|Posted on November 1, 2014 at 10:10 AM|
Written by Tom Gould
Never invade Russia in the winter. That is the first rule for any prospective military campaigner, and after having touched down at Moscow Domodedovo Airport I could instantly see why. We visited Russia on a school trip in early April and yet the biting cold was my first impression. My second impression was of the mass of birch trees which dominated the landscape, and my third was of the swarms of Soviet tower blocks which lined the precincts of the City of Moscow. Yet the country of Russia is much more deeply complex to be summarised simply by the temperature, birch trees and brutalist architecture.
Russia is a country which still struggles with its own tortured history. There is plenty to remind you that Russia has only been free of the yoke of communism for a mere twenty years. The bland architectural aestheticism which pervades the City is a monument in itself to a bureaucratic era of emphatic efficiency and industrial output. Our own tour guide was quick to balance her criticism of Stalin's atrocities (which left around 20 million dead) with Russia's miraculous increase in economic output. Soviet nostalgia is as alive as it ever was. Moscow is like a living time capsule, and the most visible differentiator between the Moscow of the Union of Socialist Soviet Republics and the Moscow of today is the western brands and franchises that now dominate her commercial districts.
Ironic contrasts between the command economy of the Soviet Union and the fledgling capitalist state of the Russian Federation which was carved out of the former's dissolution are ubiquitous today. Former government buildings, still decorated by the hammer and sickle, lie directly opposite Mcdonald’s. There was a Subway chain in the foyer of our hotel and also an illuminated statue of a worker and a collective farm girl visible from our room. On our visit to Lenin's Mausoleum, despite the Russian government having officially disavowed the principles of the Bolshevik leader, the guards still insisted we removed our hats, took our hands out of our pockets and remained in complete silence out of respect. Lenin himself perhaps would have looked more appropriate in a Madame Tussaud's exhibition as his ninety year old, chemically preserved corpse was looking a bit waxy. Further investigation on Google revealed that only 10% of the body which lay in state before us was actually Lenin. Nonetheless, just seeing one tenth of the individual who defined the global geopolitical situation for the majority of the twentieth century was both surreal and disconcertingly creepy in equal measure. What was more disconcerting for Lenin however, was the fact that literally in throwing distance of the mausoleum of history's great anti-capitalist revolutionary, was a vast, private department store. The Soviets' monument to the man who dismantled capitalism and modern Russia's own monument to consumerism are on opposite sides of the road. I'm sure all 10% of Lenin is turning in his tomb.
The Kremlin itself is no exception to such incongruencies either. Above the imposing red brick towers and the fluttering Russian tricolour, the red five point stars - a symbol of the communist revolution on all five continents - still remain perched on top of the fortress' highest steeples as they did in 1935 when they were first installed. Why? The simple answer is that a flag can be replaced overnight, whereas a one tonne star, three metres in diameter, suspended over two hundred feet in the air requires specialist machinery and logistical expertise to remove. I refuse to believe though, that a country which spends 4.4% of its two trillion dollar GDP on its military cannot spare the logistical and technical resources to remove five pentagonal stars from the top of the Kremlin. The real answer is that the stars remain to provide a degree of political consistency to those who would wish to see a return to the old socialist bureaucracy. To remove the final, potent symbol of communism from the grounds of the centre of government would be the last straw for many. The Communist Party in Russia won almost 20% of the vote in the 2012 Presidential Election, nearly as much as the Liberal Democrats won in the UK in 2010. The country is simply not ready to resign its socialist roots to history.
I find it curious how communism and fascism have been remembered so differently. Following the end of the Second World War, the Germans purged all official reference to National Socialism, ashamed of the genocide that was committed in their name. The genocide in Russia claimed many more lives, yet one can walk into any souvenir shop and buy a novelty plate with Stalin's face on it. It would be a rare sight in Germany to find similar memorabilia adorned with the likeness of Hitler. The reason for this commemorative divergence is simply that fascism, by and large, has died out in the Teutonic nations, whereas communism still lives on in the hearts and minds of many Russians. According to a poll run by Russia's Public Opinion Foundation, up to 60% of Russians believe that the country was better under the rule of the communist party. Furthermore, the CPRF (Russia’s Communist Party) doubled their vote in the last set of parliamentary elections in 2011. However, I would not go so far as to say that we are likely to experience a Soviet renaissance in the near future. The systematic brutality, the labour camps and the political oppression are still too fresh in the minds of many. A resurgence in support is, nonetheless, not outside the realm of possibility.
Socialism still enjoys a prominent foothold in the Russian Federation. Vladimir Putin's centrist party, United Russia, won landslide victories in the previous parliamentary and presidential elections, yet the Communist Party is still the second largest political faction. I find it unlikely that Russia will ever again be governed by the General Secretary of the Communist Party, but I find it equally unlikely that Russia will shed its socialist ideology any time soon. The hammer and sickle hats, the Lenin adorned cigarette lighters and the Red Army emblems are more than just tourist traps. They are a manifestation of residual communist sentiments that are still felt in Russia, and will continue to be felt for some time.