Steve Sachs Duke


Tuesday, April 06, 2004


Back in Town: A few days ago, I arrived back in Oxford after eleven days in Russia -- just about evenly split between St. Petersburg and Moscow. Though the trip had its ups and downs (I may post more on the downs later), I had a wonderful time. I can't boil down eleven days into a single blog post, but I came away with at least three lasting impressions:

  • First, this is a country that has been misruled for a very, very long time. When we first arrived in St. Petersburg, there was a very obvious contrast between the beautiful Italian baroque architecture of Peter the Great and the vast and soulless concrete boxes erected under the Soviets. (We had a 15-minute walk to our metro stop, and 10 of them were spent passing a single apartment building.) Our hotel in Moscow, one of the largest in Europe, had 6,000 beds. It was hard not to feel repulsed by the megalomania of central planning -- the idea that everyone would live in the same kind of apartment, would eat in the same kind of office cafeteria, would wear the same clothes, and would hold the same fundamental beliefs -- and, most of all, that this system drawn up by all-powerful bureaucracies would work. It requires an incredible amount of arrogance to think that a relatively small number of fallible human beings, sitting in their GOSPLAN offices, can possibly be wise and well-informed enough to micromanage an entire society. This may be the judgment of hindsight, but I find it difficult to understand the doctrine that one way of life is best for everyone, and moreover that it involves substantial amounts of poured concrete. (But isn't this, one participant in the trip asked me -- apparently without irony -- exactly what the U.S. is doing in Iraq?)

    Of course, the problems with Russian society didn't start in 1917. It takes a certain kind of authoritarian regime to be able to declare the building of a new capital and to watch it become a great city in a single lifetime. Looking at the treasures assembled in the Hermitage, the Kremlin armory, and the palace of Catherine the Great at Tsarskoye Selo, it was clear that the days of empire had poured the resources of a continent into the hands of a small aristocracy. (Which seems to have happened all over again in the 1990s.) So there isn't much of a pre-Soviet tradition of good governance to draw on.

    What this means is that although there are many beautiful things and places in Russia, they seem to have survived despite, rather than because of, the terrors of the last century. Today's Russia, though perhaps better off than it was a few years ago, still faces a declining population and terrifying health statistics. (Whatever one's political views, a society in which 60 percent of pregnancies end in abortion is not one whose people have much hope for the future.)

  • Second, Russia seems to have genuine difficulties in accepting its history. The Great Patriotic War is remembered everywhere, of course -- especially in St. Petersburg, a city which suffered in World War II as have few others. (How would the U.S. remember a conflict in which 20 million Americans had died? The Civil War was a minor skirmish in comparison.)

    But there seems to be nothing even approaching a consensus on the greater question, how to remember the 80-year experience of communism. The most common response seems to be a bizarre syncretism: the curtain at the main stage of the Bolshoi Theatre bears the imperial double-eagle on its top half, and the hammer-and-sickle on the bottom. The Kremlin still bears the red stars on its towers, and Lenin's tomb still stands proudly in Red Square -- across from the GUM department store, and yet other symbols of capitalism.

    More curiously, Stalin's headstone is still located just behind the tomb, along with those of several former leaders (but not Kruschev). In fact, the day we visited, Stalin had more flowers than anyone except Yuri Gagarin. It's hard to know what to think when faced with the tombstone of a man who's on the short list for Worst Human Being Ever. How should one regard a monument to someone responsible for the murder of tens of millions? It made me wonder what would have happened if Hitler had died in a jail cell rather than committing suicide, or if his ashes had not been scattered and lost. Would the Allies have allowed him a tombstone and a marked grave? Would we have allowed it to become a shrine, with sympathizers leaving flowers? Or would we have sought to erase him from memory -- would he have become a modern version of Tiberius Gracchus, whose body was thrown into the Tiber to prevent his followers from obtaining relics?

    (I hadn't know this before I went, but along with many prominent figures in the October Revolution rest the remains of Westerners such as John Reed and William "Big Bill" Haywood. Perhaps this is an example of American triumphalism, but I can think of few better ways than being buried in Red Square to place yourself on the wrong side of history.)

    A visit to the museum of the KGB (oh, sorry, it's "FSB" now) drove home the contradictions. The representative of the agency was as unreconstructed a communist as one can be and still feel unwavering support for President Vladimir Putin (himself an old KGB man). To this official, the ideal of socialism was still unblemished; it was only the personal flaws in Russia's previous leaders which had sent it into decline. Again, it was unclear how to feel in a museum commemorating past intelligence "successes," most of which had served to extend and deepen the power of a corrupt and oppressive regime. I knew kids in my elementary school who were the children of a defector; she had been pursued by the KGB throughout Europe and was convinced that they were still looking for her in the United States. While at the museum, only one member of our tour group, whose family was persecuted during the revolution (some managed to flee, others died in prison), had the temerity to ask about the KGB's less savory actions in the past. The answers were less than enlightening.

    The problem of confronting the past certainly isn't unique to Russia -- other countries, such as Germany and South Africa, may have even deeper problems. Without any consensus on the past, though, it's hard to know what Russians will be looking for in a future government. One of our guides in Moscow was convinced that Putin would become a dictator in the next 15 years -- not because of any specific policy, but because the schools and government press had begun to lay groundwork for a cult of personality. Putin had been a good son, an admirable student, a dutiful public servant; everything that schoolchildren had once been taught about Lenin. The idea of a nuclear-armed autocracy on Europe's border is, well, almost as scary as it was the last time -- and perhaps more so, given Russia's extreme weakness in non-military fields. Just as many people sought a scapegoat after the rise of Mao, I wonder whether, in a few years, we'll start debating "Who Lost Russia?"

    (Unrelated observation: two of my female friends here have repeatedly expressed the belief that Putin, in addition to controlling the world's largest stock of nuclear weapons, is an intensely attractive man. One even went so far as to obtain two framed pictures of him while in Russia, which are now displayed in her room just as prominently as pictures of her boyfriend.* Personally, I don't know what they see in him--but perhaps women often fall for guys with raw animal charisma, darling blue eyes, and increasingly authoritarian styles of governance...)

  • Third, and on a much lighter note, I wish to take this opportunity to express my lasting friendship for the people of the Republic of Georgia, who have produced a cuisine deserving of worldwide fame. I'd never gone to a Georgian restaurant before, but having had spectacular meals at two of them ("Cheburychnya" by Vassilevskaya metro in St. Petersburg, and the "Restoran Dioskyuria" off Novy Arbat in Moscow), I'm hoping that I'll be able to find them back in the U.S. We also had a good experience at Caravan Sarai, an Uzbek restaurant in St. Petersburg, from the appetizers (Uzbek horse-meat sausages) to the desserts (memorably mistranslated on the English menu as "Eastern Sweetness"). I know that Georgia and Uzbekistan have more to worry about right now than their cuisine; but it's always fun to discover new aspects of cultures you barely knew existed. The world is a various and beautiful place.

CORRECTION: The pictures of Putin in my friend's room are not, in fact, displayed as prominently as those of her boyfriend. In fact, the photograph of Putin on her desk (wearing a white sweater and bearing a kindly expression) is further from her chair than the seven pictures of her boyfriend on the bulletin board. Moreover, the painted portrait of Putin in a suit, radiating power and authority, is on a small table apparently ill-positioned for viewing elsewhere in the room, while a remaining picture of her boyfriend is on her nighttable. I stand corrected.




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© 2011 Stephen E. Sachs


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