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Advertise on the Tentacle

November 1, 2007

Russian Glimpses - Part 2, Stalin

Patricia A. Kelly

(Editor's Note: Columnist Kelly recently toured Russia. This is her second of three parts recounting her adventure.)

On our first official day of touring Moscow, Svetlana meets us at our hotel. We are doing a Metro tour, Arbat Street and the Tretiakoff Gallery. We misinterpreted the written information about this, thinking that the "metro" reference means that this will be our means of transportation.

Actually, our first tour is of the Metro itself. Stalin's "Palace of the Workers" is a series of monumental underground memorials to the Russian people, World War II and the victory, to the fighters, peasants and workers of the country. Here is marble, statuary and stained glass. It's awesome.

Victory Square, the newest station, lies under Victory Park, a newly constructed memorial to the victory over the Nazis. It is made of red and white marble, with commemorative ceramic mosaics at each end.

Revolutionary Square consists of white marble rooms filled with statuary, most movingly, partisans. They, and everyone behind enemy lines during World War II, were either imprisoned or killed by Stalin as well as being honored. Their bronze faces appear so earnest, so eager, as their bodies crouch in waiting for the enemy.

These statues bring to life some of Stalin's bizarre and destructive policies. He tended to develop a circle of advisors or leaders, civilian or military, and then purge them all at once.

He has disappeared from Russia now; even his glass-enclosed corpse has disappeared from its place in Lenin's tomb. Lenin lies alone, to be viewed from nine to one, every day except Monday and Friday, in Red Square. It's just across from the huge G.U.M. department store and down from the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.

Lenin can be thanked for the success of the Bolshevik revolution and the assassination of Tsar Nicholas II and his family and servants, whose remains have been identified through DNA and buried in a Moscow church in a special chapel dedicated to them. They have been canonized, or declared saints, by the Russian Orthodox Church. No, Anastasia did not live out her life in Charlottesville, VA.

Lenin is still visible, both in name, and in statuary, often with his hand out, leading the way to a communist society. The joke in Russia, when he's seen from the highway, is that he's hitchhiking.

Stalin is another story. An amazing, fascinating man, he definitely rivaled Hitler, as both an ingenious and monstrous leader. He was a crude peasant, underestimated by the leaders of Lenin's revolution, and a surprise winner in the race to succeed him. While the obvious stars such as Trotsky ignored him, he schemed and manipulated his way into power. His goal seems to have been a complete totalitarian society, completely dependent upon him. He achieved this by killing off potential opponents, over the course of approximately 30 years.

He began modestly by scheming to discredit and exile his opponents in the Lenin succession race.

In 1929-30, he imposed collectivization upon the peasantry. He first tried to foster dissent by encouraging village members to expel and loot the homes of their more successful neighbors, called kulaks. He drafted worker-activists to work in the villages, and sent armed enforcers as well. As the peasants resisted, they were gunned down or bombed- to the tune of approximately 10,000,000 people.

In 1932, during the Second Great Soviet Famine, he allowed another 5,000,000 to starve while he sold the grain they grew to other countries.

At the same time, he forced rapid industrialization. Labor unions became enforcement agencies. A worker could be fired for missing one day of work.

Millions were sent to concentration camps, and hundreds of thousands of these were sent to work, under deplorable conditions, on large projects such as railways or dams.

Torture to extract hidden jewelry to capitalize the country, sham trials creating scapegoats for any industrial failures, execution of industry leaders, all set the stage for Stalin's final purges.

Finally, in 1936-37, he purged most of his leadership, most notably the military leaders of the country.

Imagine his surprise, when, after he went to the trouble of signing the 1939 Non-Aggression Pact with Germany, Hitler attacked him anyway, with his army under inexperienced leadership.

After the Metro, we saw Arbat Street, filled with 19th century mansions of nobles, and now a shopping center. There is beautiful statuary along the street, most notably of the famous author, Pushkin, who lived there for awhile.

Pushkin was the first to actually create literature in the Russian language. Of mixed race, his grandfather being an African named Hannibal, he is portrayed with his beautiful wife, Natalya. She was a renowned beauty, both younger and taller than he. His untimely death, at the age of 37, occurred as a result of a duel fought in her honor, as she was accused of flirting with a French military officer.

Our guide Svetlana, although quite knowledgeable about Moscow and its attractions, seemed na´ve and innocent. We spoke for hours while touring, as I rediscovered the most important lesson learned during travel. People really do think differently about things than I.

If everyone in the world understood this viscerally, the world would be better. We in the U.S. might understand that others can be quite happy without sharing our lifestyles.

After an amazing last dinner in Moscow at the home of a good friend - Kamchatka scallops in lemon cream sauce, Russian ravioli, creamed mushrooms, Kamchatka caviar and a wonderful salad of the freshest tomatoes and cucumbers, we headed for St. Petersburg on the overnight train.

We slept on what, during the day, were benches in a compartment. A mattress, consisting of an inch of ancient, crude cotton batting, was placed on what I called the shelf. Since the car was very warm, I folded my comforter - which consisted of a thick, wool blanket in a sheeting duvet - lengthwise and placed it on top of the mattress for added softness. I slept under my shawl.

The "shelf" was just about as wide as I am. The difference between this, a first class compartment, and a regular one was that there would have been two more shelves for two more people, above our heads. If you weigh more than 200 lbs., I'd give careful thought before embarking on this travel plan.

The next day was a new one, in gorgeous St. Petersburg.

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