Visit to Russia — Susana's travelogue

Here is my accomplice Susana Torre's account of our recent trip to Moscow and Saint Petersburg. For more writing and other work by Susana, see her website, Susana Torre.


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)
We made this trip intending to make the picture in our heads, formed by our readings by historians, theoreticians, protagonists and inspirers of the revolution, more nuanced and complete. Not exactly a nostalgic trip for lost ideals, but to see first hand whatever remained of the material evidence of those ideals, and to see what had become of them today in Moscow and Saint Petersburg (called “Peter” by the Russians). First Moscow, and then a trip on the fast “Sapsan” — “Hawk” — train to “Peter”, through flat farmland, villages and densely packed residential high-rise suburbs. Geoff had resumed his college Russian language studies, and managed to communicate and read all the Cyrillic signs, indispensable to travel by public transportation – especially the subway, as efficient, clean, advertisement-free, frequent and fast as touted in the tourist guides, including the lavish use of marble surfaces and alabaster fixtures.

Considering an alternative to the Moscow subway
On our first day in Moscow we visited Krasnaya Ploshchad, Red, or Beautiful, Square (“krasnaya” has both meanings in Russian), the vast open space, formerly a market, just outside the walls of the Kremlin. The brightly colored multiple onion-domes of St. Basil’s Cathedral dominate one end, and the more somber, red-brick State Historical Museum the other, over 2,000 feet away. Stretching along part of the wall is Lenin’s classical-cum-constructivist mausoleum, and facing it across the square, 230 feet away, sits the huge GUM, the largest covered arcade in the world. Built in 1890 to impress Europeans and create an enclosed place for the nobility to consume the latest Parisian fashions, today it is a private shopping mall known to locals as “the exhibition hall of prices”. From the restaurant terrace in front of GUM, we watched the people ambling across the great space, at a much more leisurely pace than the purposeful walk of people in Western capital cities. Maybe this is because the square is a destination unto itself, not a passing-through place. It is from here that the avenues structuring the city radiate, intersected by multi-lane, high-speed ring roads that pedestrians may cross only by underground passages. To my surprise, the interior of St. Basil’s Cathedral (a Museum since 1929) was not a large nave, but a collection of eight chapels around a ninth, central one less than 700 square feet in area. We had to search through the narrow connecting corridors to find one with especially great acoustics, resonating with the voices of a four-man vocal group.

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.

Everywhere we saw the signs of historical continuity between Tsarist, Soviet, and post-Perestroika Russia: cathedrals turned into museums; streets in Moscow’s center lined with mansions of the aristocracy now put to public uses or turned into homes for the “oligarchs”, including the Art Nouveau gem of a house the last Tsar had built for a lover — now a museum — with the balcony from which Lenin harangued the partisans after he had taken over the house for Bolshevik
Christ the Savior and Tsereteli sculpture
headquarters. One discontinuity, Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Savior, demolished by Stalin to make room for a Palace of the Soviets that was never built, was rebuilt in the 1990s. Here, Pussy Riot staged the 4-minute concert that landed two of their members in jail for almost two years. The cathedral faces the river and a pedestrian bridge that brings Moscow’s youth into the fashionable Strelka café, and the nearby, exceedingly ugly 15-story high statue by the apparatchik architect/sculptor Zurab Tsereteli. The sculpture was a gift representing Columbus, intended for the US but rejected, and here displayed with a new head, that of Peter the Great. (Patrick Murfin blog, photographer uncredited)

Another continuity is the ubiquitous orange and black striped ribbon of St. George, symbolizing fire and gunpowder, that is everywhere attached to car handles and rear-view mirrors, to Putin’s lapel and the lapels of bodyguards in black suits in 90-degree weather. The ribbon is a component of military decorations awarded by imperial, Soviet and current Russia governments, now used to show support for pro-Russians in the disputed regions of Ukraine. Many coffee mugs in the souvenir section of the gigantic Izmailovo flea market had the map of Crimea next to the legend: “It’s OURS!” The popular mood seems to be with Putin, and the Russian TV channel in English kept reporting on the lies of the Western media about Russia’s military involvement in the Donbass.

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


Will Self declares George Orwell the 'Supreme Mediocrity' | Books | theguardian.com

I surprised myself by agreeing with him! "Wigan Pier", "Down and Out in Paris and London" are important reportage, also "Homage to Catalonia" if you account for the very obvious bias, and even (the much weaker) "Keep the Aspidistra Flying" may be worth reading for the satire (not the characterization or plot drama, which are almost nil), but Orwell as didactic preacher ("Animal Farm", "1984", "Politics and the English Language") really is just mediocre at best. Good reporter, shallow thinker. And barely acceptable as a novelist.

Will Self declares George Orwell the 'Supreme Mediocrity' | Books | theguardian.com

Now I suppose I'd better read something by Will Self.


Postscript: Russia and Ukraine

The "pregnancy" metaphor, may be overworked, but this analysis is in line with our impressions from the Russian newscasts and our conversations during our recent visit to Russia:

Russia Is Pregnant with Ukraine

New York Review of Books, 2014.07.24