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Russia Rediscovered

Reflections on a culture in the midst of remaking itself, poised between the glories of its Czarist past and its crippling bout with Communism.

Panorama of the Villages of Kolomenskoye and Dyakovo, by Giacomo Quarenghi, 1797. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Panorama of the Villages of Kolomenskoye and Dyakovo, by Giacomo Quarenghi, 1797. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Many Muscovites are warm, generous and spontaneous, but relatively few are either elegant or refined. Among my acquaintances in that city there is, however, one young woman who is remarkable for her impeccable manners and poise. She speaks perfect French, plays the piano and knows the history of every old building in the city. It would have seemed rude to comment on her gracious sophistication and so I never questioned it, but one afternoon in July 1989, its reasons became clear.

On that day, we went to have tea with her grandmother. We climbed several narrow flights of stairs to reach her apartment, which was cramped and dark, but impeccably clean. Though the sofa, the bed and the dining table were all standard Soviet issue, there were also a desk, a clock and a wardrobe, all clearly dating from the 18th century. They were slightly decrepit, in need of refinishing here, a knob there — but beautiful things nonetheless.

My friend’s grandmother was a princess and had once lived in a state of unimaginable splendor. Bravery and perseverance had seen her through the traumas of communism; though she had lost her husband to hard labor in the Gulag, she had managed to hold on to these few objects from her childhood. Because I was a guest from the West, every effort had been made on my behalf, and a tea service of nearly transparent Imperial porcelain, elaborately painted, had been laid out.

I have never held a teacup so carefully; I knew that if I let it slide from my grasp to the floor, I would destroy not only an object of great beauty, but also one of the last, cherished relics of a better and finer life. We spoke of the vanished days, and she described a childhood at court, painting the life she had been brought up to lead in beautiful and painful detail. “Who knows?” said the granddaughter, who knew the older woman’s stories nearly by heart. “Maybe with glasnost we will live in this way again.” The grandmother only laughed. “No one will ever live this way again,” she said and encouraged us to have more of the cake, baked to a recipe from the czar’s court with ingredients that she’d stood in line for four days to buy. I was witnessing Russian aristocratic culture at its purest and most traditional. So it had been lived through the days of oppression– watered down and often secret, but always there.

These days, there is much talk of Russian culture resurfacing after years of darkness. The tone of voice reserved for this subject, in both the East and the West, seems to suggest that it is as miraculous as the Resurrection. “There is so much left,” people say, as though Russianness itself had been decaying in the winter damp for 70 years. According to sentimental wisdom, Russian culture was drawn up sharp in the year of the Revolution. Champions of this notion would suggest that glasnost has liberated the people to return to traditions they had very nearly forgotten. But though a distinction may well be drawn between Estonian and communist culture, or between Armenian and communist culture, or even between Czech and communist culture, the line between Russian and communist culture is one that wavers.

Communism was a very Russian idea, brought on the Russians by Russians. It was in some ways the logical continuation of the cultural traditions established in the days of the czars; it is as ridiculous to say that Soviet culture is not Russian as it would be to say that France between Louis XVI and Napoleon was not French. Glasnost, then, is not regressive, a matter of taking up history where it was quietly laid up in peat in 1917. It is a further step forward (history being chronological) and though its champions have a certain nostalgia for the last century, that nostalgia has all the wistful belatedness of any postmodernist nostalgia.

It is important to recall how deeply ideology, until recently, penetrated every aspect of ordinary life in the Soviet Union. It used to be said in Moscow that a marriage bed needed to be large enough for three people: the bride, the groom and Lenin. Glasnost has brought relief from the omnipresence of Lenin and Leninist thought; “authentic Russian culture” is the thing that has, along with capitalist aspirations, rushed in to fill the enormous vacuum. It is almost impossible for a society versed in the self-conscious habits of decadent communism to build its marriage beds to accommodate two. Where Lenin used to lie, there is now a space occupied half by the czar (long may he live) and half by the Profit Motive. These two do not make such uneasy bedfellows as they might have done at the end of the last century; the fact that they were the two great enemies of communism has served to conflate and confuse them in the eyes of many Russians. You now find that the czar himself is perceived, as was the case in the old Smirnoff ads, as a tall man with opulent clothing, two noble borzois at his side and dollar signs twinkling in his eyes. Communism has served to redeem him: all the czar’s self-indulgence, pomposity and disregard for the common people has somehow been swallowed up by Brezhnev’s self-indulgence, pomposity and disregard for the common people.

In conversations among themselves, Muscovites today tend to talk about the czars as though they were all some sort of good folk heroes whose downfall was the end of all the noble traditions of a great nation. The Orwellian idea that you could hardly distinguish between the old aristocracy and the party aristocracy — in many ways an accurate depiction of communism’s failure to bring about substantive social transformation — has been lost.

While the elderly Russian princess was telling her granddaughter all about the life of the court, other younger champions of the Russian aristocratic aesthetic were busy at work in other spheres. Two years ago, I visited the Old Palace of Ostankino on the outskirts of Moscow. The 18th-century palace was closed to the public for repair, and so a scientific consultant to the restoration guided me through Ostankino’s splendors. She described the life that had once unfolded in the palace with the most remarkable precision, pausing at each piece of furniture to tell me how it had been used, where it had been made, what important Imperial personages had sat on it or near it. We walked past malachite tables and furniture “in the French style,” whose enormous scale and purity of design showed how Russian, in fact, they were.

I was stunned by the restorer’s obsessive attention to detail. “I can only do this restoration properly if I understand all these things well,” she said softly. Though her attachment to such matters was scholarly rather than personal, her love for them was clearly as great as the princess’s. Ostankino was unheated, and it was necessary to wear mittens to work there in the winter. The pay was minimal. “But I am surrounded by so many beautiful things, every day in my work, things many people in this country never would get to see,” the restorer explained to me.

Restoration skills have always been deemed valuable in Russian; what was not destroyed by communism was lovingly kept. During World War II, at the height of the Siege of Leningrad, a technical academy for restorers was started in that city, and starving men and women made their way there so that they could learn restoration techniques and begin to repair, despite the bombs that continued to fall, the city’s great palaces before they began to forget what they looked like.

Icon of Vladimir the Great, ca. 1900. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Icon of Vladimir the Great, ca. 1900. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

The other constant guardian of Russian culture in the dark days was the Orthodox church. Zagorsk, center of the faith, was kept in perfect order — as glorious a bit of traditional architecture and traditional hierarchical social structure as you could hope to find — and the values for which the church stood remained virtually unchanged. The relationship between the Orthodox patriarchy and the Communist apparatchiks was a tremendously complex one, full of strange compromises and secrets. Even under Stalin, religion continued to exert a powerful sway in the Soviet Union. Though the church has been able to resume much of its public grandeur since the beginning of glasnost, it is only the public presence that is new: the people held fast to their opiate through 70 years of communism.

So the Russian tradition never really died. It was obscured, however, by the values and visuals of communism (whose vulgarity is highly fashionable to disparage in Moscow these days). Communist art and propaganda, communist furnishings and taste, were all unbelievably kitschy, and that kitsch has been taken as a symbol for the more basic shortcomings of the system. Soviet kitsch is a constant reminder that communism itself was not tasteful, that it appealed to the lowest common denominator among the Soviet people and that, indeed, it was intentionally addressed to them.

Tastelessness unto itself may have been the least of Stalin’s evils, but it is an emblem for the most fundamental failures of communism. So there is a certain glee to the discovery of the gooey sentimentalism of Socialist Realism and other propaganda art. Tales of the vulgarity of party members are also almost inescapable. One Union of Artists big wheel who was given a Fabergé egg by Brezhnev is said to have drilled a hole in it so that he could rig a Japanese minispeaker for this stereo into it.

What has really happed with glasnost is not so much that a new taste has been born — princesses have wept and the intelligentsia has laughed at the vulgarity of the party since 1917 — as that a taste that was never eliminated has now been allowed to resurface. It makes a tremendous difference, an inestimable difference, that the intelligentsia now has money and some power.

In the pre-glasnost period, only the nomenklatura, the vast body of “official” party members and bureaucrats, could be classified as wealthy. Now the intelligentsia, which used to tremble before these empowered and usually corrupt authority figures, has been championed in the West and has arrived at wealth of which middle-level government officials can only dream. Painters, architects, designers and writers, lionized by the West, are paid in hard currency (exchangeable Western money — dollars, pounds, deutsche marks) for their work. On the other hand, the professional class — doctors and scientists among them — is, by and large, struggling to make ends meet.

The Soviet Mafia — organized crime in the former Soviet Union operates on a tremendous scale — has become vastly wealthy. There is a new economy of objects created both by the professionals and the Mafia. Mafia members have unspeakable taste, as kitschy as communist taste at its worst, but now with an “authentic Russian” edge. Cooperatives manufacturing quasi-baroque phony antique furniture with excessive ormolu have found steady clients in Mafia circles. The objects they produce boast a wild excess of faux gemstones and ill-conceived inlay; they are usually very large and mix several incompatible styles. The production of such material has in fact gone on for years, but the works were mostly intended for export, smuggled out with falsified papers and then sold as authentic Russian antiques in the West. The market in fakes — then an export market for those in the West with a nostalgia for the old Russia — is now a domestic market. The Mafia buyers cannot get enough of this stuff, and now it is being produced in vastly greater quantities than ever before. Even among thieves there is nationalism.

To cater to both the intelligentsia and the Mafia, antique stores have started selling actual old furniture — not available for export — at high ruble prices. One store by the Moscow River has been holding weekly auctions, and these have become more and more popular.

Furniture that members of a vanished aristocracy had kept in dachas in the country since the Revolution has been brought out of storage, dusted off and sold. One sees a smatter of Russian Biedermeier and the occasional piece of Imperial furniture. The pieces are mostly large, often characterized by a beautiful use of wood or stones such as lapis and malachite. I saw a sale entirely of porcelain, some of it fabulously detailed in the style of old Meissen. “Who knows where this stuff has come from?” one of the buyers said. “People had all kinds of secrets in the Stalin days.” The highest prices were paid for a few super-glitzy pieces, which were being sold, again, to members of the Soviet Mafia; but fine and beautiful things also were sold. And there were some pieces whose primary virtue was their age. This is a new concept in Moscow: for years, this has been a society in which everything was crumbling, and almost anyone who could get something new got something new. The charm of age has been discovered only in the last few months.

Other transformations are also taking place. People are finally learning their own history. “You cannot imagine our relief at seeing all that horrible Soviet art go into storage,” says a curator at a Moscow museum. “Our vaults are full of wonderful art that has been kept in hiding — not because it was ideologically unsound, but because there was limited room here, and we had to show what the party wanted shown. Now we have wall space like you can’t imagine, and we’re hanging Russian 19th-century pictures by such artists as Alexei Venetsianov, Viktor Vasnetsov, Andrei Ryabushkin and Boris Kustodiev whom people have forgotten existed. It’s great.”

The rediscovery of Russia’s heritage has many charms. The furniture and art objects of the 18th and 19th centuries are astonishingly beautiful: there is nothing like a piece of Fabergé to brighten your day. It is exciting and inspiring to see a people rediscover their history, and Russian history is tremendously rich. But it is easy to get lost in these grace notes and to skim over the fact that Russian nationalism is also extremely frightening. In the hands of the intelligentsia, the rediscovery is splendid, but in the hands of the ordinary people, it often taps into anger — anger at the communists, of course, but also anger at everyone else.

Dzerzhinsky Square, 1966. Photo: Valery Shustov, RIA Novosti archive. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Dzerzhinsky Square, 1966. Photo: Valery Shustov, RIA Novosti archive. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

The statue of former KGB head Felix Dzerzhinsky that was pulled down in Moscow after the coup this summer was an oppressive sculpture of an evil man, but it had a certain grandeur about it. Now in Dverzhinskaya Square there is just an empty pedestal. There are plans afoot to destroy the Lenin mausoleum, which is a great work of Constructivist architecture. Of course the communist aesthetic resulted in hideosities, but everything created in the days of communism should not be destroyed, and few things are so terrible that they need to be destroyed before there is anything to take their place. The great monuments built under Stalin are great, and the paintings of Socialist Realism are certainly as valid as the posters that are so avidly collected in the West.

In the future, we may regret the cavalier destruction of the wonders of communist architecture as much as we regret Stalin’s destruction of the churches he thought stood for the bad and decadent days of Russia. The émigré artist Vitaly Komar went to Moscow in September to discuss the matter at the Ministry of Culture. Eager to save, at least, the Lenin mausoleum, he begged the minister to bring the structure up to date by adding three letters to the tombstone print, which now says “Lenin,” so that it would say, instead, “Leninism,” on the grounds that it would then be as valid as any monument now standing in Moscow.

There is much to be said for the resurgence of the Russian aesthetic, but a note of caution is also warranted. An excess of nationalism can be dangerous; destroying the past to bolster the prestige of the present is always a mistake. It would be appalling to forget communism; we must remember, and see how the atrocities of Stalin came to pass. As many have said, those countries that obliterate their own history are most likely to repeat it.