Almost seven years ago, my friend and I went to Moscow. For four days. For spring break. In March. Moscow was the only destination, and we had no business that brought us there. Months before, we had been sitting outside a café on a warm Central Valley night deciding where our next traveling adventure should take us when the idea of Moscow suddenly popped into my head. We became immediately smitten with the idea.
Admittedly, it was an odd choice – but that’s why we liked it so much. Although going to Moscow would require a considerable financial investment, a cumbersome amount of bureaucratic paperwork, and once we got there, at the beginning of the end of winter, the weather would be less than spring-break-ideal, the counterintuitive non-sense of picking this place for our destination appealed to our then predilection for a lifestyle filled with apparently absurd, spontaneous, and carefree adventures. As for the incredibly short duration of our stay – all the way to Russia and back, for only four days! – it wasn’t up to us, limited as I was by an academic schedule and we both were by the depth of our pocketbooks. But, as I said, everything that seemed to suggest against going to Moscow only served to make it more attractive to us.
Another factor, however, also made the trip irresistible – and that simply was the history. I had met my traveling partner in our senior thesis seminar, and much of our friendship had been forged on our shared identities as history nerds. In college, I had taken several courses in Russian history and had developed a love, in particular, for the history of the Revolution – one of the many signs, in retrospect, that my then-ambiguous politics were long overdue for a transformation. In any case, Moscow was an important place – and to top it all off, the moment I learned that you could view the pristine, wax-like remains of Lenin’s body at Red Square, one day gazing at the corpse of the great revolutionary with my own two eyes went immediately on my bucket list. So we went.
I made this montage of photographs we took on our trip shortly after arriving home.
Usually, seasoned travelers will recommend going to a place for an extended period of time – it takes weeks, months perhaps even, to get a real sense of the mood, spirit, and shape of a different culture. For sure, this is typically sound advice, especially since travelers are most often motivated by a desire to understand and comprehend a new place, at least as best as they can. For this trip, however, our extremely short stay produced an effect that I’m not sure could have been created any other way – being in and out of Moscow in merely four days felt like being shoved in an ice bath all of sudden, staying submerged just long enough to comprehend the coldness filling your every pore, and being wrenched out again just as suddenly. It was intense, strange, and exhilarating. Perhaps the only real details you need to know to capture this effect are the facts that our first outing, after passing out in the hotel for 11 straight hours, came at one o’clock in the morning as we wandered around the still, snow-covered streets looking for an all-night diner we located on Google, and then eight hours later, when we managed to stumble, half-lost, onto Red Square, Saint Basil’s Cathedral literately startling us, as we both ended up screaming and then falling into each other’s arms, giggling joyously at ourselves for being so spooked by an inanimate building.
But anyway, enough of those travel narrative nuggets – there’s something in particular I want to reflect on about this trip of ours. As I mentioned, my friend and I probably would have never gone to Moscow if we didn’t have a deep interest in history; after all, how could we resist visiting one of the epicenters of the greatest ideological struggle of the twentieth century? And Moscow returned our wide-eyed curiosity with plenty of goodies to gaze upon – Moscow is littered, figuratively and literately, with the monuments and markers of the past. In the subway stations – which we spent a whole afternoon visiting, hopping on a looping line and simply getting out at every stop to look around – there are murals of Stalin leading the people of Russia, statues to the fallen soldiers of WWII, and mosaics depicting the ideal socialist man and woman united under the symbol of the Soviet Union. Elsewhere the remains are more subtle – a hammer and sickle welded into an old fence, or trinkets from the Soviet era on sale in the flea markets, right next to scarves, hats, and souvenir magnets. Most of these remains were presented without comment – there was no marker explaining who or what was in the murals, no plaque either celebrating or decrying the regime. As the locals walked by busily, only my friend and I seemed at all interested in or aware of their presence. Then again of course, it wasn’t exactly tourist season.
But there was one exception to this silence. On our last morning there, we walked to a statue garden, not too far across the bridge from Red Square, that I only knew about because of an episode of Anthony Bourdain I had happened to watch. It was an eerily beautiful place, an effect magnified by the still layer of snow covering the grounds, and it included all kinds of statues from, as far as I can remember, unnamed artists. Some depicted strangely misshapen every day people, while others – such as the sculpture of Jesus being crucified on a nuclear weapon – offered a clear commentary on the geopolitical forces that shaped Russian history. Yet the garden also included statues that were never originally intended to be viewed as art or simply for aesthetic interest, but were the remains of political monuments – torn down statues of Stalin and Lenin, a huge CCCP sculpture that probably had once graced a public square of some kind, and even a bust of Marx which I cheerfully posed with. From the episode of Anthony Bourdain I watched, I also knew that the collection of stone heads, piled on top of one another behind barbed wire, were intended to represent the lives lost to Stalin’s tyranny. It was in this seemingly unnoted place, then, that I encountered the only explicit commentary on the Soviet legacy I saw during my brief time there.
Recently, I reflected on this strange presentation of historical silence in light of recent debates about America’s own left-over historical markers. My position on this question has been, and remains, very straightforward – either take down the monuments that celebrate white supremacy or simply construct around them new monuments which make clear that we only preserve such remains as a way to remember, and therefore seek to redeem, the foundational role of racism in American history. Concerns about “erasing history” are both unfounded – all one need do is accompany such historical sites with appropriate commentary on their larger significance to avoid any such effect – and, as far as I can tell, indicate some strange priorities.
However, I have to confess that when I consider the same question in the context of contemporary Russia, these answers don’t come so easily. The most immediate answer to this is, of course, that whereas I feel no conflicting emotions about the legacy of the Confederacy, I do feel ambiguously about the legacy of the Soviet Union; or, at least, ambiguous about its birth. Not surprisingly I feel no pinch of uncertainty about the portraits and remembrances of Stalin remaining in Moscow; indeed, looking at them created a pit of discomfort in my belly, and I wouldn’t object at all if they were all torn down. But what about the other remnants of Soviet ideology? What about the mosaics that seem to celebrate solidarity as much as Stalinism, the ideals of Lenin rather than the violence it required to try to carry them out? Yet how could I speak on behalf of such layers of grey if, historically if not ideally, the good of Soviet socialism never happened without its inextricable relationship to the bad of it?
As a socialist, I run in circles of people who frame the Soviet flag and place it on their bookshelves, wear shirts with the same symbolism, and casually joke about who are the true revolutionaries amongst us. Nine times out of ten, of course, this is all in jest; a form of both rejecting the reigning values of our society as explicitly and offensively as possible, and also poking fun at ourselves – to tell someone they would make a bad Stalinist is often a favorite tactic of a friend of mine, for example, to indicate both that he’s kind of done with the argument and that he’s aware he’s being polemical just for the sake of it, as he knows being serious about such an “accusation” would reflect very poorly on him. Nonetheless, all of us, I think it is safe to say, have some love in our hearts for the dreams of some original Bolshevik or another; how could we not?, when socialism is, indeed, the name of our desire? The same can absolutely not be said of the Southern secessionists and their Confederacy, which in any case sometimes hardly seems like a historical place but rather the ground we still walk on, with its borders encompassing not merely the contemporary South but the entire country.
And indeed, the relationship contemporary Russia has with its Soviet remains speaks volumes about the relative ease with which they seem, for the most part, to be left alone: Moscow felt like a place that had very much given up on its socialist past. Walking through the busy streets, the landscape of capitalism, from advertisements spotting the horizon to extremely fashionably dressed women (who managed, much to my impressed amazement, to easily walk across the icy sidewalks in high-heeled boots) keep things familiar, even if in other regards Moscow of course remains an exceptional place. Indeed, I couldn’t help but note the irony of the beautiful, lit-up building that sits directly across from Lenin’s grave being, today at least, a huge shopping mall. It was perhaps fitting then that I never got to see that historical artifact I most wanted to witness, the body of Lenin himself. It was closed due to some unspecified concerns about preservation or renovation, so I simply stood outside gazing at its modernist austerity, the lights of the mall across from it glowing in its smooth reflective surface.
So as neoliberalism does its thing in contemporary Russia as elsewhere, the only strong legacies remaining of the Soviet past seem to be the bad ones. Perhaps the physical symbols of a socialist past that have not yet crumbled away present no great controversy or opportunity for comment because they also have no power to threaten the current direction of the country. In America, however, our Confederate monuments and our buildings and roads named after notorious racists seem all too powerful, and all too relevant to our everyday life; and those who celebrate and defend them have quite a lot to lose.
Comparing these two examples of historical monuments and markers brings me, once again, to the unavoidably political content at the root of such debates – we seek to preserve or protect from complete infamy that which we believe has redeeming value, while our hearts have no such queasiness over destroying that which we associate only with cruelty and suffering. This is not to say that the question over whether this or that marker of historical memory should be preserved, discarded, or amended is simple, simply because every case is likely different and must be considered in light of its own legacies. However, it is to say that such a decision must ultimately be political and, therefore, social; the value (or lack thereof) of the past does not, in fact, lie dormant and separate from the present – for its meaning, as always, depends on us.