Russia: Moscow

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Moscow’s iconic ‘Red’ Square isn’t named for communism, nor the red bricks of the State Historical Museum, nor executions (nor even market butchering) — though it encompasses all that and much more. The word means ‘beautiful’ in Russian and the square, like central plazas in numerous cities, historically served as the city’s focal point and marketplace. Highly touristic today, nevertheless one can take in much of the country’s history and culture in the many buildings at this site.

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One of Moscow’s most iconic buildings is St Basil’s Cathedral in Red Square. The city and indeed the country are dotted with churches; since 1997, however, freedom of religion has been guaranteed. Only 42% identify today as Orthodox Christian, while another 25% cite ‘spiritual but not religious’ — and there is a resurgence in Siberian shamanism, illegal during Soviet times.

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A large part of Russia’s modern-era story has been communism as a social and political force. A very mixed legacy today, with condemnation of the executions, gulags, and secret police — and a recent survey that indicated Stalin as one of its greatest leaders. In Russia, capitalist since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 but with a strong legacy of communism — and totalitarianism, a parliamentary democracy is in place — while ideology and power structures of the past remain firmly entrenched.

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In today’s Moscow, art freely questions or criticises the nation’s Soviet past. This, seen at New Tretyakov Gallery in Muzeon Park of Arts, seems to show protesters confronting the military — with the crowds surging behind.

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Moscow’s Muzeon Park of Arts, adjacent to Gorky Park, is filled with sculpture both new — and Soviet. Often called the ‘Soviet graveyard’, it hosts (boasts?) numerous Soviet-era, militaristic sculptures, many of them grouped together beside New Tretyakov Gallery in a sort of cemetery plot. Nearby are the Monument to Victims of Totalitarian Regimes, several protest pieces such as this cage of screaming heads — and a series of erotic sculptures. Perhaps the Russian psyche is in similar confusion about its past?

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In the studios of Winzavod, a contemporary art complex in a 19th-century brewery of Moscow, much of the art tends toward alternative — and political, and controversial. There is much talk, in today’s Russia, of whether the surveillance of Soviet years has ever gone away. Considering their recent past, a generalised distrust is expected; and, there is evidence that would suggest this is not mere paranoia.

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Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, with an eternal flame and continuous military guard, serves as a poignant reminder of the millions of Russian soldiers dead or missing by the end of WWII. A secret nonaggression pact existed between the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany to ‘divide the spoils’ in Eastern Europe; in 1941, Hitler invaded the country, thereby nullifying the pact and creating an enemy. It is assumed that, as his anti-Semitic fervor became all-consuming, the German leader couldn’t resist attacking his former ally — as Russia had long been home to a large Jewish community.

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Moscow’s Jewish Museum and Tolerance Center, opened in late 2012, provides a remarkable memorial and education facility. There is criticism among the people, and rightly so, that no such facility of this scale has been built to those ‘dissidents’ who lost their lives in the Soviet executions and gulag system. (The first, the ‘Wall of Grief’, was inaugurated in 2017.) Nevertheless, Russia has integrated Jewish citizens since the 7th century with a population of more than 5 million by 1897; this was not always free or safe, with restricted movement in the Pale of Settlement under Catherine the Great and multiple pogroms beginning in the 1880s — causing mass emigration 1880-1928 … including 240,000 to Europe.

~EWP