Onion Domes and SkyscrapersPosted by admin on 11/23/09 • Categorized as Fall/Winter 2009
By Donna Oliver
Though I’ve certainly never visited all the world’s capitals, I’ve always felt confident that Moscow’s center, viewed from the south across the Moscow River, must surely rival any other city center in beauty, grandness, and—perhaps most importantly—distinctiveness. The wildly colored St. Basil’s Cathedral, juxtaposed with the severe walls of the Kremlin and its white churches with their golden cupolas, provides a picture that is not only strikingly beautiful, but also unmistakably Russian.
But now, off to the west, if you look at the city center from that same spot, you can see the dissonant construction of glass-walled skyscrapers on a distant bank of the river—a parallel center called “Moskva-Siti,” the future home of the burgeoning business district. An ambitious and aggressive project aiming to advance Moscow as a global city without sacrificing its historic city center, Moskva-Siti is the brainchild of the city’s equally ambitious and aggressive mayor, Yuri Luzhkov. It conveys in its very name (the Russian form of “Moscow” with the transliterated English word siti) the bifurcated self-identity of the capital; it is both a reflection of Russian pride and an assertion of the country’s global aspirations.
Cities are and always have been sites of transition, reflecting social, political, economic, and cultural changes, and the construction of Moskva-Siti attests to this fact. For the past several years, Beloit College’s Cities in Transition program has used this idea of dynamic change to “problematize” the city as a concept, with the underlying premise that such transition can serve as a productive focal point for the intellectual engagement of students studying abroad. To that end, “Cities” courses require students to embark on a more deliberate, more critical, and more self-conscious interaction with the spaces and places that surround them.
With successful semester-long courses established in China, Senegal, and Ecuador, the College launched its Moscow Cities in Transition course last fall for students enrolled in our exchange program with the Russian State University for the Humanities. That exchange has existed for more than 10 years, but students in the past had largely been on their own there, studying Russian, but engaging with the city outside the classroom only through their own initiative—never with a mandated critical eye.
As the instructor of the inaugural Moscow in Transition class, I titled the course Reconciling the Past and Present, the Public and Private, because I wanted students to think about the tensions implicit in these concepts as Russia continues its transition to a market economy. In their first journal assignment, I asked students to think about an interrelated set of words—reclamation, erasure, revision, appropriation, and adaptation—and to explain how they were going to define them in the context of Moscow as a city in transition, a city in seemingly perpetual dialogue with its past. I was pleased with the initial responses as well as the ways several students returned to these words and concepts in later assignments. Through these ideas, they began to see the ways in which the city is actively engaged in documenting and defining its own identity.
The course was taught primarily via electronic communication, requiring students to do an enormous amount of writing (a small portion of which appears here). In addition to completing a major research project on an aspect of contemporary life in Moscow, students engaged in mapping exercises to chronicle their changing perceptions of the city over the course of the semester. They also completed a series of exercises focused on the general topic of memorials and commemoration. They visited cemeteries, monuments, commemorative parks, and, in general, engaged the ubiquitous Russian term pamiatnik, which refers to statues but also broadly signifies just about anything with commemorative meaning.
A theme centered on this notion of commemoration and collective memory began to emerge in the course. In many ways, Moscow is a city obsessed with history, yet it is a history that seems to be in a continual state of revision. A case in point is the Cathedral of Christ the Savior, which dominates the riverfront to the west of the Kremlin. The original building was demolished under Stalin in 1931 to make way for the proposed Palace of Soviets, which was to be topped with a gigantic statue of Lenin. That project was never completed, and its foundation pit was transformed under Khrushchev into the world’s largest swimming pool (which I remember from my first visit to Moscow in 1978). The cathedral was reconstructed in the mid-1990s with Luzhkov’s blessing—a reversal of the original act of erasure of pre-revolutionary culture by a second act of erasure of a piece of Soviet culture. The past is reclaimed, but the motivation is far from straightforward.
Similarly, a new version of an old monument to Tsar Alexander II stands on the grounds next to the cathedral. Alexander, who freed the serfs and introduced various reforms in the middle of the 19th century, was assassinated by revolutionaries in 1881. Labeled a heroic act of self-sacrifice in the Soviet version of history, the assassination on the monument’s inscription is now described with a notably modern term: “terroristicheskii akt,” a terrorist act, and Alexander himself is once again held up as the tsar-liberator.
While most of the students initially lacked the background to pick up on these subtle acts of historical revision, they all developed a much more nuanced (and at times healthily cynical) perspective of the self-generated image of the city in which they were living. Students regularly commented on the strange juxtaposition of a nation eagerly embracing modern culture and a city so steeped in memory and the physical culture of memory expressed through memorials. Kirsten Engelbert’10, for example, chose to study the Moscow metro for her final project. She wrote about the contradiction the metro represents by its very nature: fast-paced modernity set among stations that are in themselves “emblems of history,” pamiatniki with murals that glorify the past—in this case, a Soviet past—through works of art replete with bronzed hammers and sickles and images of Lenin. At the same time, she observed, these magnificent works of art seem to blend into the background. No one pays attention to the history that surrounds them. Yet virtually all the pamiatniki in the metro—whether it’s a monument to World War II partisans or the one to a stray dog slain by a mentally unbalanced rider—are always adorned with flowers laid by unseen hands. Acts of commemoration are part of everyday life.
Though the course will benefit from revision and further development, the students’ writings convinced me that the design was on the right track. More importantly, the assignments were forcing students to look at the city and their role in it in a way that is different from how students had in the past. In that way, I hope that the course helps fulfill the promise of the College’s mission statement by actively engaging students’ “intelligence, imagination, and curiosity,” and thereby contributes to the transformative role that study abroad plays.
Donna Oliver is a professor of modern languages and literatures (Russian) at Beloit College, where she holds the Martha Peterson Chair for Distinguished Faculty Service.
In Their Own Words
Toward the end of the Moscow in Transition course, Anna Freeburg’10, Madison, Wis., wrote that she had started taking her surroundings for granted; she laid out nicely (and poignantly) the dilemma of the “resident guest”—becoming comfortable with one’s surroundings often means no longer observing them with the outsider’s critical eye. Something is gained, but something is lost as well. Other students similarly wrote in their mapping assignments about this transition from curious guest to seasoned resident:
“Routine plays a pretty dangerous role in all of this. Turning where the reflexes and habits tell you to turn is in one sense a good thing. It means that you’re comfortable enough to not really have to think about where you’re going. In this way, Moscow becomes home. In another sense, it could mean that you aren’t finding new places, and that there are big gaps in what you know about the city. It’s hard, once you’ve stopped getting lost on accident, to keep getting lost on purpose.”
— Kirsten Engelbert’10, Janesville, Wis.
“Along with my sense of the city grew my sense of my self within the city. I started out a tentative but enthused explorer, and I knew that I would acclimate quickly. Sure enough, it was not long until I sounded like my sister in New York, arguing over the best way to get somewhere and whether it is worse to make a rush-hour transfer at Belorusskaya or Komsomolskaya. I never felt like a real Muscovite—I am too intrinsically not-Russian, and I will never look or sound like a Russian girl my age. Eventually, though, I felt like a real transplant, a genuine inhabitant confident in the ways and means of the city and able to accomplish whatever I might need to.
— Shira Pittle’09, Hartsdale, N.Y.
“As I got busier at the university and wanted to spend time with friends, as twilight came earlier and earlier and shortened the number of walkable hours in the day, I explored less. To me this transition is simultaneously a positive and negative one: I did not get to discover new streets and neighborhoods so often, but I had a life and obligations.
I missed walking and being in the city as much, but I was also proud of the fact that I had managed to cultivate the sorts of responsibilities that imply you are no longer on vacation but actually belong to a place in a daily sense.”
— Maryn Lewallen’10, Littleton, Colo.
Students abroad are themselves in a state of transition, and their writings often reflect that fact:
“The more I walk through the city my mental map expands. … Every new place is an adventure. It makes me a little apprehensive, rather nervous. I hate to be unsure of where I am going, to be out of control of a situation. I never realized how much I rely on staying within comfort zones until now. I am obviously forced every day to confront ‘the other.’ That thought seems especially ironic considering I am the ‘other’ here.”
— Phillip Thomas’10, Columbus, Ohio
Nathan Hoft-March’09 wrote about yet another kind of transition—the perpetual state of incompleteness that many Russian building projects find themselves in:
“Moscow, I soon noticed, rang to a constant and hammering beat. The shrieking of saws and crackling of arc welders echoed through the streets during most of the daylight hours. This throbbing didn’t contain itself to the outdoors. There was a roving jackhammer in my dorm, going from floor to floor, top to bottom and then around again, in no particular pattern, and its friend the tile-saw ground busily away a floor or two behind it.
“The word is remont. Literally, it means ‘repair,’ but that doesn’t cover it. Remont is an institution unto itself, an almost proud tradition held over from Soviet times. It is the state in which most buildings here find themselves: an endless cycle of repairing and remodeling, in which nothing is ever truly fixed and the project itself causes at least as much inconvenience as the original problem. … The Russian response to remont is the same as their answer to life’s other hardships: accept it. People grumble and roll their eyes, but when rush hour arrives and two of the metro’s four escalators are blocked off, everyone queues up with nary a word.”
—Nathan Hoft-March’09, Appleton, Wis.