Moscow was 869 years old on this year’s City Day, and that’s official.
I think it must be very hard to decide what to give someone who is 869. There are only so many My Little Pony dolls, accessories, houses, ice cream parlours, DVDs, costumes, card games and apps out there, whatever Mama might think. The Moscow authorities looked at the profusion of round numbers and gifted the capital of Russia a new circular metro line encompassing the more outlying areas of the city. Which was nice of them. A train set is always acceptable, even if it isn’t actually pink or covered in unicorns. But despite Mama’s keeness to ride the rails, we decided it might be a bit busy on its first day of opening. Instead, we went to the giant street party in the centre.
There’s always a street party for City Day.
But as it turned out, this one was not transport related. 2016 is the Year of Film in Russia and so instead we had pop up cafes, stage shows, cosplayers and street performers all working around the theme of movies set in Moscow. You could even hunker down and watch the films themselves in tiny temporary cinemas if the other entertainment on offer got too much for you.
Now, by films set in Moscow, of course I mean those made by the very prolific Soviet and Russian film industry. Surprisingly, that means virtually none of them feature Brucik Willisov speeding around fighting the mafia and/ or the KGB among grim tower blocks and dilapidated nuclear power stations or fighting off prostitutes in seedy nightclubs.
So what we had instead was the circus, time travel, Tolstoy, precocious children, singing in the rain, time travel (again), vampires and hipsters. Naturally.
There’s a running joke in the excellent (if very short-lived) Mitchell and Webb series the Ambassadors, set in a Former Soviet Country, which all expats in the Former States really should watch if only to cringe at the spot on portrayal of their foibles. This gag’s about the propensity of the natives to offer the circus as a high treat to any and all visiting foreigners. And the propensity of the expats to cringe with horror at the paucity of this unsophisticated entertainment.
Not a view shared by us, let me tell you! Even if Mama doesn’t have the faintest clue what the film it was referencing was, you can’t go too far wrong, in our opinion, with colourful costumed stilt walkers prepared to lift you up for a selfie, acrobats prepared to teach you some of the tricks of their trade and unicycle riders who took my Jammy Big Brother up with them and rode round the assembled audience, to his everlasting delight. Except I didn’t get to have a go.
Next up was Ivan Vasilievich Changes his Profession where, in a freak accident, the very medieval medieval Tsar, Ivan the Terrible, gets swapped with a lookalike petty criminal from 1970s Moscow, with predictably hilarious results. That one’s based on a story by Bulgakov, in case you didn’t think the Master and Margarita was obscurely satirical enough. But it meant that the organisers of this event could dress people up in robes and fighting gear and trot out the people doing live action metal work again, so that’s alright.
Plus, the rather fabulous costumes from the actual film were on display, and that was definitely worth a gawk.
One of what I can only assume is War and Peace’s many iterations, saw the interactive fun themed around members of the public being invited to dress up in early 19th century dresses and hang out with the main characters whilst admiring the uniforms of the soldiers sitting around staring moodily into the distance or playing on their iphones. Mama says that Russians admit to skipping the War bits in the novelisation. This must be why. Not much happens.
Mama, being British, particularly enjoyed the installation where you could stand underneath umbrellas and have water poured on you. A bold choice, she thought, given that it’s mid September and last year’s City Day was a bit of a washout. And you thought Russians don’t have a sense of humour. I, on the other hand, was delighted to be able to show off my performance skills as this was the bit of the street devoted to the musical film, Here I Go, Walking Through Moscow, the title song to which I learned in school! Singalongs! With actions! That’s what every good party needs!
Then it started to get weird, otherwise known as Soviet sci fi.
Now, they weren’t celebrating Mama’s favourite film in this genre, about a robot boy who takes the place of his lookalike human counterpart at school (The Adventures of an Electronic). Which goes about as successfully as you might expect but also gives a surprisingly interesting insight into what Soviet childhood was actually like in the 80s. No, this one, Guests from the Future, was the one where visitors from the future end up fighting for control of a little black box, to be ultimately thwarted by upstanding members of Muscovite youth culture. I gather from the rolling interactive performance of the main scenes which this area of Tverskaya Street consisted of.
Frankly, my Jammy Big Brother and I were decidedly sceptical about the fabulously dressed people milling around, although Mama, who you may have gathered is a bit of a geek, didn’t really see this as a problem as it allowed her the opportunity of getting her photo taken for once. More than once. More than twice, actually. But we enjoyed playing tug of war with the bad guys (we won) and chasing them through the streets of Moscow on our imaginary motorcycles (we won) and generally contributing to the triumph of the gentleman dressed in silver lame over the men in yellow (we won). I mean, who wouldn’t?
We also enjoyed taking part in the obstacle course races, the aim of which, was to act as good Soviet pioneers (like the scouts/ guides but more…. compulsory), and carry the milk in string bags home to Mama through tunnels, and so on. We both won our rounds in that one too. Mama notes we seem to have become a tad competitive over the summer.
In fact, as you can see there was quite a lot going on for us kids, despite the fact that they didn’t seem to be celebrating any of the excellent Soviet cartoons we have been brought up on. And while it was crowded for Moscow, we’d recently attended one of the cultural hat tips on Trafalgar Square, and believe you me, you haven’t experienced packed until you have been to Maslenitsa, Diwali, Eid, a Japanese Matsuri, St Patrick’s Day and Pride in a space which can comfortably fit about a tenth of the people attending it, and you definitely haven’t felt frustrated until you have seen the queues for the interesting looking food or waited in line to get you hand hennaed for ages and ages and ages and ages and ages.
In contrast, for Moscow’s City Day it didn’t take us long to get the obligatory ice cream, or find seats in the obligingly comfortable bean bag chill out zones when our stamina started flagging about half way down Tverskaya.
Mama wasn’t, inexplicably, all that keen on experiencing food from a mock Soviet café. But we could have popped into any of the usual eateries which line the street had she not promised us fast food as compensation for indulging her love of spectacle – Moscow city centre is amply provided for refreshment options.
Buoyed by our break, we hit the final film sets and were away. There were a few at this point Mama didn’t recognise, including the one which involved a giant
Christmas New Year tree and ice/ roller skating rink. So we ignored them. Especially as Mama feels we will have had quite enough of Christmas New Year trees, snow and ice rinks in a few months.
The first one Mama was interested in neatly combined one of the mock ups of Moscow architectural landmarks dotted up and down the street with an actual scene from the film involved. Members of the public were climbing the archways to stand and survey the city. Just like the vampire members of the Day Watch police force, tasked with making sure that the magical forces of Light don’t take advantage during the times when most upright citizens of the Dark are having a well-earned nap from drinking blood, promoting the evil agenda, and so on.
From the films (and books) called the Night Watch. Which are pretty bloody good, says Mama, and widely available in English. Hint hint. And the films are worth it for the subtitles alone, Mama says. Hint hint HINT. But as Mama feels that the plot of this one isn’t really very suitable for our ears and as we think vampires are to be avoided, perplexed is what we were.
Stilyagi (Hipsters), which ended the film parade, is another fairly recent film. This time, about the people who listened to that alternative underground music of the West, RocknRoll. It’s another pretty good film, and does a very neat balancing act between the jauntiness of the soundtrack and colourful musical numbers and a glimpse at what happened to non conformists in the Soviet Union back in the day. But there’s also a refusal to turn them entirely into entirely righteous martyrs to individual freeeeeeedom and the American way. And a frankly odd ending. Mama thinks they just ran out of plot, or possibly money, but it’s still worth seeing.
Of course, for the perspective of a giant street party, it’s an excellent excuse to have beautifully dressed people performing energetic, hysterically happy, highly danceable music. And have beautifully dressed people mingle energetically with hysterical happiness with the crowd. Carrying a double bass! Mama was cross that at this point her camera battery died and she didn’t get to hysterically happily mug at us with correct hand positioning on the fretboard. You’ll just have to imagine the big skirts, the fifites hairdos and the hysterically happy grinning.
So, will you enjoy City Day, should you be in Moscow sometime in September next year? Will you enjoy a saunter down a street full of colour and distraction with the occasional snacking opportunity? Even if you are not the target audience and may find whatever theme they have a bit incomprehensible? Well, we certainly did, and so we can highly recommend Tverskaya Street on City Day to anybody. Other venues for celebration are available, but this is our top pick.
Had your interest in Soviet and Russian films whetted? Have a look at this website, which has links to Russian language films dubbed or subtitled into English.
Address: Tverskaya Street, Moscow
Metro: Okhotniy Ryad (red line) Teatralnaya (green line) and Ploshard Revolutsii (dark blue line) are at one end, and Chekhovskaya (grey line), Pushkinskaya (purple line) and Tverskaya (green line) at the other.
By other means: What part of the centre is closed to traffic did you not understand?