Friday, 28 August 2009

History or hero worship? Stalin on the subway.

It is impossible, as a first time visitor to Moscow, not to be impressed by the city’s Metro system. It was conceived that the stations should be ‘people’s palaces’ representing their putative shared ownership by Soviet workers. Exploring underground for just an hour or two, a passenger can discover facilities which are sumptuous, ornate, resonant with symbolism, and comprise, in themselves, popular tourist attractions.

Construction of Lazar Kaganavich’s plan for Moscow, of which the metro was an integral part, was begun in the 1930s, with the first line opening to the public in 1935. The underground railway and its stations are, largely, achievements of Stalin’s regime. It is hardly surprising that the troublesome dialogue which Russia periodically engages in with its Soviet past has once again arisen in relation to the Metro.

Renovation of Kurskaya Station, returned to its original glory, has proved a little too thorough for some observers. A verse from the 1944 Soviet national anthem, which adorned the entrance when it opened in 1950, has been restored. ‘Stalin raised us to be loyal to the nation; He inspired us to work and be heroic’. Whilst many Muscovites feel that the refurbishment has simply been completed in accordance with historical accuracy, others allege another official attempt to rehabilitate one of the twentieth century’s most bloody tyrants.

The revival of Nazi symbolism or laudatory references to Hitler would clearly be unthinkable on the Berlin transport system. In many ways it is extraordinary that so many remnants of Stalinism remain in Russia, never mind that one could be restored after years of absence. But the Soviet regime’s longevity, its achievements in defeating Nazism and its formative influences on the lives of generations of Russian people, complicate their relationship with the memory of Stalin.

I haven’t a firm opinion on whether this type of ambivalence should be condemned. I tend to view it as one of the idiosyncrasies which we should endeavour to understand and tolerate in other political cultures. It certainly gives me a perfect pretext to hunt out some Moscow Metro photos, albeit that I can’t find one of Kurskaya itself.

1 comment:

O'Neill said...

"In many ways it is extraordinary that so many remnants of Stalinism remain in Russia, never mind that one could be restored after years of absence"

Those remnants exist in other surprising places also.

In Budapest the public transport trolibuses have a number system which begins at 70 and finishes at 79. The first one (the No.70) started operation on the occasion of Stalin's 70th birthday in 1949 and each year (with a brief rest for the 1956 revolution) another one was added on the anniversary of his birthday every year until 1960.

Despite his fall from grace they have never got round to replacing their numbers. Fascinating stuff, eh?!