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.