Tag Archives: Soviet

Understanding today’s Russia

With President Obama in Moscow, America’s attention has been focused anew on its former cold war adversary. But nearly two decades after the fall of Communism, Russia remains an enigma to many Americans.

In an excellent example of explanatory journalism, Clifford J. Levy, a Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times journalist, offers a simple six-step guide to “decoding Russia.”

Mr. Levy’s broad ideas about modern Russia are quite perceptive and accurate (no earth-shattering revelations), and should be read by every American who wants to gain a better understanding of the new Russia.

They reflect a strong understanding of what makes Russia tick – an understanding no doubt fed by Mr. Levy’s command of Russian and his efforts to reach out to Russian readers and sources.

Through all of Mr. Levy’s points runs a common thread – to understand Russia today, one needs to have an accurate understanding of Russia’s past. As I’ve written about before, this includes an appreciation for the massive toll of World War II – the Great Patriotic War – on Russia, and Russia’s perception that it bore the brunt of the conflict.

Beyond World War II, it’s important to acknowledge that Russians have a mixed view of their past – and that for many, the Soviet system had favorable aspects, while the current capitalist system has its pluses and minuses as well.

For more on what you need to know to understand Russia, including a brief overview of Russia’s take on former president and current Prime Minister Vladimir Putin (TIME Magazine’s 2007 Person of the Year), check out Mr. Levy’s piece.

Have your own questions about Russia? Leave them in the comments or send me an email, and I’ll do my best to answer them.

A Russian perspective on the Iranian Election

In an opinion piece in the St. Peteresburg Times, Yulia Latynina, a political commentator for a Moscow radio station, takes on the recent election and turmoil in Iran.

In the election results and ensuing protests, she sees not grass roots activism, not fraud and the response of an outraged people, but simply the pitfalls of democracy in a poor country. Latynina draws parallels between post-Soviet Russia and Iran, arguing that poor voters tend to elect bad leaders:

The Iranian vote demonstrates a simple truth that even Aristotle and Plato understood but that is frequently forgotten by fans of democracy today — namely that democracy is one of the worst forms of government if the majority of voters are impoverished…

All observers of democracy — from Thucydides to Machiavelli — have made note of one simple fact: If the voters do not own property, democracy does not differ from dictatorship and will inevitably end in tyranny.

Click here to read the full piece.

Russia tries to control interpretations of its past

For the Soviet Union, history was always a touchy subject. The state derived its legitimacy, at least in part, from a historical narrative that portrayed the Bolshevik revolutionaries as embodying the aspirations of the vast majority of Russians—not as a minority imposing their will through violence.

The Soviet Union couldn’t even stomach criticism that avoided the state’s founding myths. Soviet historian Roy Medvedev was harassed and expelled from the Communist party in the late 1960’s for writing a book critical of Stalin, for instance. There was one acceptable version of history—the one that suited the interests of the state.

And now, it seems the Russian government is working to shape the past once again. The St. Petersburg Times reports Russian President Dmitri Medvedev is creating a committee charged with “collecting and analyzing information about attempts to diminish Russia’s prestige by falsifying history.”

The initiative may simply be a piece in formulating a broader, more coherent national approach to Soviet-era history, particularly the Stalin era (sort of a curriculum standardization). Or it may be a political move, with little real effect. Of course, it could also have real consequences for the study of history in Russia.

Analysts quoted by the St. Petersburg Times seemed to have differing opinions. One believes that the committee may open more archives to researchers, making it beneficial in the long run. Another analyst, however, said the committee might lead to, “defense of the historical myth about Russia in the interests of the country’s rulers.”

Among Russians, memories of the Communist era are mixed.

While the horror of Stalin’s reign is acknowledged, there are still mixed feelings towards him here. Stalin embarked on massive purges and collectivized agriculture, killing millions, but also pursued large-scale industrialization and defeated the Nazis.

The text at the Museum of the Political History of Russia in St. Petersburg—a glimpse into how the state wishes to present its past—is quite critical of Stalin and his purges. But it does not mention some of the most undeniably evil portions of his reign. The Holodomor famine that occurred in the early 1930s in Ukraine, killing millions, is absent. Stalin’s aggressive collectivization of agriculture led to the famine, and Ukrainians consider the famine to be a genocide committed against their people. Russia rejects this claim.

In a related development, Russia’s parliament is likely to pass a bill that would criminalize criticism of the actions of the Red Army during World War II, the St. Petersburg Times reported. Penalties for such criticism, which is often made in former Soviet republics, could reach five years in prison. Foreigners who accuse the Red Army of atrocities (See: Katyn Massacre and Soviet War Crimes) could be punished upon entering Russia.

For a slightly different view of Medvedev’s committee, let’s turn to Pravda, the newspaper of Russia’s communist party. In a translated article headlined Russia will never let anyone falsify history of Second World War, Pravda celebrates the government’s effort to combat portrayals of Soviet soldiers as looters and rapists.

“As a matter of fact, we find ourselves in the situation when we must defend the historic truth and even prove the facts that seemed to be absolutely obvious not so long ago. It can be very hard and even disgusting at times, but we must do it. We must not turn a blind eye on the terrible truth of the war. We will never let anyone cast doubt on the deeds of our nation,” Medvedev said, according to the paper.

Neither Pravda nor the St. Petersburg Times made it clear exactly which “correct” version of history the government will promote.

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.

Slideshow: Artillery Museum

Missiles

Missiles

Click here to see photographs from the Artillery Museum in St. Petersburg.

Museum Night, Missiles, and Tanks

People eat next to a Soviet T-80 tank.

People eat next to a Soviet T-80 tank.

Tanks! Missiles! Cannons! Rockets and rocket launchers!

The Artillery Museum in St. Petersburg is billed as a great place to go to climb on and marvel at military equipment, and in this role, it definitely doesn’t disappoint. The place is full of fighting machines, from historical cannons to the RT-2PM Topol, a massive mobile intercontinental ballistic missile launcher, complete with (mock?) missile.

Kids, and more than a few adults, were climbing on the artillery pieces near the entrance and posing for pictures. Bunches of people walked around, checking out anti-aircraft guns, spinning Topol’s wheels, or watching a free concert set up in the middle of the outdoor museum for Museum Night.

I thought these anti-aircraft missile launchers only existed in video games.

I thought these anti-aircraft missile launchers only existed in video games.

Even cooler than the tanks, though, were the running battles in the museum’s backyard. As part of the Museum Night festivities, reenactments of Russian military history up to World War II were staged in a large treed yard, dug through with trenches and strung with barbed wire.

Sadly, we were only able to watch the World War One reenactment, but it was plenty awesome. Spectators cheered as Russian soldiers charged out of the trenches, guns spitting fire, cutting down German soldiers.

After the Russians won the battle, kids quickly ran out onto the field, looking for spent casings and mingling with the soldiers. Everbody else soon joined, check out the trenches and hopping the barbed wire. With lawsuits and such, I’m adding this to my list of things that work a bit differently in America.

We walked around after that, mingling with fake Nazi soldiers, knights with swords and shield, and even mock American soldiers from World War II, speaking Russian and some hilariously broken English.

As I wrote about yesterday, we were planning on going to a bunch of museums as part of the Museum Night event. But, as you can probably tell, we spent a whole lot of time at the Artillery Museum.

This was not entirely by choice. We had planned to start the night at Dostoevsky’s house, a museum/tribute to the famous Russian writer. But although Dostoevsky’s house was participating in Museum Night, tickets to the event were not being sold there, a fact that wasn’t in any of the Museum Night stuff we had researched online.

So we went to a Russian pizza place, and then took the metro over to Petrogradsky Island, site of the Peter and Paul Fortress, Artillery Museum, and a bunch of other museums we had planned to visit.

But the metro stop right by all the museums, the one we had planned to get off at was ремонт, or under repair—which we discovered only as our train sped through the darkened station (My roommate Tom wrote about the significance of ремонт in Russia on his blog.). We got off at the next station, still on Petrogradsky Island, but a mile walk to the museums.

Luckily, getting off at that station earned me my first picture with Lenin, which pretty much made the walk worthwhile.

 

Me and Lenin. In Russia, people don't smile for pictures.

Me and Lenin. In Russia, people don't smile for pictures.

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.