Life and Fate, the epic 1959 novel by Vasily Grossman about the Soviet Union and the Second World War, is being broadcast by BBC Radio 4, in a dramatisation featuring Kenneth Branagh and David Tennant. The novel was famously ‘arrested’ by the KGB, and was considered so dangerous that Mikhail Suslov, chief Soviet ideologist, told its author that it could not be published for at least another two hundred years after it had been written.
The BBC puts it pithily: “No end in sight to Russia’s era of Vladimir Putin”.
‘Bald, Hairy, Bald, Hairy’:
Tourists at the Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels monument, Marx-Engels-Forum, Berlin, Autumn 2011.
The statue of Marx and Engels, and the surrounding park, were commissioned and built by the East German government in 1986. In 2010, due to ongoing construction work on the U5 U-Bahn line, the statue was moved to a different area of the park. Since German reunification, the statue has become a popular tourist attraction — visitors often pose sitting in Karl Marx’s lap.
From Michael Moore’s TV Nation, 1994.
Swing was part of a trio of works called Carousel Slide Swing, about which Szejnoch said:
The project Carousel Slide Swing aims to pursue a dialog with memorials that served as communist propaganda. Although such memorials have been consigned to the historical scrap heap, we can still meet them in the streets and parks. To suggest a change in the function of the monuments is an attempt to build a bridge between the present and the past, to add a contemporary layer distinct from their original style and function. For example, the idea of Swing is based on a contrast between the monumental bronze Berling Army Soldier and a tiny individual swung by a big hand of history. It is a monument from a former era, but at the same time — from the Berling Army soldier’s point of view — it is a well-deserved tribute paid to his sacrifice. This is an example of how much history can differ from the perspectives of individual and collective memory. My aim is to make this complexity and ambiguity more conspicuous, to show the relation between an individual versus the historical machine.
The statue where Swing was installed can be seen on Google Maps, and was constructed by the communist government of Poland in the early 1980s and officially unveiled in 1985. Swing won the Szpilman Award in 2008, an international competition for works of ephemeral or temporary art.
The Berlin U-Bahn station Magdalenenstraße, on the city’s U5 line, does not have any advertising hoardings along its walls. Instead, it features a remarkable series of hand-painted murals depicting scenes from German labour history, created by the German painter Wolfgang Frankenstein.
The murals were commissioned and installed by the East German government in 1986, as part of their official celebrations of the 750th anniversary of the founding of the city of Berlin in 1237. There were two parallel sets of celebrations that year — one in East Berlin, and one in West Berlin.
Magdalenenstraße was formerly part of the East Berlin transport network, and the murals have stayed on the walls throughout the last three decades, despite the disappearance of their Stalinist patrons into the dustbin of history after the Wende.
There are twenty paintings — ten on each wall — in roughly chronological order. The murals are a strange blend of expressionist art and obsolete propaganda, and their presence in this otherwise-unremarkable train station gives an almost elegiac atmosphere to the bustle of rush-hour traffic. Images of all the paintings are below, with brief notes — click to view larger versions on Flickr.
Die Weber (The Weavers)
The first painting in the series is also the first of several to depict historically ‘proletarian’ workers — in this case, weavers at a loom. Weaving was one of the professions which was famously transformed by the industrial revolution, and a discussion of weaving was used as an explanatory device by Karl Marx in Das Kapital.
März 1848 (March 1848)
The second painting refers to the revolutions of 1848, specifically the March revolutions in the German states. These democratic revolutions across Europe coincided with the publishing of the Communist Manifesto.
Historically, mining was central to the industrial revolution. Politically, it was also still an important ‘prestige’ industry in the East Germany of the 1980s.
Hegel vom Kopf auf die Füsse Gestellt (Hegel Turned from his Head onto his Feet, or, Hegel Turned Right Side Up)
The title is a somewhat oblique reference to the concept of dialectical materialism, the foundational philosophical dogma of Marxism-Leninism (and, as such, an official state doctrine of East Germany).
Another reference to the industrial revolution and Marxist theory.
Pariser Kommune (The Paris Commune)
The title refers to the Paris Commune of 1871, generally recognised as the first explicitly socialist uprising in world history.
Kriegsausbruch 1914 (Outbreak of War 1914)
The beginning of World War I in 1914.
Erster Weltkrieg (First World War)
The Great War — at the time, the most destructive war in human history.
Oktober Revolution (October Revolution)
The Bolshevik revolution in Petrograd in 1917 — the birth of the Soviet Union, and one of the turning points of the twentieth century.
The painting refers to the German revolution of 1918-1919, which was initiated by the Kiel mutiny, brought down the Kaiser, brought and end to the First World War, and led to the Spartacist uprising of 1919.
Fabrikarbeit (Factory Work)
More proletarian workers.
The early years of the Weimar Republic were marked by labour unrest, strikes, hyperinflation, paramilitarism and political instability.
Reichstagsbrand (Reichstag Fire)
The Reichstag Fire of 1933 served as the pretext for the establishment of Nazi political dominance of Germany and the suppression of communist activity.
Bücherverbrennung (Book Burning)
The mural refers to the Nazi book burnings of 1933, when thousands of ‘un-German’ books were destroyed.
Buchenwald was one of the first, and one of the largest, of the Nazi concentration camps in Germany.
Zweiter Weltkrieg (Second World War)
The Second World War. The mural gives prominence to fighter planes, in contrast to the infantry soldiers of the First World War mural.
The city of Berlin was largely destroyed by the Battle of Berlin at the end of World War II.
The last three murals refer to historical events which overlap with the actual existence of the East German state, and as such are more overtly propagandistic than the earlier paintings. Aufbau refers to the rebuilding which took place after the war — possibly as an allusion to the East German national anthem, Auferstanden Aus Ruinen (Risen from Ruins).
Gegen Atomtod (Against Nuclear Death)
One of the standard lines of Soviet and East German propaganda in the 1980s was a professed opposition to nuclear weapons.
Friedensdemonstration (Peace Demonstration)
In keeping with the party line on peace, many state-sponsored peace demonstrations took place in East Germany in the 1980s (and despite the noble aspiration, these were mostly cynical exercises in state-controlled messaging). The final mural alludes to these demonstrations.
20 years ago this week, the failed August Coup took place in Moscow, when Soviet hardliners attempted to oust Mikhail Gorbachev, and were themselves overcome by Boris Yeltsin, setting the stage for the eventual dissolution of the Soviet Union. The events remain controversial, and within Russia the anniversary went by largely unnoticed and unmarked — an indication of the ambivalence with which the Putin/Medvedev government views those events. Below, some of the best links.
- Russia downplays anniversary of 1991 coup — AFP
- New light shed on 1991 anti-Gorbachev coup – How it unfolded — BBC News
- New light shed on 1991 anti-Gorbachev coup – Doomed from the start? — BBC News
- Gorbachev says Putin ‘castrated’ democracy in Russia – BBC News
- Twenty years after the Soviet coup, Russia takes a hard look in the mirror — RT
- Coup ‘was doomed’ says Russian parliament speaker — RIA Novosti
- Russia remembers 1991 USSR coup — RTÉ News
- The K.G.B.’s Bathhouse Plot — The New York Times
- A very Russian coup –Russia & India Report
Many things in life are both idle and curious. Trivial observations may neither enrich nor fortify, yet it is perhaps worthwhile to record them should their utility ever become manifest. With this in mind, here are a few words on various public figures who have adorned Russian and Soviet national life in the 20th century and beyond. They are united merely by the frivolous notion that their names in some way refer to fruit, however obliquely.
Let us first take Genrikh Yagoda. This ruthless third director of the NKVD was born Enokh Gershevich Ieguda (or possibly Heinrich Yehuda) in Rybinsk, to a Jewish family. Various far-right websites claim that his surname is the Russian word for ‘Jewish’, ignoring the fact that ‘Evreiskiy’ already accounts for this term, and thus adding to their already copious stock of errors. ‘Yagoda’ is actually the Russian for ‘strawberry’ — it was not uncommon in earlier times for Ashkenazim to name themselves after fruit and trees, amongst other things.
Yagoda’s gloomy and callous career came to an eventual end at the hands of his successor, the Russian Nikolai Yezhov. The diminutive Yezhov managed to exceed even his predecessor’s grotesqueness, and under his brief yet sordid stewardship, the NKVD descended into the very darkest period of the Purges. This prodigiously sadistic Narkom for Internal Affairs was known by the nicknames ‘Iron Hedgehog’ and ‘Blackberry’ (‘Yezhovka’), a play on his surname. Yezhov’s mercifully brief career was terminated by his deputy, Lavrentiy Beria, and although his name sounds conspicuously like ‘berry’ to the English-speaking ear, it is in fact derived from his Mingrelian-Georgian ethnicity, rendering any further fructopraetorian frolics futile at this point. It might be mentioned, however, that Beria’s close ally (and, briefly, Stalin’s successor as Chairman of the Council of Ministers) was Georgy Maximilianovich Malenkov, whose surname bears a resemblance to ‘malina’ which is, of course, the Russian word for ‘raspberry’.
Just as all this is beginning to become rather tenuous, along comes the luckless Vladimir Vinogradov — or Vladimir Grape — personal physician to Josef Stalin himself. Vinogradov, along with others of the Kremlin’s medical retinue, ran afoul of the final paranoiac paroxysms of Stalin’s last days. The Doctor’s Plot, as it became known, was another of Stalin’s wild concoctions, aimed this time at what he perceived as Jewish bourgeois nationalism. A previous anti-Semitic campaign had been pursued under the guise of stamping out ‘rootless cosmopolitanism‘, which itself followed on from the persecution of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee (JAC) in the late 1940s.
One of the early critics of the JAC was the future éminence grise, and Leonid Brezhnev’s ideological chief, Mikhail Suslov, whose name, of all things, means ‘pulp’ (‘suslo’). The festive Russian spirit knows its new wine as ‘vinogradnoye suslo’, and ‘pulped grapes’ is its literal and uncomfortably apposite translation. Although, given Suslov’s future role in Nikita Khrushchev’s ouster, this was more a case of pouring old wine into old bottles.
Our field becomes fallow for what seems like a dry eternity until the anointing of the bovine Konstantin Chernenko, by which time almost the entire power structure of the USSR had become fossilized to the point of gerontocracy. Chernenko can merely offer us the similarity that his name bears to ‘chernika’, or blueberries.
This tremulous potentate whom history failed to notice remains obscure today, but his more illustrious successor in all probability derives his name from a corruption of ‘gorbaty’, meaning ‘hunch-backed’. However, it may be tempting to delude oneself that it etymologises from ‘gorbushka’ or ‘end-crust’, for such was the state that Gorbachev inherited from his blueberried predecessor. Gorbachev himself almost lost out on the promotion to Viktor Grishin, or Viktor Pear, a hardline old-schooler who reluctantly followed the new line.
Ultimately the USSR collapsed under its own weight and internal contradictions. The Russian Federation which succeeded it inherited much of its apparatus, but also had to invent, create or revive much of which was previously lacking. One such absence was a functioning liberal democratic party, and in 1993 one was formed by Gregor Yavlinsky, Yuri Boldyrev and Vladimir Lukin. The party name, an acronym of their surnames, is Yabloko, which is also the Russian for ‘apple’. The party hit its electoral apex in in the early to mid 1990s, though never gaining more than 10% of the popular vote. The subsequent years have seen its presence almost wiped out.
One less savoury note is the revival of various forms of nationalism in modern Russia. Eduard Limonov (you guessed it) is one of the more colourful demagogues, who exemplifies the National Bolshevik weltanschauung. This shady character has in more recent times attempted respectability in co-operation with Gary Kasparov’s United Civil Front, prompting a split within the NBP itself. The United Civil Front is part of a wider coalition known as Other Russia, which was formed out of a discontent with the increasingly authoritarian methods of Vladimir Putin.
Putin’s name could not be for a moment confused with any kind of berry or other fruit — in this case, the closest we get is ‘putiy’, meaning ‘shackles’. Any speculation as to its aptness must, of necessity, be fruitless.