Theatre in Passing: A Moscow Photo-Diary

Theatre in Passing: A Moscow Photo-Diary

by Elena Siemens

ISBN: 9781841503745

Publisher Intellect Ltd

Published in Calendars/Photography

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Destination Moscow

View from sidewalk

I photographed St Basil's from the sidewalk. It was a late afternoon. I was tired, annoyed by crowds, and anxious to return to my mother's flat in a quiet Moscow suburb. Baudelaire was right: 'It is not given to everyone to take a bath in the multitude; to enjoy the crowd is an art' (Baudelaire 1988: 27). I was not looking forward to crossing Red Square, nor was I interested in taking pictures. I photographed it in passing, simply because it was there, directly on my way.

Photographed up-close, St Basil's is not as impressive as when it is seen from a distance. It was constructed in the age of Ivan the Terrible to commemorate Russia's victory over the Tatars, and was meant to project pride and glory. One victorious chapel for each victory, nine chapels in all. In close-up, it does not appear quite so glorious. Proximity fragments it, bringing attention to its blemishes, its old age. My shot also foregrounds the thick fence around the cathedral that obstructs the view. This is St Basil's as seen by an ordinary passer-by. It has little in common with the official portraits reproduced on postcards and in travel guides.

Voyeurs and walkers

In The Practice of Everyday Life (1988), Michel De Certeau introduces an important distinction between the voyeur and the walker. He writes that walkers live 'down below', beneath 'the thresholds at which visibility begins' (De Certeau 1988: 93). They navigate 'the thicks and thins of an "urban text" they write without being able to read it'. In contrast, the voyeur 'disentangle[s] himself from the murky intertwining daily behaviours and make[s] himself alien to them' (De Certeau 1988: 93). The voyeur inhabits the panorama-city, observing the world from an elevated position, the top of the Eiffel Tower for example, where he perceives the space below as a concept.

I do not have a choice in the matter. The moment I land at the Sheremetevo Airport, I recall at once Moscow's 'thicks and thins', its shortcuts, back alleys, and back doors. And it makes no difference whether I have been away for one year or five. I walk outside; hire a taxi, instructing the driver to take the MKAD Highway, rather than the centre. Scenic routes are for tourists. As we approach my mother's neighbourhood, I help the driver navigate the convoluted back alley leading to the high-rise itself. I do not need a map or street signs. I am a walker. Walkers do not read cities, they write them.

Even with a camera in my hand I remain a walker. I take pleasure in looking at things, but unlike the voyeur, I tend to follow the less prominent routes. When I take a chance shot of St Basil's, I take it up-close, the way passers-by see it. Only passers-by do not normally take pictures, and that is what sets me apart from the ordinary walker. In the end, it does matter how long I have been living away from Moscow – one year is not five. While living away from it, I have learned to pause and acknowledge the insignificant – a mailbox, a trash bin overflowing with banana peels. There is no sense in denying it, I have become a bit of both: a walker and a voyeur. Contrary to popular belief, walking is not entirely a matter of choice. It too is controlled by various factors – traffic lights, weather conditions, as well as one's own fate.

Private geography

Lubyanka, short for Lubyanskaya Square, is known around the world as the site of KGB (now FSB) headquarters. During the Soviet period, a giant statue of Dzerzhinsky dominated the square's elevated centre. The statue was removed during the 1991 coup, but the memory of it continues to haunt the space. Personally, I associate Lubyanka with neither of these official landmarks. De Certeau argues that street names, like old coins which no longer show their original value, can 'detach themselves from the places they were supposed to define'. Their 'rich indetermination' gives proper names 'the function of articulating a second, poetic geography on top of the geography of the literal, forbidden or permitted meaning' (De Certeau 1988: 104).

In my own private geography, the name Lubyanka stands above all for the local metro station, an old-fashioned edifice adorned with two oversized arches. This station is on my radial line and it is where I get off when I travel to the centre of Moscow. It is a busy spot, with people rushing in and out of the metro, lining up at the kiosks, meeting friends in the shade of its two arches. I took some of my most nostalgic pictures here, one of them showing a trash bin heaped with banana peels. Following the advent of perestroika, the space around the station was transformed into a lively market offering various imported goods, as well as fresh produce – bananas above all. During the Soviet period, bananas appeared in Moscow only sporadically, maybe once or twice a year.

Another photograph I took here depicts a mailbox with an empty beer bottle on top of it. At the time I had just completed my Ph.D. thesis dealing with the correspondence between Russian authors from Pushkin to Pasternak. That mailbox on Lubyanka reminded me of a passage from Marina Tsvetaeva's letter to Rainer Maria Rilke:

I wonder if you received my letter. I am asking you because I threw it onto a departing train. The mailbox looked sinister enough: dust three fingers thick and sporting a huge prison lock. My toss was already completed when I noticed this, my hand was too fast; the letter will lie there, I suppose – until doomsday. (Tsvetaeva 1985: 198)


Just behind the metro station is a maze of back alleys that in the 1990s were still populated by crumbling tenements. The one I photographed resembled Eugene Atget's people-less images of old Paris. Unlike Atget, who went on his shoots in the early morning hours so as to produce a more authentic record of pre-Haussmann Paris, I took my pictures when the city was wide awake. The metro station was its usual bustling self, but here, just around the corner, time stood still. A solitary car was parked in the far distance, and in the foreground – a monstrous stone, a souvenir from some Soviet-era construction site. Near it, a ferocious pigeon circled in search of crumbs.


I also associate Lubyanka with the spectacular Mayakovsky Museum that occupies a formidable tenement located just a short walk away from the former KGB building. Vladimir Mayakovsky (1893-1930), Russia's foremost Futurist poet, once rented a small room here which served as his home away from home, a place where he could devote himself entirely to his craft. It was in this very room that he committed suicide, leaving behind an unfinished poem: 'And as they say, the incident is closed / The daily grind has wrecked the love boat' (Mayakovsky 1987: 450).

The 'daily grind', to which the poem refers, was Mayakovsky's mortal enemy. Roman Jakobson, his contemporary and famous Formalist scholar, writes that Mayakovsky fought vehemently against his 'conventional and commonplace' second self, the one who enjoyed card games, high tea, soft furniture (Jakobson 1985: 116). His sparse room on Lubyansky Passage was yet another tool, or weapon, he set against the enemy. He did not succeed, or, at least, he felt he did not.

In the late Soviet era, on the cusp of perestroika, this historical tenement was gutted, except for Mayakovsky's tiny room, preserved as a memorial space. The rest was converted into a giant exhibit dedicated to the early Russian avant-garde. It sports striking installations, photomontages, and puzzling Futuristic objects, among them a row of leaning chairs like props from some science-fiction film. They are apparently safe to sit on. The unusual Mayakovsky statue placed in the arch marking the museum's entrance is made up of various geometrical shapes, designed in the tradition of the early avant-garde. It corresponds far better to Mayakovsky's Futurist poetry than the old Socialist Realist statue to him on Triumfalnaya (formerly Mayakovskaya) Square. The new statue is also a more appropriate counterpart to the changed environment of Lubyanka, one that no longer contains the massive Dzerzhinsky monument.


History as Carnival

Old Lubyanka

In the nineteenth century, the elevated centre of Lubyanskaya Square was decorated by an attractive fountain by I. P. Vitali, who had designed another landmark fountain on the neighbouring Theatre Square. Vladimir Gilyarovsky, a contemporary of Chekhov and author of the engaging Moskva i moskvichi/Moscow and Muscovites (1979), writes that the space around the Lubyanka fountain was used largely by coach drivers parking their carriages, the city's principal means of transportation. While the coachmen ate and drank tea at nearby diners, the horses were left unattended, the piles of hay around them attracting swarms of pigeons and sparrows (Gilyarovsky 1979: 148).

Further down the old Lubyanka, a wooden circus stood in the current spot of the stately Polytechnic Museum, the site of Mayakovsky's crowded poetry readings, as well as his last, poorly attended 1930 anniversary exhibit. Gilyarovsky describes how in that distant era before the emancipation of serfs in 1861, an enormous elephant escaped from the circus, demolishing a large part of the makeshift structure, terrifying a crowd of bystanders. Just as the elephant managed to shake off one of the logs to which he was chained, turning to charge the crowd, the police brought in reinforcements, bringing down the beast with several shots from their cannon (Gilyarovsky 1979: 152-53).

In the 1880s, the centrally located Lubyanka attracted a number of affluent insurance companies which built here their imposing offices, as well as profitable residential tenements. Following the Bolshevik Revolution, one of the insurance towers located on the square's north side was taken over by the Cheka, the precursor of the KGB. It was subsequently remodeled by a prominent Soviet architect, Vasily Shchusin, who added an extra wing distinguished by its more modern architecture. During Moscow's redevelopment in the 1930s, the old fountain that had been the square's focal point was removed. In its place, the state eventually erected the giant Dzerzhinsky statue, unveiled in 1958.

Primary target

Because of its grim symbolism and prominent location, the Dzerzhinsky statue became the primary target of the people's fury during the 1991 coup, in which Gorbachev and Yeltsin's factions collided, bringing down an already crumbling Soviet Union. Dealing with the unrest on Lubyanka, the authorities brought in a crane, supplied by the American embassy to help the protestors topple the statue safely. Unlike its Bolshevik predecessor, the new Russian government, Kathleen E. Smith writes, 'neither rushed to destroy the old regime's monuments nor hastened to replace its symbols' (Smith 2002: 104).

Initially, the statue's tall pedestal was left standing, because, the government claimed, it had originally belonged to a pre-revolutionary monument to General Skobelev, a hero of the Russian-Turkish war of 1877–78, and it was therefore of a legitimate historical value. In his essay entitled eloquently 'In the Shadow of Monuments: Notes on Iconoclasm and Time', Mikhail Yampolsky writes that the 'pedestal without Dzerzhinsky is unique in that it continues by itself to designate a place of accumulation of time as pure abstraction' (Yampolsky 1995: 106). An empty pedestal, he argues, reverses the 'usual value relationships' between the statue and its base: it increases the value of the base and emphasizes the 'complete depreciation of the figure' (Yampolsky 1995: 107).

That empty pedestal was eventually moved to the Park of Arts near the Central House of Artists on Krymsky Val, where it was reunited with the rest of the Dzerzhinsky statue. Yampolsky points out that at its new location, displayed with a host of other Soviet-era monuments, the statue was transformed 'from a symbol of intransience into a symbol of vanity and the inevitability of destruction' (Yampolsky 1995: 107). Svetlana Boym, who describes her tour of the Park of Arts, writes similarly that the relocated Dzerzhinsky 'reflected only its own fragile materiality' (Boym 2001: 84). Boym reports that the statue carried only a cryptic note, and that this had, in effect, erased the 'monument's material history', as well as the history of the 1991 coup (Boym 2001: 87).

The unofficial feast

Before it became known for its Park of Arts, the Krymsky Val area briefly housed an outdoor art market. The market occupied the entire sidewalk of the Central House of Artists, resembling the medieval carnival Mikhail Bakhtin described famously in his book on Rabelais. Paintings were displayed directly on the ground, or randomly hung from the tall fence enclosing the House of Artists. Further down there were several discarded Socialist-realist statues assembled in a motley group. Beyond that was the formidable Krymsky bridge and the Moskva-river. The famous Gorky Park across the street was excluded from the festivities, as was the House of Artists itself. Unlike the 'official feast', Bakhtin argues, the carnival was 'hostile to all that was immortalized and completed' (Bakhtin 1984:10).

Bakhtin writes that the medieval carnival usually coincided with important calendar changes, offering only a 'temporary liberation' (Bakhtin 1984: 10). Similarly, the Krymsky Val market did not last long either, disbanded in just two or three years. The sidewalk was swept clean, leaving nothing to photograph. The old statues, Dzerzhinsky among them, were moved to a picturesque park behind the House of Artists. Surrounded by birch trees, they now appeared tranquil and irrelevant. On a more recent visit, I discovered a new Pushkin statue placed right in front of the Soviet-built House of Artists. In contrast to the iconic nineteenth-century Pushkin statue on Pushkinskaya Square, this one depicted Russia's national poet as an oversized snowman. With its playful take on Pushkin, it brought back memories of the old market and the 'unofficial feast' that once took place here. 'Nothing vanishes without a trace', I thought optimistically, as I was taking my snapshot of a new plump Pushkin.

More democratic

With the removal of the Dzerzhinsky statue, Lubyanskaya Square has become a more democratic space. It now serves as a site for public gatherings and demonstrations coinciding with important state holidays. The square is closed to traffic for some of these celebrations, including May Day, and people can freely navigate its entirety. Lubyanka has also acquired a new monument – a commemorative stone in honour of the victims of the KGB repression. The stone was brought directly from the Solovetsky Islands, the location of the first labour camp. Unveiled at a time when the Dzerzhinsky statue was still standing, it contrasted with it both in content and form.

When asked about the consequences of its removal, the director of the Park of Arts stated that the Dzerzhinsky statue 'really held together the architectural ensemble of Lubyanka', and that without it, the square now 'looks orphaned' (Boym 2001: 87). On at least two occasions, in 1998 and in 2002, there were calls to return the statue back to its original location. Debating the proposed relocation, Duma officials focused on political rather than architectural concerns. The conservatives argued that returning the statue to Lubyanka would send an important message that the Russian state 'was taking a strong stand against lawlessness' (Smith 2002: 173). Alexander Yakovlev, the 'architect of perestroika', objected strongly to this proposal. He saw it as 'evidence of a creeping Communist revanche', and warned that such nostalgia represented a 'threat to democracy' (Smith 2002: 174).


The removal of the Dzerzhinsky statue also had a profound impact on the walker's relationship to the square. Strategies of walking, Michel De Certeau argues, can be compared to various stylistic figures, asyndeton among them. Related to synecdoche, which 'names a part instead of a whole which includes it' ('sail' is taken for 'ship'), asyndeton suppresses, 'linking words such as conjunctions and adverbs, either within the sentence or between sentences' (De Certeau 1988: 100). Applied to walking, asyndeton 'selects and fragments the space traversed; it skips over links and whole parts that it omits' (De Certeau 1988: 101). Illustrating this, De Certeau writes that his friend from Sévres tends to 'drift, when he is in Paris, toward the rue des Saints-Péres and the rue de Sévres, even though he is going to see his mother in another part of town' (De Certeau 1988: 104).

Because of its location in the middle of several traffic lanes, the Dzerzhinsky statue itself invited the walker to skip over it. Paradoxically, its imposing size also contributed to this. Contrary to their intended objective, Yampolsky argues, 'monuments rarely become objects of a genuine cult or even admiration'; their high pedestals violate 'the obligatory placement of the object in art at – or slightly above – the passerby's eye level', and, as a result, monuments become 'almost indiscernible from up close' (Yampolsky 1995: 93). In addition, the monument possesses a 'sacral zone', a special area which surrounds it. The transgression of this 'sacral zone' produces shock, and this, in turn, keeps the worshipper at a distance. These transgressions are sometimes invited. For example, the Mamai burial mound in Stalingrad by Evgeny Vuchetich, the sculptor of the Dzerzhinsky statue, was designed to place the visitor in a 'traumatic proximity' with its immense statues (Yampolsky 1995: 94).

The Dzerzhinsky statue welcomed no transgressions. Surrounded by traffic lanes on all sides, it was completely fenced in 'by means of the repressive authority of the traffic police' (Yampolsky 1995: 106). Anatoly Gladilin gives a revealing account of the restrictive atmosphere of the Soviet-era Lubyanka in his experimental narrative Repetitsiia v piatnitsu: Povest' i rasskazy/Friday's Rehearsal (1978). He describes how, while passing Lubyanka, one of his characters notices a large car containing an important KGB official. As the car appears on the square, all of the traffic lights at once turn red, and two unsuspecting taxis and a diminutive Zhiguli end up on a sidewalk (Gladilin 1978: 32).

Excerpted from "Theatre in Passing: A Moscow Photo-Diary" by Elena Siemens. Copyright © 2013 by Elena Siemens. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Excerpts are provided solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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