Saturday, December 31, 2011

The Vysotka Prism

I've spent the past few years getting to know the Russian Revolution, Soviet history, and Russian history in general. The blog reflects my ongoing struggle to make sense of this enormous and enormously important topic. But Soviet history is slippery. One can approach the topic from the point of view of revolutionaries, counter-revolutionaries, expatriates, foreign enemies, foreign sympathizers, intellectuals, peasants and workers, male Russians, female Russians, ethnic Russians, non-ethnic Russian Soviet citizens, victims, apologists, or even post-Soviet or "New Russian" citizens. I am often overwhelmed by these diverse perspectives, and I'm overwhelmed without even mastering the historiography of recent years. But I like Anne Nivat's approach to Soviet history, which is to tell the story or revolutionary and post-revolutionary Russia through the prism of one of the iconic addresses of Stalinist Russia, the Vysotka, one of seven skyscrapers that housed, and continue to house, some of the most important people in Russia.

In reality, Nivat's essay on Russian history isn't really about this architectural landmark, although she describes its features in some detail, not neglecting to note the role slave labor played in its construction. Rather, Nivat's tale is about the Russian people. Interviewing her neighbors, Nivat discovered many of the fault-lines between old and new Russia. The occupants of the Vysoktka include dissents, intellectuals, artists, Stalinists, former apparatchiks, traditionalists, nouveau riches, and everything in between. In the earliest years of the 21st century, Nivet's subjects are understandably obsessed with economic survival. With the collapse of Communism, many of the Vysoktka's residents are immersed in a complex and ever-shifting economic landscape. Does it make sense to privatize the building? Should one sell off one's address, rent it to wealthy foreigners, or hang on in order to avoid larger condominium fees at other addresses? All in all, Privet's interviews reveal the complexity of Russian history, a history filled with memories of suffering (but also faith in collectivist ideals) and also fears (and hopes) about the un-mapped future.

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