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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Memories of 24 Ulitsa Pravdy

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I switched on the television on Monday to see a woman in a charred white coat weeping in terror as ambulance workers tried to calm her down. Moments later it dawned on me that I knew her.

It was Tatyana, fearsome denizen of the canteen at the Pressa publishing house, who would subject you to withering abuse if you tried paying for lunch with anything but the exact change.

Tatyana was on television because the Pressa building at 24 Ulitsa Pravdy -- home to dozens of Russian publications and former headquarters of The Moscow Times -- was wrecked by fire. One woman was killed and the building was gutted.

For me, news of the fire brought back memories of the years I spent in that building working for The Moscow Times.

But I realized something else too: The flames that had wrecked the building had also destroyed a living relic of the Soviet Union, a piece of the country's communist past that by some miracle had survived, almost intact, through the 15 years since the hammer and sickle flag was lowered over the Kremlin. No. 24 Ulitsa Pravdy really was the building that time forgot.

On my first day at The Moscow Times in 1995, I noticed pipes zigzagging at ceiling-level through the building.

"What are they?" I asked Tanya, my new colleague in the photo department. "It's the pnevno-pochta," Tanya said. "Pneumatic tubes. You roll up messages, put them in the pipe and they get squirted to another part of the building."

The only other time I had come across this system was in Aldous Huxley's novel "Brave New World," a nightmarish vision of a future under a totalitarian government.

Over the next few weeks, I explored the building beyond the small section occupied by The Moscow Times newsroom with its shiny computers, water cooler and open plan layout.

It was like entering a time warp: a labyrinth of dimly lit corridors that were thick with smoke and the stench of the men's toilets.

On either side there were dozens of tiny offices, each the size of a cupboard.

These were the offices of newspapers like Selskaya Zhizn, Tribuna and Sovietskaya Rossia -- once-proud publications created to sing the praises of the Communist Party to millions of readers across the Soviet empire. With not a hint of irony, the Soviets called the street Ulitsa Pravdy, in honor of the newspaper, but even to a Russian ear it sounded like Street of Truth.

By 1996 though, most of the papers had hit hard times. Government subsidies dried up, circulations plummeted.

They should have gone bankrupt. The staff should have been fired. Yet somehow, 24 Ulitsa Pravdy was immune to the harsh demands of the new, capitalist Russia. They just kept limping on, defying economic reality.

Their staff could sit in their offices for hours, maybe days on end, and nobody ever seemed to bother them. You never heard the phones ringing. I swear some of them had cobwebs on the door.

Somewhere deep in the basement of the building there was a giant printing press that would churn out hundreds of thousands of newspapers every evening. I never saw it, but I heard the people who worked there were amazingly bad-tempered, and if you were even a minute late with your newspaper, they'd refuse to print it. Rumor had it that frantic editors would bribe the printers with bottles of whisky if they missed their deadline.

The canteen on the seventh floor was the highlight of the Ulitsa Pravdy Soviet experience. The staff had nicknames. The Claw -- so called because she had a thumbnail like an eagle's talon – shuffled round collecting empty plates.

Dracula, who had slicked-back black hair, specialized in jabbing her thumb into your greasy mashed potato as she served it to you. The others were all known as Doris.

Tatyana -- the one who featured in the television report of the fire this week – was called the Boot, for reasons I have now forgotten. She was in charge of the cash register.

The prices hadn't changed since Leonid Brezhnev was general-secretary of the Communist Party. So a meal in the late 1990s would cost you, say, 4 rubles and 17 kopeks.

Naturally, no one had the 17 kopeks, and the Boot certainly did not have change. You had to add glasses of cloudy compote or white saucers of unidentified meat in jelly to your tray to make it up to the amount you had in your hand.

I stopped going to the canteen the day I found a thick black hair and a fingernail in my stolichny salad. I went to another Soviet-style restaurant in a next-door building called Krolik, or the Rabbit. It had a mangy stuffed hare in a fish tank above the door and served tankards of beer the size of buckets.

I left The Moscow Times at the end of 1998. Two years later, the newspaper moved out of 24 Ulitsa Pravdy and into new premises.

I have not been back since, but I am pretty sure most things continued much as they had done for decades.

But the fire will change all that. Mayor Yury Luzhkov, speaking on Monday before the flames had been completely put out, promised the building would be restored to the way it was. Then on Wednesday, the Presidential Property Department, which owns the complex, said the damage appeared to be so severe that the building would have to be torn down.

No decision has yet been announced, but whether 24 Ulitsa Pravdy is restored or rebuilt, it will reopen with slick new offices that the likes of Selskaya Zhizn will not be able to afford. Banks and computer services firms will move in instead.

And this relic of the Soviet past -- grimy and ridiculous, but with a certain charm too -- will be gone forever.

Chloe Arnold, a former Moscow Times reporter, is a freelance journalist based in Moscow.