Adam Mickiewicz in St. Petersburg (Jennifer Moore)

On a little street off of Nevsky Prospekt in the center of St. Petersburg there is a little monument to the Polish nationalist writer, Adam Mickiewicz.  Next to the simple monument is a Polish language school named after the respected poet.  They commemorate Mickiewicz’s two-month sojourn in St. Petersburg in 1824.    Mickiewicz was born on December 24, 1798 in Zaosie in the Russian federation, then the Third Partition of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth.  He died on November 26, 1855 in Constantinople.   In his poems regarding Poland and Russia, Mickiewicz focused mainly on patriotic themes and the nations’ fantastic, dynamic, and turbulent pasts.  He was the poetic leader during the Romantic and patriotic movements in

Poland and rallied the masses through his poetic pen by rallying them around nationalism.  The Russian city of St. Petersburg, its culture, and its people altered his ideas about nationalism, and the significance of his short stay there had implications for the ways in which this great poet was commemorated both in Russia and in Poland. and added to his writing style.  Firstly the background of Mickiewicz will be detailed, as well why he was exiled to St. Petersburg, what he did there, who he met, and finally how meeting those people and seeing the city affected and impacted
In 1817, Warsaw was still under Russian rule.  Many Polish people felt isolated and suffered economically, socially and psychologically.  Mickiewicz was a patriot; he loved Poland, and was disheartened by the dissolution of his Polish homeland.  He grew inspiration from his fellow suffering Poles and joined with his like-minded friend Tomasz Zan, as well as others, to form a secret society, the Philomaths (Lovers of Knowledge).  The organization initially concentrated on education and was split into two factions; mathematics/scientific and literary.  However, by 1819 the increasing suffering of the Polish people pushed some of the organizers into taking a more active role in helping Poland regain independence.  Unfortunately, for Mickiewicz such activism was banned by the Russian government and led to an investigation of secret student organizations.  A large number of activists were arrested, including Mickiewicz.  After his trial, in 1824 Mickiewicz was banished to central Russia for his pro-independence beliefs.  After Mickiewicz was exiled and went on a journey through Russia and Europe, his pro-independence works were written and circulated. his life.  Lastly, the significance of the monuments in Krakow, Warsaw, Lviv, and St. Petersburg, and the significance of their placement will be discussed.

Prison life changed the tone of Mickiewicz poems.  Before prison the keynote of his poems was disappointed love but after prison he concentrated on the suffering patriotism concerning Poland (Tarnowski).   He was then exiled in Russia where he wrote sad but extremely evocative pieces.  During his time in St. Petersburg and Russia he developed his pieces with wonderful “patriotism, inspiration, and an artistic finish” that was a step above anything else he had yet written (Tarnowski).  In 1832 Mickiewicz wrote the poem “Dziady” (“Дзяды- Forefathers”) He did not glorify St. Petersburg,  but represented it from the viewpoint of the locals in its founding years.    The Russian people did not want to move the capital to St. Petersburg, a city located on a barely inhabitable swamp.  Therefore the people thought the city was built by Satan, an inference to Peter the Great:

Rome created by the hand of man,

Venice created by the gods;

But everyone would agree with me,

What made PetersburgSatan.


Рим создан человеческой рукою,

Венеция богами создана;

Но каждый согласился бы со мною,

Что Петербург построил сатана

In spite of the obstacles and loss of life, the Russian people endured and accomplished this huge feat of building a capital city on swampland.  Peter’s “Window to the West” became a reality; Russia was now connected to the West through its port and large fleet of ships.  Russians were also introduced, often forcibly, to western ideas and technology thus improving the living conditions of the country. Even with this new connection to the west, living in St. Petersburg was still difficult especially because of the terrible floods which occurred regularly in 1724, 1824, and 1924 (Petersburg).  Mickiewicz in fact arrived in St. Petersburg two days after the Neva flooded the city in 1824.  According to Pushkin, nature seemed to resist the creation of St. Petersburg by washing it, blowing it into the sea, trying to kill all the people.  Even through these seemingly unbelievable conditions, St. Petersburg and its people survived and continued to prosper.  In this poem Mickiewicz showed what the people had to overcome to build the magnificent capital.  The poem emphasized the hatred for Peter, referred to as ‘King of the Swamp.’  It also depicts, the new capital, St. Petersburg, was not a place of the people.  Its first residents were the nobles who made up Peter’s court and government.  They were forced to move to the new capital, build grand mansions on the main canal in order to display to the country and the world the wealth and new prosperity of ‘modern’ Russia.

The wind, fog and mud constantly,

And the sky is sending a cold or heat,

Wrong, as a wild temper tyrant.

No people, no, that king of the swamp

Stood and said: “Here we will build!”

And laid the Empire stronghold,

Currently the capital, but not the city for the people.

Здесь ветер, мгла и слякоть постоянно,

И небо шлет лишь холод или зной,

Неверное, как дикий нрав тирана.

Не люди, нет, то царь среди болот

Стал и сказал: “Тут строиться мы будем!”

И заложил империи оплот,

Себе столицу, но не город людям.

 Although it is natural for the Poles to admire Mickiewicz, other states respected him as well.  After Adam Mickiewicz’s death, in cities across Europe, ideas about erecting monuments in honor of the poet began.  People from the Polish diaspora wanted to honor his life, by the  means of spreading their cultural and nationalist views throughout Europe.   In response, statues have been erected in Kraków and Warsaw in Poland, in Lviv in Ukraine, and in St. Petersburg in Russia.  Mickiewicz never visited the city of Krakow, but due to the insistence of the mayor a sculpture was placed in the Main Market Square of Krakow. Once the city (Krakow) was decided upon, a contest was held in order to decide who would be honored as the sculptor.  First prize was awarded to the famed sculptor Cyprian Godebski, a professor at the Imperial Academy of Arts in St. Petersburg.  However, it was Teodor Rygier, a little known sculptor, who won the third and final competition for this project.  He sculpted the grand statue that now stands in the Main Market Square in the Old Town (Stare Miasto) district of Kraków.  The statue has four allegoric

groups that symbolize the Polish “Motherland (from the face of the monument along Sienna Street), Science (facing north), Courage (facing Sukiennice Hall) and Poetry (facing Church of St. Wojciech, south)” (Wikipedia).  Each side of the statue signifies a portion of Mickiewicz’s life; his love of country and science; the courage he used to face his adversaries and his poetic talents.  At the pedestal of the monument the inscription reads: “To Adam Mickiewicz, the Nation.”  This inscription as well as the layout of the statue itself, portrays the deep national pride the Poles feel towards Mickiewicz and his work.  In 1890, two years after the monument was built, 35 years after his death, his remains were brought to and laid to rest in St. Leonard’s Crypt under the Wawel Cathedral (Wikipedia).

Krakowskie Przedmieście is one of the best known and most prestigious streets in the capital of Poland, Warsaw.  Here stands the monument to Adam Mickiewicz built in 1897-1898 by the sculptor Cyrian Godebski, who was overlooked in Krakow but was given the honor of constructing a monument in Warsaw.   The monument is surrounded by historic palaces, churches, and manor-houses, located in the center of Warsaw. At this time, the Russians still had influence over Poland but once the Warsaw intelligentsia became aware of the project the Russians relented and permitted its construction.  The statue is a representation of Mickiewicz standing high, with his head slightly raised and his right hand placed across his chest resting on his heart.  To commemorate the poet’s 100th birthday, the monument was unveiled on December 24, 1898.  After the Warsaw Uprising in 1944, the Nazis destroyed the monument. Lviv, Ukraine was another location chosen to honor Mickiewicz.  The column is situated in the center of the historic Adam Mickiewicz Square; one of the most visited cultural sightseeing places.  For Poles living in Lviv, this was a symbol of great national consciousness and Polish pride (AMML).

Compared to the two other monuments, the landmark in St. Petersburg honoring Mickiewicz is much smaller and not as elegant as the others.  It stands in front of the Polish Language school honoring Adam Mickiewicz.  While the statue stands in a back alley, it is close to the center of St. Petersburg in front of the language school off of Nevsky prospekt.   A regular tourist would have great difficulty finding or knowing who the statue represents. The school was built on the corner of the alley across from the Fontanka River.  The full name of the school is the State Educational Institution Secondary School Number 216 for the In-Depth Study of the Polish Language at the Adam Mickiewicz Central District of St. Petersburg.  In 1991, the school received the status of advanced study in Polish language.  The school is considered a multicultural educational institution.  Even though the school focuses on Polish language and culture, it also incorporates the patriotic upbringing of the younger generation with historical examples of St. Petersburg, Leningrad, and Russia as a whole (Школа No 216).

In 1824 while in St. Petersburg, Mickiewicz spent two months meeting famous Russian writers and visiting their homes. It was during this period he became good friends with Alexander Pushkin and the inner circle of Russian literary geniuses including Aleksandr A. Bestuzhev and Kondraty F. Ryleev.  Bestuzhev and Ryleev were two leaders within the literary circle of St. Petersburg and were conspirators who initiated a republicanist revolt against the tsar in 1825.    Mickiewicz and the Russian writers had strong influences on one another.  It was these men who showed Mickiewicz that the Russian people “were not to be equated with those who ruled them” meaning the Russian people did not necessarily agree with what the Russian nobility and rulers stood for (Koropeckyj).   This was very much part of the Romantic Nationalist movement which argued that  state derived its political legitimacy from the unity of the people it governed.  This unity derived from the common language, race, culture, religion, and customs of a nation.    Romanticism “opened a window to their nation’s past and folk and at the same time offered visions of liberty for the individual as well as a people (Koropeckyj).” While Mickiewicz was born in the Lithuanian-Polish Commonwealth, he mostly related and connected to the Polish people and their nation more so than the Lithuanian people.

Despite the two writers only spending a minuscule amount of time with each other, Mickiewicz clearly felt strongly towards Pushkin and looked to him not only as a writer but as a friend.  In the obituary Mickiewicz wrote for Pushkin, he claimed that he “observed in him a character too much given to fleeting impressions and sometimes shallow, but always generous, noble-minded, and capable of passion. His faults seemed to be connected to the circumstances in which he grew up, while what was good in him came from the depths of his heart.”  (Dixon, A Translation).  At the end of the obituary Mickiewicz signed it “A Friend of Pushkin.”  Tensions and a general distrust have existed between the Poles and Russians for many years.   These tensions were due to at best border disagreements and at worst various periods of Russian occupation.    The relationship that developed between the Polish Mickiewicz and the Russian Pushkin was an unlikely one. Mickiewicz was from a country with a “moral mission: to regain independence from the government that so many of the Russian literary figures criticized” (Dixon, Pushkin and Mickiewicz).  Pushkin recognized the difference between the two poets:  “the great difference that separates us comes from our opposed positions: you are the poet of an oppressed nation, and this decides your superiority over me. You would not believe with what joy I would change places with you (cited in Dixon, Pushkin and Mickiewicz).”  It is quite amazing that these two people who came from opposing counties could become friends and influence one another.  Although Pushkin and Mickiewicz were committed patriots to their respective countries, Mickiewicz was considered a prophet who became the voice and inspiration for the Polish people. After his visit to St. Petersburg, revolutions began in Europe in 1848 and during that time he moved to Italy to help organize Polish legions to fight Austria over contested areas in the south of Poland (Lituanica).  Later, a war between Russia and Turkey began to revive hopes to re-establish the republic of Poland- Lithuania.

Adam Mickiewicz was considered to be a “gente lithuanus, natione polonus” [Lithuanian person, a native of Poland] (Lituanica).

Although born on Lithuanian land, he was always considered a true Pole.  Adam Mickiewicz is remembered today in Poland, Ukraine, and Russia as a talented and amazing poet as well as a courageous man.   Through his pen united the Polish people through the use of common history and powerful writing his artistic style was influenced by the places he visited and the people he met.


Works cited


Alexander Garden (Kelly Okun)

In arguably the largest tourist attraction in Russia, St. Petersburg embodies the modern-day culture of the country. Transitioning from a tsarist government, to a communist and socialist revolution, to today’s reign under Putin, Russia has undergone several significant changes. Within these different nuances, St. Petersburg’s popular sites have evolved. For example, Alexander Garden (Aleksandrovskii sad), originally part of Peter the Great’s shipbuilding scheme at the beginning of the eighteenth century, is currently a rare patch of grass where people from all paths of life can congregate. Although parks are traditionally built for certain citizens, one can truly say that the people have changed this park, debunking former myths in the process.

Alexander Garden was immediately immortalized in Alexander Pushkin’s description in his novel Evgeny Onegin. However, Alexander Garden received its name from another Alexander, Alexander II. Interestingly, the park was built in honor of Peter the Great’s 200th birthday. Because he chose 52 different types of tree species to be planted there, Alexander II earned his name on the plaque (Alexander Garden [Saint Petersburg]). The park opened in 1874 after many years of hard work by the designer, Eduard Regel. However, many historians enjoy reminding tourists and residents alike that Alexander Garden used to be fortification against the Swedes.

In 1703, St. Petersburg became Russia’s first port and connection to the rest of Europe. By 1704, Peter the Great began building the Admiralty, a fortress. Here, Russia built its navy and placed its naval officers in the Admiralty. Even though building the fort at the mouth of the Neva would have been more advantageous, “Peter also wanted it to be protected by the Peter and Paul fortress” (Navigating St Petersburg).

The Admiralty experienced many fires, especially since it was constructed with wood. Anna Ioannovna, the Empress of Russia from 1730 to 1740, decided to rebuild the Admiralty with stone. This stonework lasted until 1805. Then, the Admiralty, under Andreyan Zakharov’s designs, was reconstructed one last time into Admiralty Square. Because the naval officers and wealthy merchants near the former Admiralty became the aristocracy of St. Petersburg, Admiralty Square became the social area for them. Alexander I was not fond of so much upper class influence in this area and gave Admiralty Square more administrative buildings. More changes were made in 1844 when the shipbuilding base was filled in at Admiralty Square and moved downstream (Navigating St. Petersburg).

As Admiralty Square transformed from a naval focus to one more social and political, several aesthetic changes were made. In 1872, plans for Alexander Garden were initiated, and the park began construction in 1874. Other names for the garden include Admiralty Garden and Labourers’ Garden. In 1879, a “dancing” fountain, designed by Alexander Geschwend, was installed in the garden and is synchronized with music. In 1880, monuments were added to the collection of statues to give it a historical touch. Furthermore, in 2007, a memorial plaque in honor of the first tram line opening in St. Petersburg in 1907 was placed in the Alexander Garden. The garden still holds “public toilets from the time of Alexander III” (Baikal Nature). This setup is quite popular in the city, with even buses being converted into public restrooms. However, perhaps the most important aspect of this park is the people. The Russians loved this garden so dearly that, during World War I when they experienced a shortage of firewood, they resolved not to cut down any of its trees.

Initially, the elite of the era claimed Alexander Garden. However, as Bolsheviks became the faction in charge, more and more aristocrats dealt with “political persecution, [the expropriation of property], [imprisonment], execution, and [the designation] as ‘former people’” (Smith 7). After the Revolution of 1917, the park was opened to the public, permanently losing its aristocratic ambiance but not its prestige. Additionally, rumors and myths continue to circulate, even into the 21st century where facts are readily available to contradict these beliefs.

The Przhevalsky myth revolves around Nikolai Mikhailovich Przhevalsky’s appearance. Born in early 1839 in Smolensk, he joined the military as a teenager and was promoted to general officer in 1867. He completed five expeditions to unknown lands, encountering “the great salt lake of the Chinese classical writers, Lop Nor, in the desert.” Dying in 1888 during his fifth exploration, he became renowned for his success as well as praised for his traveling techniques; not many explorers at the time chose only three companions (Answers Corporation).

Despite the inconsistencies of Polish and Georgian backgrounds, the myth states that many Russians believe that Przhevalsky was the father of Joseph Stalin; some ardent communists even leave flowers by the statue in commemoration of Stalin because their appearances are quite similar. When this myth was mentioned to an elderly crowd in Alexander Garden, they literally laughed at the concept. They declared that Przhevalsky was born in Smolensk, Stalin in Georgia. The general consensus was that Przhevalsky, though also considered “maniacal”, was not related to Stalin. I expected these reactions from the younger generations, but the elderly, who have lived in the soviet era, shared the same sentiment.

Although the Przhevalsky statue may be the most popular in the park, others are scattered about the garden’s paths. For example, the statue of Zhukovsky, added in 1887, memorializes Vasily Andreyevich Zhukovsky, a famous Russian poet and writer in the early nineteenth century. “Zhukovsky is credited with introducing the Romantic Movement into Russia”, and he translated many works into Russian, including those written during what was dubbed the Dolbino Autumn. In fact, Grand Duchess Alexandra Feodorovna asked Zhukovsky to tutor her in Russian since she was from Germany. He became close enough with the family to tutor her son, Alexander, as well. (Poem Hunter)

In 1896, the statue of Gogol was added; Nikolai Gogol was first considered to be a realist writer but later believed to be more surrealist. He was also credited with introducing the idea of short stories. Legends such as Alexander Pushkin soon followed his lead.

The statue of Lermontov was also unveiled in 1896. Mikhail Lermontov led an intriguing life. Developing wit as his only way to survive military school, he wrote many controversial poems; they led to fame but also to exile in the Caucasus. He wrote many poems while there and, upon return to St. Petersburg, was able to publish some of them as well as his only novel before being exiled again. He soon died in a duel in 1841 but is still famous among Russians today. (Russiapedia)

The last major statue to gain admittance to the Alexander Garden was Glinka in 1899. Mikhail Ivanovich Glinka is considered the “father of modern Russian music” or “classical music.” Because he grew up in a more privileged setting, he was inspired by his French and Italian cultural education. He decided later in his life that he wanted to establish a purely Russian opera. A Life for the Tsar, his first attempt at using Russian and Polish culture, was actually Zhukovsky’s idea. He became extremely successful with this opera but his next attempt was too foreign for the Russian audience because his inspiration was more from the bordering states of Russia than the center. After his death, many composers used Glinka’s work as a foundation for their own, allowing Glinka to become famous once more. (Classical Net – Basic Repertoire List – Glinka)

Currently, Alexander Garden is not restricted in any way, socially and geographically. Set between the Neva River and St. Isaac’s Cathedral, the park is open to whoever wishes to stroll its paths. The benches at the fountain, surrounded by statues of the greats, are regularly occupied by couples, families, artists, and vendors. Every so often, a tour will be led through the garden and past the Przhevalsky statue. In addition to the vendors and plethora of paths, Alexander Garden also hosts a playground, where children continuously run around while their parents spectate from nearby benches. Compared to the strict regimen of navy officers and merchants, Alexander Garden’s visitors have significantly expanded. It was also noted that most visitors today are tourists. However, Alexander Garden’s most inspiring aspect is that its history is fully dependent on its people.


Works Cited


Ballet Culture in Russia (Sherri Grierson)

Anna Pavlova. Mikhail Baryshnikov. Rudolph Nureyev. Names belonging to the complex cultural tradition of classical ballet. These names are the greats—celebrities of an era still being uncovered.   They are part of the rich cultural history of St. Petersburg, and reflect the most complex of relationships among the high and low aspects of the artistic world, including art, music, and dance. Russian “kul’tura,” is distinctly different from the rest of the modern world, its role and formation a result of adaptations (or russifications) of surrounding states. A majority of people look at culture as solely internal, but when analyzing Russian society—this fails to account for everything that is identified as distinctly Russian. It is in this respect that culture blurs lines with identity.

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Dance has long been at the forefront of Russian culture. The ballet of St. Petersburg has played a significant role in forming the Russian identity of past and present, and will undoubtedly continue to play a role in future cultural development. The dance culture of Russia has been instrumental in influencing the western perception of Russian society, as well as, western perception of classical dance as a whole.Identity, which can be either constructed or innate, can still become an element of culture.

Ballet originated in the art halls of Italy before spreading into nearby France. As Western Europe chassed and chaine-turned their way through the Renaissance movement, the Rus’ state was dealing with the Mongol invasion and later building an imperial regime. Ballet in Russia is linked to the imperial period—encouraged by the Romanov tsars and tsarinas. Ballet was first introduced by Empress Anna in St. Petersburg in 1734 (“History of the Vaganova Ballet Academy”). Indeed, the word ‘balet’ is derived from the French language. This school of ballet, which was aptly called the “Imperial Theatre School,” was under the instruction of Western instructors during its formative years. The encouragement of ballet during this time coincided with the ideology of “Westernization” championed by Peter the Great. Years after the creation of the “Imperial Theatre School”, Catherine the Great of Russia established the Mariinsky Theatre also by imperial decree (“History of the Theatre: Mariinsky Theatre.”). Over the course of the 19th century, the Russian Ballet gained worldwide prominence and respect as one of the leaders in classical dance. In the 20th century the Russian Ballet gained fame as the premier example of classical dance—a model for other countries to follow. It is in the 20th century that the distinguishable Russian ballet techniques and teaching methods started to become a Russian export.Art is a social construct, defined by a constantly changing community. In times of great social upheaval, art, in many ways, can capture the changes that form within society. In the early twentieth century, a colossal shift occurred within the Russian borders when the Soviet regime came into power. Because art is both a reflection of social values, as well as a potential spark for the change of social values, it would be reasonable to think that the dance world in Russia would also change—exemplifying the social upheaval that traditionally results after drastic political upheaval.

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In October 1917, the Bolshevik Party overthrew the Provisional Government which had established itself in Russia following the end of the Romanov dynasty, marking the end of the imperial Russian state. The Ballet Russes was created several years prior to this event, during a time of political unrest and revolution in Russia. Formed in 1909, the Ballet Russes has been considered the greatest ballet company of the 20th century (“Diaghilev and the Ballets Russe”). This traveling modernist dance troupe played a significant role forming the perception of Russia as a model for dance culture in the Western world. The Ballet Russes revived the declining performing arts of the western countries, bringing the ballet tradition of Europe full circle.

The Ballet Russes, praised for its ingenuity, has a strong historical connection to the Imperial Ballet Company. Although arising in Paris in the early 20th century under Sergei Diaghilev, the Ballet Russes “collected” many dancers trained in the ballet schools of St. Petersburg and Moscow (“Diaghilev and the Ballets Russe”). The company fostered western fascination, especially within Paris, of Russian culture outside of the growing political tensions. The Ballet Russes, characterized by its emphasis on both modern themes and technique, was able to connect the past and contemporary Russian ballet tradition into a singular entity that could be loved by art lovers and the general public. The significance of the Ballet Russes lies in the company’s unmeasurable influence on the evolution of ballet across the world.

During the Soviet period, the arts, much like all aspects of culture, were subject to government control. The performing arts were seen by many Soviet leaders as maintaining ties to monarchical Russia, and as built upon values in opposition to the Soviet government—western, imperialistic, high-class values. When the Soviet government took control of the Mariinsky as a state asset, it also assumed the responsibility of patronage of the Mariinsky performers. Before the fall of tsarist Russia, ballet dancers and other artists were supported by the royal family and high-standing nobles. Prima ballerina Mathilde Kshesinskaya was a favorite of Tsar Nicholas II of Russia. A former mistress of the future leader, Kshesinskaya amassed a wealth and status from royal support—with the start of the Soviet Union this support system fell apart and another had to take its place. Kshesinskaya later moved to Paris after the Revolution, and opened a ballet school. Interestingly enough, Vladimir Lenin, the first leader of the Soviet Union, would later give a famous speech standing from the balcony of Kshesinskaya’s house—now the home of a Museum of Political History in St. Petersburg, Russia (“Museum of Political History”).

Dance, much like other art genres, progresses through movements and eras with different artistic philosophies and aesthetics. In response to increasing criticism of the avant-garde movement and fear of “artistic anarchy” a new policy of “socialist realism” exemplified by Maxim Gorky, a Soviet writer, was adopted by the Kremlin as state-supported artistic orthodoxy (Evtuhov and Stites, 372-374). While many superficial changes had occurred prior to the policy adoption, socialist realism was an attempt to internalize soviet values in the art world. Instead of superficially changing the names of ballet theatres and schools to “Kirov” or “Leningrad,” socialist realism attempted to change what was being depicted—the art itself (“History of the Theatre: Mariinsky Theatre”). Ballets during this time sought to portray uncomplicated moral themes that dealt with Soviet life, while still keeping the technical skill developed during the Russian Empire.

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Ballet existed throughout Soviet period, never truly detaching from its imperial tradition. Despite the continued ties to that tradition, Soviet leaders, including Stalin, did not seek to destroy Russian ballet. Instead the ballet itself was repurposed to serve the goals of the new Soviet state. This idea is supported by the fact that the Mariinsky Theatre was renamed in 1935 in honor of Sergei Kirov, a communist revolutionary, following his death. Many scholars today comment on the lack of a national, historical foundation for the Russian state—the lack of a metanarrative. Ballet, along with other forms of art and culture, common elements of a national tradition, were consequently used to create a national tradition in the USSR.

The Soviet Union marketed itself as a place of artistic expression and ingenuity superior to its capitalist counterparts. The Soviet Union, contrary to many prevalent stereotypes, supported the ballet tradition, whilst censoring social expression as a whole. Theatres and concert halls were exported to states within the Soviet Union as an example of the regime’s largesse—it used the ballet tradition and environment, the classical institution, to appeal to states within its control. Ballet helped serve a “dual political role,” in promoting the Soviet Union’s propaganda as a culturally superior country, as well as disseminating Soviet values to a larger audience (Hamm 3). Art, like other aspects of society, was rewarded with medals and titles like the “Narodnyi Artist SSSR” or National Artist of the USSR. Such practices perpetuated the social acceptance of ballet as a national activity, not unlike the use of ballet to create a more Western association a century before.

Many dancers, however, especially while touring in western countries, defected from the Soviet Union. Rudolph Nureyev, a soloist in the Kirov Ballet Company, refused to return to Soviet Union after performing in Paris in 1961. The dancers, like Nureyev, who left the Soviet Union would later join Western ballet companies gaining individual fame as well as increasing the prominence of the companies relative to the Soviet Union (“Russian Ballet Star Nureyev Defects”). These well-publicized acts of course contradicted the Soviet government’s perennial declaration of free cultural expression. YouTube Preview Image

Russia’s deep history with ballet has contributed to its place within the national identity. The Ballet Russes set a precedent. There is a deep-seated interest in Western countries in Russian ballet. People flock to opera houses and arts centers in hopes of seeing what makes the Russian ballet different from other ballet traditions. Museums in Russia and Western countries frequently have exhibitions dedicated to the Russian ballet tradition, perpetuating the association of Russian society with ballet (“Diaghilev and the Ballets Russes, 1909–1929: When Art Danced with Music”). Dance in Russia has been depicted in literature and art, and has accompanied opera and theatre productions. Music and dance combine when viewing the famous ballets of “Sleeping Beauty” by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky and the “Rite of Spring” by Igor Stravinsky (Jenik). In Leo Tolstoy’s “War and Peace”, the Countess Natasha performs a dance said to lie within every Russian and consequently “rediscovers [her] own ‘Russianness’” (Figes xxx, 45).

Many articles concerning the dance world of Russia are involved not so much with the influences of politics and society on the social institution, but rather with the art itself. They look at how the ballet techniques and schools compare to Western counterparts. It has been argued that ballet is a reflection of Russian society—changing as society has changed. Others have argued that ballet and dance culture is instead one of the few things in Russian society that has been a constant across the decades – remaining generally unaffected by the Soviet period (Ezrahi 234, 237).

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Teatralnaya ploshchad’, Theatre Square, is home to the renowned Mariinsky Theatre of St. Petersburg, Russia. The Mariinsky Theatre is the head of the Mariinsky opera, ballet and theatre companies. While in the past the Theatre and the Company functioned separately, today the company does not exist without the patronage of the theatre. Because of this interconnected relationship, when discussing the Ballet of St. Petersburg, the Mariinsky Theatre must also be addressed. Ordering a ticket at the Mariinsky Theatre is both an interesting and invigorating experience. Thousands of people move through the historic space each day, standing in lines in order to see the next showing of Don Quixote or The Brothers Karamazov.

These ticket officers speak various languages, able to communicate in English but ready to tolerate broken Russian. The tickets have a broad range of prices depending on what you want to see, where you want to see it and arguably, who you are (prices are conveniently lower for people who are adept at using the Russian language). The Mariinsky Theatre technically describes three separate buildings, each great in their own way: the Concert Hall, acutely designed to showcase musical greats; the original Mariinsky (Mariinskii Odin), and a new addition, Mariinsky Dva. The Mariinsky operates very differently than one would expect. It is formal, but at the same time—not. A mix of people in gorgeous trailing dresses and ties next to others in jeans and shorts. Cameras, while not allowed, are rarely supervised. The tickets, while not cheap (especially for well-known Ballets and Opera performances), are reasonable in an attempt to cater to a wider audience. A section of straight-backed, wooden benches lords over the other seating in reach of the classically painted mural and chandelier. This section is the least expensive and allows those who cannot afford the “Bainoire” or “Belle-Etage” levels a chance of seeing the productions. The Mariinsky experience is not solely for Russian citizens—but rather a source of pride that they can give to the world as a whole. The Mariinsky Theatre is one of the biggest tourist attractions in St. Petersburg, indeed in the world. Ships from all over the wottracts people who wish to see the Russian interpretation of well-known performances. They come because of the reputation that exists in the Western world, a reputation the Mariinsky propagates (“Giselle 3D from the Mariinsky Theater”).YouTube Preview Image

Local pride in the theatre is endemic, and my host mother in St. Petersburg would regularly sit down at the small kitchen table to tell me about upcoming performances she would be attending. Almost every week she would look forward to the opera or one of her favorite performers, who were coming to St. Petersburg. Twice she gave me tickets to see Mariinsky performances myself—the opera, Rigolleto and a quartet, which played music by Russian composer, P. I. Tchaikovsky.

With the White Nights, the summer months of St. Petersburg hold an intangible feeling of excitement and adventure. The festival of the White Nights includes hundreds of performers of every specialty, working closely with the Mariinsky Theatre itself. The Mariinsky Theatre and the performances of ballet, opera and theatre, provide a service for the Russian people—it offers a place to escape. I saw three ballet performances on two different occasions—“The Carmen Suite”, a scene from the ballet “Le Corsaire” and “Giselle”. The ballet and the theatre have the ability to transport viewers to another place. It is three hours where the outside world disappears and the inside world becomes reality.

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Works Cited

Memories of Kino and the Rock Movement (Lirsen Myrtaj)

At first glance, rock music seems inherently anti-Russian. It gained its popularity out of the American youth revolt of the 1960s posing itself as an alternative to the ennui of Nixon’s “Silent Majority.” There is something about seeing Russians perform rock which is odd. A lot of the themes which are characteristic of early American rock music — such as psychedelia and illegal drug use — are not present. Instead of singing about strains of cannabis (“Purple Haze” by the Jimi Hendrix Experience), Viktor Tsoi and his band Kino perform a song about cigarettes («Pachka sigaret») and the relief from stress it may cause. Like many figures in American rock, Viktor Tsoi died young. While Jim Morrison died of a heroin overdose, Viktor Tsoi died in a car accident while driving sober. This comparison seems to illustrate the difference between American and Russian cultures. Failure in America is due to your own faults. In Russia, fate has the final say over what will happen to your life. Rock music in Russia can thus seem more often like a cultic performance than a talented musician playing to a psychedelic beat. The result is that the memory of rock in Russia seems more like a remembrance of saints rather than a hazy memory of a burst of great talent as it is seen in America.

When asking a Russian rock fan about his favorite bands, I received answers which I took to show a lack of taste. It seems like Linkin Park, an alternative band which I had assumed nobody liked anymore, is still popular in Russia. So is Rammstein, a German industrial metal band whose strange music videos include themes of cannibalism and mob violence. While running the risk of appearing a rock snob, I felt that these bands displayed crass tastes which I grew out of by the time I entered high school. Yet the fan in name was a grown man in his late twenties. When I asked him about Russian rock bands, he told me that there aren’t any good bands. Since my knowledge of modern Russian rock is limited, I asked him about older bands like Kino and DDT. The reaction was positive. According to him, the only good Russian rock bands are the old ones. This seemed quite strange when considering the musical styles of Kino and DDT are remarkably different from Linkin Park’s and Rammstein’s. Yet it is unlikely that he was an avid listener and concert-goer before the age of ten, when the Russian bands in question were at their peak. Instead, the memory of the golden age of Russian rock had to have been passed on to him from slightly older generations, the generation which saw its youth revived in expense of the brutally conformist Soviet communist system.

Just as American rock ridiculed Nixon’s “Silent Majority” and the Vietnam War, Russian rock inspired youth to question authority. Tsoi’s most famous (and arguably best) song — «Peremen» — is not shy to tell the youth what they want:

Перемен требуют наши сердца,
Перемен требуют наши глаза,
В нашем смехе и в наших слезах,
И в пульсации вен
Мы ждем перемен.

Changes require our hearts,
Changes require our eyes,
In our laughter and our tears,
And the pulse in the veins
We are waiting for change.

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It is hard to argue that Russian youth did not want change.  The Soviet government realized this and began to fund rock bands, something which it had not done before, perhaps in an attempt to seem not only more tolerant of “change” — which characterized the Gorbachev period — but also perhaps to attempt to coopt the music the youth was following.   It also seems like the youth were tired of seeing their friends die in the Afghan War – it is hard not to see herein a comparison with the Vietnam War’s effect on youth in America — as expressed by Yuriy Shevchuk of DDT’s song «Революция» (“Revolution”) with the lyric “Сколько афгани стоит смерть? / Если чья-то жизнь не права?” (“How many Afghans does it cost to die? / If someone’s life is not right?).

Tsoi also seemed to be a pacifist as expressed in his song «Я объявляю свой дом» (“I declare my house”):

Я объявляю свой дом
Безъядерной зоной!
Я объявляю свой двор
Безъядерной зоной!
Я объявляю свой город
Безъядерной зоной!

I declare my house
To be a nuclear-free zone!
I declare my yard
To be a nuclear-free zone!
I declare my city
To be a nuclear-free zone!

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The youth were thus not only in revolt because they were getting bored of the old system, but also because their very youth was being destroyed whether it was through casualties in war or because of a repressive system. It is hard not to see this when watching the Russian-made documentary Рок or simply Rock, the first documentary on the subject from a Russian perspective. The first scene does not involve a close-up of some rock musician performing live in concert, but a Soviet Pioneers’ rally in the Red Square, where the young children are spoken to by Leonid Brezhnev. The scene then shifts to a modern rock musician who looks almost confused, much as his more conservative contemporaries would have thought when seeing him. But they are probably right. Those brought up in the Soviet system look upon their days as pioneers with nostalgia. What came afterwards was uninteresting and alienating. Any sense of individualism was crushed beneath the weight of communist conformism to the working-class ideology. The confusion this caused among identity-seeking youth found its expression through rock music.

Watching Viktor Tsoi perform is almost like watching somebody sobbing. This effect is accentuated by the heavy make-up he and his band members wear, giving Tsoi an almost effeminate character. Yet this is not for performance or dramatic effect: Tsoi remarks in Rock that his art is not a hobby, but his life. He does not seem to be so well-known for his vocals which, like Jim Morrison’s, seem weak. Tsoi is instead giving us metaphors which convey deep feelings. He is not telling you how to feel; he is instead observing life through his lyrics, as in «Кукушка» (“Kukushka”):

Кто пойдет по следу одинокому?
Сильные да смелые
Головы сложили в поле в бою.
Мало кто остался в светлой памяти,
В трезвом уме да с твердой рукой в строю,
В строю.

Солнце мое – взгляни на меня,
Моя ладонь превратилась в кулак,
И если есть порох – дай огня.
Вот так…

Who will go on the lone trail?
Strong and brave
Heads lay in a field in battle.
Few people remain in memory,
In a sober mind but with a firm hand in the ranks,
In the ranks.

My sun – look at me,
My hand turned into a fist,
And if there’s gunpowder – give fire.
That’s it…

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It is thus no coincidence that upon Tsoi’s death, the 17 August 1990 issue of the Kosmomolskaya pravda stated: “Tsoi means more to the young people of our nation than any politician, celebrity or writer. This is because Tsoi never lied and never sold out. He was and remains himself. It’s impossible not to believe him… Tsoi is the only rocker who has no difference between his image and his real life, he lived the way he sang… Tsoi is the last hero of rock” (, 2013). Tsoi thus embodies a memory of being honest through his art and through his life. He was thus a sort of revolutionary figure to the millions of Russian youth who listened to him. Perhaps that is why our Russian rock fan has such a positive image of Kino, despite generally listening to music whose styles contrast with Tsoi’s.

Russian rock retains an image which is characteristic of Russian society. Messianism seems to be a theme in at least some of the figures observed by the makers of Rok. While long hair and a beard is de rigueur among rock artists anywhere, it is hard not to draw a comparison to Christ when seeing it in Russia. This is confirmed in the final scenes of the documentary when some musicians sing a melodic prayer, thanking God for his merciful acts, against scenes of Russian landscapes. Yuriy Shevchuk of DDT seems to conform to this image as well. In the documentary, he and his band members gather with their families in a forest  beneath a large oak tree. The scene is reminiscent of “rainbow gatherings” where American hippies would gather in camps in the forest, reputedly using drugs and engaging in other debaucherous activities. In the Russian version, however, one could see children sitting and singing a Russian folk song along with the rest of the people gathered, reminding one of Christ gathering children with him even though his disciples tried to shoo them away. The passionate performances of Shevchuk create an image of a man who is not only trying to write good songs, but also to lead through example and passion. At one point in Rok he mentions his interests in Buddhism and meditation, seeming to confirm that he is also a quasi-spiritual figure rather than simply a talented musician. While Shevchuk portrays the more extroverted forms of the Messiah, Tsoi represents the quieter and more somber messages of Christ. In addition to his “sobbing” performances, Tsoi also led an introverted and solitary lifestyle, never boasting of his fame. It seems as if he actively tried to deny the fame given to him, leaving the limelight for a while just as Christ went into the dessert for 40 days. A now famous scene in Rok involves Tsoi working at his job as a stoker. He carries the coal back into the apartment and throws it into a boiler which has since been named “Kamchatka.” The image portrayed is a strange one for someone of his stature. Tsoi comes across as a simple man, fulfilling a job which has been given to him by the state as all men and women in the Soviet Union. This simple boiler, located on Ulitsa Blokhina (Улица Блохина) in St. Petersburg has since become a pilgrimage site for Tsoi’s fans.

The novelty of rock to Russians seems to be not only an element of Rock but also the reason it was made. It is interesting to notice that there is only one scene in the entire film where you can see a concert audience. It provides a somewhat ridiculous image: a Russian rock musician who is supposed to look something like David Bowie is performing to an audience of miners. Most of the miners, who have presumably never before seen such an act, look somewhat confused or even bemused. There are no screaming fans, none of them sing along, and all of them are sitting down. Yet the image is valuable in order to understand how rock music was received. By the time the documentary was filmed, rock had only recently become popular. The musician in the scene seemed almost heroic, like a David battling the Goliath that is the Soviet culture of conformism. The battle was a battle of ideals, and the youth saw in rock an opportunity to express themselves free of the system that had raised them.   In that sense, the rock movement was a revolution. Viktor Tsoi and others were the leaders of the revolution. Yet they were not Leninists, seeking to bring about change from the top. They were instead prophets or missionaries, expressing themselves as they saw fit. They allowed the youth to latch on to something new and creative when they saw stagnation all around them. When they realized the influence they had, they began to sing about revolution, peace, and the problems they saw everyday. In that sense, they not only led a revolution in culture, but soon enough became the representatives of the youth whose new culture erupted both before and after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Viktor Tsoi along with others are remembered not only as great musicians, but also as the voice of the youth during the stagnation of the 1980s. Yet their memory does not only live on among those who were old enough to see them perform live and get hold of their new albums as soon as they came out. It is not atypical to see street musicians performing songs from Tsoi and others; graffiti displaying КИНО is a common sight, especially on the Tsoi wall in Arbat in Moscow; Tsoi paraphernalia is common throughout St. Petersburg; and karaoke bars feature people singing Tsoi’s most famous songs off-tune. Perhaps it is pride that forces Tsoi to live on in Russian memory. After all, Kino is one of the “only good Russian bands”, and Tsoi is a man whom Russians can take pride in as one of their own. But he is not extolled as a conquering hero.  Russians loved him because he seemed meek and humble, never demanding anything extraordinary, and never seeing himself as too great to perform with true emotion. This quiet figure came to represent his contemporary Russian youth not only during his time, but also today. He thus serves the purpose of being an object or an abstract site of memory for generations to come.

Memory in a Museum (Ben Oelberg)

Considering Russia’s volatile and sometimes quite frightening history, Saint Petersburg might be seen as a breath of fresh air. This city is the gem of progress brought to Russia by Peter the Great – a city of art, music, theatres, universities, gardens, fountains, and ships. It illustrates the ambitious emperor’s desire to link his country to European civilization. It has served as an alternative to what might be seen as the harsher and less-friendly Moscow – the center of Soviet totalitarianism and Vladimir Putin’s soft authoritarianism. However, the beauty and cosmopolitanism of Saint Petersburg can easily conceal its darkest hours. When the Germans and Finns surrounded the city which was by now named Leningrad, in 1941 its people would experience unspeakable suffering and death from starvation, diseases, and aerial bombardment. Of Leningrad’s two and a half-million inhabitants, over six hundred thousand lost their lives due to starvation, cold, and diseases. The total death toll was approximately one million when civilian and battle casualties are included (Tumarkin, 69).

The State Memorial Museum of Defence and Siege of Leningrad was one of the first monuments to the predations of the blockade. It was founded around its present location immediately after the siege was lifted in early 1944 (“900-day Siege;” “Museum of the Defense and Siege of Leningrad”). However this museum was originally much larger, covering an area more than thirty times the size of the current exhibition. It featured 37,000 exhibits such as German tanks and aircraft and many of the exhibits were donated by Leningrad citizens. Yet Joseph Stalin was afraid of the “unifying power of such a monument,” so he had it destroyed while purging Leningrad Communist Party officials in 1948 (“Museum”). Perhaps the museum had the potential of reminding Leningraders that the Soviet government basically left the city’s residents to fend for themselves in the midst of starvation for over two years. That could certainly tarnish the myth that Stalin was the ultimate architect of the Soviet victory over Nazi Germany. Fortunately, the museum was re-established in the late 1980s. Just like the first time, most of the exhibits were provided by the survivors and their families. The museum re-opened on 8 September 1989 (“Museum”).

A visitor entering the museum is confronted by an untitled large painting by an anonymous artist of five women trying to keep warm during the bitter Russian winter. They are huddled together on what might be a frozen river since there appears to be what looks like a small bridge in the background, along with snow-covered buildings. Each of the women is heavily cloaked with coats, shawls, and boots. The woman standing on the left side is also wearing large mittens, but the other two women standing have no mittens or gloves and are struggling to keep their hands warm. The one in the middle is cupping her hands together and blowing into them for the slightest bit of warmth. She may also be praying. The woman standing in a corner on the right side is actually just a young girl, possibly the daughter of one of the four older women. The other two women are on the ground, surrounded by those standing. One of them is sitting on the snow with her back to the viewer, while the one next to her appears to be kneeling, comforting the other with her hand on her shoulder. The woman who is sitting looks like she must be the oldest of the group. She is probably sitting because she does not have much strength left. It is rather dark where they are, but there are pinkish orange rays of sunlight far behind them in the sky. However, it is not clear whether it is dusk or dawn. Either way, the sunlight could represent that small glimmer of hope that the people of Leningrad held on to during the blockade. As desperate as they were, the hope they clung to was strong enough to help them avoid giving up and surrendering to the Germans.

Most of the exhibits were on the second floor, prominent among them another painting titled “Words of Farewell,” also the work of an anonymous artist. This work of art shows an old woman wearing a long dark coat and shawl hugging a soldier, whom we can assume is her son. He wears a thick coat and an ushanka with a rifle strapped on his right shoulder. The woman not surprisingly has a subtle expression of sorrow on her face as she leans it against her son’s chest. Yet, there is also some unexplainable hint of confidence in her expression. While she is certainly afraid for her son, she seems to have faith that he is strong and even if he does not return, he will at least have died defending the city and the Motherland. In the near background, we see the back side of another soldier walking along a snowy path to the front.

On the top floor, the many propaganda posters took a more militaristic tone. One of the first posters in the glass display was particularly striking. In the middle of the poster, a Red Army soldier (who literally is red) shoves his bayoneted rifle into a giant Hitler snake that is covered with white swastikas. Below this act of defiance, it reads in red letters “Death to Fascism!” This poster also features a smaller picture and caption in each corner. In the top-left corner, a beastly loincloth-wearing
savage is burning books, the caption reading “Fascism is the destruction of culture.” In the bottom-left corner, a thin woman holds her naked starving child, with the statement “Fascism is hunger.” The top-right corner shows a swastika-shaped building, below which reads “Fascism is a prison.” Finally, the bottom-right corner features a green-skinned, helmet-wearing, troll-like creature carrying a bomb in one hand and a sword dripping with blood in the other. The caption simply reads “Fascism is war.” In desperate times of war, it can obviously be quite effective to dehumanize the enemy. These illustrations might have also been useful in getting across the patriotic message to any Soviet soldiers who could not read.

Another patriotic poster shows a mighty medieval Russian warrior, reminiscent of Alexander Nevsky, on horseback swinging his blade and decapitating a dragon whose eyes have swastika-shaped pupils. Alexander Nevsky, a thirteenth-century Novgorodian prince, who had won significant victories against Swedish invaders in 1240 and against the Teutonic Knights two years later, became a useful heroic talisman for the Soviet regime during the Great Patriotic War (Evtuhov, Goldfrank, Hughes, and Stites, 67). In the bottom half of the poster, a Red Army soldier is also on horseback and about to strike a German fascist with his sword. The call-to-arms at the top of the poster roughly translates to “Liberating the people in the century of centuries is the fate of a Russian noble blade.” By drawing comparisons to Russian heroes like Alexander Nevsky, the Soviet state is assuring the people that no matter how fierce the invaders may appear, Mother Russia need only look back at her history to be reminded that she will ultimately triumph against the enemy.

Another poster similarly uses the past to draw comparisons to the Soviet Union’s current crisis. However this one refers to events that are not nearly as distant as the one with Alexander Nevsky. The left half of the poster has the year 1919 at the top and shows a Red Army soldier in the garb of a commoner. He has a determined and fearless expression with his bayoneted rifle raised forth, ready to confront the anti-Communist reactionary White Armies. In the background, a crowd of armed Leningraders stride forth into battle. They carry a giant red banner that reads “Everything for the Defense of Petrograd.” The city’s name had been changed to Petrograd during the First World War when the Russian Empire was at war with the Germans since Petersburg sounded too Germanic (although it had in fact derived from Dutch). In the same fashion, the right half of this poster has the year 1941 – the year Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union – at the top and there is now a Red Army soldier in the same pose with a bayoneted rifle, only this time he wears a proper military uniform and helmet. Sure enough, he is followed by other proletarian warriors who carry a giant red banner that says, “Everything for the Defense of Leningrad.” Like the previous military poster mentioned, the message of this one is quite simple: just as the Red Army defeated the counterrevolutionary White Armies during the Russian Civil War, the Red Army will triumph once more over the German fascists, especially since the Red Army is now better equipped and better trained. Of course, this does not mention the fact that in the first few months of the German invasion, some Red Army soldiers were sent into battle without rifles due to shortages.

Considering Saint Petersburg’s/Leningrad’s significance in the development of the Russian navy, it is no surprise to see a poster that praises the Soviet fleet. It shows two Soviet sailors in their black uniforms with caps, aboard a battleship firing an anti-aircraft gun at German planes. One of the planes is already hit and about to crash into the Gulf of Finland. Underneath the illustration the poster declares “There will be no black wings flying over the homeland.”

Another colorful poster, which is not military-themed but just as patriotic, displays four images of women doing manual labor. It is not too surprising that all of the workers in the poster are female, since every able-bodied man was needed to fight. The top-left image is of a proletarian woman standing on top of a table cleaning the ceiling near an elegant chandelier. The top-right has two brave women on a scaffold painting over the battle scars of a building. The bottom-right shows two women repairing Leningrad’s trolleybus wires. The bottom-left portrays two women placing new tiles on the roof of a building that was likely bombed by German aircraft. The top of the poster reads “Working people of Leningrad! Restore our city.”

The determination of the hardworking women of Leningrad is depicted in yet another illustration, showing four women working together and helping each other to rebuild a destroyed building. In red lettering at the top, the poster proclaims “We will give all our strength for a speedy recovery of urban Leningrad!”

The museum also contains other kinds of representations of the past, for example the reconstruction of a typical room during the winter of 1941 to 1942. The first winter of the Leningrad blockade was the harshest and most “hungry” time of the entire siege (“Room of Winter 1941 – 1942”). The exhibit mentions that the water supply ceased to operate due to bombardment, air raids, and frost “that set in as early as November, 1941.” It is very dark in this room and this is explained by the lack of fuel: “…the electricity was supplied only to strategic objects – state, military, industrial objects and bakeries.” This “frozen-through” dwelling received only scant heating from an oven known as a burzhuika, which was nothing but a cast-iron moveable stove, and people burned books, furniture, and floor parquetry to keep warm (“Room”). The lack of light in the reconstruction of the room might make visitors confused and make them somewhat realize the difficulties of life during the blockade of Leningrad. In order to truly understand the suffering, though, uninformed visitors will need to read the many descriptive plaques in this museum.

The worst aspect of the Leningrad blockade was starvation. It became so acute during the blockade that people resorted to eating dogs, cats, petroleum jelly, carpenter’s glue, sheep’s gut jelly, and sometimes each other (Tumarkin, 69-70). By November 1941, the city had little food or fuel and thus little lighting and transportation, forcing people to walk everywhere. Leningraders worked until they no longer had any strength to “pull the frozen little corpses of their children on sleds to common graves.” People died suddenly “at work, at home, on the street – anywhere, at any time” (Tumarkin 70).

One museum case contained two small photographs of emaciated children lying on what would likely become their death-beds. These two photographs are probably the most powerful images in the entire museum. They provide clear proof of the horrors of life in a besieged city with no food. When you look at these pictures, you might think you are looking at Holocaust victims – bony children devoid of strength, slowly wasting away. It might be difficult to know that this beautiful European city could be the site of such horrendous suffering and death.

This exhibit also features rationing cards and a meager slice of bread that weighs only 125 grams and this was an entire day’s ration. In addition to making jelly out of glue, the people of Leningrad also consumed various leather products such as belts, bags, gloves, and “even parts of technical units.” People made cakes from “saltbush and other grass” that were only available during summer. The exhibit mentions notes that there were “[h]eaps of corpses” lying in the mortuaries and cemeteries. In fact, there were so many bodies that it was impossible to bury all of them. Trucks were loaded “up to the top” with corpses and then drove the bodies to communal graves. Explosives had to be used to provide burial pits since the shovels could not penetrate the frozen soil. The exhibit claims that on 20 February 1942 alone, ten thousand bodies were buried at Piskarevskoye Cemetery (“Famine”). One might argue that the museum does not in fact devote enough attention and space to this existential aspect of the blockade.

Overall, in my opinion, the State Memorial Museum of Defence and Siege of Leningrad does not do enough justice for the victims and the survivors of the blockade in commemorating the extreme loss of life and the unspeakably desperate conditions of the city’s residents. The museum tends to romanticize the Soviet military victory against Nazi Germany in what became mythicized as the Great Patriotic War. Both the Soviet and post-Soviet regimes have capitalized on Russia’s victory in the war to the point where it has essentially become sacred – never to be questioned or stained with uncomfortable truths such as hundreds of thousands of people starving to death in Leningrad. It is as if Russia wants to forget the ugliest realities of the blockade and paint a largely positive picture, therefore ignoring the fact that for many Leningraders, there was no glory to remember. What is to remember then? Corpses – sometimes only parts of them lying in the streets; freezing winters that showed no mercy; darkness; and eating anything one could find. It was just about living to see the next day.

Works cited



Non-Orthodox Religious Spaces on Nevsky Prospekt: Oppression, Privacy, and Memory (Vincent Rampino)

Founded with greater connections to the West in mind, it is almost a cliché to describe St. Petersburg as a cosmopolitan city. From its creation, St. Petersburg hummed with the noise of many languages, spoken first by the various foreigners brought by Peter the Great and later by the descendants of those people. As the history of St. Petersburg progressed, this was not always the case, with an ebb and flow of Westernizing and Slavophile currents. One battleground of this conflict is the history of the relationship between the Russian Orthodox Church and the Russian Government. With the official atheism of the Soviet era gone, the Russian Orthodox Church now enjoys a close relationship with the government of President Vladimir Putin. How does this relationship affect the activities of non-Orthodox Christian sects in Russia? In examining the context and presentation of the Lutheran Church of St. Peter and St. Paul and St. Catherine’s Catholic Church (both on Nevsky Prospekt), it can be seen that by keeping commemoration within the community, such religious communities have been able to rebuild healthy congregations since the end of the Soviet Union, without running afoul of the seemingly two-headed apparatus in power.

Organized religion began in Russia with the introduction of Christianity through missionaries from Constantinople and the Eastern, Byzantine portion of Christendom. The most reasonable date for the beginning of Christianity in Russia is 988, when Prince Vladimir, who was married to Anna, the sister of the Byzantine emperor, converted to Christianity (Murarka, 2841). Christianity was brought to Russia with a Slavonic translation of the Bible and its own alphabet created for the Slavic people, which allowed it to become a religion of the people, as the common man could understand it without having to speak Latin, as was necessary with Christianity based in Rome (2841). It was isolated from the West due to this language barrier and its accessibility allowed religious practice to become more ingrained in daily life, leading to a religion that was “more devotional than intellectual,” and more closely aligned with national feeling (2841). This identification of Russian Christianity with Russian identity itself made convenient the use of religion as a political tool and, thus, Christianity, particularly the Eastern Orthodox variety of Christianity practiced in Russia, became closely linked with political authority (2841).

This fusion of Russian folk culture and Byzantine religion created a distinctly Russian religion, and its clear emphasis of devotion over the intellectual pursuit of theology placed it apart from its Byzantine-Greek roots (2841). With the Turkish conquest of Constantinople, the Russian religious began to see their role as that of the only remaining protectors of the one true faith, one that had to be preserved at all costs (2841). This sacred mission led to a “deeply imbedded attitude against change” that valued orthodoxy most of all, and relied on strictly hierarchal structure to maintain it (2841). This structure was held up by the principle of “symphonia,” cooperation between the church and state that tied the imperative protection of “true Christianity” to the Russian state; a strong state would protect the “third Rome,” and thriving Christianity would help legitimize and keep stable the authority of the Russian government (2842). Though debate has continued over the centuries within both the Church and the Russian government as to the exact nature of this union, close ties were consistent up until the 20th century.

With Peter the Great, the state took control of the relationship, essentially establishing the Church as a “little more than a government bureaucracy” (Caridi, 6). In return for its subjugation, the Church was granted even greater latitude in Russia, including exclusive rights to religious education in Russian schools, as well as legal protection from defamation (Murarka, 2343). This ended in 1905 with the “Edict of Toleration” that granted much greater freedom to non-Orthodox confessions, though as many Russians immediately left Russian Orthodoxy, most for Roman Catholicism, these freedoms were restricted again a few years later (Caridi, 7).

Throughout the centuries of Christian presence in Russia, adherents to non-Russian Orthodox religions have been almost exclusively foreigners (7). Their numbers and freedoms have typically been bolstered by Westernizing efforts, particularly Peter the Great’s construction of St. Petersburg and his recruitment of foreign experts to work in Russia. These surges for non-Orthodox groups have typically been met with renewed restriction, due to the conflict over Russian identity. As Russian national identity is so closely tied to the Russian Orthodox Church, any influx of Western ideas or religion can be seen as an assault against the Russian way of life and the stability of the state, leading to action against confessions and sects outside of the mainstream (8). The centrality of the Russian Orthodox Church to the idea of Russian identity was reflected in the Soviet Union’s suspension of repression of the Orthodox Church in the Great Patriotic War (9).

This pattern of enthusiastic modernization and the expansion of freedoms, followed soon after by “objectors who [strive] furiously to beat back the tide of Holy Mother Russia,” can be seen in the last couple of decades and the aftermath of the Soviet Union (11). After the establishment of “western-style” freedom of religion in Russia in 1991, Russia witnessed an influx of well-funded foreign missionaries from other religions and Christian sects that threatened the traditional role of Orthodoxy at the center of the Russian state (11). In response, the Orthodox Church pushed for restrictions that would protect its position and preserve Russia as an Orthodox state (11). These efforts were somewhat successful as legislation made it through the Russian parliament a couple of times in the early 1990s, but Boris Yeltsin refused its approval on each occasion (12). By 1997, Yeltsin gave in and signed into law a measure that once again put the Russian Orthodox Church above all other confessions (14).

The current relationship between the Russian Orthodox Church and other religions remains fraught with conflict, as non-Orthodox religions are seen as unjustly encroaching on the rightful territory and people of the Russian Orthodox Church (Dunn, 7). In the last decade, the Russian Orthodox Church and local Russian government authorities have acted against the established Catholic Church in Russia by threatening to close Catholic churches in Russia, accusing Catholics of espionage, and canceling the return visas of Catholic clergy (8). This recent tightening of restrictions over non-Orthodox religious establishments should be viewed in contrast with the Russian government’s prosecution of the punk rock band Pussy Riot over their February 2012 “Punk prayer service” performance in Moscow’s Christ the Savior Cathedral (Kizenko, 609). Importantly, this cathedral has come to symbolize the ties between the church and the central Russian government since its reconstruction after the fall of the Soviet Union, as it is the location “where Patriarch Kirill I celebrates Christmas and Easter services attended by Putin and…Medvedev” (609). During the performance, Pussy Riot “[entreated] the Virgin Mary to liberate Russia from Vladimir Putin” (609). Band members were accused of blasphemy by the Russian Orthodox Church, and the Russian Government responded to this pressure by prosecuting them for hooliganism inspired by religious hatred (609). Despite significant criticism from both within and without Russia, the Russian government pressed on with strict legal proceeding, going far toward legitimizing Pussy Riot’s claim that the supposedly secular Russian government has an inappropriately close relationship with the Russian Orthodox Church structure.

There are a few key points that should be understood from this brief history. The close relationship between the Russian Orthodox Church and the Russian state is founded on Russian Orthodoxy as a central pillar of Russian identity and life, which provides for a mutually beneficial arrangement. If the Russian Government protects Orthodoxy and maintains its position at the center of Russian life, governing will be easier. This is especially true after the fall of the Soviet Union, as Russian society lacks definitive structures and meaning. Beyond this, it is important to observe that the Russian Orthodox Church considers itself to be the only religion that should be allowed to operate in Russia, and will see any other religious activity as a threat against its position, and thus, the stability of “Holy Mother Russia.” The current relationship does bear some resemblance to the earlier-mentioned “symphonia” of the pre-Soviet church-state arrangement.

The fairly extreme position of the Russian Orthodox Church makes the presence of non-Orthodox religious spaces on the bustling section of Nevsky Prospekt between the Fontanka and the Neva interesting, if problematic. Despite the great power of the Russian Orthodox Church, there are minority religions operating freely on the central street of one of the most important Russian cities. Certainly, St. Petersburg has always been a special case in Russia, and non-Orthodox religions, such as Roman Catholicism, have been “present in St. Petersburg from its inception” (8). However, St. Petersburg has not been isolated from the dynamics present in Russia as a whole. During the Soviet period, the Lutheran Church of Saint Peter and Saint Paul, located opposite Kazan Cathedral, was the site of a swimming pool (Richardson, 71-73). St. Catherine’s Catholic Church, close to the Armenian Church and opposite Gostinyi Dvor, was ransacked in 1938 after its closing and was used in a variety of capacities until its return to its parishioners in 1992 (“A Summary of the Temple”).

The Lutheran Church of St. Peter and St. Paul was designed by Alexander Briullov and built from 1833-1837. The church provided a home to the sizable German Lutheran population of St. Petersburg, and managed other community services as well, including the Petrischule, a notable secondary school of St. Petersburg emphasizing the study of German language (History of the Church of St. Peter). As mentioned above, the Soviet period saw the church requisitioned for use as a swimming pool, a period of its history that is still visible in the structure of the church hall (History). In June 1993, the church was returned to the remaining Lutheran population of St. Petersburg. Today masses are offered in both German and Russian (History).

The Catholic Church of St. Catherine of Alexandria was designed by the architects Pietro Trezini and Jean-Baptiste Vallin de la Mothe, and was consecrated on October 7, 1783 (“A Summary of the Temple”). From its beginning, the church hosted a very international congregation comprised of Poles, Frenchmen, Germans, Italians, Lithuanians, Latvians, and Russians” (“Summary”). St. Catherine’s was a significant church in Eastern Europe, boasting many celebrated priests and housing the tombs of Polish kings Stanislaw August Poniatowski and Stanislaw Leszczynski, as well the head of the allied armies against Napoleon, General Jean Victor Moreau (“Summary”). On September 7, 1938, the church was closed by the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet of the RSFSR and ransacked, later being used as a storage space for the Museum of History of Religion and of Atheism located in Kazan Cathedral (History of St. Catherine’s Roman Catholic Parish). In February 1992, city authorities succumbed to public pressure and returned St. Catherine’s to Catholic hands (“Summary”). During the time St. Catherine’s was controlled by the state, two fires gutted it beyond recognition, and looting when it was initially closed down stripped it of much of its splendor (“Summary”). Today, the church has only about 600 members in its congregation, requiring masses to be offered in English, Russian, Polish, and French due to their ethnic composition (“Summary”).

Today, both churches take very similar approaches to commemorating their past and using it to direct their present activity. Approaching either from the street, there is little external commemoration of their histories aside from small plaques memorializing the dates of their construction and the names of their architects. In fact, the manner in which they are publicly identified through commemoration seems to suggest that the value of the buildings is artistic in nature, as two more attractive facades to add to the parade of buildings on Nevsky Prospekt. Furthermore, the churches tend to disappear into their surroundings, hardly noticeable except by deliberate effort. The front of St. Catherine’s Church is crowded and obscured by street vendors selling flowers, finished artwork, and street portraiture made to order. The Lutheran Church of St. Peter and St. Paul crouches behind a gate at the end of a short sidewalk off of Nevsky, past restaurants and bars and a sign commemorating the role of Germans in the history of St. Petersburg.

It seems wrong to think that there is any intention or malice in the reduced visual impact of these buildings. They seem to be hidden more by circumstance and casual disregard than by deliberate action. If anything, it appears as if they are hiding behind the bustle of Nevsky Prospekt, as concealed oases for those who already know where to find them. Most evidently, though, it is fairly clear that most who pass by on the street simply do not care that they exist, leaving them to squat unnoticed mere yards from their own daily activity space.

Mimicking this physical positioning on Nevsky Prospekt is the positioning of the parishes in cyberspace. The websites of both churches have limited accessibility, as St. Catherine’s is only available in Russian and the Lutheran Church’s only in Russian and German. This suggests that there is little to no thought paid to the potential of these churches as tourist or quasi-pilgrimage sites for those outside of their communities. They are little more than functioning parishes. There are sections on each site concerned with the history of the churches, but in both cases, these histories are brief. On the website for St. Catherine’s, the history section must be sought, and is not readily evident from the front page, crowded with stories about Pope Francis, minor saints and devotions, and the day-to-day activities of the parish: typical fare for any unremarkable church (St. Catherine Parish). Ultimately, the posture of both parishes in cyberspace is consistent with the unassuming posture they have in perceived physical space.

This positioning in the common mental landscape of Nevsky Prospekt is key to the manner in which the Lutheran Church and St. Catherine’s commemorate their history. Upon entering St. Catherine’s, the noise of Nevsky Prospekt quickly dies away and is replaced by the tranquility and modest grace of a typical urban Roman Catholic Church. At the threshold between the foyer and the church itself are a few plaques in both Cyrillic and Roman letters commemorating those who were buried in the church, as well as a short timeline of the Church’s history. This is all very similar to what is to be found online. However, in the midst of the renovated church are two memorials to the predations of the Soviet period. Both transepts house an altarpiece unaltered from its condition when the church was returned to its parishioners. There are a few words on each piece, but the visual impact of the crumbling piles of stone against the well-kept and gleaming church is powerful enough to provoke consideration of acts against religion of all creeds.

The Lutheran Church is home to a significantly more thorough commemoration project, perhaps due to its larger congregation. Throughout the building that contains meeting halls, classrooms, chapels, and the main church hall for its congregation are many posters, each about the height of a person, that tell the history of Germans in St. Petersburg, from their arrival at the behest of Peter the Great, through World War II, and all the way to today. These posters are in either Russian or German, suggesting an internal focus to the commemoration once again. Perhaps most importantly, though the main church hall has been significantly renovated, with seating, an altar, and a band area, the stands remain from the church’s days as a swimming pool. Additionally, the acoustics of the space have been forever altered by its former use, creating a somewhat jarring disconnect between the matter of a church service and the ambience of an indoor swimming pool.

In the case of both churches, commemoration occurs internally and is similarly directed internally, allowing commemoration to continue without impediment from a Russian Orthodox Church at the elbow of the Russian Government. The history of the community can be transmitted within community with the privacy granted to the communities by remaining externally silent. Such a subtle approach to charged memories of repression grants non-Orthodox Christian sects in St. Petersburg the latitude to continue to practice their faiths how they choose. Though the situation might, perhaps, be different in another city, or in the provinces, the minority religious communities of St. Petersburg are able to keep memory most vibrant by keeping it quiet, and they continue to add to the varied cultural makeup of St. Petersburg, as they have since their foundation.

Works cited

Religion and Atheism in Soviet Russia: The Search for a Cultural Narrative (Aaron Buzek)

Soviet religious policy is highly representative of the reactionary and contradictory spirit of Russian history. The search for a cohesive Russian cultural identity has been plagued by the struggle between east and west, past and future, and what is considered truly Russian (or in this case Soviet) and what is a seen as a threat to their nation. In order to understand the place of religion in Soviet Russia one must examine the respective cultural value both before and after the October Revolution of 1917. In investigating this dichotomy, one can begin to understand the difficulty surrounding the search for a cohesive cultural identity: a search that has been raging throughout the history of Russia.

Before the revolution and Bolshevik rule, religion was of paramount importance in Russia; the morality and everyday actions of people were highly influenced by religious belief. This private spiritual and moral sway of religion was not the only influence on Russian life, though. Orthodox Christianity’s influence on society as a whole must also be noted to fully understand the impact of Soviet religious policy.

A cursory glance at the skyline of Saint Petersburg is all that is needed to impart the feeling that religion is a major facet of Russian society. Saint Isaac’s and the spire of Peter and Paul Cathedral rise above the rest of the low-lying city and frequent walks down Nevsky Prospect presents the magnificent structures of Kazan Cathedral and The Church on Spilled Blood. Each and every church was extraordinary in its own way, both inside and out. A phenomenal amount of money, in addition to artistic and architectural innovation, was poured into the construction of Russia’s many churches. Churches were one of the status symbols of the Tsars, a way to show their might and wealth, as well as a way to contribute to the cultural development of their society.

File:Kazan Cathedral, St. Petersburg, Russia.jpg

Kazan Cathedral: Later used to house the Museum of Atheism in Leningrad (Source: Joe North, Wikimedia Creative Commons 2.0)

Despite the omnipresence of religion, the Bolsheviks, and their ideological forefathers, believed that religion was inherently incompatible with their version of socialism. To Marx, religion was an ‘opiate’ that kept the masses blind to their suffering and enslavement under the capitalist yoke (Marx 1). They believed that it undermined their core values of science and technological progress and hindered their movement away from the backward tendencies of Tsarist Russia. Essentially religion was in direct contradiction to the cultural narrative that the Soviets were working to introduce. From its onset, the Soviet government mandated the complete separation of church and state. Starting in the 1920s, the Soviet government began what would become a long, drawn-out, and ultimately unsuccessful struggle to suppress religion and promote atheism, a key component of the new Soviet identity.

In the beginning, the efforts of the state to suppress religion were masked under the guise of societal healing, not so much in a purely anti-religious manner. In 1923, the government looted a great number of churches, taking with them uncountable, irreplaceable religious artifacts. This was done under the pretense of helping the starving—this was an effective and intelligent strategy, as protest by the churches or followers would appear to be greedy and unwilling to help the needy (Lebina 43). The actual role that these artifacts played in feeding the poor, however, is not entirely clear. Regardless, this action sent a clear message to the religious community: the wellbeing of society trumps that of religion. In addition to these actions, the government secularized marriage and death, and no religious holidays were officially recognized or supported by the state, although they were replaced by days of rest throughout the country(41). The secularization of these prominent cultural events was a powerful first step in replacing the religious aspect of society with the new Soviet narrative.

The strength bestowed to the community by religious holidays spurred the government to develop a campaign which targeted these traditions. The state sponsored “Komsomol” Christmas and Easter, which responded to local religious celebrations with atheist propaganda and a mocking view of the celebrations that threatened the centralization desired by the state (Lebina 44). The Komsomol push was unsuccessful, though, because much of the importance of these celebrations for the religious lay in the tradition and actions of the people. The state revamped its attempts at secularization by hosting celebrations completely separate from the holidays at clubs. This was an attempt to entice believers away from celebrating religious holidays. In addition to these parties, marches and parades were organized to promote atheism among the youth (45-47).

At the end of the 1920s there was a noticeable shift in the state’s attitude toward religion. It began to remove religious holidays and replace them with Soviet holidays. Eventually this culminated in the abolition of Christmas and even New Year’s celebrations (though the latter was revoked in 1947). Christmas and New Year’s trees were made illegal and random raids were conducted to ensure obedience to the new law (Lebina 59). These actions against the two biggest Russian holidays were a huge step in the Soviet’s attempt to rewrite the Russian cultural narrative. These sweeping reforms greatly decreased the active and open religious participation of a large quantity of the population.

Collectivization of public life also furthered the suppression of religion. No religious symbology, i.e. icons, were allowed in common areas of collective housing, and people were frequently mocked for publically performing religious rituals. Food rations had a similar effect. The limited food supply available to the majority of the population prevented them from preparing special holiday foods (Lebina 57). Finally, the introduction of an uninterrupted work week limited workers’ free time (55). Having Sunday as the only day off discouraged people from attending church and made celebrating holidays much more cumbersome and challenging.

There was a revival of religion throughout the USSR despite the introduction of these measures meant to suppress religious activity and belief (although it is important to note that tens of thousands of believers and clergymen were sent to the gulags during this time period). This restoration was due to the outbreak of World War II. Stalin used religion to unite the Soviet people and instill a sense of hope during a dark time. This relative lull in persecution lasted for the rest of Stalin’s rule, until 1953. However, during Khrushchev’s time in power and the period of de-Stalinization, there was a significant and intense revival of antireligious activity (Stone 297). By 1964, the number of operating churches, monasteries, and clergymen was roughly halved by the government(Lebina 81). Monasteries were the first target of the antireligious campaign, because they had no legal representation and were relatively removed from the public eye.  The state closed down numerous monasteries across the Soviet Union and prevented anyone younger than 30 joining a monastery (Shkarovskii 74). The latter measure is exemplary of many antireligious actions by the government because of its focus on preventing young people from becoming religious.

After the attack on the monasteries, the government turned its attention to the churches. The government initiated widespread tax hikes on churches and candle-making studios (a significant monetary supply for churches), as well as drastically cutting priest’s pay: this was an attempt to run churches into the ground economically (Shakrovskii 75). Additionally, churches had to register with the Council for Religious Affairs (CRA). The CRA was intended as a mediator between the church and state, as an enforcer of legislation regarding religious activity. This neutrality was a complete façade, as the CRA supported atheism and allowed regional authorities under their command to operate relatively independent of the law, with few checks on their activities. Although the main mission of the CRA was to provide administration to religious bodies, they also exercised control over atheist propaganda and had a substantial influence in developing legislation (Anderson 1).

In the final days of 1958, the government raided church libraries and fenced off and appropriated holy sites throughout the Soviet Union. Beginning in 1959, the government responded to outcry from the Church and allowed religious authorities to host an international convention of Orthodox Churches. However, due to prior weakening of the Russian Orthodox Church, the rest of the Orthodox community decided that these leaders were unfit for their duties (Shkarovskii 72-73).

This failed experiment substantially weakened the Orthodox Church’s position in Russian society and allowed the government to make further inroads against them. The government prohibited a good deal of churches from opening and increased KGB presence among the faithful. The government’s attempts to limit religious influence would prove to be futile as early as 1960, when a substantially higher proportion of Russians attended Easter service. One Muscovite noted that churches in Moscow were overflowing, forcing some attendees to stand outside the physical church (Shkarovskii 78). The state responded by introducing a much more vicious head of the CRA and closing more churches. Local police were encouraged to ignore acts of vandalism against churches and violence against church-goers.

Closure and limitation of theological schools, as well as additional tax hikes, took place in 1961. Now the Russian people were truly beginning to stir against these measures and took matters into their own hands by gathering data on persecution to use as a bargaining chip and founding underground churches, collectively known as the True Orthodox Church. The state made a final push in 1964, beginning intense atheistic schooling and increased the propaganda present in school. These measures were concentrated mostly in rural Russia, which was viewed as backward and primitive, the antithesis to the highly industrialized and technologically advanced picture that Soviet leaders had for their society (Stone 300-301). Science was emphasized over the belief in the supernatural and it became illegal to expose children and adolescents to religion or any religious thought (Stone 302).

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League of Militant Atheists Membership Card (Source: Anonymous Author, Wikimedia Creative Commons)

These measures were based on several factors including economic socialization and general control, both of which were seen to be undermined by religious belief. The international climate and pressure from abroad was also an important factor, and at the end of 1964, this pressure became enough to force the government to lay off significantly in their antireligious campaign. This shift between the 60s-70s and the late stage of Soviet rule can be seen in the presentation of the antireligious message in the Museum of Atheism in Leningrad. As late as 1974, the museum focused on the darkest side of religion, such as religious suppression and backwardness. A significant portion of the museum was dedicated to displaying numerous torture instruments used in religious persecutions such as the Spanish Inquisition. In 1981 a western visitor noticed that these exhibits were completely gone, and the general tone of the museum was much more subtle (Elliot 128). This exemplifies the shift from the Khrushchev era to the later stage of the Soviet Union. The state’s blatant and intense attacks against religion were unsuccessful and invited significant negative attention from abroad, resulting in a significantly toned down message. As the Soviet Union’s push to change the cultural identity began to falter (most seen in perestroika and glasnost) it was deemed necessary to begin cutting losses in an effort to recover ground the state had lost in the second half of the 20th century. This notably manifested itself in greater religious freedom and less influence from the government in this sphere of life.

Beginning in the mid-1960s there was a substantial movement toward protecting churches and old religious sites in the name of conserving history. This movement was also urged on by a desire for more tourism, positive international attention, and a more subtle presentation of atheism. This movement of religious persecution, from beginning to end, was eventually unsuccessful. Though there was a substantial decrease in churches and overt religious practice, the devout simply responded by practicing religion in a more private way. Now, in the post-Soviet era, there is a general trend toward increased religiousness, and there is also a general reluctance to identify oneself as an atheist (Kublitskaia 51).

In their search for a cultural identity and narrative, the Russian people have followed a winding, convoluted path. From the westernization effort of Peter the Great to the revival of the ‘true’ Russian spirit of rural peasant culture, to the battle between the intelligentsia and the church and government, Russia has never been able to maintain a true identity. In their great experiment, the Soviets tried to manifest their own identity, but it ultimately proved weak and groundless. Twenty years after the fall of the Soviet Union, the modern nation of Russia is still struggling to define itself. The church has made a huge comeback, finding great support from the government and a significant portion of the population. It is seen as a part of that evasive concept of something that is ‘truly Russian’. The Russian people are again attending church in large numbers. While I was in Russia, I got a lot of support for wearing my baptismal crucifix; I felt that many of the Russians who reacted to this were pleased to see an American supporting the Orthodox Church.

Although widespread support for the church is returning, it is certainly presenting itself in a contradictory manner. Russia wishes to present itself as a progressive, modern democracy, yet it steadfastly suppresses the gay community and carries out clearly partisan attacks on Putin’s challengers (most notably the recent actions against Alexei Navalny). It is worth noting that the church is one of the main proponents of the anti-gay stance that has been taken by the government. Clearly, Russia has not yet discovered its own cultural identity, and it is hard to see that happening any time in the near future. Russia’s cultural narrative may very well be a perpetual search for one.

Works Cited 

Souvenirs (Shannon Callinan)

Souvenirs are an integral but easily overlookable aspect of a culture, defining not just how others view a society, but how that society views itself and chooses to present itself to its citizens and the world. As a general rule, souvenirs represent the intersection of these two views – they show not just what foreign visitors are willing to buy (and, thus, how these items represent foreign opinions on a certain culture), they represent what native vendors are willing to sell (and, thus, they show how a particular culture might represent itself).

The most obvious impact on what sorts of souvenirs are sold is what a tourist is willing to buy – like all businesses, the souvenir sellers need to make money. From the buyer’s end, a souvenir is a mark of authenticity, proof that they actually visited a given place (Brown and Turley, 17). It also acts as a visual reminder – a sort of memory aid – of the trip (Belk, 32). It must therefore remind the tourist of the trip, either by having some sort of great memory attached to it or by being somehow representative of the place visited. An ordinary spoon, for example, fails to demonstrate the cultural gap between the home and the destination; it might have been bought anywhere, and so it fails to act as a reminder of the unique differences experienced while abroad (Hitchcock, 4). Suppose, however, one has a painted (or khokhloma) spoon. These are made out of light wood, rather than metal; they are often brightly colored, with golden handles and red-and-gold floral designs against a black bowl, rather than monochrome silver.  Such spoons are out of the ordinary; having one on display forces one to remember where the spoon was bought, and, by association, it brings up related memories of the journey. Further, since souvenirs are frequently given as gifts to family and friends who did not come along, they must evoke the visited culture to those who may have very little actual experience of it. This creates a level of stereotyping in souvenir buying – if, when one thinks of Russian souvenirs, one thinks of matryoshki, one is going to buy matryoshki to remind oneself and one’s friends of Russia (Graburn, xiii). This leads to the perpetuation of the matryoshka-Russia association, which then influences others to buy them as souvenirs (Brown and Turley, 18). In this way, the preconceived notions of a culture or country greatly impact what sorts of souvenirs a tourist is likely to buy when visiting.

Khokhloma spoons

Khokhloma spoons. Source: Finding Frenchie

Sellers perpetuate this cycle. Since they know that tourists expect certain kinds of souvenirs, many sellers have shaped their goods to fit tourist expectations (Belk 38). Even if similar goods are sold to both tourists and locals, the tourist items will be different (if only subtly) because of this attempt to appeal to foreign tastes (Hitchcock, 11). Further, knowing that the buyers will have certain restrictions on what sorts of goods they can bring home (for example, size limits on airplanes), goods are often modified to fit the practical needs of tourists (Graburn, xiii). As an example, Mariia Girgor’evna Chereiskaia notes that the ceramics made in the town of Skopin in the Riazan region of Russia have gotten smaller over time in order to comply with modern tastes and the requirements of traveling (Chereiskaia).

Nonetheless, souvenirs are not solely indicative of tourists’ tastes, with sellers one-sidedly kowtowing to the needs and desires of buyers. Nelson H. Graburn characterizes them as a physical pidgin language, a simplification that allows intercultural communication. Just as pidgins take input from both languages, souvenirs are shaped by the cultures of both buyer and seller. The sellers and producers draw not only on stereotypes of the tourists and what they think tourists will want, but also on their own social taboos and customs (Grabin, xiii).

St Petersburg Market

Center for the Support of the Arts of St. Petersburg. Source: Scott99

Like most major cities, St. Petersburg and Moscow are peppered with souvenir shops – most of them small, crowded stores filled with overpriced goods. These are not the most popular places for tourists to buy their souvenirs. Instead, most seem to go to the outdoor markets – the Center for the Support of the Arts of St. Petersburg (Tsentr Podderzhki Iskusstv Sankt-Peterburga) near the Church on Spilled Blood in St. Petersburg, or the Ismailovo souvenir market in Moscow. These markets offer an invaluable opportunity to observe the meaning of souvenirs in Russian culture. At a basic level, the interactions between vendors and tourists, and the range of goods being sold has implications for Russian nationalism. Focusing more on souvenirs, the genre of Soviet memorabilia indicates contemporary attitudes towards USSR. Finally, more specifically, the existence and style of a particular series of matryoshka dolls can shed light on modern Russian stereotyping of Jewish people.

Many vendors play up the authenticity of their goods. Looking at a lacquer box, for example, will elicit a lecture from the vendor on the art form itself, the significance of Palekh, Kholuy, Fedosinko, or Mstyora (the four main centers of lacquer box production (Chereskaia)), an explanation of the fairy tale or scene painted on it, and a run down of the more popular motifs. Most vendors have magnifying glasses on hand, to show buyers the subtle differences in quality between similar boxes or their authentic handmade provenance. This sort of behavior extends beyond lacquer boxes – sellers of Soviet memorabilia often explain to potential buyers the background of a pin or medal (always with assurances that these items are real, and had been given to actual people in the USSR – that they are neither replicas nor surpluses). One vendor at Izmailovo advertised his stall by shouting, in both English and Russian, that his goods were not Chinese-made. This all makes good business sense – tourists typically look for locally produced goods from the country visited, as opposed to cheap, mass-produced goods made specifically for tourists (Bunn, 182). Thus, by specifically advertising authenticity, souvenir vendors can expect to sell more goods.

Nevertheless, there are some nationalistic undertones that cannot be explained by good salesmanship alone. Many of the historical lectures I received came after my purchase had been finalized – especially in Izmailovo. At this point, there was no real need for vendors to pitch their goods to me; I could not exactly ask for a refund at that point, and referrals, especially in Izmailovo, would be next to impossible – the whole market is so immense, so devoid of signs or real landmarks, that it would be immensely difficult for even the most satisfied of customers to direct a friend to a specific stall. Further, during their lectures on authenticity, many vendors were quick to give out potentially negative information. One used a magnifying glass to point out the difference in paint quality and materials in lacquer boxes as an explanation for price differences. There was no attempt to upsell, just a genuine explanation about why some boxes are objectively better than others. This all implies a love of the items being sold and the histories behind them beyond what would be strictly necessary to get a sale.

The discounts given also indicated Russian nationalistic pride. Generally, the souvenir markets are open to haggling. Decent discounts can be had by mentioning a lack of money, or status as a student, or even just by suggesting a lower price. Better bargains, though, are had by tying oneself to the area. Attempting to speak in Russian, for example, is one of the easiest ways to get money knocked off; saying that one is a student at a specific local university (St. Petersburg State or Moscow State, in my case) is just as good. This indicates a level of national – or perhaps local – pride. Those who identify themselves as insiders by using rubles, speaking Russian, or attending local schools are treated preferentially to the outsiders, who pay in dollars or Euros, make no attempt to speak Russian, and have often been bussed in by a travel agency. Thus, one can conclude that the vendors’ behavior indicates a general sense of national pride in modern Russia.

Beyond the behavior of the vendors themselves, the actual items for sale indicate a great deal about Russian attitudes. One of the more common ‘genres’ of Russian souvenirs is Soviet memorabilia: cups and t-shirts with the sickle and star or hammer and sickle, mugs and coasters bearing transparencies of Soviet realist paintings and propaganda, even actual Soviet-era artifacts such as military uniforms, medals, pins, etc. The vast majority of these items paint the Soviet Union in a generally positive light. The uniforms and medals, for example, call upon the image of the noble, heroic soldier, a war-hero, someone who fought for his homeland. Medals are almost exclusively positive icons – they celebrate some desirable trait, like dedication, or sacrifice for the higher good, or being particularly productive. Uniforms and associated paraphernalia likewise indicate a positive outlook – these are items meant to be used and worn (greatcoats, for example, seem more common than full uniforms; all-purpose bags were more common than highly specific military equipment). The presence of these items indicate not just that tourists are willing to buy them – vendors have to be willing to sell things that may glorify the Soviet Union. Germans, for example, would probably never stand for SS greatcoats being sold in public, right next to a building destroyed by the Nazis. Yet in St. Petersburg, Soviet greatcoats and medals are sold in the shadow of a church that had been looted and closed by that very regime.

It is not as though there would not be a market for goods that showcased the negatives of Soviet rule – ration cards, internal passports, or other ‘negative’ memorabilia would probably sell fairly well, especially to tourists from countries on the ‘other side’ of the Cold War. Instead, the overwhelming majority of Soviet-related souvenirs were positive, or, at the very least, neutral in terms of their message. There were hundreds of Soviet-era pins, all highlighting some national achievement: performance in the Olympics, anniversaries of certain major events, even technical achievement, for example a series of pins celebrating Soviet cars throughout history. These all point to a positive picture of life in the Soviet Union, one where there was consistent and important national progress. Scholar Svetlana Boym has argued that there is a trend in Russia today towards a nostalgic sense of longing for the communist era as an era of normalcy and stability, and a general dismissal or minimalization of the regime’s flaws (Boym, 58). Thus, the Soviet items for sale perhaps convey the idea that modern Russians have positive – or at worst neutral – feelings towards the Soviet government.

Even individual souvenirs can indicate attitudes in a country or region. In this case, one particular model of matryoshka doll can indicate Russian attitudes towards Jewish people. These particular matryoshki pop up just as often as any other style of doll – that is to say, they cannot be found in every souvenir stall, but about half of them carried at least one version of the doll. They vary in size and seemed to have a few basic styles, all based heavily on anti-Semitic stereotypes. The outermost doll is a man with a large nose, ruddy cheeks, beady eyes with almost effeminate lashes, a black hat, and, of course, peyos and a beard. He either has a Star of David printed on his beard, or is playing a violin. The internal nesting dolls, although they vary in order and style between sets, are similarly stereotypical: a man engrossed in a book, or an old woman holding a loaf of challah. The innermost doll is always either a young boy with a yarmulke and peyos or a baby wrapped in the Israeli flag. While there is no overt malice present in the designs of these dolls, there is a definite air of an intensely stereotyped view of Jewish people.

Cheap Matryoshki Good Matryoshki

Cheaper matryoshki, top. Source: Reuters. More detailed matryoshki, bottom. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

On their own, of course, the dolls do not indicate much about actual attitudes. The souvenir markets had numerous matryoshki meant to appeal only to tourists, decorated with American political leaders, sports teams, famous bands, even popular fictional characters. There were also numerous ‘shock-value’ matryoshki – one contained Osama Bin Laden, Saddam Hussein, and Adolf Hitler, among others. These dolls, however, were significantly different stylistically from the more traditional matryoshki – specifically, they were more cheaply made. The traditional dolls were painted on all sides in bright colors; the more tourist-oriented dolls tended to be painted only on one side, the other half or three-quarters of the doll was left as plain wood. The quality of painting was much higher on the traditional dolls – even the cheaper ones were more visually appealing than the non-traditional dolls. In this way, quality can be used as an indicator of whose views the matryoshki most clearly align with – higher-quality dolls tend to reflect traditional Russian attitudes and themes, while poorly made matryoshki tend to be intended solely for tourist consumption, and therefore reflect themes tourists might find interesting.

If the Jewish dolls were solely meant to appeal to tourists, one would expect that they would follow the trend of being low-quality. Instead, they are quite well-made. The dolls are painted all around, with extensive detail on all sides; the details themselves are intricate – everything is hand-painted on them, from the shine on glasses, to the wrinkle of fabric near buttons, to the seeds on challah. This strongly indicates that these dolls are aligned more with the traditional matryoshki; rather than being cheaply mass-produced with the minimal quality needed to sell, pride and care have been taken in their creation. This, in turn, implies that their design represents at least to an extent how Jewish people are viewed, or at least the prevalence of traditional stereotypes.

Souvenirs alone cannot reveal everything about a culture or its attitudes, but they provide an introduction to that culture. Russian souvenirs are no exception. By examining the behavior of the vendors in the markets themselves, one can see a strong undercurrent of nationalistic pride, as evidenced in their behavior towards the items they sell and their preferential treatment of customers who make an attempt to use the Russian language and align themselves with Russian educational institutions. Looking at the souvenir genre of Soviet memorabilia reveals contemporary attitudes towards the USSR that tend towards positive or, at the very least, ambivalent. Even examining individual goods, like the Jewish matryoshka dolls, can indicate the presence of certain attitudes – in this case, an acceptance of Jewish stereotypes. To the observant tourist, a trip down to the local souvenir market can be as culturally educational as any museum tour.


Works Cited


The Curious Case of the kommunalka (Taylor Lain)

The Soviet era was a time of massive change for Russia. This was especially true for the nation’s economy, which, primarily through the efforts of Vladimir I. Lenin and Joseph Stalin, transformed itself into what was essentially a defective manufacturing machine (Gerschenkron, 146). Under the New Economic Policy (NEP), some agricultural land and many businesses, notably those involved in banking, military industry, heavy industry, transportation, and foreign commerce, were nationalized and the kommunalki began to appear in places like Moscow and St. Petersburg to support the ever-increasing influx of people into the cities. Government-monopolized businesses also built their own dormitory-style communal living spaces to provide their workers with sources of housing (Colgate University). While these spaces allowed the Soviet government to subsidize the living costs of residents to almost nominal fees and went a long way to ease the financial burden of living for its citizens, the quick and shoddy construction of these buildings caused the living conditions within them to be cramped, pitiful, and extremely unclean (Colgate University). Families were not given nearly enough space to carry out their daily routines. For example, in the film Bed and Sofa (Tret’ia Meshchanska) Nikolai washed himself in the salon using water from a samovar and a bucket, as he lacked an actual bathroom. Flies, trash, and human waste in common areas were constant problems (Rubenshtein). This was especially true for those separate apartments in the khrushchoby (“Khrushchev slums”) built during the mid-1950s and 1960s under

Khrushchev (Boym 125, Colgate University).collectivized under the government. While some farming and certain “light” industries in consumer goods and services, textiles, chemicals, and the like remained partially privatized under the NEP, Stalin’s multiple subsequent Five-Year Plans eventually placed all of these under “the people’s” control (Curtis). New factories, which required enormous amounts of supplies and manpower to function, sprang up all over Russia. However, because of the nation’s past reliance on farming and the tenuous economic stability that serfdom provided in small towns and rural villages, much of the population lived in the countryside (Gerschenkron, 154-155). With more and more job opportunities popping up in the manufacturing plants of major cities, the nation underwent a tremendous demographic shift to urban areas. Unfortunately, at the time urban immigration could not be accommodated by city residences. The government began to place tight restrictions on and divide up what were originally one-family dwellings into multiple family accommodations (Starecheski, 174). These new and dramatically undersized government-owned communal apartments were known as kommunalki.

On top of the poor living conditions in which urban Soviet citizens found themselves, many residents had to cope with the many regulations and restrictions on Soviet residency. In order to even be eligible for housing, it was necessary to register with the local city government and obtain a residency permit, otherwise known as a propiska (Colgate University). These propiski, which Russian citizens were given along with their birth certificates and which would change along with their passports, began originally as a way for the government to track places of residence. Eventually, they became a way for citizens to be permitted or denied housing, and they also determined from where one would receive daycare and schooling services for children, rations, and the like (Colgate University). Once the permits were obtained, housing clerks who worked for district housing bureaus, regional housing administrations, or communal management departments in major cities would allot specific amounts of space to individuals based on their professions, medical conditions, stipulations outlined by the federal and local governments, and oftentimes their own whims. These allotments ranged from about five to nine square meters of free space (Colgate University). It was rare for a family to receive more than its given space to live—this occurred typically only with high-ranking intellectuals who aided the Soviet government, or apparatchiks (Boym, 129)—and there existed many restrictions regarding the consolidation or separation of space in communal apartments (Brodsky). For instance, stipulations outlined that families could not erect walls within their own apartments because it gave them more rooms than they were assigned, despite the fact that the amount of space they “owned” would not change (Brodsky).

It was difficult, if not impossible, to move or better one’s living conditions. One could move within their own city fairly easily, so long as residency permits were altered accordingly, but one could not receive permission to live outside of their city without proof that he had already been given a job in that new area; and jobs in other cities would typically not be assigned without a propiska from that new city (Colgate University). As such, the primary means of bettering one’s circumstances was through establishing new connections (often through influence via marriage or favors, known as blat), achieving some higher office in a white collar profession, or volunteering for extremely hard labor in some undesirable position and being granted dormitory housing by a state-run business (Colgate University).

In general, Soviet leaders used kommunalki and the housing system, in conjunction with a strengthening of the nation’s passport system, as tactics to control the USSR’s urban population (Boym, 129; Harris, 584). The fact that housing was subsidized influenced many Soviet citizens to regard the government as a protective provider, making them more willing to obey its multitude of inane housing regulations without question and simply try to work the system as much as possible to better their individual circumstances (Colgate University). And this likely prevented many people from questioning other actions taken by the government during this time. This not-so-subtle and yet disguised governmental control exercised a considerable amount of influence over the cultural development of Russia during the Communist period (Harris 584).  In a manner of speaking, the aim of the Soviet regime during this time was to force upon the population a utopian ideology through a dramatic redefinition of the conceptualization of space. This began with Lenin’s original plan to distribute spatial area to each person and family based on a geometric definition of equality rather than an idea of the necessity of private space; so long as each person received their allotted area, nothing about the area mattered—its design, its location, and whether or not the room was isolated from the surroundings were irrelevant (Boym, 124-125). As more and more people were crammed into irregularly arranged plots within kommunalki, their lives suddenly became public, and they suffered from the lack of privacy that came with living in such close quarters with so many other families (Boym, 125; Rubenshtein). While at best a single person could live with around ten other occupants of different social classes, as Joseph Brodsky did during his early years, it was not uncommon for groups of twenty-five to one hundred people to live in the same kommunalka. People knew their neighbors much more intimately than they desired. For instance, Lev Rubenshtein, in his essay “Communal Pulp Fiction,” could recount for his readers minute details about his neighbors’ sexual practices, drinking habits, hopes and dreams, occupations (or lack thereof), and interpersonal relations. It was extremely difficult to have guests over, especially when they could be kicked out by one’s neighbors after eleven at night. Some people would occasionally walk into the rooms of their neighbors unannounced, while others would lie in the hallways, causing their neighbors to trip over them (Rubenshtein).

These conditions created an entirely new community atmosphere and “social order” out of the kommunalka, which, as Rubenshtein explains, was like a town in and of itself. Citizens began to grudgingly (or perhaps unconsciously, as new generations were born into the

Soviet era) accept the Soviet collective mentality. Utopian terms such as “places of communal use” and “mutual responsibility” became commonplace among the people, who regarded them with simultaneous feelings of pride and disgust (Boym, 123-124). However, in many cases there was no sense of community loyalty; one’s neighbors could not necessarily be trusted, as many would be willing to act as snitches and report small housing offenses to the government for benefits or praise (Rubenshtein). And if this constant surveillance was not enough, there were always the regular check-ups made by the superintendents of each apartment building and the janitors, or dvorniki, installed by the Soviet Housing Committee to ensure that housing regulations were upheld (Boym, 129; Bed and Sofa).

Yet despite all of the complaints that people could make about the Soviet communal living system, it seems that some people in the modern post-Soviet age miss it. Before I traveled to Russia this summer on the St. Petersburg trip, all I could simply do was wonder how. One day, in conversation with my host mother, I asked her about kommunalki, assuming that she had lived in one at some point in her life. She told me that she had never actually lived in what she would define as a kommunalka, although she knew many people who did. But she explained that those filthy, jammed apartments were what many people called home. That, in her opinion, was what these people truly missed. Generations upon generations were born and raised in communal environments, and as they grow older and watch Russia attempt to take its place in the materialistic modern world, they look back to the past and long to return to the “traditional” family values and ties of their youth. A set of interviews by journalist Brigid McCarthy with two former Soviet citizens corroborated my host mother’s sentiments. One of the two interviewees, Valentina Baskina, described her childhood experience as one that was uncomfortable but tolerable because there was nothing to which she could compare it (McCarthy). She grew up around many friends in a place where children were a collective responsibility, and she cherished the memories of her old life (McCarthy). The other interviewee, Andrei Barbje, described his childhood as one he enjoyed and missed when his family finally moved into a larger apartment in 1978 (McCarthy). He learned to respect and consider the impact of his actions on others from the residents of his kommunalka, who, as he explained, established detailed sets of communal rules and spent holidays together to unify the many families in the apartment (McCarthy). Children of the Soviet period made the most out of what they were given: they could invite friends over to play; they

listened to stories about the former lives of elders living in their apartments, who were anything and everything from artisans to soldiers to intellectuals; and, with the inspiration of Soviet cartoons such as “A Communal Story” by Alexsei Shelmanov, they could daydream and make up adventures of their own with the meager resources they had. It made sense how older Russian generations, those former Soviet citizens, could have fond memories of these times, despite the conditions in which they lived.

As my conversations with local Russians revealed, and, oddly enough, through non-Soviet foreign films such as the French Les Poupées Russes, many people still live in kommunalki today. However, those who do, it seems, tend to be either older or unable to afford a single-family apartment of their own. While the living conditions within these apartments have improved considerably since the fall of the Soviet regime, there exists a stigma associated with the idea of communal living amongst younger, post-Soviet-born generations. For instance, when we asked our twenty two-year-old language instructor at Moscow State University whether or not she had or currently lived in a kommunalka, she responded with a harsh “no” and a look of disgust. It is difficult to explain such a negative attitude towards the kommunalki among the youth. Is it a simple response to the unhygienic and far-too-public environment of the communal apartment, or is it something more? Could it perhaps be revulsion towards aforementioned Soviet ideals and an acceptance of Western materialism and the idea of the necessity of private space as opposed to the public sphere?

With that said, one major question remains: how will the kommunalki and the institution of communal living develop in the future? Their time has already passed, their popularity peaked. They are diminishing in number, and at this point, modern-day Russia and its citizens are left with a choice: are they to eliminate them entirely and remove the anomalous blending of public and private space that so reminds them of the constant eye of communism? Or are they to preserve them as historical monuments, or even as viable future housing options? Right now, so soon after the fall of the Soviet regime, it is hard to say. Russia is still trying to stabilize itself and identify its place amongst the world’s powers, as well as adjust to and balance with their own traditional family values the materialistic culture of Western influences. Only time will tell at this point, but I personally hope they keep at least a few around, for they stand as a testament to human cooperation, perseverance, and tolerance of severe governmental encroachment on individual rights that should never be forgotten.

Works cited


The Hare and the Flood: Forces of Nature at Work in St. Petersburg (Jessica Parks)

On the way out to Peter and Paul Fortress, along Ioannovsky Bridge, a 58-centimeter high statue of a rabbit stands on one of the pilings in the water. Marks on the piling indicate the height of some of the floods that inundated St. Petersburg in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. This monument, referred to as “The Hare Escaping Flooding,” stands for the people and animals that perished in such floods ( Other than this scanty information, the origins of this whimsical statue remain largely a mystery. Made from a mixture of selumine and aluminum (“Unusual Monuments in St. Petersburg”), it was placed in 2003 during one of the many renovations of Ioannovsky Bridge ( Not much information about the sculptor exists other than his name–V. Petrovichiev (BaikalNature). This statue, however enigmatic, connects to larger concepts in Russian history and culture–for example, the impact of flooding in St. Petersburg, as well as the prevalence of the hare in Russian culture as a symbolic figure. The reactions of people to this statue reflect its small stature and whimsical nature.

The broader location of the statue has much significance. Ioannovsky Bridge, as its many renovations indicate, is the oldest bridge in the city, and was built in the same year as the city itself, if not exactly in its present location (St. Petersburg Encyclopedia). Ioannovsky Bridge extends to Peter and Paul
Fortress, the point of origin for the city. The island upon which Peter and Paul Fortress stands is known as “Hare Island” (Zayachy Ostrov) due to the large number of hares that used to live there ( A local legend ties these components together: during a flood, one of the hares from the island supposedly jumped into Peter the Great’s boat to avoid the rising waters ( The statue symbolizes this legend quite well; the hare statue stands on a piling that rises far above the rest. Thus, this decade-old statue not only sits in the oldest part of St. Petersburg, but it also ties together the significance of the sites around it.

Beyond this basic legend regarding Peter the Great, hares have enjoyed a long and deep cultural symbolism in Russian history. Hares appeared frequently in Russian animal tales as a “cowardly animal.” As with all other animals in stories, storytellers used stock phrases to refer to hares, such as “the hare who runs away,” “the little gray fellow,” or “the rascally hare” (Sokolov, 436). The hare certainly lived up to these characterizations in folktales; for example, in a tale entitled “Who is More Cowardly Than the Hare?,” a hare on the verge of drowning himself due to his cowardliness chose not to after observing that a frog was afraid of him (Haney, 63). In another tale, “The Fox, the Hare, and the Cock,” a fox living in an ice house drove out a hare living in a bark house when the ice house melted. The hare sat around in despair, until a cock came and drove out the fox with a scythe (Gerber, 28). Hares were not always simply cowards, however; as the phrase “the rascally hare” suggests, hares could also act swiftly and trickily. In the tale “The Fox and the Hare,” the hare is “poor in strength, [but] he’s frisky at running and full of youthful pranks” (Haney, 33). This tricky nature of the hare was not necessarily negative; as noted by Russian folktale scholar Vladimir Propp,

“Trickery presupposes the dominance of the crafty over the stupid or simple. From our point of view, trickery is morally reprehensible. In animal tales, on the contrary, it arouses delight, as a form of expression of dominance of the weak over the strong” (Propp, 298). Trickery, in other words, formed an essential part of survival and therefore did not necessarily appear as a negative quality. Thus, the legend regarding the hare who jumped into Peter the Great’s boat follows the tradition of Russian folk tales. Elements of the legend may have even stemmed from the symbolism in Russian folk tales. The hare may have jumped into Peter the Great’s boat out of cowardice, but the statue celebrates the “rascally hare’s” instinct to survive.

These characteristics associated with hares–trickery, cowardice, fleetness–have endured up to the present. One example of the “rascally hare” appeared in the Soviet children’s cartoon Nu, Pogodi!, which followed the adventures of a wolf attempting to capture and presumably eat a hare. While this show bears some comparison with the American cartoon Tom and Jerry, the characters of the wild hungry wolf and the tricky hare conceivably could have been drawn from old Russian folk tales. Other more negative examples of the hare as a coward rather than a trickster have occurred more recently. In 2009, a series of “hare” protests occurred in St. Petersburg in response to increased local transportation fees. The term “hare” (zayats) has become slang for a person who uses public transport without paying by dodging the fees (Chernov). The forty or so protestors wore hare masks and stenciled hare skulls on the walls of the office of the Transport Committee. This incident shows that the negative aspects of the character of the hare have endured just as much as the more positive “trickster” aspects. A hare, a bear and a leopard all stand as mascots for the 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi, and nationalist politician Vladimir Zhirinovsky had this to say about them: “The bear is the dumbest animal, the leopard is bloodthirsty, and the hare a coward who always runs away” (Bratersky). Thus, both the negative and positive characteristics of the hare have endured. These characteristics made it a much more appropriate choice for the statue than, for example, a fox or a bear (both of which also appeared quite often in Russian animal tales).

Besides the wider cultural significance of the hare, the statue also addresses a vital part of St. Petersburg’s history: flooding. Flooding has continually shaped the physical and cultural landscape of St. Petersburg, from the very first floods that washed away the flimsy dwellings of Peter the Great’s forced laborers (New York Times) to the devastating flood of 1824 that killed more than 200 people (Patterson). Pushkin immortalized the flood of 1824 in his poem “The Bronze Horseman.” In November 2010, St. Petersburg experienced its 308th flood (“Russia Beyond the Headlines”), nearly a flood a year since the city has existed. In 2011, the Russian government officially completed and opened a dam meant to protect St. Petersburg from rising water (The Voice of Russia). This reflects an ongoing desire to control the forces of nature in St. Petersburg; after all, in 1703, Peter the Great sought to engineer a city on a most inhospitable piece of land, persevering despite those foreboding first floods. More than three centuries later, the Russian government finally completed a project that would further tame the forces of nature and ensure the continued flourishing of St. Petersburg. Plaques around the city indicate the high water marks of some of the past floods (Patterson). With these constant reminders, flooding has also managed to dominate the cultural landscape of the city. The tiny statue of “The Hare Escaping Flooding,” then, does not stand entirely on its own but rather makes up a larger part of this flood commemoration trend.

Interestingly enough, however, when compared to other flood markers, this hare statue stands apart in one important respect. The marks on the piling that represent the heights of floodwaters are not very visible at all, in contrast with the stark line on, for example, the plaque marking the infamous flood of 1824. The visual emphasis of the hare statue is therefore on the hare and not necessarily on the piling (and faint marks) below it. The attitude of the crowds of Russians and tourists alike crossing Ioannovsky Bridge reinforces this assertion; these crowds regard the pilings immediately around the statue as lucky landing spots for tossed kopeks. The pilings even occasionally serve as a climbing spot for carefree children playing in the waters below the bridge in the summer. Thus, this mysterious statue, while representing larger concepts, has managed to root itself in people’s minds as a cute and whimsical spot to throw coins at before continuing on to Peter and Paul Fortress.

Works cited