2014/08/06

Russians today

Back home in Spain after two weeks in Russia and reflecting on what it all has meant. Our last visit in Saint Petersburg (Monday, 2 days ago), after the ornate Italianate-Slavonic Smolny cathedral and monastery, was to the decidedly un-ornate and still busy Finland Station, Finlyandskaya Vokzal, a plain white railroad and Metro terminal behind a magnificent statue of  Lenin pointing to the future. And yesterday on the plane, I finished Edmund Wilson's look back to the history culminating in that gesture. I'll have more to say about that ambitious, stimulating and antiquated book, To the Finland Station, in a future essay. For now, just some general impressions of Russia.

Finland Station, St. Petersburg
First and most importantly, the people. Everyone we met, anyone we approached to ask directions or anything else, was friendly and helpful — surprisingly so, at first, until we realized that that was the norm. Our initial surprise was because of the difference in facial expression and body language. Russians look severe until you give them a reason to look at you with interest and to smile, which requires no more than that you take an interest in them by saying "Hello" or "Excuse me, do you know…?" And the typical Russian stride takes command of the ground more definitively than the lighter, quicker steps we're used to. Russians appear brusque and direct to Westerners (just read the guide books), which I quite liked. When they try to help you, they get right to the point, and may go so far as to walk out of their way to point and show you what it is they think you asked. At least, that was our experience. It's a huge country with millions of individuals and regional contrasts, but such were the people we encountered in Moscow and St. Petersburg. A second general impression was the over-all cleanliness of streets and sidewalks, and —mostly — the good repair of public spaces, as compared to, say, Madrid or New York. No obvious garbage strewn on the streets or rivers. Nor did we see much obvious poverty, even outside the central tourist areas, except for a few, mostly elderly women, mendicants. Nor any jostling or shoving — beyond unavoidable pressing together —even on the crowded subway cars.

Finally, as I've already noted in this blog, there appears to be an attitude of critical respect toward the whole, still recent Soviet experience. Most of the statues and images of Stalin have disappeared (except as jokey designs on matryoshki and other souvenirs), but many of Lenin remain, and at least some of the impressive architecture is being restored.

Unfortunately I don't have the language skills for more than minimal observation, so I can't tell you much about public opinion. From comments by our Moscow guide, and the flags and collection booths for money for the people of Donbass, it was evident that a sizable part of the population think that Russia must support the separatists in eastern Ukraine, and from all that and what we read or saw in Russian media, that US accusations against the Russian government are baseless and motivated by competitive interest. And people seem very satisfied to have recovered Crimea.

2014/08/04

Do svidanya, Rossiya

Or to say this in proper Russian, До свида́ния, Россия. This is our last night in St. Petersburg and in Russia. We're a bit tired, so I'll just mention some highlights since my last blog entry.

The Russian Museum — Best collection we've seen of not only constructivist art (Malevich, Popova, Tatlin and others), but also of their contemporaries working from different premises in that brief golden age of post-October Revolution creativity.

Museum of Political History  — The two houses (one of a ballerina favored by Nicholas II, the other of a rich merchant) that became Lenin's headquarters in Petrograd, now joined as this museum, are themselves well worth seeing. The exhibits are a detailed history of Russia and the USSR, and now simply "Russia" again, 1917 to the present. In Russian, but with booklets with English-language explanations. Lenin's Petrograd office was in the best corner of the merchant's house.

Constructivist architecture in a working-class district of the city, far off the tourist route, but we got to see the most important examples still standing. Details to come.

2014/08/03

Russia, revolution and me

On the 4 1/2 hour train ride from Leningradsky Station in Moscow to Moskovskaya Station in Saint Petersburg last Thursday, I continued re-reading Edmund Wilson, To the Finland Station.
Lenin's train. From Canadian Military History
I've now got close to the end of this history of revolutionary thought from Michelet to the 1917 revolution, and the arrival of Lenin and other exiles at the Finland Station in Petrograd (as the city was then known), which we plan to see tomorrow. Meanwhile, while visiting museums (the Hermitage, Museum of Russian Art) and monuments and churches and walking all over the central city in this great heat, I've been reflecting on what this visit means for me and what I've defined as my life projects.

The most immediate of those projects is completing my novel about the Paris Commune. Wilson is little help there; his too-brief summary is not only mistaken in some details, but treats the whole adventure with detached bemusement. But Wilson and this Russia visit both help me understand better the larger and longer-lasting context of that adventure. More important, they have led me to understand this novel in larger terms. What I really aim to do is understand all of social change, the revolutionary impulse, how it gets mobilized, its splits and contradictions, and especially the conflicts ensuing upon initial victory. The Paris Commune of the spring of 1871 is but one essential chapter. It inspired Lenin and all the other Russian revolutionaries, which is one reason it is essential. The other is that it was a tightly condensed laboratory experience that suggests almost all that can, or has, happened, not only in Russia 1917-1920, but also Mexico 1910 and after, Cuba 1956 (landing of the Granma) and on, and so on. I don't know how much of all this I'll be able to complete before that great, final deadline, but the whole picture, however dimly, will be in my mind as I continue.

So I see these questions as parts of two life projects: 1, to write fiction that helps me and my readers enter these processes emotionally, and 2, to analyze them as the sociologist I was trained to be.

And finally there is a much smaller, less ambitious project: for over 50 years I've wanted to learn Russian, and now I'm doing it. I've begun working through the originals, with the help of the translations, in a bilingual edition of Osip Mandelstam's verse, and loving it. This trip has been the great stimulus.