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Friday, January 6, 2012

Stalin Remembered


Note:  If you read only one thing from this blog post, skip all of my words, and scroll to the links given below in the section "Geologist to Geologist Website".  And, of course, I hope you will read the rest as well.
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We would want to know everyone, name by name,
Yes, they have taken away the list, and there is nowhere to find out.
Poet Anna Akhamova, “Requiem”

A few years ago I was in Moscow, touring the historic Novodevichy Convent with a Russian friend.  We encountered an American, and he struck up a conversation with me.   He soon began to loudly criticize the Russian people, embarrassing me, embarrassing my Russian companion, and especially embarrassing the fellow’s Spanish wife.   He said that Russians had covered up the legacy of Stalin, and that they were not dealing honestly with their history.  He said that Russians would never be free until they acknowledged the evil that had occurred under Stalin.   I ended the conversation and moved on, but I did not forget.  I’ve made several more trips to Russia, read books, listened and learned a great deal.   And now I want to show my countryman that he was wrong.

The same view is expressed in a recent book:  It was a Long Time Ago, and Never Really Happened Anyway, David Satter, published this month.  Here is one of many reviews on the internet.

So what really happened in Stalin’s time?   You can read about it in Wikipedia.   Or in Gulag Archipelago.

This blog post is not about history.  This post is about memorials to Stalin’s victims.  It is enough to say that incomprehensible numbers of people suffered horribly, and incomprehensible numbers of people died.  Soviet people suffered political repression, arrest and imprisonment, labor camps, ethnic relocation, illness, starvation, famine, and execution.   These people were from every walk of life:  scientists and government officials, home-makers and soldiers, workers, field geologists, poets, teachers, priests and writers.  You can see their photographs in museums.  With each face there is a short paragraph telling each tragic destiny:  arrested, imprisoned, repressed, freed, re-arrested, executed.  Pale faces with haunted dark eyes stare from old black and white photographs.  Their letters beg us not to forget, and never to forgive. 

So let’s take a deep breath, collect our thoughts, calm our souls, and remember that we live in another century.  Let’s take a stroll through some Russian culture and memorials to Stalin’s victims in Russia, and try to understand the Russian attitude about Stalin.   We’ll begin on a light note, with an episode from a childrens’ show in Soviet time.

“Thank you, Comrade Stalin, for my Happy Childhood!”
Let's first consider one of the most famous propaganda phrases of Stalin’s era:  “Thank you, Comrade Stalin, for my Happy Childhood!”   It is known to every Russian as a bitterly ironic memory of Soviet propaganda.
Let’s look at how it was presented on children’s television, late in the Soviet era.   Eralash (“Muddle”) is a children’s comedy show on television which has run continuously since 1975 to the present.  The format consists of short, satiric skits; the skits are well-acted and wickedly funny.   The skit “Time Machine” was presented in 1988.  
The message was still indirect at that time, but unmistakable.  In this skit a boy (notice the sweater that says “Perestroika” in English) has built a time machine.   After some chatter about Ivan the Terrible, the children bring Joseph Stalin to life in the time machine.   The boy in the Perestroika sweater shouts the ironic phrase known to every Russian:  “Thank you Comrade Stalin, for my happy childhood!”   Stalin replies: “Correct, boy, correct!“    The stunned silence and slow applause that follows the phrase is more telling than the thunderous applause added to the sound track a little later.  The Eralash children's audience understood well the satirical and ironic character that was the hallmark of the show.  They could not possibly mistake the meaning of this skit.

Now let’s return to Moscow, and cross the bridge from the Cathedral of Christ the Savior to the south bank of the Moscow River.

Park of Fallen Monuments
We will take a walk in the park.   On the south side of the Moscow river you can find Sculpture Park, beside Tretyakov Art Gallery.   Sculpture Park is sometimes called the Park of Fallen Monuments.  Lenin and Stalin are there, along with other works of art.  

As you walk around the exhibit, you look up at two towering and heroic statues of Stalin.  The statues are beautifully made of polished granite.   Surrounding Stalin, on all sides, are statues representing his victims.   To the right, there are tormented figures writhing on the ground; to the left, gaunt standing figures.  Behind Stalin, there is a prison wall topped with barbed wire, and lights.  Behind the bars of the wall are hundreds of stone heads, representing Stalin’s victims.   The nose has been broken from the face of the larger statue of Stalin.  Altogether, the presentation is one of the most damning and emotional artistic compositions I have ever seen.

Unfortunately, there are plans for a new project which will replace the existing art gallery and encompass the present area of the park.  It is not known what will happen to the statues and art currently in the park.

Comrade Stalin, You Are a Great Scholar
Let’s walk again through Moscow to the Nikitsky Gate theater, to see the popular, long-running stage show, “Songs of our Courtyard”.    The show is a musical revue, featuring nostalgic popular songs from the 1950’s through 1980’s.    The peak of the show is when Mark Rozovsky, director of the theater, takes the stage to sing “Comrade Stalin, you are a great scholar” (Yuz Aleshkovsky, 1959).    When performing indoors, because of rain; he is lit by a single candle; if outdoors, by a single spotlight.   It is a stunning performance.   Although this poem is very well-known, I was unable to find an English translation on the internet.   So, here is Mark Rozovsky’s performance on YouTube, and my translation below.

Aleshkovsky wrote his song about 6 years after the Stalin’s death.  Stalin’s terror included repression for academic articles on linguistics.  The character in the song is a professor of linguistics, imprisoned for a politically incorrect publication in his field.

Товарищ Сталин, вы большой ученый
Comrade Stalin, you are a great scholar
You know the sense of linguistics.
But I am a simple Soviet prisoner
And my comrade is a grey Bryansky wolf.

Why I sit here, I really don’t know,
But the prosecutors, it appears, are right.
Today I sit on the Turukhansky province
Where you sat in exile in the time of the tsar.

To others’ sins we lowly confessed
Deported, we went to meet evil destiny
We believed you so, Comrade Stalin,
As perhaps I didn’t believe myself.

And so I sit in the Turukhansky province,
Where guards are as rough as curs,
I understand all this, of course,
As the sharpening of the class struggle.

The rain, the snow, the midges over us,
And we in the taiga from morning to morning,
Here, from a spark you started a flame,
Thanks to you, I warm myself by the fire.

It must be difficult for you; you care about
Everything on earth, in the melancholy hour of night
You pace in a Kremlin office,
Smoke a pipe, without closing your eyes.

But we bear a heavy cross for nothing
By frosty smoke and in melancholy rain
We fall like trees on wooden bunks
Not knowing the insomnia of leaders.

Yesterday we buried two Marxists,
Bodies dressed in bright red bunting.
One of them was right-leaning,
The other, it seemed, was not related to anything.

Before he passed away forever
He bequeathed to you his final words.
Ordered to investigate uncouth business,
He silently screamed: Stalin is the head!

Live for a thousand years, Comrade Stalin,
And let me necessarily be slaughtered in the taiga.
I believe there will be cast iron and steel
Fully enough per capita.

I believe there will be cast iron and steel
Per capita in the country.’

Yuz Aleshkovsky, 1959
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Bryansk province is in western Russia, bordering Ukraine and BelarusTurukhansky Province is in Northern Krasnoyarsk Territory.

Here is the Russian text of the song, and a video of Aleshkovsky performing the song. 

Monasteries – Suzdal and Vladimir
Monasteries were convenient institutions for the secret police (NKVD) during Stalin’s time.  All religious institutions were converted to other purposes – orphanages, storehouses,factories…. a church was even converted to planetarium.   Many churches were destroyed.  But monasteries, with monks’ cells and a wall around the perimeter, made perfect prisons.  In the ancient religious centers of Suzdal and Vladimir, exhibits and memorials show the places of repression, imprisonment, and execution in the old monasteries.   

Here are a few photos from a monastery in Suzdal, and translations.

Olga Adamova-- Sliozberg
“I address to you, my children, grandchildren, greatgrandchildren and friends.... I ask of you, I beg you, I order you, I require from you -- don't forget us, who are thrown in prisons and labor camps.
Remember the tormented innocents there and do not forgive our executioners, because to forgive is impossible.”

.

In Vladimir, flowers grow in a sunny alcove in the monastery wall, and a cat sleeps nearby in the fallen leaves.  A polished grey stone tells us that in this place political prisoners were executed in the 1930s.


Geologist to Geologist Website – Memorial Book
Please take time to explore this website, a tribute to Russian geologists prepared by Dr. Svetlana Tikhomirova.  In particular, explore the section titled “Memorial Book/Repressed Geology”.   There is a stunning amount of material and research.   I ask you to look at these three selections:

Please look at the fate of many women geologists during the time of Stalin.
Scroll down to the table, showing the fate of attendees of the 17th International Geological Congress.
Specialists of the Tadzhik-Pamir Expedition

"Golodmor" -- Ukrainian Famine 1932 - 1933
Now let's take a train to Kiev.   Stalin's legacy encompasses all of the former Soviet Union.   In 1932 - 33, Ukraine, Kazakhstan and southern Russia suffered a major famine, caused by collectivization of agricultural lands and unfavorable weather.  Mis-allocation of food by Soviet authorities and prohibition of travel worsened the problem.  Recent estimates are that between 2.5 and 7 million Ukrainians died in the famine.  Today, it is impossible to accurately understand what really occurred.  Many records were lost or destroyed, and much of the analysis is based on inference from census surveys before and after the event.
Golodmor has become a theme of Ukrainian nationalism.  Both Ukrainian and western historical work are thought to be influenced by political goals.  But the fact that famine occurred is without question.
In Kiev, you can see three major monuments to the famine.  Perhaps the most touching is dedicated to children who died in the famine.  It is the thin statue of a young girl, shown in the photo below.  The waif is constantly surrounded by gifts of apples and flowers given daily by passersby...about eighty years too late.


Demonstrations By Day, Ravens By Night
I found an interesting bi-lingual book “Old Vladivostok” in a doctor’s office.  The book focused on the history of the city, and the architectural destruction of Soviet times.  But I found an interesting phrase:  “Demonstrations by day, Ravens by night”.   It was a phrase common in Stalin’s time, and perhaps is known to Russians today.   “Ravens” refers to the black squad cars used by the NKVD secret police, who apprehended and arrested people at night.


Sakharov Museum
We return to Moscow to the Sakharov Museum.   Andrei Sakharov was a Russian nuclear scientist and architect of the Russian hydrogen bomb.  He became a leading Soviet dissident and activist for peace and human rights.   The Sakharov Museum and Community Center was founded in 1991.  It houses thousands of photographs and documents documenting the terror, repressions, and human rights abuses during Soviet times, and modern memorials to the victims.  Here is a photo from an exhibit in the museum.
The actual exhibit is located at the Kommunarka Firing Range on the southwest outskirts of Moscow, at km 24 on the Kakuga Highway, site of massive executions and burials.    The sign reads:
"In this earth lie thousands of victims of political terror of the years 1930 to 1950.   To them, eternal memory!”  
But the Sakharov Museum was empty.  Out of a city of 12 million people, it appeared that only one American visitor came that day.  But at the Pushkin Museum, there was a three-hour line for an exhibition of art by Salvador Dali.  At the Sakharov Museum, finally, a young Russian couple arrived just as I was leaving.   Why is the museum empty?   Russian already know these things.  They know their history, they have built the monuments, they spent their anger, they have mourned, and they have moved on.   Russians today face today’s problems.
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 As a final item, I found the following poem by Lermontov.   It seems to me that Lermontov forsaw Stalin.

M. Lermontov, 1830

Prophecy

A year will come – of Russia’s blackest dread;
Then will the crown fall from the royal head,
The throne of tsars will perish in the mud,
The food of many will be death and blood;
Both wife and babe will vainly seek the law;
It will not shield the victims anymore;
The putrid, rotting plague will mow and cut
And boldly walk the road from hut to hut;
In people’s sight its pallid face will float,
And hunger’s hand will clutch them by the throat;
A scarlet sea will send its bloody surge;
A mighty man will suddenly emerge;
You’ll recognize the man, you’ll feel
That he has come to use a knife of Damask steel;
Oh horrid day!  Your call, your groan, your prayer
Will only make him laugh at your despair;
And everything in his forbidding sight –
His brow, his cloak – will fill the land with fright.

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