RUSSIA TODAY I
A visitor to Russia in 2002, as in the past, instantly recognizes that he is in a different country. Different from Germany, France or England, and certainly the USA, but still not as exotically different as Egypt, India or China. Different but also familiar. We used to call it the Second World, and although the Cold War is now behind us, the term remains appropriate.
The uniformity of Stalin-era architecture is being softened by new structures with more variety in size and style. The old apartment blocks, hugely satisfying to the egos of bureaucrats and patriots, did provide quick, cheap housing for many who had lost everything in the Nazi invasion; and the large spaces between the blocks were filled with gardens and playgrounds, even large green areas for walking and recreation. Today, alas, these apartment blocks are reaching the end of their life span, and it shows.
In their defense, we have to ask, who in the fifties could have imagined today=s electrical devices? American houses built in that era never have enough wall plugs; and two car garages were rare. Soviet housing authorities didn=t even provide for one car—they thought public transportation was better than traffic jams, polluted less; it was cheaper and worked relatively well. The authorities considered single family dwellings a relic of the feudal past—in the future people would live in apartments; and they would learn the virtues of cooperation through shared bathrooms and kitchens. The exception was the dacha, the country house with its carefully tended small garden—and sometimes a garage for those lucky enough to qualify for car ownership.
The theory was not bad. Plato would have approved, and some critics of modern America still keep pushing the idea on anyone who will listen (usually students, who have to). But like many theories, it never quite worked. People, after finishing off a bottle of vodka, would Aairmail@ the bottle onto the playgrounds; gardeners, upon learning that they could not be fired for slacking off a bit, and not having enough water anyway, decided that weeds looked as good as grass; and the delivery roads developed potholes, then ruts, and finally disappeared almost altogether.
Much construction looked like amateur work. It was essentially unskilled labor. Trained talent tended to be sent to Siberia, and Marxist theory taught that anyone could be a foreman. Not that Americans are immune to this idea. I teach at a liberal arts college, and every now and then someone says that liberal arts graduates can do anything. More accurately, they can be trained to do just about anything, because they have learned some important basic skills, but I would not want to send my seniors out to build a house, delivery a baby, or counsel on foreign policy. Similarly, the Communists said that a man or women properly trained in socialist ideology could do anything. The difference is that they meant it!
The Communists are gone now. More or less. They are still the largest party in the Duma, the representative assembly, and some of their politicians recalled nostalgically the days when the Soviet Union was powerful and the social programs seemed to be working. But most people are realistic enough to recognize the costs that Russia paid to be a world power, remember the empty shelves, and deplore the excesses of the police state. Even many who remember centralized planning fondly are evolving into Social Democrats.
The disappointment with the reforms of 1991-2001 appears quickly in any conversation. But there is no going back. Just as one has to live with the architecture of bygone eras, one has to live with the failures of the past—except that one also has to live in the architecture, and that becomes a reminder of the rest.
William Urban, Lee L. Morgan Professor at Monmouth College, spent three weeks in Russia this summer on a Global Partners program sponsored by the Mellon Foundation.