The world’s biggest country is, perhaps unsurprisingly, a land of gargantuan contrasts. I now realise this as fact as a result of visiting Russia in May and after two months of more recent study.
There are inevitable geographical and climatological variations to be expected in a vast land mass which stretches from the Baltic to the Pacific, from the White Sea to the Black Sea.
But the contrasts which grab my attention are related to culture and history.
One extreme encapsulates the ultimate in beauty and creativity, the other exposes the most depraved limits of violence and human degradation. How is it possible that Russia, which has given mankind superlative culture, has also been exposed to and survives some of the most psychotic tyranny ever endured by any nation on earth?
The creative side includes towering geniuses in literature (Dostoyevsky, Turgenev, Pushkin, Tolstoy, Chekhov, Boris Pasternak), in classical music (Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninov, Rimsky-Korsakov, Shostakovich, Mussorgsky), ballet and opera companies (the Bolshoi and the Mariinsky), and great museums (the Hermitage and the Armory). Beautiful Russia is also revealed through its sublime architecture.
The achievements make my heart sing with joy; in complete contrast, the carnage wrought on everyday twentieth century life in the name of Communism and Nazism evokes profound sorrow and sympathy for the country’s long-suffering citizens.
One abiding impression indelibly imprinted on my mind as a tourist last May in Moscow and St Petersburg was the huge priority that post-Soviet Russia has given to architectural restoration. The scale and quality of the work in both cities is overwhelmingly impressive.
Related to this is the realisation that Orthodox Catholicism seems to be flourishing in Russia in spite of twentieth century ideological hostility and subjugation. It seems almost perverse, but some of its finest ecclesiastical architecture is juxtaposed with very heart of Government.
The Kremlin includes a number of cathedrals within the fortress. These include the five-domed church of the twelve apostles, the Assumption Cathedral, the church of the Deposition of the Robe, and Archangel Cathedral.
The Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, a 19th century church, was destroyed in 1931 by the Soviets. It has been rebuilt, miraculously, to the original design, completed in 2000 and is again the tallest Orthodox church in the world. Its guilded copper domes and white walls gleam triumphantly. Its interior walls are bedecked with magnificent icons. The city’s tourist board describes the cathedral as a “symbol of Moscow’s post-Soviet revival.”
In St Petersburg the Church of the Saviour on the Spilled Blood reveals a similar story. Named after and built on the spot where the Tsar Alexander II was assassinated in 1881, this Church is dedicated to the Resurrection of Christ. It also had a tumultuous existence in the twentieth century because of the Bolsheviks suppression of religion. The building has been restored – resurrected - to its former magnificence.
The State Hermitage and the Winter Palace provide another example of Russian beauty as well as reminders of man’s tyranny. The building was planned by Tsar Peter the Great and enhanced by Catherine II, Catherine the Great. “The Russian Empire at its most grandiosely extravagant” is the apt description by the St Petersburg tourist board.
In October 1917 it was ransacked by the Bolsheviks.
As if that wasn’t enough, the Nazis gutted it during the 900-day siege of the city.
The impact on the senses of subsequent restoration of the property is staggering. The art collection is outstanding. Apart from Faberge eggs and priceless jewellery, the Hermitage houses artistic masterpieces by Da Vinci, Rembrandt, Goya, El Greco, Titian, Murillo, Veronese, and a Michelangelo sculpture, and a collection of paintings by the Impressionists - Monet, Matisse, Degas, Cézanne, Gauguin as well as Picasso and Van Gogh.[i] Proof of what we were told in class – Peter the Great gave modern Russia its body; Catherine the Great gave it its soul.
The Catherine Palace in Pushkin was the summer retreat of Catherine I, Peter the Great’s wife. Like the Hermitage, this building exhibits magnificence through imposing and colourful external appearance as well as sumptuous interiors.
Following the Nazi occupation and the disappearance of lavish panels, the Palace’s Amber Room[ii] (dubbed “the Eighth Wonder of the World”) has been recreated at huge expense. The work has taken 20 years to complete. A montage of black and white photographs graphically illustrates the destructive impact of World War 2.
Just when you think your senses can take no more beauty, along comes one more marvel. The Peterhof Palace (Petrodvorets) lying about 15 miles outside the city was the elaborate suburban palace of Peter the Great. It was inspired by Versailles.
Before leaving for the airport and the end of our trip[iii], the sun shone to reveal this fabulous estate’s golden statues, fountains and cascades. The palace and its sensuous sculptures look proudly down at the Gulf of Finland and the Baltic.
This testament to restoration backed with financial muscle provides a defiant answer to the erstwhile destroyers of Russia (and Europe’s) culture.
The commitment of the post-Communist Russian authorities to its architectural heritage makes an emphatic statement. To me it proclaims – this is who we are, we are proud of our Imperial and Christian legacy.
Second World War
Our visit coincided with the 70th anniversary of the end of World War 2. The occasion was proudly celebrated in extravagant style on 9 May with the biggest parade in Moscow since the fall of Communism.
According to the BBC television report[iv], Russia lost more lives than any other country on earth - 26 million people perished during the war.
Consider this single example. Hitler wrote – “Leningrad must be erased from the face of the earth.” History books record that over the next three years, 1.4 million people left or were evacuated from the city and 1.5 million starved or died.
Novels have a way of conveying the visceral pain and struggle for survival more poignantly than any history book can. Even though such narratives can upset as well as surprise emotionally, graphic reminders of human depravity serve a positive purpose. The reader becomes an eye-witness, exposed to heartache and suffering - and also to hope.
Stalin, as we learned in class, distrusted the city and placed it on his blacklist.
“The Conductor[v]” tells the story of the composition of most of the mighty Leningrad Symphony by the defiant Shostakovich before he was evacuated. The book realistically depicts the deep human spirit of resilience in the face of the horrors of bombing and starvation.
Likewise, “The Siege[vi]” details a harrowing tale of a family’s struggle to survive, making soup from a leather manicure case, burning books and furniture to stay warm.
The novel “Child 44”[vii] captures the frightening atmosphere of paranoia and sheer terror that pervaded the country because of the purges wrought by the Stalinist regime.
The reader feels the bodily pain of horrendous torture, the torment inside aching minds, and sees the butchery of human torsos.
So vivid is the story-telling that I had to put the book down and go for a walk to recover from shock. Just imagine what it must have been like to live under such a regime.
An appendix to the novel starkly reveals appalling statistics.
These include the number of forced labourers in the USSR (28.7 million); the number of execution warrants signed by Stalin on one November day in 1938 (3,167); the number of political executions between 1930-1953 (786,098); the number of peasants who died during the terror-famine of 1930-1933 (14.5 million); the number of homeless children 1943-45 (842,144); the number of Churches in Moscow before the Revolution (460), and the number by 1 January 1933 (100).
The fiction of these three page-turning contemporary novels is based on meticulously researched fact. Thus it fits perfectly with the legacy and the narrative style of Russian Realism established by writers like Pushkin and Tolstoy.
Pushkin is also fondly remembered for his fairytales, drawing on the Russian tradition of folkloric legends. The same influence is heard in Russian classical music.
Rimsky Korsakov’s mystical and powerfully orchestrated Scheherazade about Arabian nights and Mussorgsky’s whirling Night on Bare Mountain about witches and Satan fire the imagination with stirring and uplifting melodies that conjure up exotic fantasies.
Tchaikovsky’s superlative ballet scores - The Nutcracker, Swan Lake and Sleeping Beauty[viii] - bring to life with the most ethereal music, stories which are, in effect, fairytales.
This same composer has also enriched all of our lives even further with gorgeous symphonies and concerti. These range from the turbo-charged maelstrom of the 1812 Overture inspired by the Napoleonic invasion of Russia to the beauty of his Romeo and Juliet Fantasy Overture and the haunting eeriness of his sixth symphony, the Pathétique.
And who can live without Rachmaninov and especially the soaring melodies and mesmeric beauty of his heart-melting second and third piano concerti. Omagh people will never forget the performance by the Chorus of the Mariinsky Theatre conducted by Valery Gergiev in the Sacred Heart Church of Rachmaninov’s Vespers in 1990.
Music to die for. Tragically, far too many millions of Russian citizens have lost their lives on the altar of ideological tyrannies.
Russia’s literature takes us from fantasy to realism, reflecting in a way the country’s variety and its historical extremes.
In the same way, Russia’s composers produce music which is stirringly bellicose and at another remove can evoke the most calming and soporific mood imaginable.
Creative Russia reveals itself with aplomb and in the face of adversity through its wondrous art, architecture, literature and music. It stands the test of time.
[i] “The State Hermitage: Treasures from the Museum’s Collections.” Booth Clibborn £175
[v] Sarah Quigley “The Conductor” 2011 Head of Zeus
[vi] Helen Dunmore “The Siege” 2001 QPD
[vii] Tom Robb Smith “Child 44” 2009 Pocket Books
[viii] Birmingham Royal Ballet performed Swan Lake in the Grand Opera House and a Moscow Ballet Company performed Sleeping Beauty in the Waterfront Hall, Belfast on successive nights in November 2015.
©Michael McSorley 2015