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Preservation and Destruction

April 19, 2010 at 7:17 am
By Ben Hellerstein and Denis Griffis

Although we’ve spent much of the past three weeks exploring some of Moscow’s ancient landmarks and monuments, and we’ve added plenty of photos of St. Basil’s Cathedral on Red Square to our collections, it’s clear that the history of Moscow is more a story of destruction than of preservation. From the invasion of the Polish army during the mid-seventeenth-century “Time of Troubles,” to Napoleon’s occupation of Moscow in 1812, it’s surprising that the city has survived the eight and a half centuries in any shape at all. But whatever damage the city may have faced at the hands of foreign armies is at least equaled by the deliberate destruction inflicted on Moscow and all of Russia by the Soviet government, particularly in the time of Stalin. The demolition of churches and other historic buildings was an integral component of their plan to strip Russian culture and society of any force that might pose a threat to the government or compete for the allegiance of Soviet citizens.

An excellent allegory for this thorough process of cultural cleansing is Vasily Aksenov’s short story, “The Steel Bird”.  After reading “The Steel Bird” last week, we went for a walk in the neighborhood where the story takes place, amid winding streets and alleyways preserving their late-nineteenth-century character, and modern eight-lane arterial roads cutting through the old city fabric.

“The Steel Bird” is the tale of Benjamin Popenkov, a man who rises from the empty foundations of the destroyed Christ the Savior Cathedral to gradually take over and eventually destoy the beautiful home at 14 Fonarnii Lane.  In the process, we see Popenkov (the nominal “Steel Bird”, or Stal’naya Ptitsa, bearing some interesting resemblances to Stalin) insinuate himself with words of praise and patriotism, but gradually force out the home’s historic culture, take power over the home’s residents by fear, and devote his neighbors’ time and energy to producing “Old French” tapestries that Popenkov and his family distribute throughout all of Russia and her territories.

Popenkov’s base of operations is the home’s vestibule, a gorgeous room with an enormous mix of cultures: on one wall, there are stained-glass windows of samurai and geishas; on another, Frankish knights and ladies of Western Europe; light comes from an enormous Greek amphora in the center of the room, and there are even the boots of a statue of Peter the Great standing in one corner.  As time goes on and Popenkov asserts his power, we see the vestibule partitioned, separating each bit from the others, gradually pieces fall apart, and eventually the entire home falls into dust.

This sort of repression of culture seemed to us an excellent representation of the repressions of the Soviet period, the effects of which we saw all too vividly in our wanderings around the neighborhood in which “Steel Bird” takes place. We started our walk among some of the old streets of the neighborhood, looking for a six-story pre-Revolutionary apartment building like the home of the story: “faced with tiles that gleamed in the sunset,” and a main entrance with a “bizarre canopy.” On our way back to the Metro station, we came out of the tangled web of old streets onto Novy Arbat (“New Arbat”), an eight-lane thoroughfare lined with the slab-like towers of modern apartment buildings and the plate glass facades of megastores and fast food chains. Novy Arbat is approximately parallel to Stary Arbat, the “Old Arbat” lined with historic two- and three-story structures that we visited last weekend, but two more different streets could hardly be imagined.

Novy Arbat was built in the 1960s as a manifestation of the Soviet vision for the future of urban life. Scores of historic buildings were demolished in order to realize this vision, and the odd church that managed to escape the wrecking ball now seems puny and out-of-place among the massive glass skyscrapers.

Perhaps the building that Aksenov had in mind when he wrote “The Steel Bird” was among those destroyed in the construction of Novy Arbat, or perhaps it still stands on one of the old streets that was spared demolition. Certainly among the most fascinating and frustrating things about visiting present-day Moscow is this incomplete and piecemeal preservation of a long and complex history—the Moscow skyline is perhaps the best testament to the effects of the Soviet era.