Bolshoi in Russia: Lenin, Stalin and other marketing icons still alive and kicking

I have always wanted to see Russia. Growing up in a satellite communist country, with the Soviet Union–the occupying force–pitched as the Evil of all Evils, it took me a while before I thought I could honestly visit the country with an open mind. Nineteen years after the end of communism in Central Europe, to be exact.

Needless to say, I grew up imprinted with a lot of stereotypes about Russia and Russians: They are expanding. Unemotional. They are alcoholics. Xenophobes. And especially: the world would have been better off if Lenin was never born and the Tsar kept ruling Russia.

It’s scary how deeply those stereotypes get rooted when you are bombarded with them from early childhood. I am not saying that some sterotypes aren’t true about Russia today, but they are not exactly helpful when you want to have an open mind about a place. Of course, I really didn’t want to go to Russia just to confirm the stereotypes. I felt like Russia was the missing piece to my view of the world–primarily the political world–and understanding it would greatly help.

With that said, I do think that Russia would have been much better off had the Tsar stayed in power and the Communists never took over.

Soviet memorials

That’s why I was surprised to find so many Soviet plaques, statues and memorials throughout Moscow. Under communism, the Soviet Union was one of the major players in the world; one pole of the bipolar world we all grew up in; well, the older ones of us at least. Even after the Soviet Union split up, Muscovites didn’t feel the need to take down all the signs, the statues and memorials. That is very different behavior from the Czechs, for example. Czechs took all those things down so fast, you wouldn’t believe it. Too fast, some claimed (including Western tourists who expected it of us). After all, it is, and always will be, an important part of our history.

In Russia, Soviet memorials now coexist peacefully with the Tsar memorabilia. Proud displays of the times when Russia was a primary player in world affairs. The times it clearly misses.

Marx’s statue still dominates the square by Teatralnaya metro station. It says: “Workers of the world, unite.” Plaque’s commemorating Lenin are displayed on buildings everywhere. They get as ridiculous as stating that “Here in this building, V.I. Lenin had a speech at a conference in 1917.” Of course, there is the Lenin mausoleum and, next to it, a cemetery of most Russian leaders, including Stalin.

Russians have a conflicted opinion about Stalin. A friend mentioned that they still do not view him primarily as a mass murderer, like the rest of the world does. They view him as a hero, who won a major war for them: the Patriotic War, as they call World War II here.

The Sculpture Park, a lovely little park right next to the World’s ugliest statue I wrote about earlier, has an interesting collection of Soviet statues that were, perhaps, too ridiculous to keep in the streets. Behind a dominant statue of Stalin is a striking memorial to his victims and political prisoners (see photo).

Romanticizing the communist past

Soviet memorabilia is still a great business here. Stands selling anything from Russian fur hats to propaganda posters are still as popular as ever. Old Arbat, what used to be the heart of Moscow’s art community, is–sadly– filled with such stands. They provide an ironic backdrop to Starbucks, McDonald’s and other symbols of capitalism that now dominate the strip.

All of those souvenirs are, of course, not authentic, although they are certainly supposed to appear that way. They are mass-produced, probably somewhere in China, and sold to Western tourists wanting to appear retro chic. It honestly cracks me up to see all these 18-year old kids–kids, who never lived through the Cold War and to whom communism is merely a chapter in their history book–wearing Lenin T-shirts or at least a Che Guevara hat.

If there was such a thing as a “poser university”, wearing communism-romanticizing gear would have to be its graduation gown.