SUSANA AND GEOFF’S TRIP TO MOSCOW AND SAINT PETERSBURG, JULY-AUGUST 2014
SHHHHHHH!!! The young guards were, very loudly, making sure we didn’t make any noise going down the steps of Lenin’s Mausoleum in almost complete darkness. It’s impossible to tell if the figure lying in state with face and hands precisely lit is the real mummy, or a wax representation. All the same, we wanted to say goodbye in our last day in Moscow to the symbol of the momentous social changes brought about by the October 1917 revolution. Goodbye, Vladimir Ilych. Goodbye, John Reed and Alexei Shchusev buried with many others along the Kremlin wall.
|Red Square. From left: GUM, St. Basil's, Lenin's tomb (click for larger view)|
|Considering an alternative to the Moscow subway|
Even the Cathedrals within the Kremlin walls followed a similar pattern, churches meant for a privileged few and with no ambition to include the unwashed masses. We were more impressed with the model of Catherine the Great’s insanely ambitious Grand Kremlin Palace, now in the Architecture Museum than with the existing Kremlin itself. Had it been built, monumental Neo-Classical double colonnades would have surmounted the entire Kremlin Wall facing Red Square.
|Christ the Savior and Tsereteli sculpture|
Among the dozens of house museums where artists and writers lived, the one I wanted to see most was that of Anatoly Lunacharsky, Lenin’s Commissar of Enlightenment, a great intellectual and promoter of the artistic avant-garde; he staged a happening avant la lettre, a trial against God for crimes against humanity, in which the deity was condemned to death and “executed” by a firing squad shooting machine guns into the sky. When we could gолигарх, i.e., “oligarch”.
et no answer on the phone for an appointment, we simply showed up at the address and rang the bell. A burly man— evidently the caretaker — came down to inform us, by gesture and the few words we could understand, that the apartment was now privately occupied; with a semi-apologetic grin, he explained in one word:
In both Moscow and St. Petersburg we visited art and political history museums. In Moscow’s Tretyakov Gallery annex, we were able to see the 50% of George Costakis’ extraordinary art collection that he was obliged to leave behind when he moved to Greece, including Malevich’s Black Square and some of the best pieces of Natalia Goncharova, which establish her role as the inspiring founder of new movements. It was enlightening to see them for the first time in the context of earlier and later works by Russian artists not well known in the West. The focus of the contemporary art world is Moscow’s “Garage”, a would-be museum currently housed in a temporary, unremarkable structure designed by Shigeru Ban, awaiting its permanent location in a Soviet era pavilion being remodeled by Rem Koolhas, in a clear effort to become an international destination. Although we are not entirely up-to-date with Russian contemporary art, we had liked the rambunctious energy of songspiel videos by the art collective Chto Delat? (What is to be done?) http://vimeo.com/12130035 -- but the exhibition at Garage, with work by artists in the periphery of the Russian Federation about the dislocation produced by the end of the Soviet Union, seemed trite and superficial.
Construction in Moscow’s center, especially in its main radial avenue, Tverskaya Ulitsa, seems to have stopped after Stalin built the Seven Sisters skyscrapers in the late 1940s and early 50s. The foundations for an eighth “Sister” bordering Red Square were used after Stalin’s death for the modern, monstrously big Rossiya Hotel (21-storeys, 3,200 rooms, police station, etc.), the biggest in Europe, which was finally demolished in 2006. It has become a contested site, with public pressure to use it for a park instead of a new entertainment center designed by Norman Foster. But a new International Business Center, boasting Europe’s tallest building, is nearly finished on a site beyond the third ring road. We saw its gleaming towers at a distance during our tour of Constructivist buildings – the workers’ clubs, communal housing and other emblematic projects built during the 1920s that embody the revolutionary social change made into architecture during the Bolshevik government’s first years.
We continued our search for places and buildings of that fateful period when we arrived in picture book Neo-Classical “Peter”. Such buildings can be found mostly in Narvskaya Zastava, the center of the workers’ movement during the events of 1917, still a proletarian neighborhood full of factories and streets with names like “Tractor” or “Barricade”. Two impressive relics are the Kirovsky District Soviet building, municipal offices still used for the original purpose, and the former humongous industrial kitchen supplying hot lunches to factory workers in the area, now a shabby shopping mall. Lenin’s statue and the hammer and sickle on the façade of the Soviet building have not been removed to a “Fallen Monuments” park like the one we visited in Moscow, and his statue with the raised arm still shows the way on the square in front of the Finland Station (we had been re-reading Edmund Wilson’s book.) The temporary exhibition of extravagantly lavish costumes worn by the army of palace servants we saw at the Hermitage was another reminder of why the revolution had to happen. Sustaining it through the decades; a world war; centralized power; and a lack of understanding about the transformation of a proletarian consciousness was quite another matter.
|Vladimir Ilyich & comrade, in the Park of Fallen Monuments|