Thursday, 24 May 2007
In the midst of all the beautiful architecture of old Russia, and some of the occasionally interesting new building, it is worth having just one quick look, for the sake of contrast, at the world of Stalin set in stone. Shown above is the largest of the seven huge небоскрёбы (sky-"skrebi", the second syllable has no meaning in Russian, it is just a transauderaton, if that's a word, of the English word "scraper" put into the plural) which were built in a ring round the capital between the end of the Second World War and the death of the Great Leader and Teacher. They seem to me to be designed to intimidate, to convey the impression that the individual is insignificant in front of their unassailable hugeness. Moscow State University, known as Em Geh, Oo (МГУ - Московскый Государственный Университет), is an enormous institution, once the pinnacle of the Soviet educational system. Today, students with rich parents can buy their way in. But still many places are reserved for the highest academic achievers. I went to give a lecture to a group of law students there in March (on Scotland's judges--in English!) and the person who invited me, Professor John Cleary from San Diego, told me that about half the intake is reserved for the clever students (who have to be even cleverer than formerly as the places for them are now restricted by 50%), while the other half buy their way in, at great cost. As a democrat, he disapproved of this approach. But he was open to my observation that it is not unlike Eton, where you have the super-rich alongside the super-clever, mixing and occasionally learning something from each other. "Education should not be too exclusive," I said, "either with regard to money or brains. Each has to learn to get along with the other." He had the grace to laugh--but then he is nearly 70. He grew up in Chicago where his father, an Irishman, was a "caap". He told me that the court system there, when he first started work, was almost as corrupt as it is today in Moscow--which is why he moved to California to practice. If he did not put his $2 bill in the Police Benevolent Society box (or whatever it was) at the door of the courthouse when he arrived in the morning to plead a cause, he would find his case mysteriously moved to the back end of the docket by the judge, with the result that he had either to pay or to waste the whole day sitting waiting for his case to come up. If he left, the police would let the judge know. It would be brought on while he was out of the building, and dismissed as having been vacated. Of course, petty police bribery plus judge-police collusion were comparatively innocent aspects of the justice system in 1950s Chicago.
The Stalin building is only superficially of stone. In fact it is brick faced with stone. Its lack of "fit" in the modern world is illustrated by this shot of the network cabling which, due to the unflexable (i.e. cannot be "flexed"--inflexible is a different concept) mode of construction has had to be "laid" externally. This reminds me of either Peterhead Prison, where the granite was so hard that they could not plumb in the pipe-work for the lavatories in the post-"slopping-out" cells, or the Pompidou Centre in Paris. Inside, the gloomy, oppressive atmosphere is more reminiscent of the how I imagine the former to be. The security is almost as tight, which rather ruins the atmosphere of careless freedom which universities ought to have, in my opinion, if they are to rise above the Americo-Soviet concept of employment training colleges.
Opposite Stalin's monolith is this new building, completed in 2005 for the 250th anniversary of the founding of Moscow University, the first in Russia. In the foreground of the last picture is the back of the statue that is in front of the door of this, the new library for the University.The statue is of Ivan Shuvalov, Empress Elizabeth's Minster of Education, whose idea it was to allow Mikhail Lomonosov--who is said to have walked from Archangel to Moscow (600 miles)--to carry out his proposal to found a university within the Russian Empire. Previously higher education could be got only abroad, which ruled it out for almost everyone because, until the 1790s, the Tsar's permission was needed even for nobles to travel outside the country, and it was rarely given. The original institution was located in the centre of Moscow, moving out here to the Sparrow Hills--renamed the Lenin Hills--when the neboscrebi (see above) was completed in 1953. This building is amazingly lavishly specified. And the plans for further building are vast, some of it already started. The idea is that the whole area will become one of the world's largest and greatest centres of academic work in the world in the not too distant future. It already has 50,000 students and a million square metres of interior space. The conception is almost Stalinist in scale.
Since I dislike everything connected with the Stalinist approach, this view of the 1953 monstrosity is the one I prefer. It was shot in reflection on the windows of its modern counterpart, the new, arrogantly affluent but utterly charmless, Library building (see above).
Sunday, 20 May 2007
In 1524 Grand Prince Vasily III founded the Новодевичий Монастырь (New Maiden Monastery) to commemorate his victory over the Lithuanians in the battle to re-take Smolensk for the Principality of Muscovy in 1514. (Both Russia and Tsardom came later, essentially after Ivan the Terrible conquered the Tatars of Kazan and stared building his Siberian empire.) The main church, which is featured in the next picture, is the Cathedral of the Virgin of Smolensk. When Vasily's wife failed to produce an heir, he sent her to live in the convent here and took an attractive young replacement into his household, though he could not divorce his immured wife. The walls of the Monastery resemble those of the Kremlin. It was an important defensive bulwark to the south-west of Moscow (today it is lies in the inner suburbs) when the Poles and others attacked the capital of the expanding but still precarious Principality. Stability was achieved with the accession of the Romanov dynasty early in the seventeenth century, and within a hundred years, the Monastery owned 36 villages and 15,000 peasants. This financed a nunnery, a military hospital and an orphanage, as well as the normal quota of monks, iconographers and aristocratic ladies under sentence of immurement. Napoleon tried to blow up the buildings in 1812, but he was thwarted by the nuns. However, they failed to thwart the Bolsheviks, 110 years later, when they turned Novodevichi into a Museum of Women's Emancipation. Under pressure to propitiate the religious element in Soviet society during the most desperate days of the Second World War, Stalin returned the Monastery to the Church, though the level of involvement with the general public was, of course, small since no member of the Communist Party was allowed to enter a relgious building. Today, it is a thriving religious and tourist centre.
This is the Cathedral of the Virgin of Smolensk. Unfortunately, on the day Tanya and I visited it, it was closed. Women tend to cover their heads, even just with a scarf, in church precincts and almost always do inside a church, while men are bare-headed indoors. (Russia winters preclude customs like going bareheaded out of doors.)
There is wonderful display on historical artifacts associated with the Monastery, and of icon writing through the ages, in (I think) the old armoury. We heard the tail-end of a magnificent choral performance, by six men, unaccompanied, for a group of tourists. It was totally informal, with the men standing in the main hall of the icon exhibition, without amplification, stage setting or even a stage. Though I presume the tour group must have paid something to arrange it, the whole thing was completely безплатно for anyone else who happened to wander in while it was in progress--rather like the Russian Church, actually. During the latter part of the nineteenth century, the Church became fashionable as an expression of Russian national feeling. Pressure built up from well-connected people to be buried in famous places like Novodevichi. Soon it could not longer accomodate them. So in 1898 a cemetery was opened outside the walls. Many famous Russians who died in the twneieth cnetury are buried there--see the section below.
Monday, 14 May 2007
This is the freshly-dug grave of Boris Yeltsin, whom most Russians I have met thought of after his death on April 23 with affection and respect, though some considered him to have been foolish in connection with the break-up of the Soviet Union. The grave is in the central square of the Novodevichi (New Maiden) Cemetery, underneath the walls of the Novodevichi Monastery, on the banks of the Moscow River, beneath the Lenin (formerly Sparrow) Hills. It is one of the best-known cemeteries in Russia. The south wall of the Monastery was breached in 1898 in order to expand the cemetery. More ground has been added since, but now the limit has been more or less reached and it is rare (and expensive!) for new burials to be allowed.
Mstislav Rostropovich, the cellist, died on 27 April. He was buried four days before Yeltsin. Traditionally, graves are left like this for a year, to give them time to settle before the headstone is erected. Putin attended the funeral, which was significant since Rostropovich had been an exile from the Soviet Union, in protest at its restrictions on cultural freedom, since 1974. In recent years, though he had homes in Russia, he mainly lived in Paris. Though he was born in Baku, he chose to be buried in Moscow.
This in Nikolai Gogol, though I could have chosen from any number of other writers. Amongst the names whose graves I photographed, but have not got space to publish, are Stanislavsky, Shaliapin, Chekhov, Shostakovich, Scriabin, Sviatoslav Richter, Prokofiev, Galina Ulanova, Ilya Ehrenburg, Madame Furtseva, Khrushchev, Podgorny, Mikoyan, Gromyko, Madame Dzerzhinsky, General Panfilov, Polina Zhemchuzhina (Molotov's wife), General Lebed and Raisa Gorbachev. There were many I could not find, most grievously of all, Stalin's wife, Nadezhda Alliluyeva, despite a helpful map of the cemetery's layout being on sale at the gate. Others were Kropotkin, Alessandra Kollontai, Isaac Levitan, Mayakovsky, Molotov himself, Ivan Maisky and the violinist (скрипач) David Oistrakh, whose music I remember listening to in far-away Johannesburg, from my father's small collection of classic music favourites. An interesting feature of the cemetery is the plots which contain memorials to the likes of "Самолёт Ил-18 (Югославиа 1961г)", or "Aircraft Ilyushin-18 (Yugoslavia 1961)". All the people on the flight are named and therefore remembered, even if none of their remains were identifiable, or even buriable.
Much of the charm of the cemetery derives from the interesting gravestones. There is not the atmosphere of universal gravity--excuse the pun--which makes non-Orthodox cemeteries such uninviting places. Not even the Glasgow necropolis has headstones like this one! And few people ever visit to place flowers on the graves.
This was the headstone I went to the cemetery primarily to find. It marks the unkempt, weed- and bramble-covered grave of Vasily Vasilivich Ulrikh, the repellant face of Stalinist "justice" (expand the image and look closely). He was the judge at almost all of the great show trials of the 1930s, though he was over-shadowed in court by the more famous, cleverer and more influential Andrei Vyshinsky, the Prosecutor. Ulrikh was a Latvian of half German, half aristocratic Russian descent. He so enjoyed his work of applying Stalin's pre-determined sentences that he often watched the executions, and occasionally carried them out himself. He features largely in chapter 3 of my forthcoming book, The Justice Factory, which describes the Metro-Vickers trial in Moscow in April 1933. The brilliant American journalist, Eugene Lyons, described his appearance in court in terms which seem to me to be reflected exactly by the photograph on his grave: "In his round podgy face the gods had modelled a mask of impish, gloating cruelty. His flushed, over-stuffed features were twisted continually into a grimace of brutal sarcasm... That melon-face, hovering above the trial, sneering and jeering, was a caricature of the very idea of justice." There were no flowers on his grave.
Wednesday, 9 May 2007
The three tank traps in the foreground stand on the spot where the German Army got closest to Moscow on 5 December 1941. The main front-line was about twenty miles behind, at Kryukovo (which is Zelengorod today) on the Moscow-Leningrad highway. A small motor-cycle reconnaissance unit penetrated as far as Khimki, which the Germans described as "in the outer suburbs of Moscow". It was not. It was then a village many miles from the edge of the city. The Germans apparently claimed they could see the "towers of the Kremlin". This cannot have been true. Even without all the high-rise buildings which obscure the view today, it would have been impossible to see the Kremlin from ground-level at Khimki, any more than it would be possible to see Big Ben from Staines. The German unit thought they had found a gap in the Soviet front-line, soi they raced back to tell their commander. The next morning, at 4 a.m., the Siberian divisions attacked all along the front, from Kalinin (now, and previously, Tver) to Tula. The temperature was more than 30 degrees below zero Centigrade, and many German units refused to come out of their quarters to fight. Snow was falling, in a high wind. Visibility was less than fifty yards. The Soviet troops had white camouflage, heat-packs inside their uniforms and ponies to carry supplies. The Germans, having been told by Hitler when they invaded in June that they would "be home before the leaves fall" were unprepared for Russian winter conditions. They had stuffed shredded newspaper inside their denim uniforms to try to keep warm. But they had, for example, hob-nailed boots, the metal parts of which conducted the cold direct to the soldiers' feet. Over the following two months they were pushed back a hundred miles or so, with hundreds of thousands of casualties. This was the first time that Hitler's army had been comprehensively defeated in a land battle. The myth of Nazi invincibility was shattered. It happened more or less on this spot. Today, Ikea, Aushan and Mega, said to the largest mall in Europe, stand behind the monument.
After paying my silent respects at the Khimki memorial (where, to their delight, I saluted a group of veterans who had come to lay flowers), I cycled to the memorial park in Khimki in which a range of Second World War armaments is displayed. There, under a mounted T-34 tank, a band of young army medics, in uniform, were played страшная современная Русская музыка with great vigour and elan, and at considerable volume, but with no discernable melody. It struck me as Vysotsky-lite in berets. I'd've preferred Danny Boy, or Lochiel's Farewell to His Guest. Despite the music--in fact probably because of it--a huge number of people were milling about, eating гречка from a smoking, wood-fired field-kitchen (such as Andrew Hamilton has outside his tent at the Kelso races), and listening to the musical exhibition. There were as many veterans as younger folk. Everyone seemed to be enjoying themselves.
This picture reminds me of Lord and Lady Aldington, and the fact that at Aldington's funeral they played There'll be Blue Birds Over the White Cliffs of Dover. What a contrast!
Tuesday, 8 May 2007
Often it is only by experiencing historical phenomena in person that it becomes possible to appreciate their full significance. I always understood that Tchaikovsky was one of classical music's giants, but until I saw his statue in the grounds of his house in Klin, I had no idea just what an enormous man he really was. Tanya is shown here enjoying a joke with the composer of the theme tune for On the Beach, the film of Neville Shute's novel about nuclear winter. Dah, dah, dah, dah, dun, daaah, di, dun, di, dun, di, dun, dah... и так далее
It is amazing to think that Tchaikovsky could have got those immense knees under this ordinary-sized piano. But he must have done as he wrote the Nutcracker sitting at it. The exhibition staff have fixed little speakers inside the casing so that if you wish to hear the great man playing they can oblige at the flick of a switch.
This is where Tchaikovsky spent the last decade of his life. His piano is in the main upstairs room. He liked the house because of its rural setting, and the fact that it was on the main railway-line from Moscow to St Petersburg, so he could reach either city easily for concerts. It is no longer quiet, lying less than a hundred yards from the Leningrad to Moscow highway, on the edges of a much-expanded town, about 100 kms from Moscow. It was occupied for about three weeks in November and early December 1941 by the German Army, which used the building as a motorcycle repair shed.