Tag Archives: Kirov

Daniil Kharms and Stalin-era repression

A small memorial plaque for Russian writer Daniil Kharms.

A small memorial plaque for Russian writer Daniil Kharms.

The X in the Russian name of absurdist writer Dаниил Хармс is a bit more ambiguous than the transliterated Kh suggests. Kharms studied English and German at his prestigious high school, and it is believed that he adopted his pen-name not only for its similarity to “harms” and “charms,” but also because it sounded like the name of a certain famous English detective.

Indeed, Kharms always dressed like Sherlock Holmes—pipe, top hat, and silly pants—at a time in Soviet history when standing out was a risky move. Kharms also stood out for his writings, ranging from absurdist dramas and poems to children’s stories that strayed from approved socialist values and storylines.

For his unwillingness to conform, Kharms was first arrested in 1931 and briefly exiled. But Kharms continued his absurdist writing, falling afoul of those in the Stalinist system charged with maintaining uniformity and order.

The strange writer, living in poverty, was arrested again in 1941 (shortly after the German invasion of the USSR) on charges of being a German spy, and imprisoned in Leningrad.

What is known with certainty is that Kharms died soon after, in 1942. What is unknown is how. Some say he was executed. Other that he starved during the siege of Leningrad, or died when prisoners were packed into train cars without food or water and sent west ahead of the invading Nazis. Still others say he was tortured until he died.

We’re reading a few of Kharms’ stories in our literature class. The stories are unthreatening—Dr. Seuss and Shel Silverstein have written works far stranger. But neither of them lived in a society where being different could be a death sentence.

Since reading Kharms’ work and seeing the memorial plaque, I’ve visisted two sites that deal explicitly with Soviet history: Sergei Kirov’s apartment and the Museum of the Political History of Russia. And although the museums were interesting, I’m left feeling that in some way, Daniil Kharms’ memorial plaque is just as revealing as glass display cases filled with historical documents and faded images.

The State Memorial Museum of the Defense and Blockade of Leningrad

A million Leningraders died during the 900 day siege of the city during the Second Great Patriotic War. Some starved, some froze, and some were killed by German guns and bombs.

The siege plays a heavy role in the city’s collective memory. I’ve already written about Victory Day, but beyond that single day, memorials to the dead and reminders of the city’s heroic sacrifice are everywhere. Incidentally, there was even one on the wall of the movie theater we went to after we left the State Memorial Museum of the Defense and Blockade of Leningrad.

The museum itself is contained in a plain building, across a canal from the flashier parts of Petersburg. The exhibits—old Soviet and Nazi German uniforms, maps, guns, photos, letters, and lots of other items—line the walls of a single large warehouse room. Massive paintings of battle scenes and Soviet leaders sit higher on the walls, above the exhibit cases, framed by large gray curtains.

I was amazed by the sheer concentration of World War II stuff in the museum, although I couldn’t read most of it. There were photos of the Soviet leaders I’ve read so much about, including a particularly cool one of Gen. Eisenhower and Georgy Zhukov, a Soviet Marshall who led the Red Army to Berlin.

There were also plenty of weapons, from AK machine guns to partisan bolt-action rifles—and even an anti-tank gun—and a bunch of bombs and mines. As for uniforms, there were some Soviet ones (from what I could tell, they had belonged to Heroes of the Soviet Union) filled with medals and ribbons, as well as some Nazi ones, including SS uniforms with lightning bolts and Totenkopf, or Death’s Head skulls.

Between the military paraphernalia, there was a reconstructed blockade-era apartment flanked by photos of people living day-to-day, looking just slightly healthier than concentration camp survivors. The only sound was the ticking of a metronome on the radio—the beating heart of Leningrad.

There was also propaganda… Lots and lots of propaganda. I gotta say, I loved it. I mean, who doesn’t love Nazi soldiers portrayed as either evil or incredibly stupid? The great thing about propaganda, too, is that it’s mostly visual. So while we couldn’t figure out most of the words, the meaning got through (It helps that the word for fascist is pretty much the same in Russian).

One that was particularly amusing involved three panels:

  1. Nazis reading a complicated list of orders.
  2. Nazis marching with a full band.
  3. Soviet soldiers popping up, surprising the Nazis, and wiping them out. (The caption was something along the lines of “Our orders are simple. Kill the fascist occupiers.”

We’re planning to go back and get an English-language tour of the museum at some point so that we actually understand what’s going on a bit more.

Tonight is Museum Night in St. Petersburg. 150 Rubles to get into a ton of museums around the city—and the museums are open from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. There are buses running between the museums all night, but we need to be back on our island before the bridges go up around 1:30 a.m.

We’re planning on checking out the Peter and Paul Fortress, the Artillery Museum, where you can apparently climb on tanks and artillery and such, the Museum of the Political History of Russia (and the attached, and closely connected Museum of the History of the Political Police. Seriously.), and several others.

Also – Kirov’s apartment. The assassination of Sergey Kirov in 1934 (incidentally in the Smolny Institute, where we go to school every day) helped start Stalin’s purges.