Sunday, April 30, 2006

Stalinist Architecture.

Last night Jonathan Meades gave his take on architecture under Stalin in the USSR on the BBC. It was fascinating - the architecture seemed to me to be both of its time - approximately the 1930s and resembling the Senate House building in central London - and yet also exhibiting a peculiar Russian twist in the form of ornamentation adhering to the sides like mould. There was one statue of quite incredible proportions 'celebrating' the victory of war. It was of a well-endowed but strangely masculine-looking woman holding up a sword and shield, the cameras gradually drawing away to good effect - as the figure of Jonathan Meades in trade mark black suit and sunglasses became more and more minute the statue appeared to swell as more and more became visible. It was monstrous, looming over the derelict buildings, wrecked cars and weeds of the former USSR - threatening and comical at the same time.

He also showed us the Russian Orthodox cathedrals rebuilt after Stalin's demise and explained how the Soviet calendar changed and changed again - from the Julian calendar (kept until the twentieth century just because it wasn't the Gregorian Roman Catholic calendar) to a peculiar Soviet calendar based on a 5 day week and when that didn't work another was adopted based on a six day week. Days were lost and people actually looked for them.

There were some brilliant pieces of writing outlining the Russian preoccupation with intoxication - viewed as the fourth essential in life after food, shelter and sex. It explains the low life expectancy of the Russian male and I read somewhere that it is a traditional and accepted part of Russian life that in middle age the man turns to drink. Meades explained that intoxication was not just limited to the ingestion of alcohol - shoe cleaning fluids, glue and a myriad of other substances are commonly consumed including, in some northern parts, a fungus which is highly valued, and whose potency is increased through renal processing. Consequently the fungus eater drinks his own urine again and again, getting higher and higher with each new batch.

Stalin, like Hitler and Napoleon and many other successful dictators was an outsider. Stalin was a mixture of Soviet nationalities including Mongol, who rose to power in Russia (whereas Hilter was an Austrian who rose to power in Germany and Napoleon a Corsican who rose to power in France). It is as though it takes an outsider to take the nation's temperature in a crisis and take control. Once in power Stalin made various declarations including saying that paper used to print poetry was wasted paper, and that it was a comrade's duty to be happy - to be unhappy was a crime against the state. He also attempted to make garden cities which turned out to look like grotesque concrete barracks and had dreams of building gigantic towers with statues of dead but revered leaders like Lenin on the top.

It was quite depressing, especially as much of Stalin's dream remains - in buildings as well as in the minds of men. The programme ended with a Stalin rally in Moscow. A similar rally for Hitler would be inconceivable in Germany, but in Russia their homicidal megalomaniac is still revered. Things were ordered then, the demonstrators claimed - but at such a cost - and anyway, I doubt that even that was true. Like that other traditional symbol the Russian doll (which turns out to be a Japanese import of the early twentieth century) nothing in Russia is exactly what it seems.


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