From the pedestrian bridge that crosses the Moskva river towards the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour you normally have a clear view of the Kremlin. But for several days last week its fairytale towers had disappeared behind an acrid grey pall. With the thermometer stuck at a record-shattering 40C and the smog hidden by smoke from the burning marshes outside the city, this was a hellish Moscow that none of its residents had ever seen before.
I was in the city to give a talk at a new school, the Strelka Institute of Architecture, Media and Design. Located just across the river from the cathedral, the Strelka occupies the garages of the former Red October chocolate factory, which until two years ago had been producing chocolate on that site since the late 19th century. The school only opened earlier this summer but already it’s one of the liveliest nightspots in the city, with film screenings, clubs and a restaurant frequented by Moscow’s glamorous media set. If you’re thinking that this doesn’t sound much like a school, then you’d have a point, but we’ll address that later. In all other senses the sight of a former industrial complex being turned into a cultural hotspot is one that we’ve been accustomed to in Europe and the US for several decades. In Russia, however, it’s a more recent phenomenon.
One reason is that the gradual switch from an industrial to a services economy didn’t begin until the Yeltsin years. And it was only around the turn of the millennium that developers started to speculate on factories (the more unscrupulous ones earned the description “raiders”). The other factor in the slow speed of the post-industrial project is that the Russians appear to value new things more than old ones.