Moscow, Russia: A new contemporary art district signals cultural change

Don't believe all those stories about Russians drinking vodka. In Moscow's Syromyatniki precinct, the creative souls are swilling beer. They'd be sipping vino, too, if only it weren't so pricey.

"We appreciate wine, but it's expensive," says my guide Anna Marchenko. "There's the tax, and the bad exchange rate."

Yet wine is at the very heart of this precinct's artistic revitalisation, for where artists and craft brewers now flourish, a winery once stood. Its cellars, tasting laboratories and fermenting rooms are filled today with other, more contemporary enterprises: studios for music and street art, breakdancing and design; art galleries, avant-garde clothing stores and a craft brewery.

It's not what one would expect to find in a city shaped by eons of oppressive ideology and global isolation; and yet here it is, a vibrant,  creatively fertile district tucked into a curve of the Yauza River on the city's centre's north-eastern fringe. To get here, I must first shake off one of Moscow's older artefacts, the remarkably beautiful Art Deco metro stations buried deep beneath the city's foundations.

I'm delivered, shortly, onto the nondescript streets flanking the semi-urban Kurskaya Railway Station. But the short walk into Syromyatniki's creative heart suggests an altogether more defiant sensibility: flamboyant graffiti colouring the railway underpasses; women subverting the Muscovite uniform of skirts and full make-up with piercings and punk hairdos; shops spilling over with artisanal designs.

Tunnels of street art lead me to the Moscow Contemporary Art Centre WINZAVOD ("wine factory" in English), an art cluster helping to foment the city's artistic renaissance. The complex encompasses a 19th-century manor house and series of warehouses that have lived their own lives of creative extremes: apart from the winery, they have housed a wax, resin and stopper factory, a tannery, a college and a shelter for single mothers and the homeless.

WINZAVOD showcases the work of established artists and young up-and-comers, including those from Russia's furthest reaches. It stages politically subversive exhibitions and houses the headquarters of The Art Newspaper Russia. The latter, Marchenko explains, "is a big deal", because the publication reflects and promotes the country's bourgeoning – yet frequently maligned – contemporary art movement.

"In Russia, contemporary art is still something that scares some people," she says. "They don't know how to appreciate it."

WINZAVOD also has a broader purpose, to invigorate the city as part of its program of urban development. Streets have been enhanced with conceptual architecture and splashes of paint, parks have been re-imagined as communal spaces rather than mere thoroughfares. While many have embraced the change, others have been more sceptical, says Marchenko.

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"People used to joke that by building such places they'd trick people into thinking they live in Europe. But we're still in Russia, with all its limitations!"

In the adjoining Art Play precinct, pressure gauges were once produced for the railways; the factory was moved to Siberia at the end of the Great Patriotic War (WWI). After languishing for decades, the site has found new purpose as a creative hub: here you will find furniture design studios, a film school, craft brewers, jewellery shops – and Moscow's "best vegan restaurant", Fruits and Vegetables.

It's lifestyle choices such as veganism – along with an explosion in artistic expression – that signify a shift in the country's once collectively held ideology. And this social progress is demonstrated perhaps most poignantly in OTKPbITO, a shop in Art Play that sells art and crafts made by adults with autism. Such recognition is a huge step forward in a country that doesn't cater particularly well to people with disabilities, Marchenko says. "Most disabled people never leave their apartments. But look around you: it's getting a tiny bit better."

And tucked among these vibrant establishments is a tiny reminder of just how much better life has become for everyone: a Soviet-era grocery store, complete with vintage scale and neatly-stacked shelves. Russia was like this under communism, Marchenko says, except back then the shelves were empty. "This," she says, sweeping her arms around the modestly stocked shop, "is abundance".

The three-hour Made in Moscow walking tour starts from about AU$90 per person and includes an English-speaking guide and vegan refreshments. See urbanadventures.com and intrepidtravel.com/au

Catherine Marshall travelled as a guest of Urban Adventures and Intrepid Travel.

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