Who Invited The Russian Soldier?

I am deep under the surface of Moscow.  The hall stretches into the distance beneath a gilded ceiling of golden leaves.  Chandeliers drip down from their chords, crystallising like stalactites.  They glow like orbs, the white rim of the glow taking shape where light cuts into the subterranean blackness, gold-leaf filigree glinting in the frescoes.  The sound of my footsteps on the marble floor is a distant echo coming back to me through the thrum of the hundreds of people around me, and the clackety-clack of the silver trains to my left and right.

“Which way is it?”, my dad asks me.

“Just follow me”, I say.

We are going to see Lenin, so we had entered Kurskaya Vakzal, which we rode until Ploshad Revolut’suiy.  From there, we would exit by Teatral’naya Vakzal to get to Red Square and the site of his Mausoleum.  I was handling the Russian for this trip, which I deftly demonstrated only moments earlier:  

“Dva poyezdku, pazhaluysta”, I said.

The ticket-lady, a stern woman with short blond hair and a sweaty lip, looked at me for a moment, and then drowned me in a sea of words I could neither hear nor understand.

“Da”, I said.

She looked at me again, raising an eyebrow, a laugh bubbling under her face, before raking my roubles through the hatch and dealing me out two tickets.  I know enough to sweet-talk the babushkas…

As we walk through this hall, flanked on either side by marble columns propping up swooping arches, we see some bronze sculptures of soldiers guarding the platform.  I cannot help but notice an irregularity in the flow of people going to and fro, branching off towards a bronze statue of a dog with a young rifleman, moulded into an alcove.  They were all patting its nose as they passed, which had been worn smooth and bright by the endless touch of Moscow’s hands.  Child and businessman alike joined in.

We reach the escalator at the end of the hall and join the thread of people making their way to the surface.  I lost my sense of self on this escalator.  This underground boasts some heady statistics, being one of the deepest in the world, and seeing at least ten million users a day: more than London’s underground and the New York city subway combined.

Moscow Metro 1
Yes, that’s right – this is a train station.  (Source: David Burdeny via Google Images)

When the metro was first opened in 1935 the escalators were known as “lestnitsa-chudesnitsa”, or “wonder-staircases”, and even then as I clung to the bannister I could see why.  Looking behind me, and then back up into the distance, I realise that I can no longer see the foot of the stairs where we had boarded seconds ago, or the summit, which could still be whole minutes away.  The ornate chamber walls were lined with steeply angled promotional posters for events at the theatres across the city.

The escalator continues to tow us skyward, my father holding on to the bannister with both hands.  It is hot underground.  Seeing the opposing stream of Muscovites across the barrier being drawn downwards to the platform far below, it seems to me as though their descent was almost vertical, and it is a waterfall of deadpan faces and listless eyes I see looking back at me before they vanish over my shoulder.  Picking a single pair of eyes out of the falling mass and following them down brings me back round to where the descending stairs disappeared out of sight, even as my mind simultaneously struggles to remember that I was being drawn upwards.  To prevent myself from tumbling into the abyss, I fix my eyes on the back of my father’s head.  Caught in this limbo of motion, I feel as though we are the blood in the city’s veins.

The summit materialises, and we step off into the next level.  Air already breathed rushes into our faces.  We climb another flight of stairs and are channelled into a new hall, just as gleaming, just as opulent as the last.  The hall extends endlessly to the left, lit by chandeliers hanging from the concave plaster ceiling, casting pools of brilliance onto the marble floor.  To the right however, is a dead-end.  Though, of course, it is no unremarkable wall-face.  

Metro 5
A drop in the ocean of the splendour on offer

We now see a mosaic commemorating victory in the Great Patriotic War:  its centrepiece is a statue of a hero, eyes staring straight out into the hall, a blood-soaked longsword in one hand and a baby in the other.  All around him in a snow-covered field are cheering Red Army soldiers bearing their rifles aloft and white-bloused peasant woman throwing twinkling red and yellow petals at the statue.  The towering spires and cupolas of old Moscow make up the skyline behind him, and the piece is crowned by a gleaming Communist star where it meets with the top of the roof.

“The Great Patriotic War”, as the Second World War is known in Russia, is still fiercely remembered by the populace here.  This mosaic and others like it dotted around Moscow and the undergrounds of other Russian cities contribute to a perpetuation of the Soviet war narrative that seems to have survived the collapse of the USSR itself.  The statue of the Soviet Hero in the mosaic reminded me of a far greater statue I had seen yesterday when I left my dad to explore on my own.

Of the over seventy thousand war memorials throughout the former USSR, Park Pobyedii is by far the biggest.  Exemplifying a theme of monumentalism common throughout the war memorials of Russia, and, I couldn’t help but think, the architecture of Albert Speer, the Victory Park and its attendant museum is truly vast.  The bronze statue stands in the focal point of the museum: the Hall of Heroes.  A great dome, lit softly by concealed lights that render its white shell a gentle blue, reaches down from the apex:  a gleaming communist star, out of reach.

Wrapped in a neoclassical wreath around the base of the dome were marble reliefs of each of the Soviet cities that produced men earning the highest military honour in the USSR: the Order of Victory.  Pouring from beneath each city were columns of gold lettering comprised of the names of the recipients of this honour.

A Powerful and Empty Vision

Crowned by the star above, encircled by the wreath around, yet somehow managing to dominate this awesome chamber was the bronze statue in its centre rising to a staggering height, its muscular arms outstretched, its cold, handsome face calmly surveying the doorway, its billowing cape flying in the still air behind it.  

For the second time I thought of the Nazis.  I’d learned from reading the historian Richard J. Evans that the most prominent sculptor of The Third Reich was Arno Breker: a man renowned for producing lifeless “personifications” of “readiness” or “strength”, usually taking the shape of 8ft tall neoclassical nudes drawing their swords and watching the distance for the ‘enemy’.  In the Third Reich, Hitler had intended this kind of art to inspire aggressiveness and to gear his people towards a readiness for war.  After the Nazis fell, Stalin expressed an interest in Breker’s work, and even approached him with a commission.  Breker refused, claiming that one dictatorship was quite enough for him.  Turning away from the statue and leaving the Hall of Heroes, I couldn’t help but wonder if he had in fact reconsidered, in the end.

To get to the second great hall of the museum, I had to pass through a gift shop seeming mainly to be interested in the sale of toy guns, and weaved through throngs of Russian families out for the day.  In a ring around this second hall were several rooms holding large dioramas of key moments in the war for the Red Army, from the siege of Leningrad to the fall of Berlin.  

I walked into the Kursk room, remembering Kurskaya Vakzal: a station in the metro that my dad and I had used countless times during our trip.  The battle of Kursk was the largest battle in the history of the world.  It was the beginning of the end for the Nazi offensive in Russia, and the war for them in general.  Their attack on Stalingrad had been crushed, and Hitler now had to make a tactical retreat to retain the industrial resources of Ukraine.  

The Germans here were hugely outnumbered:  500,000 men to the Red Army’s 1,500,000, and outnumbered by a ratio of 5:1 in artillery, 3:1 in tanks, and 4:1 in aircraft.  The diorama captured the chaos:  the room opened into a circle, with the back wall and those on the left and right forming the canvas for one panoramic painting.  A cordoned-off area at the back wall had sunken floor-space, within which the foreground of the painting expanded physically into the room with a recreation of churned up Steppe terrain, and replica field-guns pointing into the mass of tangled tanks painted before me.  The agonised faces of wounded soldiers lying slumped over grassy knolls, the figures of isolated teams reloading artillery pieces, and the snarled wreckage of German and Soviet tanks sending plumes of smoke into the white sky streaked with aircraft was set to a jarring soundtrack of explosions, rattling machine guns and cries of pain.  The scene disappeared endlessly into the horizon.

Despite their overwhelming numerical advantage, the Soviet losses heavily outweighed the German, even with their overall victory.  By the end of the Soviet counteroffensives, they had lost over 1,500,000 men to the German’s 170,000; more than 6500 tanks to the German’s 800, 5000 artillery pieces to the German 700; and 4000 aircraft to the German’s 500.  The horrific losses they sustained was down to the tactical obtuseness of Stalin and his generals, and their careless attitude towards the value of Soviet life.  By the end of the war it is estimated that the Red Army lost between 11,000,000 and 26,000,000 men.  A father was down on one knee explaining in hushed tones to his reverent son as I left the room.

The Hall of Sorrows

The second hall was “The Hall of Sorrows”.  A black marble corridor guides us to its end beneath a dense canopy of glass beads suspended from a low ceiling whose limit cannot be perceived through a vacuum of blackness.  Light from bulbs hidden in the blackness shines through the beads, making it seem as if light itself were hanging in liquid threads from the canopy of Space.  My footsteps echoed through the silence as I traversed this parallel universe of suffering.  The corridor ends in a circular shrine at whose centre stands a marble altar.  At this altar lies the corpse of The Son, in the the arms of The Motherland, both angelic statues rendered in neoclassical marble.  Above them, wreathing the shrine in halos, are three progressively smaller circles of beaded light etched into the blackness.  I was alone in my contemplation.

What the Nazis did to the Soviet Union was appalling.  The SS regarded the Soviets as subhuman slavs and the clash with the Soviet Union as their destined ideological struggle:  German Racial Supremacy versus the Jewish-Bolshevik Conspiracy.  They were horribly cruel in their early victories, capturing over five million Red Army soldiers.  By the end of the war over three million of them had died.  They didn’t see the point of feeding them until they realised they could be utilised as forced labour.  On top of this, the Nazis were callous vandals, targeting Russian cultural heritage in the course of their invasion.  German soldiers in Tolstoy’s house set fire to his handwritten manuscripts in his stove.  In Tchaikovsky’s house they laid out his musical manuscripts on the floor and drove motorcycles over them.  They had no respect.  Coupled with the staggering losses of the Red Army, this caused a bitterness to ferment that would have grim consequences for German women when the tide turned, as a cresting wave of rape broke over Eastern Europe washing all the way back to Berlin.

“The Germans here were hugely outnumbered:  500,000 men to the Red Army’s 1,500,000, and outnumbered by a ratio of 5:1 in artillery, 3:1 in tanks, and 4:1 in aircraft.”

As I left and stood outside the museum, watching the park, it seemed to me that it was ventilating an old memory far passed the point at which the mindset that created it had perished.  The Great Patriotic War has been a controversial memory almost from the moment it was won for the Soviets.  The first stone of Victory Park was laid in 1947, but in 1993, two years after the collapse of the USSR, it remained unfinished.  This was the first year Victory Day was celebrated here and it was also the lowest point in Russia’s history, where it was taking humanitarian aid from the despised West at a time when her finest hour seemed fifty years behind her.  Stability was to be found in the airbrushed past. 

Stalin used the victory as propaganda for the self-evident superiority of the new Soviet man, and in many ways that was the idea that Victory Park was meant to perpetuate.  It was forced to compromise with the collapse of the Soviet Union in its message, but only slightly.  The fountains in the mall leading up to the museum number at five as opposed to the originally planned four, bringing the Soviet story into the global narrative of the Second World War which lasted for five years, as opposed to the four of the Great Patriotic War.  It also features the more universal neoclassicism in much of its design.

And yet, it is overwhelmingly Russian.  All the explanatory plaques are written in Russian and do not even extend to the native languages of former Soviet republics.  The dioramas follow the path of the Red Army to the exclusion of the rest of the Allies.  The sheer size of the Park, from the domed museum building itself, to the bronze statue, to the endless mall leading to the museum intend to bellow the idea of Soviet strength to the world, while simultaneously silencing anything  that challenges that narrative.  The Hall of Sorrows is a hall of Russian suffering which is in any case strangled by a visual ring of Soviet military triumph and buried beneath the far greater Hall of Heroes.

But how can this narrative still find support today?  This year was the 70th anniversary of Victory Day in Russia, which is stubbornly celebrated on the 9th of May as opposed to the 8th as in Europe.  There, this is a day of reflection and mourning as opposed to the jingoistic display of military strength that occurs in the streets of Moscow.  Thousands of ordinary people take to the streets to “remember” the relatives they lost in the conflict, even if they were born long after the war was over.  

I asked Mila Golovanova, a girl who was working at the hostel I was staying in, what she thought of how the war was remembered in her country.  She said: “I know that in Europe, the 8th of May is a day of mourning, but for Russians, the 9th is a great celebration of the day their grandfathers killed the enemy.  I hate this day, because I think people remember the war in a very wrong way.  But in general I think that Russians are very proud about this war.  I’m a pacifist in some way, and I do not understand anything about war, and I think that every part of art about war is a propaganda for war.

This year, the Western nations who aided in the destruction of Nazism boycotted the celebration, leaving Putin to rub shoulders with some of the world’s most infamous despots, from Islam Karimov to Robert Mugabe.  And as I made it to the end of the mall, I found one final bas relief:  here was a troop of Red Army soldiers etched into stone, bearing their arms in the direction of Europe, almost at the very spot that the Nazi advance on Moscow was brought to a halt.  Yet, carved as if to flutter above them, as if to blanket their deeds, was the current flag of the Russian Federation.  Her schizophrenia seemed to be laid bare in this one image even as the same flag was fixed to the tanks crossing into Ukraine today.  The war still has a purpose, it seems.

* * * *

Later, my father and I found Lenin’s tomb.  From the outside, it looks like something extra-terrestrial, like a hunk of rock that’s been chipped off of Mars, or some kind of shuttle just waiting, waiting to launch and take him back to the beings that sent him here.  We found ourselves as part of a large group of other tourists as we entered, and we all moved down the stairs with a hushed reverie.  It was dark, but not the subterranean kind in the metro or the blind vacuum of the Hall of Sorrows.  

He was lying there like Snow White, on a bed of roses in his black suit, waiting for a kiss, from Russell Brand perhaps.  He reminded me of a large hat I had seen beneath another perspex box that was supposed to have belonged to Dostoyevsky.  He liked his hats, Dostoyevsky.  

As the monumentalism of Park Pobyedii proclaimed the strength of Stalin’s new Soviet man, so the gleam of the metro symbolised the aura of his energy.  The workers building the underground were building a metaphor of Communist superiority.   It was taken as a victory over perceived Western vanity projects such as the Empire State Building.  It’s marriage of technology and beauty framed within an overall purpose of functionality was an example of Socialist Realism that was theoretically pleasing to the regime whilst its neoclassical style evoked a golden age of society that proclaimed a triumphalism to the rest of the world.  It was propaganda in motion.

This gleam however, like the monumentalism of Victory Park, obscured the ugliness lurking beneath the surface: London had had an underground since the 19th Century and New York’s much older subway trains were quicker than those on the tracks of Moscow’s inaugural day.  But most importantly, its construction cost many lives, auguring the profligacy with which Stalin would spend them in years to come.  Today, free wifi is available across the whole network, so only the tourists notice the gleaming halls that have gone on shining even as the last Red Star has long since gone out. 

I looked again at that nodulous skull, the translucent parchment of the skin still tightly bound around it, goatee still sprouting from the chin.  I remembered a news story I’d read about a Mr Valery Spiridonov from Vladimir.  He was to have his head cut off and sewn on to a new body in order to relieve him of the muscle-wearing condition that was killing him, and give him a new lease of life.  Mr Spiridonov is gambling:  for a chance at life, he is risking an insanity brought about by a wild chemical imbalance between his original mind, and this new body.  Whether the appalling risk is worth the chance to extend a life is not for me to say.

“He looks like Derren Brown”, my dad said.  I couldn’t disagree.  It might well be Derren Brown: the goatee, the nodulous skull, the suit.  It was uncanny.  As we reemerged into the sunlight of Red Square, I thought of the bronze dog with the worn nose and of Moscow’s desire for good luck;  and of the glint in Stalin’s rodent-eyes even as the luck of hundreds of workers expired deep in Moscow’s subterranean vaults; and about how funny it was that Lenin, the old head of a materialist, atheistical State was embalmed and stuffed with sawdust like some Pharaoh God-King or other; and of Putin slowly retracing their footsteps, as the Muscovites whirled beneath it all checking their Twitter feeds.

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