Monday, April 19, 2010

Time Travel (1): Leningrad in 1963


Now, as we admire the Nevsky's fine appearance, with its busy and festive atmosphere, we find it difficult to imagine this street twenty years ago, in the grim days of the war. Among the snow-drifts one could make out the mangled shapes of shell- or bomb-wrecked trolleybuses and lorries frozen into the snow. The shop-windows were boarded up. The street was almost deserted: a bundled-up figure trudging wearily to the cemetery, pulling a child's sled with a swathed body tied to it, was not a rare sight.

(A Short Guide to Leningrad, 1963)




There it is, that image of a swathed child’s body being pulled through the streets of a city under siege, and through time. I have thought of it often since Nina Power first posted last year the link to that extraordinary series of montages of Leningrad then and now. I have now encountered it again, this time in words, inside of an old guidebook to the city sent to me by a very kind reader. Both the montage and the written passage ask of us to do the same thing, to juxtapose two moments in time that seem utterly incongruous, two kinds of normalcy: one human, one inhuman. The people in the present tense can scarcely imagine what the street on which they walk has seen. In the timelapsed photograph it's as if they were callously indifferent to it. Preparing to board a trolley bus, instead of calling for help.

Except of course the prevailing mood is far from indifferent. The Web is full of archaeologies in the spirit of the Leningrad montages: The streets of Glasgow, Roma sparita, The house that did not exist, vintage imaginings of the future city. So whilst the digital medium’s principal effect will always be to compress time - everything is happening now, at once - it can also become a theatre of memory, both personal and collective; or come to the aid of the offline work of local historical societies, most notably in community knowledge projects like Kete Horowhenua. The resulting texts ask more or less explicit questions about urban and social development, about memory work; they also exist for the most part in an open-access, non-commercial space eschewing the domesticated, artificial nostalgia of late capitalism that sees the past as fashion accessory, an empty signifier of coolness. As in this well-known Heineken commercial:



‘It’s exactly the same.’ The beer, that is. It makes no sense to wonder to what party the protagonist of this little vignette thinks he might be going to return to, or to what existence for that matter, since reality doesn’t extend beyond the one-minute of television time bought by the sponsor. There is quite literally no space nor time allowed for reflection. The Leningrad blockade montages by contrast are a far more open text, posing a direct challenge to our fundamental understanding of history and articulating the fear that it might some day fold upon itself. The aerial protection balloons, those bodies pulled through the streets - they might return. Perhaps they never went away.




I enjoy reading old guidebooks. Throughout my childhood we used to travel around Italy with TCI guides that were at least twenty years out of date, and I was often put in charge of reading aloud the wonderfully ornate descriptions of churches and palaces, full of references to architraves, cornices and crenellations. Attractions had either one star or two stars, or none at all. We put a lot of faith in this, chasing two-star cities and monuments and finding only very occasionally reason to disagree with the authors’ judgments. Of course in the intervening years the opening hours of some of these attractions had changed, the odd museum had been reorganised, the odd collection relocated. But on the whole those books - which had been purchased when my parents went on their honeymoon - served us just fine. They might have been a tad conservative, but then so was my parents’ taste and besides we had no interest in living culture or anything contemporary, just in the monuments.

The Short Guide to Leningrad is almost, but not quite, as old as those books.

Reading about Leningrad in 1963 is a journey through time, but not a straightforward one, for Leningrad in 1963 was also a city in which key moments of the past - the 18th century tsarist origins, the October Revolution, the blockade - all vied to assert themselves in the present. The author of the Short Guide, identified only as P. Kann, leaves no doubt as to which of those should be regarded as the true defining moment in the city’s history, if not the world’s:
In our time the greatness and historical significance of Lenin's activity, whose name is inseparably linked with the turning-point in the history of mankind—the transition from capitalism to socialism—are manifested with particular force. This transition, which was begun with the October Revolution in Petrograd, makes the substance of the present epoch. There are over 230 places in Leningrad associated with the life and work of Vladimir Ilyich Lenin.



Out of these 230, there are 41 entries on the ‘map of places in Leningrad associated with Lenin’s life’. Given enough time and careful planning the tourist could connect them in chronological order and end up - at the culmination of a sort of communist Bloomsday - in the palace known as Smolny, there to mentally re-enact those days of October 1917. Or was it November? For there are complications. Not only have most of the street names changed - Lenin’s apartment in Yamskaya Ulitsa is now in Ulitsa Dostoyevskovo, the flat where he stayed in Sergiyevskaya Ulitsa will henceforth be found in Ulitsa Chaikovskovo, and so forth - but time is marked differently too, following the abandonment of the old Julian calendar after the revolution. Yet P. Kann feels compelled to painstakingly record these changes, as if aware that the old nomenclatures might one day return.

He wasn’t wrong there, of course, since 1991 the city that was known as Petrograd and then Leningrad is once again Saint Petersburg. But in 1963 the city itself and every other thing in it was named after Lenin: Lenin Park, the Lenin Stadium, the Lenin Theatre, the Lenin Academy of the Agricultural Sciences or even - purely in the interest of the double take, I’m sure - the V. I. Ulyanov Communications Institute. It was here that they built the Lenin, the first atomic icebreaker in the world, ‘able to sail for longer than a year without refuelling’. And it was here that the traces of Lenin’s always perilous comings and goings were carefully recorded and several of his dwellings turned into ‘memorial flats’, like so many satellites - there are six on the map - of the actual Lenin Museum. Of one of them P. Kann tells us that everything has been reconstructed in exact detail, including the calico curtains that Lenin liked but had been lost (‘Fofanova searched through the archives of Tryokhgornaya Manufaktura textile mill, found the old design of the curtains and then the factory made an exact copy of them’). Of another, outside of Leningrad, we learn that
[i]t has been placed on a concrete foundation, the roof has been completely repaired, and all the walls and woodwork have been treated with special resinous solutions to protect them against the destructive influence of time. Lenin's room is very simply furnished: there is an iron bedstead, a small round table and on it a vase of field flowers, a sofa, three bent-wood chairs, a table which has on it an inkstand and a kerosene lamp, and a hall stand with three hooks beside the door.

‘The destructive influence of time’. Fifty years and many commotions later, I wonder what remains of all that, which of those dwellings have been converted back into regular residential real estate. After all one could reasonably ask, how many Lenin memorial flats are too many? With my map and P. Kann’s meticulous instructions (‘flat 15, second floor’) I could check them all out, see which ones have survived. That would be a worthy project, no? And while I’m in Russia I might check on Vladimir Ilyich himself, seeing as he’s also been treated with special resinous solutions. In episode one of Life after People they speculated in fact on how long it would take for terminal decomposition to take place, should people stop caring for that body.

But I don’t want to turn morbid nor misrepresent the Short Guide, which isn’t solely about the traces of Lenin and is a fine example of its genre: well written, informative, at times lyrical and profound - nowhere more so than in the passage at the top of this post. It is guilty of obfuscation and propaganda, of course, but no more so than other book of its kind. It is, finally, a document of its time, and of a relationship with the historical past that is also the product of an ideology, as it always is.

Characteristically, this ideology is visible also in the choice of images. There are forty-four in total at the end of the book - I've included them all in a separate gallery for lovers of the genre - and yet there are as many pictures of the inside of the Hermitage as of the outside of the cruiser Aurora (that is to say, one each), and several more of residential buildings than either of those. If I had to pinpoint a difference between the Short Guide and the books we used to take on our holidays, it would be precisely that accent on ordinary lives not as object of folkloristic appreciation but as a concrete historical object, as in the mention of the 440,000 builders that toiled to construct the city’s cathedral, or the references to life during the blockade. However of the actual inhabitants of Leningrad in 1963, the beneficiaries of that watershed historical transformation, nothing is said, except insofar as it is intimated that the city creates the conditions for their full realisation and well-being. They too are, in light of what we know now, of what ought to have been known back then - seven years after Hungary, five years before Prague - a silent yet haunting presence at the margin of the picture.






P. Kann. Leningrad - A Short Guide. Translated from the Russian by Y. Golyakhovsky. Moscow, Foreign Languages Publishing House, 1963.

With many thanks to S.F. for the book.

Check out The Pipes of Saint Petersburg over at infinite thØught. (Okay, so the link doesn't work. Go to IT's homepage and scroll down a couple of posts.)

ETA:More Leningrad retrographs have come to hand.


19 comments:

merc said...

When I see a Gio post in my reader I sit and savour - for this is rare, this human erudition combined with feeling, memory and loss, history and pain.
1963, a shot heard round the world and that same day nearly, merc is born.

Giovanni said...

You are, as always, way too kind.

Fatal Paradox said...

Reading this post brings home the tragic realisation that the past is indeed another country, but one we cannot (alas) hope to visit...except through the medium of wonderfully evocative texts and images such as these

George said...

The collection of images superimposed is for me more shocking, in that it shows an entire city (and indeed an entire country) under seige and quite literally fighting for their lives.

I always think that New Zealand and Australian relationships to war are profoundly different to those of Europe, because our wars have always been soldiers wars, fought by young men who we could imagine as valiant, brave, and pure.

Veterans of the Second World War would like us to forget the great civilian human cost of war, and are not above using outrage in order to impose this oblivion.

Giovanni said...

I always think that New Zealand and Australian relationships to war are profoundly different to those of Europe, because our wars have always been soldiers wars, fought by young men who we could imagine as valiant, brave, and pure.

Aside from the Jewish and Romani populations, I don't think there's anybody in Europe who can understand what the Soviet Union went through either. The London Blitz is said to have scarred a a generation of English people: it lasted 8 months and killed 40,000 - which is plenty, to be sure. By contrast, the Leningrad blockade lasted nearly 900 days and killed an estimated million and a half. I don't know how you begin to get your head around that.

As for the poppies polemic, I can't say I'm impressed by the timing of the white poppy campaign either. If they can't find a way to distribute side by side - and I can see how that move would be resisted for sure - I say choose a different date altogether. Or at least have the debate before barging in.

I'm not sure I agree with the blanket statement that veterans want us to forget about civilian victims either, although perhaps you meant the RSA more specifically. At any rate while I find it quite difficult to relate to the Anzac Day celebrations, I think there are complex sentiments there that as a pacifist I'm not quite ready to dismiss wholesale. But I'll defer to Scott Hamilton on this one.

George said...

I'm absolutely in agreement with your statements on the ways in which Russian/Soviet human suffering in the war makes almost all others insignificant in comparison. I have no knowledge on how it affects/ed the psyche of the societies on which it was wrought.

The PMA could have handled the issue with greater finesse certainly - tact is not one of Hughes' stronger points. If their purpose was to create controversy, they've achieved it. The debate over memorialising the wars is an ongoing one, and which pacifists have largely refrained from in recent years in the face of calls to "respect" and "honour" the sanctity of ANZAC Day. If we keep silent for the sake of keeping old men happy, the few meagre things that can be gained from war are likely to be lost. Instead, New Zealand will have militarised history, in the way that Australian history has very rapidly been changed.

I have to disagree with Scott on the nature and meaning of ANZAC Day. Hopefully this inspires me to write the post about ANZAC and other matters I've been preparing.

Giovanni said...

Do that - and if you should find yourself short of a place where to post it, there may be something going by then too.

Keri H said...

George - our wars have not always been 'soldiers' wars. Heard of the Musket Wars? The Land Wars?

There is a book by a person who settled here as a refugee, which details a child's perspective of the siege of Leningrad. It is gutwrenching...I'll do some checking up and find the name of the author/title of the book.

merc said...

My whanau were in Berlin 1945...they tell of Russians taking their photo albums...among other things...to erase the past.

George said...

George - our wars have not always been 'soldiers' wars. Heard of the Musket Wars? The Land Wars?

Keri, you're absolutely right, and I can't see why I forgot that (I've got no excuse, having done 19thC NZ history at university) Perhaps because I've tended to categorise them mentally as wars of the British crown rather than of New Zealand? But they're domestic wars certainly.

Giovanni said...

Pugsley calls them 'internal', rather than domestic or civil. It's always struck me as a rather bureaucratic term. Anyhow, some time ago I made a note for a future post that the New Zealand wars account for 40 pages of New Zealanders at War (out of 500), 29 of Scars on the Heart (out of 310) and 29 of Kiwis in Conflict (out of 300). In New Zealanders at War, the 'Wars of Empire' take up four times as many pages. All three books have a photograph of World War One on the cover. This is precisely consistent with the layout of the Army Museum in Wairou.

And isn't Anzac day explicitly designed to support the notion that World War One was the conflict in which our sense of nation was forged?

Giovanni said...

@merc

My whanau were in Berlin 1945...they tell of Russians taking their photo albums...among other things...to erase the past.

I had heard of that practice before, it's a chilling form of reprisal to go along with the brutality of the bombings. The Reich lost between two and three million civilians in the war, versus 'only' 67,000 in the United Kingdom, 145,000 in Italy, 267,000 in France. The Soviet Union? Between 12 and 14 million. (Comparable in absolute terms only to China. Or, per head of population, to Poland.)

merc said...

Having very German whakapapa has very seriously coloured my world view, and so my work.
Of course my Great Aunts suffered a more physical fate.

harvestbird said...

The intersection where you died
gets a lot of traffic
and why not? It's central to the
city, as well you know.
You died at rush hour
doing something stupid. My good
fortune is that my stupidity
has yet to kill me.

What a mess a white wooden cross
would make of that good clean intersection,
or rather, what a mess the
buses that turn across it would
make of the white wooden cross.
You know what I mean. I don't
miss you like I used to, and neither
I suppose do your mates; it's good,
I guess, that the violence of your
going doesn't keep us awake like
it used to.

Still, I wish sometimes for some
sort of memorial, just like I wished
the day after you died for a report
other than in the freebie evening paper
which I doubt you ever read. I grumble
at the fact of that celebrity kid
who died just after you (though
technically the day before). We'll
never joke about your last minutes
the way people joke about his.

Indeed, you wrecked the Manchester precinct
for me for years, boy. Those shops
and nightclubs were like mausoleums to me; cavernous mouths pouring kids like you
on to the streets, still, still, still.

Giovanni said...

Thank you HB! There are more poems to go with the previous three posts and can be also found handsomely collected here.

Speaking of past posts, concerning last week's I wanted to acknowledge a post by Edmund King that engages with it and offer the following quotation from the Short Guide that is pertinent to both:

Not to let the time go to waste, Lenin decided to collect material, while under detention, for the book he was planning to write, Development of Capitalism in Russia. His relatives brought him the books he needed from the library, and they finally filled a whole corner of the ward. In his work reference is made to 583 books. Lenin wrote a draft programme of the Social-Democratic Party (written in milk between the lines of a medical book), his popular pamphlet "On Strikes" (the manuscript perished during a subsequent raid of the underground press in Lakhta, a suburb of St. Petersburg), as well as leaflets and proclamations. In his letters, which were secretly slipped out, Lenin gave directions to the revolutionary underground, and also showed concern for the imprisoned revolutionaries. When writing in milk, Lenin used to knead his bread to make tiny "ink-wells", which he quickly chewed up and swallowed if he heard any suspicious sounds at the small window in the door. In one of his letters, he jokingly said: "On this day I ate six ink-wells."

(pp. 22-23)

Studiolum said...

“Out of these 230, there are 41 entries on the ‘map of places in Leningrad associated with Lenin’s life’. Given enough time and careful planning the tourist could connect them in chronological order and end up - at the culmination of a sort of communist Bloomsday - in the palace known as Smolny, there to mentally re-enact those days of October 1917.”

In the elementary school in Hungary of the 70's we were supposed to memorize that plan and those stations, and to re-enact their succession on the school celebrations of November 7. Our mental map of Leningrad was the scene where Lenin is eternally leaving his home for the Smolny to launch the Revolution in forty steps.

(Actually, the Budapest revolutionaries of 1956 who were also taught this map in the school from 1948 on, were thereby also taught the ideal sequence of the first practical steps of a revolution, and by precisely following them they were in fact extremely effective in seizing the power in the city within just a couple of hours.)

Interestingly, we were not officially taught anything else about the geography of Leningrad: our studies focused rather on Moscow. An important reason may be that Leningrad in fact has always remained Saint-Petersburg, a conservative and at the same time liberal city proud of its pre-Revolution past. The fact that P. Kann so accurately registers all the old street names is due to their being in use throughout the Socialist period. Nobody called Nevsky “October 25 Prospect”, although this was printed on the maps of Leningrad. Even in the novels of the Socialist period the streets are mentioned by their old names. So if you wanted to find your way in Leningrad, the knowledge of the street names of Saint-Petersburg was indispensable.

Studiolum said...

“When writing in milk, Lenin used to knead his bread to make tiny "ink-wells", which he quickly chewed up and swallowed if he heard any suspicious sounds at the small window in the door.”

This well-known motif of his hagiography has given life to the following naughty joke which, although never printed, was widely known throughout the Empire:

Все знают, что сидя в тюрьме, Ленин делал из молока чернила, а из хлеба чернильницы. Но мало кто знает, что из одного сокамерника Ленин сделал Надежду Константиновну.

Everyone knows that Lenin, while sitting in the prison, made ink out of milk and ink-well out of bread. But only very few know that he also made Nadezhda Konstantinovna out of one of his cellmates.

Giovanni said...

The fact that P. Kann so accurately registers all the old street names is due to their being in use throughout the Socialist period. Nobody called Nevsky “October 25 Prospect”, although this was printed on the maps of Leningrad. Even in the novels of the Socialist period the streets are mentioned by their old names. So if you wanted to find your way in Leningrad, the knowledge of the street names of Saint-Petersburg was indispensable.

Ah, thank you for that, it really puzzled me whilst reading the guide. By serendipitous coincidence, I wrote this week about enforced toponym changes, new names sedimenting on top of the old ones as a result not of revolution but colonisation. It is remarkable that Leningrad managed to resist that move.

In Milan a couple of decades ago the council decided to recognise the fact that the local populace had always called the intersection between Corso di Porta Romana, Corso di Porta Vicentina and Via Lamarmora "la crocetta", the little cross, by changing the name of the relevant portion of the two corsi. To achieve this end, they forced the people who lived at those addresses to apply for a change of residence, as if they were moving house. An almost insignificant case of institutional abuse, to be sure, but somewhat emblematic nonetheless.

merc said...

Owning street names is the last bastion of the scoundrel.
Trespass sign, the ultimate street name.

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