The Metro stations that form a ring around Moscow are famous for their beauty, and indeed they are beautiful. Opened during the rule of Joseph Stalin in the 1930s and ’40s, they boast marble walls, frescoed ceilings and, most stunningly, an array of larger-than-life sculptures depicting the people of this vast country.
As history teaches us, this stunning civic effort was undertaken in the decades just following the 1917 overthrow of the Romanov dynasty, ‘overthrow’ being the polite and highly inaccurate word for what really happened eight months later when Czar Nicholas and Princess Alexandra together with their five children and four family retainers were roused from sleep by the Bolsheviks and ushered, in their light summer garments, down to a basement room, where they were shot and stabbed, stripped and mutilated, burned and buried in two graves not discovered until that bloody century’s second-to-last decade. (Ah, piteous story that! And weren’t they darling children to judge by the pictures and the few silent films one can find, the youngest a boy and his four sisters as lovely and innocent a quartet of budding youthful beauty as anyone could imagine. (Did the head of the Bolshevik Party leader Vladimir Lenin in fact order these executions? Lenin, whose noble visage presides of countless Russian squares and public parks? Lenin ,whose frequently-tinkered-with remains can still be viewed inside the walls of the Kremlin today? The debate on that issue still rages.)
But this mass slaying is not what the tourist is invited to dwell on in modern-day Russia, any more than one is encouraged to dwell on the unparalleled Stalinist butchery that followed.
The visitor to Russia is invited instead to look at the country’s past with a soft-focus lens; to look on the high purpose of the Communist party ideal and not its reality as that reality played out in the years between 1917 and 1991. And maybe it is easier to do that if one is a regular visitor to the Moscow underground and has the chance to daily pass these stunning likenesses of the Soviet men and women, the watchers and the workers, the miners and the laborers and the tillers of the soil, who first literally built and then later defended their country. And they defeated Hitler, yes, but they did so at the cost of some 26 million of their number. 26 million!
All I can tell you is that I was deeply moved regarding these works of art. They are that heroic, plain and simple.
One looks ahead, and they are here:
One looks behind, and they are there:
One looks above and sees their images on ceiling mosaics.
Stopping to stand with each one, even as busy commuters bustled past, I felt the urge, almost, to weep.
There was a fine ideal at play in the former Soviet Union, a fact that need acknowledging that. As one older Russian put it in a conversation with Nobel Prize-winning oral historian Svetlana Alexievich, “‘Under communism, in the words of Lenin, the cook ran the state! Workers, dairymaids, and weavers were in charge!…I was born in the USSR, and I liked it there. My father was a communist. He taught me how to read with Pravda. Every holiday, we’d go to the parades, with tears in our eyes.”
Or, as another person whom Ms. Alexievich interviewed said, “Remember the Soviet place names, Metallurgists Avenue, Enthusiasts Avenue, Factory Street, Proletariat Street? The little man was the most important one around!”
(Was he though? Was the little man really the most important one around under Communist rule or were the workers only told that?)
In spite of the many artistic tributes to this ‘little man’ I would say, based both on what I saw during my time in Russia and on what I have read in the six weeks since returning home to the States, that the little man is and has been quite UNimportant in the 26 years since Communism was replaced by the brutish sort of capitalism on view in that country today. And it goes without saying that now, in modern-day Moscow, Factory Street and Proletariat Street and Metallurgist Avenue are not to be found on any city maps.