Russia: It’s complicated

Heinz billboard, Russia

When people ask me how I liked my trip to Russia and Israel, I gush non-stop about Israel and tell them that they MUST go there at once. I insist. Israel was everything I thought it would be and more.

“But what about Russia?”

Well, any country would suffer in comparison to Israel. But that’s not the whole story.

I had some conflicting feelings about much of what I saw in Moscow. The statues in particular were troubling to me, as they represent everything I hate, yet I found them to be aesthetically stunning. Here are just a couple:

Communist sculpture spotted this morning in Moscow.

Another Commie sculpture from this morning in Moscow

I expressed my disturbance to my close friend Adriana, who grew up behind the Iron Curtain as the child of dissidents and also knows me very well. I wanted to know what I was allowed to feel about these things (without actually phrasing it that way). I asked how she regards such art, considering her background. Adriana very generously allowed me to quote her here:

You can’t control your aesthetic sensibilities and taste – if you like something, you like it no matter what it means. Also, communism is something you understand intellectually and, of course, emotionally to a larger extent than most, despite never having experienced it directly (that is the crucial bit because it means you have no direct associations with that type of art).

I do and I find it hard to appreciate. The associations with communism take over and I see what it represents before I see any artistic or aesthetic merit. It’s like associating a certain fragrance with a person or a situation – positive or negative – it’s something that happens in your brain, whether you like it or not. Of course, you can re-programme it or override it but I haven’t.

[A mutual friend] has some interesting thoughts on that. He’s rather fond of some fascist (Mussolini era) architecture, despite its dark origin and purpose. But again, he hasn’t directly experienced fascism, which makes his appreciation of its architecture possible on purely aesthetic grounds. Btw, this in no way belittles or, god forbid, dimisses your understanding and hatred of communism or [our friend]’s of fascism.

Think of it in terms of fragrance – there’s nothing offensive about it anymore, it may even be appealing and attractive, but I still recall the underlying stench that may be long gone….

I have more to say about my experience in Russia, but it’s difficult to commit to putting it in writing. It’s just such a complex place. I will quote from Samizdata on the enigma of Russia:

Russia is what it is and does not fit neatly into any of the categories we have heretofore used to describe it. Russia is no longer a simple ‘evil empire’. Today it is simultaneously many things, some of which are opposites. It is a place where organized crime has great power; where ex-KGB officers long for the old days; where very smart and well educated people create new ideas and companies; where old imperialist ideas and suspicion of foreign influence exist and the Orthodox church has regained much power over society. It is such a hodge-podge of pulls and counter-pulls that virtually anything I can say about it will be wrong.

This of course makes it a fascinating place to watch.

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One thought on “Russia: It’s complicated

  1. I love this post. Not only because I’ve felt the same way (in different circumstances) but also because I admire your honesty about it.

    Commitment to the ideals of human freedom affecting what we think about art and culture is a very positive thing. That we can allow ourselves the freedom to admire things aesthetically without embracing the ideas behind them is good.

    I’m still so envious of this trip!

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