2014/07/31

Moscow: dead Lenin

It is a quasi religious experience, after standing in line in the hot July sun and finally passing the security checkpoint, to  file past the red granite tombstones of Communist heroes — John Reed among them (no women, as far as I could see, though I didn't actually manage to read all the names) — and then enter the dark descending staircase. Uniformed honor guards signaled vigorously for me to take off my cap and hushed everybody. Then, after another turn in the dark passageway, you file past the waxy figure, dressed as though to chair a meeting or give a speech. The guards keep everybody moving so soon we are back in the bright sun, walking past still more tombstones and plaques with names of dead Communists. 

Today's Russians must view Lenin much the way Americans are supposed to think of George Washington, as the founder (or "father") of the modern state, meriting the same kind of respect as Peter the Great, the motor force of an earlier great modernization. Their respective ideologies, like Washington's supposed "deism", are little more than historical curiosities — very few Russians today call themselves "communists". But Lenin's thinking may still offer us some good guidelines, both regarding political strategy (his ideas about how to gain and extend power were most effective) and
larger economic questions (imperialism, for example). He may not have been a pleasant man to deal with (I'm remembering Struve's and Valentinov's memoirs, quoted by Edmund Wilson in his 1972 introduction to To the Finland Station). But he was a brilliant and audacious one. And Russia could not have become the power it is today without the consolidation of the centralized, modernizing state, difficult to imagine under the Mensheviks or any of the other contenders of 1917-1920.

 Olga Boiko has posted  historical photos of the mausoleum, together with interesting commentary

2014/07/30

Moscow: history and literature

After browsing around the monastery of St. Peter on the Hill (more divinity-powered icons), we paid hommage to a more recent summoner of magical forces, Mikhail Bulgakov, by a visit to Patriarchs Ponds, the opening scene of Master and Margarita, which Susana has been reading. From her descriptions (I haven't got into it yet), its miracles and black magic are even weirder than the stuff in the churches.

From there it was only a short walk to the Museum of Contemporary History (an oxymoron in its English translation — what the Russians mean by современной истории is "recent" history, since Alexander II - 1856-1881 — to today). Fascinating collection of objects and images, including film footage of battle scenes and troops in World War I, political rallies and fighting in 1905 and 1917 and following. All the explanatory labels were in Russian and we had only an hour before closing time, so I had hardly time to consult my dictionary for some of the more curious exhibit cases, but we didn't really need to to get the gist of a history we've long studied from other sources. It could all have been made much clearer with a better arrangement, and more information in other languages — Japanese tourists, for example, would surely be interested in the section on the Russo-Japanese war, a military and financial disaster for the Russian Empire that largely provoked the 1905 revolution. Still, the exhibits as a whole helped us imagine those lives and that history more vividly.

Then a longer walk to the twin bookstores at 18 Kuznetsky Most, where I was hoping to find a bilingual edition of some classical or contemporary Russian literature. But no. One store had only Russian, the other only foreign languge (mostly English), no bilingual editions in either. And no store clerk in either store who really understood English, so I was forced to exercise my pitifully minimal Russian. I remembered a book that had made a powerful impression when I'd read it in translation and decided to find the Russian text: Isaac Babel's "Red Cavalry".  And I made myself understood— I bought a 1986 paperback collection that includes not only the 34 very short stories in Конармия but also his Одесские рассказы (Odessa  stories). And to create my own bilingual experience, I searched on-line for a translation in some language I can read, and was delighted to discover on Kindle a 1928 translation into French on which Babel himself (who spoke and wrote French fluently) had collaborated. The translator seems to have known Babel well, and his introduction is a delight. More on that later — potom, as the Russians say.

Meanwhile, on another much in the news and people's concerns:
US-Supported "Good Guys" Firing Ballistic Missiles in Ukraine?

2014/07/29

Moscow: seeing what's left of constructivist architecture

Rusakov Workers Club by Melnikov
Yesterday (in Moscow's continuing exceptional heat) we saw about as much as still can be seen of the  city's constructivist architecture designed and built in the 1920s and beginning of the '30s. The architects and engineers' aims were to create spaces for the education and expressive development of the workers (with libraries, theaters and sports and recreation areas), announce by their strikingly new design the society's entry into a new communist era, and to do all this quickly and cheaply with available scarce materials. (In addition to the Wikipedia article, see New World Encyclopedia, source of photo at the right.)

As with the constructivist art that I mentioned yesterday (and which in some cases was produced by the same people who designed the most impressive architecture), that creative, open and experimental period did not last. The art was mostly destroyed or hidden with the bureaucratization of the Soviet state and the imposition of "correct" tastes. The architecture was neglected or altered, sometimes drastically, for uses for which it was never intended. But some of it is still standing, and some has even been conscientiously restored. 

It would have been impossible for us to get to so many widely separated sites on our own in one day, or for us to negotiate in Russian with the doorkeepers so we could see the interiors of some of these places. Fortunately, we had hired Arthur Lookyanov to get us to all these places, and Arthur is a very persistent and organized guide — with very good English, an air-conditioned car with GPS, and photographic skill and equipment. Susana had sent him in advance the list of sites, and he had worked out the most efficient itinerary; he was very dogged in trying to get us into places, some of which were in reconstruction or were in top security sectors — a power plant, for example, or the famous Shukov radio tower.

He took much better pictures than we would have managed. I'll share them with you once he sends them. If you're planning a tour of Moscow, he would be a good guide: Moscow Driver is his website.

2014/07/28

Fallen Monuments

"USSR  - Bulwark of Peace" - photo Folkestone Jack

This for me is the most impressive piece in the Park of the Fallen Monuments, because it is not merely the image of a man that has fallen but a once noble and inspiring ideal. 

Park of the Fallen Monuments

Acccording to the Guía Roja de Moscú, "This shield was in the southeastern sector of Moscow,  at the intersection of Avenue Lenin  and Kravchenko Street, placed there in the 1970s, the work in aluminum of S. Shchekotikhin.  The shield and slogan were dismanteled at the beginning of the 90s and ended up in the Muzeon" (of Fallen Monuments) next to the new Tryetyakov Galereya. 

2014/07/27

Moscow, days 3-4: Partizani, Putin-mania & konstruktivizma

Yesterday, we joined the crowd at the flea-market "vernissage" in Ismailovskaya park, near the Partizanskaya Metro station. Like the station, the flea market was full of "Great Patriotic War" memorabilia, and much more : matryoshka dolls, bad art, Soviet-era books, maps and documents,ancient post cards, goofy sculptures, and even some surprisingly clever handicrafts. Vladimir  Poprotzkin, for example, offers matryoshkas of works by famous artists; Susana bought his Malevich doll, one tiny reproduction nested in another nested in another of the famous suprematist paintings.  We were also impressed by the detailed lighthouse models by Andrei Savarov.

And then there were all the Putin images in coffee mugs: posing shirtless and flexing, or grimacing or snarling while saying things like "Crimea is ours!" And Russia's English-language TV station that night was equally belligerent, denouncing what they said (in perfect American accents) were absurd US propaganda slurs implying that Russia had something to do with the downing of the Malaysian jet liner while minimizing Ukrainian government terrorism. We weren't convinced by this view, but apparently many Russians are.
At Crash Scene of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, Rebels Blame Ukraine

None of this tension has been observable on the streets of Moscow this weekend, where Gorky Park and the whole south bank of the Moskva river was in festival mood. And this in great heat, well over 30º.  Most memorable today: the Costakis collection of Russian avant-garde art, or at least part of it, in the Tretryakov Gallery annex (fortunately air-conditioned). The story of how this very perceptive collector managed to save so many marvelous works — besides Malevich, pieces by Tatlin, Rodchenko, Popova and many others — from oblivion and almost certain destruction  is told in a film.

More later. It's been a fatiguing day.

2014/07/26

Moscow: day 2

On Friday we toured the churches and gardens inside the red walls of the Kremlin, full of tombs and images of saints and tsars, and then took a great leap into another time and mind set with the exhibition in the State Historical Museum, "The myth of the beloved leader." For this small but densely packed show, the curators brought out of hiding objects, posters, videos and other images related to the creation and elaboration of the myth that was supposed to substitute for the suppressed myth represented by those churches: the enlightened heroism and steadfastness of Lenin, and the continuation of his spirit in Iosif Vissarionovich Stalin ( Russian : Иосиф Виссарионович Сталин).

Stalin's version of the myth required distorting or obliterating much of the turbulent story of the creation of the Soviet Union and of the Comintern, which is why so much of the material in this exhibition had been hidden after Stalin consolidated his power in 1927. Many of the heroes of those earlier phases had been declared enemies by Iosif Vissarionovich — Trotsky being the best known, but there were scores of others who had worked closely with Lenin but now were to be expunged from the record and, when possible, killed. But all those bright, enthusiastic faces have been brought back to view, in photos, documents and the vivid sketches by Isaak Brodsky and, most impressively, in his huge painting (1920-1924) of the Second Congress of the Communist International.

In the full-size original, with the help of an electronic screen provided by the museum, you can pick out Lenin (presiding), Stalin (far to the right of the picture, a few rows in front of the column), Trotsky (behind and to the left of Lenin, leaning over a rail and talking to another comrade), Karl Radek (a special hero of mine— I think he's the man sitting in the same row as Lenin, to his left), Zinoviev, Kamenev, John Reed (the only American I found), plus scores of men and women delegates from Germany, France, Hungary, Bulgaria...

If those early Bolsheviks had only tried to demythologize Christianity as intelligently and respectfully as the museum curators seek to reveal the construction of Stalin's myth of his own continuation of a heroic Lenin, maybe we would not see today so many frightened people pleading for salvation by the saints. But it seems that most people need powerful imaginary companions to get through all our troubles, and for decades, a mythified Stalin-Lenin duo did the job for millions of Russians and others. Now they're gone, and the saints have come marching back.

2014/07/24

Moscow: day 1

We've taken our first day in Moscow slowly, to orient ourselves. Besides getting acquainted with the subways and strolling the length of Varvarka Street (Moscow's oldest), we spent most of the day on and around Red Square, where we plan to return tomorrow for an exhibition that was closed today: "The Myth of the Beloved Leader" at the State Historical Museum. Today we visited the Cathedral of St. Basil the Blessed (a complex of ten churches under as many domes, where we stopped to hear a 4-man vocal group who made a chapel and its labyrinthine corridors vibrate to old Russian paeans to God), GUM and the other part of the historical museum (open today) for pre-20th century Russia.

Vast and overwhelming. So much history, so complex, and all the labels in Russian — which may be why we were the only foreigners we saw in the place. Fortunately Susana had found on the Internet and printed out case-by-case descriptions of things in all the 18th and 19th century halls, but when we got into earlier times — Mongol invasions, medieval salt production (I think that's what a big wooden machine was doing), cruel and primitive weapons, all the way back to the mammoths and giant rhinoceros that were there before the humans — we could call upon only our memories of past readings and my searches through my Russian-English dictionary to interpret what we saw.

Still, it was worthwhile. Viewing clothing, tools, housing and artifacts linked with images we had retained from Tolstoi and every other Russian author who had passed through our consciousness, each of these experiences (reading and seeing) strengthening the other. So we are beginning to feel Russia, which is important to understand it.

And that of course is the main reason I've been studying the language. I've made small but significant progress: people understand me when I ask directions. The next big step will be to understand their answers, but so far, Russians on the street or the subway platform have been very helpful and very patient, and we've been able to find our way.

2014/07/15

Polyglots

Now that I have "re-activated" my long-languishing store of Russian, I got to wondering
How Many Languages Is It Possible to Learn? And this is one of many similar responses I got from Google, this one from The Linguist Blogger.

It appears that the only limit is the time it takes to learn each one. There's no limit to the number we can attain, and there are people who can speak 200 or more — the problem will be to retain them. The human brain has far greater capacity than any of us can ever exploit; it simply forms new neural pathways for every new routine we learn, whether a piece of music, computer code, dozens of PINs, or city map. Or a language. Wow. I'm impressed by my own brain (and by yours, too, and every human's). The amount of lore that a London taxi driver or a Mumbai dabbawalla can keep track of seems astounding — but they are just ordinary people like us, and if we went about it the way they do, we could learn all that too.

But how many languages can one usefully learn? If comparative linguistics is your thing, then maybe learning 200 will be important. For most of us, the answer is only as many as we need, and only as much as we need for our uses— whether as souvenir hawkers in a tourist center, nomads, foreign correspondents, diplomats, international bankers, or casual travelers, et alii. And, use it or lose it; if we cease using a language, we cease reinforcing or creating new neural pathways that let us find the word or phrase we need when we need it. But my experience confirms something in that blog post cited above: once learned, a disused language may not be totally lost.

For now, I'm hoping to be able to ask and understand directions, order food, etc., in Moscow and St. Petersburgh. And maybe even to have a conversation. Learning anything new is a thrill, and languages come more easily to me than, say, computer code or streetmaps or almost anything else. Language is a way into another person's way of thinking, and that's something we all need.

2014/07/14

Too many ambitions

Banner of Spain adopted in 1981
You may have been expecting me to say something more about the political changes in Spain, which are moving rapidly through many currents, a confusing turbulence likely to bust this rigid, timid, antiquated and authoritarian system wide open. And that will no doubt have major repercussions throught the European Union. You surely know about Catalan nationalism, threatening to take Spain's richest region out of the country, but that is only a peripheral symptom of some much bigger shifts, most having to do with the issues I talked about in a previous post about "populism", the mass mobilizations that began in 2011, and "Podemos" and its ripples throughout the system. All this really requires cool-headed analysis, with lots of filling in for readers who have not been following.
Banner of the II Republic, 1931-39

BUT that will be a bigger job than I can take on right now. I've been trying to do too many things at once: write a novel about the Paris Commune, participate (even if marginally) in political movements in Spain, comprehend 21st century capitalism (Piketty), and now a trip to Russia. All I can say is, keep an eye on events here, and I'll try to give you a coherent account when I get back.

Right now I'm working as fast as I can to learn Russian well enough to get around in Moscow and St. Petersburgh. This is a new task I've assigned myself, but it's something I've wanted to do for many years, since I first took a Russian language course in college but was too undisciplined (it was my freshman year) to really learn it.

It may not look like it, but (for me) all these projects are parts of one bigger one: understanding the past attempts to change the world (Hobsbawm) in order to guide us to do it better.

That's why I am researching the Commune, to be able to tell part of its story in a novel, as it might have been experienced by a young revolutionary worker.

Flag of the Soviet Union, 1923-1991
And of course why I have long wanted to know more about Russia. Its 20th century past,




Russian Federation, since 1993 (white band on top)
 and its 21st century present.

(By the way, if you too are trying to learn Russian, I've had good experience with this on-line course: Russian Accelerator.)

2014/07/10

What we talk about when we talk about the Left

Left In Europe (World University Library)Left In Europe by David Caute
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Reflecting on the confusion of aims and strategies of all the parties and movements calling themselves "Left" in Europe today, I turned again to this little book with its capsule histories and profuse illustrations (engravings, photos, posters) of revolutionary movements from the French Revolution of 1789 to the mid-1960s. Caute's intention was evidently to rescue the notion of the Left from many misunderstanding and confusions, but he does not manage to come up with a concise, convincing definition of his own. He critiques descriptions such as anti-racism, anti-clericalism, pacifism, and social reformism because conservatives and even reactionaries may adopt similar positions (Bismarck and Napoleon III were reformists, etc.). Nor are the movements he considers Left always anti-authoritarian (remember Lenin's vanguard party) or democratic, in the sense of always accepting what the greater number of voices demand; he suggests that "'popular sovereignty' is preferable to 'democracy' as a term descriptive of the central creed of the Left" [p. 32], but that hardly solves the problem.
I don't think there's any point in trying to define the Left, with clear delineations of what it includes or excludes; no definition — whether by Lenin, or Caute, or Hugo Chávez or anybody — will be accepted by everybody. The term originated from a vote in the assemblée nationale in Paris on September 11, 1789, where those opposed to a monarchical veto took seats to the left of the chairman; but those députés did not necessarily agree on anything else. Protest movements, then and now, are volatile and contradictory. What we can do, and what Caute's little book does in part, is describe some of them to find common characteristics and aspirations.
Over 50 years ago I was part of an informal seminar with the very young David Caute (I was 5 years younger), discussing some of these same ideas. The controversies live on.

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