:

  • A journey out of the beaten track
  • Where experience is as important than the destination itself
  • Travelling by my own means
  • And suffering a little bit on the way, real travel shouldn’t be too easy

After breakfast that morning, I had only a vague idea of what the day would bring to me: my goal was to wander around, into the non touristic Northern neighbourhoods of the Georgian capital, to potentially check out a few landmarks I found about in Google, and see what else I would find on the way.

I love these days spent walking, with a broad objective in mind, and letting encounters distract me and my plans. I spend the whole day observing, experiencing, analysing; getting to new insights about the place and its people. It really makes me high.

Serendipity and using my flair brought me to this cemetery, Didube Pantheon, and I am so glad I got to make this picture.

That day, I walked during 8 hours, including a 45-minute detour just to check a building that looked interesting at the other side of the river.

This bizarre building was the Ministry of Highways in Soviet times. Later abandoned, it’s been recently renovated and is now the HQ of the Bank of Georgia. It was worth the detour, wasn’t it?

That day, I also took a bushrutka – OK that’s a word I made up, because it was a vehicle of a size between a proper bus and a marshrutka (a van in Russia). And guess what: the journey was horrific.

The bushrutka was 45 minutes late. It was so incredibly crowded that it felt it was going to explode. It was too heavy to go uphill, and incredibly slow. It was incredibly hot inside. I was feeling privileged but cheating because I had a seat.

When we reached a bus stop and I saw a man stand with 2 children, I didn’t believe my eyes: they did actually try and get in. I sensed the trap, and immediately grabbed someone’s bag to put it on my lap; good choice, as just a second later my neighbour had a child on his. Tap on my own shoulder: oh yes I’m an experienced traveller.

There’s no tourist landmark in the Northern suburbs of Tbilisi, but if you’re a travel snob like me 😉 you are likely to find it interesting to explore them anyway!

At the top of the hill, I gave the man by the door a heads up that I was planning to get off at the next stop, so he would let me pass. His severe face expression confused me and I jabbered and didn’t express me really well. He said no and looked away.

That day, I learned the difference between hospitable and friendly. Georgians are incredibly friendly with tourists because they are incredibly hospitable – they love having you there in their country and want you to experience all what’s great about it. But that doesn’t mean they are particularly friendly outside the beaten track, especially if they don’t know you’re a tourist.

I had to fight a little, but I did eventually manage to extract myself from the overcrowded van.

I was starving, as it was Easter Monday and Georgians are serious about Christian holidays: all shops and restaurants were closed and I didn’t find a single thing to eat or drink the whole day.

I was happy and proud: it was a real day travelling, outside the beaten track, experiencing the real life and its daily struggles, just for the sake of it. A bit of a painful process at times, hence even more rewarding.

And the next day, I came across this article posted by a fellow traveller in a Facebook community I belong to: 22 Reasons You Are A Travel Snob.

Reason 1, tick. Reason 2, tick. Reason 11 obviously, and 13, and 17 perhaps, 20 possibly, and certainly, oh yes, reason 5:

You equate pain, suffering, long and arduous journeys and doing without as more authentic than traveling without pain, suffering, long and arduous journeys and doing with.

My heart skipped a bit: I may actually really be a travel snob!

What it’s like to live in the most isolated town of remote Russia

48 hours stranded in a hole, somewhere in the middle of a Soviet nowhere – this happened to me last summer when bad weather conditions caused my flight out of the remoteness to be severely delayed.

I was in Ust-Nera, in the Russian permafrost, ending a visit of the most remote, isolated and abandoned areas of Soviet Russia.

Try googling Ust-Nera. You will probably have to zoom out a few times before you can relate to anything familiar on the map.

There is very little to do in Ust-Nera; the place is totally desolated, it was raining, and you had to wait until 2 pm to buy booze – an old Gorbachev-time law that has long disappeared in Russia, but the decree of cancellation may not have reached this part of the world.

So until I could intoxicate myself to make the reality shinier, I used my mornings to walk around and figure out: what can it be like to live in such a hole of the Russian permafrost?

Imagine that you live in Ust-Nera, a previous base for the gulag labour camps, 9.000 km East of Moscow, with 6.000 other inhabitants.

There are 8 to 10 months of winter, when it typically gets as low as minus 50.

When the summer is finally there, mosquitoes proliferate and bite you mercilessly.

Summers are also humid, and because it’s permafrost, the rain stays on the surface instead of being absorbed by the earth. Hence the whole place is a swamp, and a paradise for mosquitoes.

A street in Ust-Nera

Interestingly, the frozen earth means that all houses are on pillars; houses are all Brejnev-time apartment buildings here, as most of the town was created at a time when the Soviets did not build anything else.

Typical housing building in Ust-Nera

No matter how remote, the propaganda has always made its way to you. OK, your local Lenin statue might be of a cheaper material, but there is one – and you did receive Putin’s posters for the latest anniversary of the Great Patriotic War.

Stained Lenin statue in Artyk

The next town is an 8-hour drive and it’s the exact same town. For a change of scenery, you should take a 2-hour flight in an old Antonov or Tupolev aircraft.

Your apartment is the same as everyone’s apartment in Russia, as illustrated so well in Russia’s cult film The Irony of Fate. You may have the model with 1 or 2 bedroom, it’s not too bad actually, you can hear the neighbours but you have central heating, and it costs 45.000 rubles per square metre (730 euro), 3 times less than in Moscow.

Someone is trying to sell an apartment in Ust-Nera, but it doesn’t look like many people are interested.

There are 3 or 4 shops in town and they all sell the same basic stuff. Everything is brought by truck from Yakutsk where it is brought by flight from Moscow, so it’s not fresh and costs 3 times more.

Your supplies depend on the town’s supplies. I have heard people in the shops not ask “What have you got today?” but “What has arrived today?”.

Ust-Nera’s municipal park

In continental Russia, kids often play in parks on real tanks from the war. No tank actually made it all the way here, but Moscow has thought of everything and provided the local kids this wonder of a toy to play with in the municipal park.

Entertainment is scarce, but serious. The town has one restaurant and one cafe, and there is still some activity every now and then at the House of Metallurgists.

Ust Nera’s House of Metallurgists

There is probably a reason why you’re here. There is a mine nearby and you’re a skilled worker and got incentivised to move here a long time ago. Or your family’s history is that of former gulag convicts who never returned to mainland Russia. And now you’re stuck here. It would be too expensive to move elsewhere – and to go where anyway?

Ust-Nera is pretty remote, but has a really nice WWII memorial

Russians tend to be fatalist. In the small town of Artyk, I asked an old lady who has been living there all her life, how she liked it. Instead of answering the question, she shrugged and said “Artyk is just a transport hub you know, there’s not much going on”. Make up your mind what she actually meant.

In the permafrost regions, all pipes are kept above the ground. This has a huge impact on the street layout.