Friday, 22 June 2012

Where's Uncle Joe?

The problem with living in a place like Moscow for an extended period of time is that you begin to take for granted a lot of the cultural and historical attractions the city has to offer. It's not that you don't want to see these things, you really do. I mean, why else did you come here if not to absorb some Russian culture? But there's always a reason not to; I'm not a tourist; I have a lot of work to do, friends to see and alcoholic beverages to consume; I'm going to be here for a while, so there's plenty of time; I'll just wait until friends and family come to visit and I can be all smug and play tour-guide etc.

That's all well and good, but here I am, 14 months into expanding my cultural horizons/laying the groundwork for a career in ELT/avoiding the 'real' world back home, and I have yet to visit, among other places, the Kremlin, the Moscow Museum of Modern Art, or Lenin's Mausoleum. Shameful right?

Actually, I haven't totally neglected the cultural side of things; my attempts to learn the Russian language may be a bit erratic but I am trying nonetheless. Also, I've been reading. I set myself a kind of challenge when I arrived here to read (English translations of) as much Russian literature as possible, so I've been working my way through a bit of Dostoevsky, Tolstoy and Bulgakov. Yes, sometimes I like to make life difficult for myself.

However, as its summer and work is quiet, I decided to make the most of having more free time and correct these glaring oversights, beginning with Lenin. Or at least that was the plan. It seems that poor Vova doesn't have much time for visitors, a mere three hours a day is all he can squeeze into his busy schedule. Those who know me will attest that arriving to events on time is not my forte, and so a lack of organisation and an aversion to mornings has meant that my first two efforts (such as they were) to visit the human pickle have been unsuccessful. But fear not dear reader, I will not give up. My next attempt will be whole-arsed, and I will be able to cross 'gawp at a dead soviet leader' off my things to do before you leave Russia list. I'll let you know how it goes.

It got me thinking though. Why is it that, in addition to the man himself, there are still so many Lenins dotted around Moscow in the form of statues, commemorative plaques on buildings, murals and mosaics? Lenin is everywhere, while his successor, and the main perpetrator of his city-wide pervasion, Stalin, is almost equally conspicuous by his absence.

Of course we can pretty much all agree that despite his concerted efforts to present himself differently, Stalin was a despotic bastard. But Lenin was no saint either. He was quick to shut down dissent and had no qualms about using fear to control the population. The CheKa was founded on his say-so and instantly began persecuting, torturing and executing counter-revolutionaries, a category which included the wives and children of white officers and all clergymen. It seems odd to me that Stalin can have been so successful in developing the cult of personality around Lenin and yet have failed to fully cement his own reputation,

Last Thursday, after failing to wake up in time to see the man himself, I decided to go and have a look instead at some stone versions at the Art Muzeon sculpture park next to the central house of artists. It's a fascinating junkyard of statues and sculptures, with old Madonnas and children filling up spaces in rockeries and bronze ensembles of workers being swallowed up by shrubbery. It's also the place where a decent haul of the statues removed during and since the Kruschev thaw have wound up, including the statue of the first CheKa director, Felix Dzerzhinsky that was toppled from its perch in front of the KGB headquarters in 1991.

But even here there is a contrast in the way the two great leaders of the Soviet Union are presented. A large statue of Stalin, which has clearly taken a bit of a beating, is surrounded by desperate, haunted-looking figures and backed by a run of barbed-wire Gulag-style cages filled with stone heads, a pretty clear message; This guy was a colossal wanker. 

Meanwhile, across the path we find this jolly group of fellows milling about minding their own business. In fact, with so many statues of Lenin still knocking about the place, these guys just seem kind of superfluous.

It seems that many people, quite rightly, remain pretty pissed at Stalin, while Lenin's presence is still allowed to permeate the city. I suspect this has less to do with him being revered by Muscovites, and more with him being a more palatable symbol of the country's Soviet past, and more importantly, like our dear Queen Liz, foreigners are dragging themselves out of bed and lining up to catch a glimpse of him.

Things I have learnt recently:
  • What Moscow metro stations looked like before Stalin was purged from the city. I came across these rather interesting pictures whilst digging around for stuff for this post.
  • That the Russian verb 'бегать' (to run) sounds a bit like 'bagel' in the past tense.
  • That writing new Russian words (and pictures of bagels) on the back of your hand is a good way to remember them, but don't do it with swearwords when drunk, in ink that's difficult to wash off.
  • That the 'Historical Toilet' in GUM is absolutely not worth the title or the 84 rouble fee.
  • That Moscow really is more expensive than London, and now I have proof to shut my students up.

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