When I got to Moscow I was disappointed by the Arbat. I spent my first year at university following text book character Peter Green up and down this legendary street in my mind, picking up vocabulary and visions of energy and excitement as we went. But when I finally arrived in October I found a grey, wind-swept thoroughfare lined with generic coffee shops and fast food outlets. I felt cheated. Peter and his Colloquial Russian had truly let me down.
But now the sun is out and it’s all come together. Like so many places and pursuits in Moscow, the sun bejewels it since we truly are simple creatures. The whole evening people roam and smile. A commendable amount of pivo is consumed with wonderful Russian gusto. For a mile nearly every set of lips is tugged by a smile and that’s the only way it could be. Homo urbanis revelling in his natural habitat. Once I learned the truth I apologised to Peter and sought to learn more. The Arbat has existed since the 15th Century and the name is Arabic in origin, but it is Bulat Okudzhava who really helped me on this one. “Oh Arbat, my Arbat, you are my joy, you are my woe… Oh Arbat, my Arbat, you are my religion” he bangs in his “Song about The Arbat”.
Song is a particularly apt way to immortalise the Arbat, for there are musicians all over. It is truly spectacular to see fat gopniks (Russian chavs) in tracksuits getting soulful with a guitar, dispensing advice on life and love to passing crowds. Lot’s of artists. I saw one had captured Johnny Depp with charcoal. He had trapped him in a small brown frame and there was no escape. The Arbat is not such a bad place to be detained with the smell of paint and beer, the gentle croon of assorted buskers, the wild wailing of various musicians, and the soft fur shapkas tickling your eyes. A perfect final resting place for poor Johnny if I’m honest.
And Johnny is in fine company, for although The Arbat is not a graveyard, it evokes the memories of some monumental Russian men. A waft of Lermontov, a statue of Pushkin; they both had houses on this street and that alone makes it more special. In his letters and stories, Krzhizhanovskii uses the Arbat as a therapeutic stamping ground, the merry-go-round of faces helping him to ‘unravel the knots of Moscow’. And to think I had written the Arbat off, dismissed it as a faded myth. Moscow is schizophrenic and to fall in love with it you need a little patience and better sources than Peter Green.