Monday, April 14, 2014

Reflections on Moscow

My first trip to Moscow is coming to an end.  My work with Fulbright ended several days ago, but I've spent a couple of extra days here roaming around the city.  I've visited the Kremlin, strolled through Gorky Park, shopped in GUM, popped into a few old churches, entered several museums, and made my way past more than a few literary house museums.  These included the homes or apartments of Tolstoy, Bulgakov, Mayakovsky, Gogol, Chekhov, Bely, and Lermontov.  Overshadowing these relics of old Moscow, are towering apartment buildings, twenty-lane highways, bustling metro stops, and glittering shopping opportunities for Russia's elite citizens.  Moscow is larger, wealthier, and more vibrant than I anticipated.  Although my impressions are no doubt shaped by my literary and historical preconceptions, I can't help but think that Moscow is one of the great cities of the world, on par with London and Paris and Mexico City.  Seeing the State Historical Museum's 1812 exhibition makes one realize what Napeoleon and Hitler failed to understand:  that Russia is a great, and perhaps unconquerable, world power.  While historians often credit the Russian winter for the country's victories, or point to its vast expanses as the source of its strategic power, one can't help but feel that the city of Moscow is representative of the country's creative and military potency.  The city seems perfectly capable of swallowing any number of invading armies.  We read that Hitler was stopped outside of Moscow, but it seems likely that he wouldn't have been able to digest the city even if he had reached it.  

I'm left with one other immediate impression, and that is that this city, and this country, is profoundly befuddled by the Soviet past.  When one visits the Lubyianka, one notes that only a small memorial stands as testimony to the unimaginable suffering that took place there.  Although the statue of the founder of the secret police has been removed, the building remains the headquarters of the country's principle security organ.  In any case, the signs of the Soviet past would be impossible to ignore, even if this was what the country's citizens wanted to do.  Soviet architectual symbols abound, though these statues and hammer and sickle engravings are undoubtedly less permament than memories of global military power and ideological primacy in the non-capitalist world.  

To sum up, Moscow is a powerful engine of modernity.  As the crisis in the Crimea makes clear, Moscow remains capable of providing the world with an alternative to American or even Euro-American hegemony.  Moscow's vitality is vertiginious or even dualistic however.  Probably Bulgakov captured this dizzying quality best, but Sigizmund Krzhizhanivsky also seems to have come to terms with this "third Rome."  In his novella, Autobiography of a Corpse, Krzhizhanivsky already detected a city on the make, where provincials gave up everything just for the chance to occupy some miserable corner of a large and uninviting apartment building.  The result, however, were people who could scarcely hold on to a unified sense of self, or even to a firm grasp on whether they were truly alive or already dead.  Krzhizhanivsky wrote this tale in 1925, when most Moscovites had suffered enormous disruptions to their sense of history, gradual progress, and general well-being.  As the dead narrator relates, the war, revolution, and civil war, had effectively erased the division between the living and the dead, and if that's an unstable mode of being, nothing is. 

Moscow in 2014 isn't quite as unstable as Moscow in 1925, but many Moscovites now live with the memory, historical or personal, of two revolutions, that of 1917 and that of 1991.  And that sense of living revolution will continue to make Moscow a city of endless possibilities, although not all of those possibilities will be benign.  

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