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


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?


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.


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. 


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.