Sunday, 27 August 2017


I returned from a trip to Moscow last week buoyed up, but disturbed. Moscow itself is quite disturbed - it’s August after all. The streets are all churned up - everywhere fountains are being dug, pavements laid, trees planted and flowerbeds sunk. It is one of the biggest overhauls of a capital city in history. While lots of the city looks wonderful, to a large extent, as I wrote in a previous blog, it has lost its many layers, variety and texture that made it more human. ‘Castrated’ is how one friend described it on my recent visit. 

The ubiquitous green and white stripes as repairs continue
Tverskaya St - lots of Moscow is looking magnificent

You could use the same word for the Russian cultural scene: theatre director Kiril Serebryannikov has just been put under house arrest apparently for the embezzlement of funds that many say he was clearly using for a theatrical production. It is another matter that not everyone likes his theatre. The arrest and sentence are a continuation of the deep prudish moral defensiveness that triggered the court case against Careful, Religion! the exhibition at the Sakharov Centre in 2003 that was instigated and driven apparently by hardline devout Russian Orthodox fanatics. Today, many of their ideas are mainstream and this prudery and dogma seems to be active in all spheres. It manifests itself in a curating of both the present – Russia’s projected image: strong, military, clean-lined, undefeatable, and also of the past: a selective approach to memory and history.  The past is not there to be freely explored. In the meantime, architectural heritage and monuments are being requisitioned to serve a particular narrative of victory and strength. 

On my visit, after a year away, I saw old friends and new. Through conversations I noticed that everyone is remembering, or forgetting, in their own way, myself included. 

I visit a friend, the daughter of a former Soviet deputy minister. When she talks about Moscow - all the street names are the Soviet ones - waves of communist associations come to me as she talks about Herzen Street, Gorky Street, and so on. She pounces on me when I tell her about planned events in London for the autumn and the commemorating of the centenary of the 1917 revolution. I tell her about a planned pavilion dedicated to the poets who were persecuted and placed under internal exile in the Soviet Union. To which she says that I have positioned myself with the equivalent of Soviet dissidents and that everyone is taking up their old positions, under different names. ‘So predictable Klemusya,’ she says, ‘ to concentrate on the negative.’ 

I see a friend who I used to campaign for buildings with, and he says something similar. He says he is being a devil’s advocate, but that it could be seen as a cliché to commemorate repressed poets as part of the marking of the centenary, and playing into old roles. I challenge this, but realise that my attempts at having a non-political position is naive - it doesn't seem to be acceptable in today's climate in Moscow, especially if you are engaged in any way with public life. Which is perhaps why people are retreating. Such as this same friend, who says he no longer campaigns for buildings –that after August 2014 (the annexation of Crimea), it seems hollow to campaign for some old barn or other. And, he says, when politicians don’t want to talk about difficult things, they now talk about architectural heritage and wheel people like him out. He says he doesn’t want to be used in this way anymore, and so he has taken a step back. I get it. I would do the same.

Architectural campaigning has indeed been politicised in Russia. I am aghast and horrified to see beautifully designed posters featuring architectural monuments I campaigned for for many years, mostly against the state! I read these words:
‘Moscow - the city, where history is created.’ Next to a photograph of the Shabolovka radio tower that the state was trying to ‘dismantle’ and erect elsewhere for several years. Now it is on a poster in the metro with the following written over it: An Engineering Project Known by the Whole World. Yes, but only thanks to an impressive campaign run by the Avant Garde Centre and the Constructivist Project, in which they shamed the Russian state into leaving it be.

On another poster is the Melnikov House, seized, by force, by the Moscow Architectural Museum in the same month that the Crimea was annexed. It was a cultural annexation that split the architectural community of Moscow, half of which no longer has anything to do with the Architecture Museum, home to the main architectural archive and memory of the country. It was created in the 1930s by architect Alexei Shchusev with the aim of being a repository of discarded architectural detail and of archives from architects and restorers. In other words, a collective memory – now cut off from half of its own community.

The narrative of the Melnikov house has now been taken over by the state and it has its own story about how it came to be in its ownership. That is the shift we are observing – the selective surgical treatment of the truth.

The safest historical territory is the second world war and everything military: the war, because the Soviet Union was the victor (along with the other allies) and the military because it reflects the defensive and bullish mood of the country. The main thing – don’t let any uncomfortable feelings in – crush them, and talk about victory – victory in any field – war or architecture.

The new St Vladimir next to the Kremlin - taller than the Kremlin towers.

Not everyone is of this point of view: on my last night I ran into two friends who had recently come back from the annual gathering at the mass grave in Solovki. One remarked ‘it wasn’t a big gathering. You’re there and you’re thinking ‘this is so important, so huge, so dark, this needs to be remembered.’ But its very hugeness is overwhelming and stops you coming back. You’re caught in a kind of vicious circle.” So how to remember? How to train oneself to remember without pain or to bear the pain? Is it less painful to not remember? 

And I am working with an artist who is openly nostalgic for the Soviet Union, or perhaps it would be more accurate to say  - he is nostalgic for his childhood that happened to take place in the Soviet Union. I bring him Yorkshire Tea from Britain, because it is the closest thing he has found to the very strong Assam tea that was sold in soviet times. For him the textures, sounds and smells of his childhood are important and a lot of his art is about creating something from these memories. This seems to me an important counterbalance to the prevailing tendency towards selective memory, which is determinedly  biased against anything that may appear inadequate, poor or uncomfortable. He is not trying to recreate anything, and is clearly moved by an inner freedom that is beyond politics.