Vestiges of Empire

'People have often understimated Russia. You never see us the way we are.'

January 15 2001

Vestiges of Empire

'People have often understimated Russia. You never see us the way we are.'

January 15 2001

By: Anna Porter

November may not be the best time to visit Russia. It is cold and grey, but I’d go back again same time next year.

In my mind, Nov. 7 has always remained the ultimate Russian holiday. A day of flags waving, crowds marching, loud music, songs, placards, slogans, speeches, and orderly rows of Young Communists with white shirts, dark pants and red kerchiefs around their necks. It’s the celebration of the 1917 October Revolution (the date moved into November with the switch to the Gregorian calendar from the Julian). It ended all pretense of an orderly transition from the oppressive centuries of czars and serfs and a half-hearted effort at democracy, the day that brought us 7 1/2 decades of bolshevism. At first there was hope and Vladimir Illich Lenin, the feverish intellectual, the idealogue Trotsky, and the peoples' own commissar, S. M. Kirov. But when they were gone, there was only the monster from Georgia, Josef Stalin, who eliminated all barriers to his personal power, even his friends and allies. If you discount the millions of murdered Ukrainians he had never known, especially his friends and allies.

Throughout the Soviet empire, Nov. 7 was the day of grand gestures, troop parades, air-power displays, demonstrations. In our far corner of the red-mapped area—Hungary—it was a day you dared not miss. In those heady days of the 1950s, when I was a child, ones lack of enthusiasm for marching music could be interpreted as bourgeois recidivism. People disappeared for less.

Last Nov. 7 in St. Petersburg, I was anticipating a replay of the parades. What I saw, instead, was a bunch of elderly citizens, some with rows of ancient medals on their chests, some with faded red flags, the old hammer and sickle peeling. A few had brought their grandchildren—it was one of the years 28 sunny days in this northern city. Some enterprising new capitalists stood along the route selling paper flags, both the Soviet red and the Russian blue-red-and-white, and pin-on buttons of Papa Lenin.

They didn’t exactly march, either, they walked. Ambled. Chatting and waving when they spotted friends. Their clothes were not nearly as fashionable as the best on Nevsky Prospekt—St. Petersburg’s busiest thoroughfare—nor as shabby as I had remembered them from the ’50s.

Their goal was to reach the grand Palace Square, and gather around Alexander’s Column, where loudspeakers welcomed them to the Communist party rally, and extolled their tenacity and forbearance in these capitalistic times. All around the vast square, there were blue-clad policemen, police cars and ambulances in case the elderly needed immediate assistance.

I watched them from a third-floor window of the czar’s opulent Winter Palace, perhaps not too far from the spot where Russia’s then-prime minister, Alexander Kerensky, might have been standing on that cold day in October, 1917, looking down at the approaching crowd of shouting Bolsheviks. There was only a small contingent of women guards and ceremonial Cossacks to protect the fragile government. They would have heard the blank shots fired by the ship Aurora, signalling both the attackers and the attacked.

In my history book back then, this was a grand moment of violence and bloodshed, brave men and women fighting for their rights for the first time in Russian history. In that version, the defenders had been well armed and ruthless, the prime minister in the pay of the czar. In truth, it turns out, there was barely a drop of blood shed, the guards and the provisional government surrendered without much of a fight, and the attackers looted and robbed, showing special keenness for Nicholas II’s well-stocked wine cellars. Luckily for today’s tourists, they were less interested in his art collection.

The Winter Palace houses the Hermitage, one of the world’s greatest art galleries. It has an amazing array of paintings by Rubens and Rembrandt, Monet and Picasso, Tiepolo and Renoir, da Vinci, Matisse, Gauguin and many more. There are prehistoric artifacts from all corners of the Russian empire, Greek and Roman marble sculptures, gold carriages and malachite tables, Catherine the Great’s carved gemstones, gold jewelry from Persia, Byzantine icons and loving portraits of the czars’ mistresses.

There are rumours that the basement is full of art lifted from the Germans, who had stolen it from the less fortunate in their own empire, including the Jews. A woman I met in an old cathedral told me that when her father was in the Russian army entering Germany, he was encouraged to take whatever he could find. The soldiers didn’t have much and the war had been hard on them all. He thought it was only fair: armies had always pillaged their foes.

In Palace Square, the crowd pressed towards the trucks with the loudspeakers. In front of the former general staff building, a couple of men set up a table to hand out protest papers. They were advocating freedom for the Chechens. They tried to be heard over the noise. A policeman came closer, though no one was threatening the pro-Chechens.

Later, Lev Lurie, a revered political columnist for St. Petersburg’s Kommersant newspaper, tells me, “Nov. 7 is a day of nostalgia, a day for the few still yearning for past days of respect. The young pay them no heed.” He shrugs. “Not that any of us wish to have the pre-revolutionary times back. Those men were corrupt. Though no more corrupt than Stalin and his henchmen. As for this new imported capitalism, well, Russia is inventing its own version. After all, there isn’t such a great difference between the Russian mafia of today and America’s robber barons of yesterday. It’s a matter of timing and emphasis. Their progeny may yet become our new business class.

“Years ago, we watched American TV and we thought we really were entitled to 17 different kinds of margarine, and some of us were furious we couldn’t afford them even though we had come through perestroika. But tell me, do you really need that much choice in margarine?” He is a small man with a ready smile and a suspicious eye.

No, I do not think I need that much choice.

“Well, then,” he says, “you might be ready for our kind of democracy. We are a communal country, the individual is not greater than the community. Individual rights do not supersede all other rights. That’s how we survived. Not just Stalin and Beria and the lot of their murderous bunch, but the Germans. We prevailed even though Stalin had purged the best of our army leaders.”

He had lost family during the siege of St. Petersburg, or Leningrad as it was known in 1941. His grandfather had brought bread over the frozen Neva River, as the bombardment continued. His wife remembers stories her mother told her of stepping over dead bodies as she made her way to the wells. The German army bombarded the city for 900 days. A million citizens perished. Every family had their dead, most interred in mass graves where people still lay wreaths.

“People have often underestimated Russia,” a guide tells me as we visit the Aurora. “Napoleon did. Hitler did. Now the West is at it again.” He shook his head, sadly. “You never see us the way we are.”

Later, when I went to see the Victory Monument, I began to understand what he meant. This is the heart of St. Petersburg. It is not the Hermitage, and certainly not the picture-perfect Church of Spilled Blood (built on the site where Czar Alexander II was murdered in 1881) reproduced in every travel brochure, nor the magnificent Kazan Cathedral, or the Peter and Paul Fortress where St. Petersburg began with Peter the Great’s dream of a new imperial city. It is not even the magnificent Peter and Paul cathedral where the Romanovs wait in their coffins in the entranceway. (Because their bones are mixed with some of their last faithful servants’, the guide explained, the church is not quite satisfied that they belong inside.)

The heart of St. Petersburg lies some six metres underground, at the end of a wide staircase lit by dim lamps that cast an eerie orange light over the subterranean hall and its grim displays of memorabilia from the siege of Leningrad. There is a doll with its dress stained, its face mangled; a telephone; shell casings; broken cutlery; Shostakovich’s violin. His Seventh Symphony was broadcast live from the Great Hall of the Philharmonia in August, 1942, during the bombardment. A film shot during the siege shows what was left of daily life in the rubble, amidst the unburied corpses, and ends with the end of the war.

Aboveground, large bronze statues of partisans face southward whence the enemy came, and a smaller group of bronze citizens stands huddled with their children.

A bridal party comes to lay a wreath, laughing and cheering until they reach the depths of the hall. The only sound down here is that of a metronome sounding much like a heartbeat.

If I had to describe St. Petersburg in one phrase, I’d say it’s Venice on the Red River. It’s cold as Manitoba, the streets are wide avenues, yet the canals and bridges, the stately buildings and palaces, so faithfully rebuilt after the devastation, remind you of Venice. It wasn’t what I expected. Neither the feel of the place, nor the sense of urgency, the women too beautiful, the men too large, solid and confident. There is nothing quite like a large crowd of Russians along Nevsky Prospekt looking straight ahead and walking fast to make you realize what Hitler failed to: that the empire is not ready to surrender.

In Moscow, the sense of empire is even more pronounced. This city was built to make people feel small and insignificant. Monolithic, unforgiving architecture, buildings that sit upon the earth like fat giants, all bottom heavy, especially the Seven Sisters that Stalin had his architects design—seven tall buildings, wide cubes at the bottom topped with narrow towers. The Lenin Library with its glowering facade, the greyness of the university buildings, the newer hotels following their style. The streets are not made for pedestrians, they are too wide, the traffic too dense. The only places to cross are underground. The signs are all in the Russian alphabet, Cyrillic. No quarter given to anyone who does not belong.

I find that after the first day’s panic, I can read the signs and stop being afraid to talk to people. I had learned Russian in school and it starts to come back. Slowly. I can now rely on the random kindness of strangers. And that’s another unexpected. Many are willing to help, amused by my efforts to remember their language. In Red Square, I try to visit Lenin, but he is out for renovations. A guard at the tomb says there is something wrong with Lenin’s chin. Or did he say his neck?

I climb in and out of St. Basil’s in Red Square and shiver my way along the Kremlin walls, and spend a day at the Tretiakov Gallery, devoted entirely to Russian art. It’s extraordinary how little we know about Russian artists and how many of them are extraordinarily good. It’s also strange how so many children shove at one another to get better views. Much of the art represents great moments in Russian history, and I see parents and teachers explaining what they are seeing.

It’s at the Tretiakov that I see my first sizable contingent of Russian soldiers. They look like the ones who invaded Hungary in November, 1956, the same uniform, the boots rather worn, very young. They are lining up to view a famous painting of a religious procession by Ilya Repin. I stand with my back to the wall, trying to breathe. They walk by me.

The last night in Moscow we see Borodin’s opera Prince Igor at the Bolshoi Theatre. The balconies drip gold and velvet, the chandeliers seem too heavy for their chains, and as the curtain rises the stage reveals some 200 people singing. The audience shouts encouragement, “Bravo,” "Harasho (good),” and is on its feet applauding as the hero declares his love of his people and of freedom. Though in the end he marries the daughter of a Tatar, somehow it seems that the Russians defeated the Tatars rather than the other way around with the Golden Horde lording it over the Russians for more than a century. There is something terribly Russian even about that. A massive cast singing about the future even as the curtain drops. Though aggrieved by its recent losses, the empire is alive and well and celebrating itself. *