I was skeptical about going to Russia, to say the least. To me, Russia is the place where individual freedoms are oppressed, the government is corrupt and gay people are beaten up in the street. As a student of international relations, I’ve been taught that Russia is also the thorn in the side of the UN Security Council; the reason why we can’t do anything in Syria, the anomaly in an organization set up to promote human rights. I was extremely unhappy about handing over £100 for a visa to a country which constantly angers me; it was like sticking my finger up to all of the human rights organizations I usually support. Yet my [very liberal] friend had been studying there for six months without encountering much of this stuff at all; he’d developed a certain fondness for the peeling, rusting tower blocks and soporific diesel fumes; the dirt cheap cigarettes and the abundant vodka. So I wanted to go and see it for myself.
“It’s just like any other European city,” he told me the night before I was due to go. I’d begun to imagine being hauled into a post-KGB office, blind-folded and forced to confess how much I hated Putin before all records of my existence ‘disappeared’ from the face of the earth. (Yes, I have an overactive imagination.) A bit of googling suggested this was very unlikely; the number of tourists visiting Russia is constantly rising, it has a number of popular sites to visit and a growing scene of bars and clubs, specialising in cocktails rather than vodka. I was therefore quite content, taking off on the first ever EasyJet flight from Manchester to Moscow, that I’d have a lovely week on holiday without any encounters with Russian police.
But I wasn’t completely ignorant about Russia; I may have had little idea about modern life there but I had studied Russian history at A-level. In fact, my fascination with the Tsars, the Revolution(s) of 1917 and the Communist era was what convinced me to study History at university. I was excited to go to St Petersburg and especially the Winter Palace. At first, Russia did not disappoint. The train journey from Domodedovo airport into Moscow was a beautiful snow-covered landscape, littered with those tall spindly trees and the occasional countryside dasha, then punctuated by enormous tower-blocks as we drew closer to the capital. All of the things I’d read about Stalin burying hundreds of bodies in the woods made my stomach churn as my eyes were fixed outside the window – this was not like anywhere else I’d ever been on holiday.
We arrived at Pavletsky station with my friend waiting among hoards of Russians, fitting in so perfectly with his black hat and coat that I barely noticed him at first. Everyone had the same pale face and set expression, we werealways the loudest wherever we went and we were constantly elbowed out of the way in ‘queues’ (these do not exist in Russia) for the metro. This is a nation of people who do not give a shit. Maybe it’s silent acceptance; a population who are used to obeying orders and not asking questions, to eating for sustenance and not for pleasure (there’s a reason ‘Russian cuisine’ is no universal delicacy), to withstanding harsh weather and generally getting on with it. Nobody encapsulates this more than a babushka; these old ladies in their stereotypical headscarves are everywhere, always going somewhere with their bags and ‘fuck off’ attitude. My favourite one was at the station in Moscow, who stood next to us drinking from her can of Baltika (the local beer or Carling equivalent), and told a vodka-reeking bloke who asked us for money to do one. We called her ‘security bab’ and were sad when she wasn’t on our train to continue protecting us in St Petersburg…
Moscow was a strange, strange place. Red Square is overwhelming; at the opposite end from the entrance is the beautiful St Basil’s Cathedral, Russia’s iconic symbol, and you won’t see a religious building like it anywhere else in the world. To the right is the Kremlin, a vast complex expanding back (the best view is from the bridge over the river behind Red Square), hidden by a huge red-brick wall. Opposite this (to the left of the Square) is Gum, the Harrods-like department store where we sought refuge for a wander around with a vodka-induced hangover. In the centre of the square (just in front of the Kremlin) is Lenin’s mausoleum, where his embalmed body lays ‘at rest’. My friend pointed out the irony that he, the harbinger of the greatest Communist state in Europe, is buried just metres away from a shopping centre: an enormous symbol of capitalist consumption. Red Square houses a conflicted cross-section of Russia’s history: a Russian Orthodox cathedral, Lenin’s mausoleum and the Kremlin, and a materialistic haven. It’s difficult to work out what they’re proud of, what they tolerate, or what they actually understand to be their country’s identity.
We had to search out the sole ‘Museum of Contemporary Russian History’ on our last day in Moscow, because I was determined to find out how they considered their last century. Again, it was bizarre; well worth a visit for the abundance of paraphernalia about the wars/revolution, but you got the feeling that it was viewed at a distance, not as something special to them. Tellingly, there was only one other visitor in there, as well as a few school-children. The plaques explaining each room were like summaries of my AS-level textbook; I filled in the gaps with my own knowledge but it shed no extra light on anything, no Russian angle, no personal experience. The only part I found entertaining was the explanation of Russia’s role in the Second World War, where it described the Nazi-Soviet Pact (i.e. the fact that they began on the side of the Nazis, only switching when Hitler invaded the Ukraine) as a ‘slight miscalculation’ before they went on to ‘preserve freedom in Europe’. I chuckled…
Similarly, I was geekily excited about visiting the Winter Palace in St Petersburg, where Russia’s first State Duma sat after protests against the Tsar in 1905, and where the Bolsheviks stormed in 1917, throwing out the provisional government and establishing a communist state. In the Malachite Room (where this took place) there was a tiny, unassuming plaque which explained the events in one sentence. My heart sank as I watched tourists take photos of a fancy dining set, a nice chandelier and the pretty gilded ceiling. The palace is now better known as the famous ‘Hermitage Museum’, filled with historical artifacts from around the world.
It’s still impressive, but it’s not exactly a commemoration to Russian history. In truth, nothing really is.
So perhaps Moscow and St Petersburg are ‘just like any European cities’, but that’s what’s sad about them. They’re quite nice to wander around, they have plenty of MacDonalds, they’re full of restored churches. But I didn’t want to see this; maybe a part of me thought there would still be red flags, a ban on all things American, commemorations to 1917 everywhere, the world’s largest swimming pool (where the church that Stalin flattened has now been rebuilt). I couldn’t help comparing it to my trip to Paris, where we struggled to fit in all the museums, where Versailles is a monument to French history, where they’re so proud of their food and the advent of democracy in 1789 that it more than verges on arrogance. I missed that richness, that connection with the past.
Russia’s not ready to talk about the last century, and they certainly don’t quite understand ‘tourism’. The shut-up-and-carry-on attitude is written on everybody’s face and encouraged by Putin. We study History so that we learn from that past and try not to repeat our mistakes; maybe if people were allowed to talk about the Stalinist era, then there would be an easier transition towards an open democracy. As it stands, people just don’t seem to care; all they want is to be left alone, so they’re more than willing to tolerate Putin and to be allowed to forget what they’ve had to deal with. The babushka my friend lives with finds it so hard to talk about the Perestoika that she almost cries thinking about it… It may be 23 years since the dismantling of the Berlin Wall, but Russia’s history is still raw and painful: this remains no ordinary ‘Western’ country.