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Over the New Year, our blog writer Marcus visited Moscow and St Petersburg. Now he reflects on a trip which both conformed to and drastically defied western expectations of a nebulous eastern global force.

Peter the Great’s dramatic decision in 1712 to move Russia’s capital from Moscow is most known nowadays for resulting in the birth of St Petersburg, a city which would grow rapidly into one of Europe’s largest and most important cities. Lesser known, however, is the extent to which conflict was systemic to this event.

Firstly, there was an irreconcilable cultural clash. Tsar Peter I loathed the ‘backward’, traditional Muscovite mindset, preferring the progressiveness he experienced during his European travels. It was also a decision made on the back of two successive revolts in Moscow, which he put down in vicious fashion. Finally, the 700km transition was far from peaceful, as it necessitated territorial war with Sweden, one of the world’s greatest empires at the time.

This is not the exception. Conflict and struggle have been frequent players throughout Russia’s history. Most will know of their heroic suffering in WWII, sacrificing nearly 30 million men in the war against fascism. But fewer will realise that this is just one of many bloody events in her history. Whether it be the Mongol empire’s ravaging of the region in the 13th century, the Poles burning Moscow to the ground in the 17th, or Napoleon doing the same 200 years later, the next hardship has never been far away.

In many ways, such a harsh history has coloured the contemporary perception of Russia in the West. We might view it as a global power with mistrust, or generalise about a people feared inimical towards us. The outcome that Russia would be hosting the next FIFA World Cup was most likely a source of consternation for many fans planning on travelling to support their countries, a concern highlighted only last month in a Telegraph article.

Visiting St Petersburg and Moscow over the New Year, I wanted to scrutinise these perceptions. I hoped that through objective observation, I might gain an understanding of the world’s largest country which runs deeper than off-hand stereotypes without empirical basis.

Arriving in St Petersburg, the immediate impression was of a city which does not noticeably feel ‘un-European’. The architecture remains overwhelmingly true to the European style Peter the Great intended to reproduce, primarily due to existing laws which restrict the height of new buildings in historical areas (banishing the eyesore modern skyscrapers to further flung corners of the St Petersburg region). People possess the sort of cordiality towards strangers and visitors to be expected in cosmopolitan Europe, and also appear keen to mention the cities in your continent which they themselves have visited. The sort of culture shock which I was braced for simply never materialised.

The city as an entity in itself thrums with history. In this regard the most interesting point was the juxtaposition between its Tsarist and communist pasts.[1] Although two such ideologically antithetical societal structures, contemporary St Petersburg seems happy to recognise and honour both as parts of its unalterable fabric. Tour guides and exhibitions will detail both sides fully and rarely show glimpses of unjustified bias. Perhaps, to be cynical, this unjudging, non-committal reflection is the safest and least likely to cause controversy or issues for the current regime.

This pacifying mood has in fact allowed for a certain imperial revival to bud, which is to an extent a romanticised one. Strong anti-communist sentiment in the immediate aftermath of the USSR (which collapsed in 1991) manifests itself in minor yet transformative societal adjustments; government buildings in the Kremlin have replaced the hammer and sickle with the imperial double-headed eagle; not a statue remains of Stalin anywhere, and indeed some of Lenin have been ‘re-located’.

The Soviet Hammer and Sickle on the state Duma in the Kremlin

Just opposite it, on the Senate, the communist symbol has since been replaced by the imperial double-headed eagle

 

The Romanov [2] tombs in St Petersburg are now a quasi-pilgrimage experience as the general mood in society has turned sympathetic towards the star-crossed dynasty, a far cry from the resentful fury which pursued and purged those privileged by birth 100 years ago. It is not necessarily obvious that this revival in imperial opinion is dovetailed with a criticism of the Bolsheviks, who punished them so ferociously.

Despite this, it is difficult not to find distasteful the abundant vestiges of Tsarist excess in both cities. The reconstruction of the Summer Palace cost Catherine the Great the equivalent of 17 billion roubles in the modern-day, a grotesque sum amassed solely through taxation of a miserably poor populace. The Kremlin’s Armoury, home of the state’s crown jewels (most of which remain from the Tsarist era), contains carriages, crowns and jewellery of simply incalculable value. It is not beyond the realms of reason to see why an increasingly educated, but persistently impoverished, society might not be keen for such inequality to continue.

The other side of the coin is of course attitudes towards communism, and neither did this appear overly clear-cut. My assumption was that Stalin’s regime would be pretty much unequivocally criticised and, by many, he is (particularly by my tour guides, a few of whom had studied History at Russian universities and so been exposed to current historical and historiographical trends in the country). As said, there are no extant monuments to him remaining in either city. Not everyone, however, shares this rejection of even the most brutal of the Soviet Union’s leaders, as this photo of his grave in Red Square illustrates, taken on the 64th anniversary of his death last year:

  • Source: http://aucpbenglishwebsite.blogspot.co.uk/2017/03/march-5-at-stalins-grave-were-laid.html

 

This almost ancestral cognitive dissonance persists elsewhere. The V.I Lenin State Library was renamed the Russian State Library in 1992, yet his Mausoleum still attracts thousands of wide-eyed visitors (mostly Russians) everyday. St Petersburg’s Political History Museum quite starkly depicts the Bolshevik Revolution as a negative event, but all citizens of the city remain forever grateful for the spectacularly beautiful metro stations built by that same revolutionary regime.

  • One of the stunning metro art-pieces verging on the commonplace

    Stalin aimed to erect the ‘palaces of the people’ deep underground, and succeeded

 

In many ways, a similar ‘glossing over’ of controversy and conflict ensues as like that of the Tsars’ excesses. This enables Soviet statues and monuments to remain standing whilst the city proceeds to develop and move on all around it.

One vision especially emphasised the potency of this ‘convenient avoidance’. At the Prospekt Mira in Moscow stands one of the USSR’s most eye-catching and propaganda-laden monuments. Barely 50 metres away, three enormous (and ugly) blocks of flats have been built. The inanimate workers still reach to the sky, mid-parade, but any symbolic sense of might and grandeur has been implicitly undermined.

 

Hidden beneath this 80 year-long debate over the rights to private property may lie the explanation to another stereotypical view of wealthy Russians in the West: that of profligacy and extravagance. In my nine days of observation, the severely limited verdict I reached was that this is not a terribly inaccurate perception; overtly wealthy Russians do enjoy spending money in shops and restaurants, wearing designer brands and just generally exhibiting their wealth lavishly.

I wonder, however, whether this is an unexpected trait for a people who were barely allowed to spend money individually for almost one hundred years. The seemingly insatiable desire for the proliferation in Western brands now lining city department stores would appear to pay testament to a society which is literally indulging in the novelty of possessing spending-power, and the unfettered rights to use it.

Another infamous notion is that of Russian bureaucracy, a symptom of which is their head-bashingly lengthy online visa application form. And yes it was bad in the country too, with museum ticket purchasing resulting in myriad pieces of paper, and hotel checking-in becoming half-hour affairs. Compared to standards back home, it might be viewed as a nebulous and agonisingly frustrating legacy of communist governance.

On this occasion, that is a misperception. In 1661, a French diplomat had this to say of Russian rigmarole:

“The Russians cannot go diplomatically in a straight line. They never get to the point, they argue in circles. Words are picked up, and bandied, and tossed, until in the end a general confusion is the result of any conference.”

This was 270 years before the 1917 Revolution. Similarly, writers Nikolai Gogol and Fyodor Dostoyevsky were satirising state bureaucracy in the Tsarist 19th century. Consider this passage from Gogol’s The Overcoat:

“It’s high time you knew that first of all your application must be handed in at the main office, then taken to the chief clerk, then to the departmental directory, then to my secretary, who then submits it to me for consideration…”

Moreover, when you think about it, not only is it a myth that Russian paper-pushing stems from its Soviet days, but the whole system begins to look more understandable, if still not ideal. From east to west, Russia is 11,000km wide. It is difficult to imagine governing such a vast territory in the 21st century, let alone in the pre-internet/digital age. Bureaucracy became an imperative method of organisation, without which it would be simply impossible to assert authority, uphold the law, or generally administer social order. In fact, the more paperwork and hoop-jumping the leading body establishes, the more control it possesses. It is for this reason that such a system might appeal to Russia’s current ‘hands on’ government, which continues to utilise the same system which proved both practical and pragmatic for its predecessors.

The key word here is ‘control’, which goes some way to explaining why Russia has, and seems to desire (going by election results, anyway) the sort of leadership that it has now. The country has had many strong leaders throughout Her history, and these individuals are unanimously viewed in a positive light retrospectively. Peter the Great had a ruthless trait, but is remembered above all for crushing the Swedes and carving out stability for his fledgling empire. Ivan the Terrible would watch the torture of prisoners for pleasure, but his legacy is now dominated by his conquering of the Tartar Mongols.

In Russia, leadership is overwhelmingly a question of strength. Whatever is thought of Vladimir Putin, the statesman brawn and conviction which he exudes is unquestionable. It is for this reason that a waiter in a restaurant informed me that international sanctions were “worth it” for regaining Crimea in 2014. National pride runs fiercely amidst Russian society, and they demand the same from those who rule them.

Patriotism is also visible in the remarkable lack of litter or graffiti on the streets. Soviet mosaics and chandeliers remain intact in the metro stations, 70 years on, in a way I very much doubt they would in Britain. It is also why the superhuman efforts to refurbish every building, and develop brand new parks ahead of the World Cup are probably more about making Russia shine in the global limelight than anything else.

These reflections and ruminations may seem disjointed and unsuccessful in determining trends running through the societies of Russia’s major two cities. Yet maybe this is a good thing, for it would be odd to fit a nation of such size and history into a tidy abstract narrative.

What remains prevalent is the sense of a nation which has come to terms with its past identity, and moves forward in the 21st century at one with itself. There is an unmistakeable, immense pride which permeates the crowded streets, streets which have played a seismic role in world history on numerous occasions. Perhaps most pertinently, there is also the inescapable sense that Russia still has a large role to play yet, and the appetite to do so is strong.

Marcus Solarz Hendriks

[1] The 370 year-long Tsardom of Russia came to an abrupt end in February 1917 when mass street protests forced Tsar Nicholas II to cede power. The revolt was calling for an end to Russia’s involvement in WWI, improvements to living standards, and a more democratic society. A Provisional Government was formed in order to bridge the gap between feudalism and democracy and bring about these changes. After 8 stagnant months, however, the Bolshevik party – led by Vladimir Lenin – seized power in a bloodless coup and instigated a communist regime, ultimately to become the USSR in 1922.

[2] The final and longest reigning Tsarist family.