Donnerstag, 20. August 2015

What Russia and Berlin have in common

Russia and Berlin have some things in common. Instead of improving their crumbling houses or their terrible infrastructure (streets, buses, trains, pipes, insulation etc...), both Berlin and Russian cities rather invest their city budget surplusses (ok, in the case of Berlin, there is no surplus, but a lot of money coming from other German regions) in gigantic nationalist memorials and representative buildings or statues reminding everyone of the glorious past (in the case of Berlin, sometimes also the not-so-glorious past) or trying to impress the world with unnecessarily wordly and expensive architecture of new government buildings (like the Kanzleramt).

[Need I say how I miss the modest times of the ugly, small Bonn government buildings when Germany looked as if it had indeed learned the lesson that you can be important without showing off "representative" bullshit everywhere. But hey, at least it's not Erdogan's presidential palace yet... But in fact this modesty of politicians in material and representative things is one of the aspects I absolutely love about Switzerland (the way some Swiss politicians and parties openly express their right-wing-radical, xenophobic opinions is another story...)]

So this piece is about Russian monuments and memorials. Writing about this, one has to remember that the German brutality on the Eastern front and Stalin's strategy being "just bring in ever more people and don't evacuate cities" made the Soviet Union suffer the most victims of any country involved in the Second World War, estimated at 27 million (13 million soldiers and 14 million civilians), compared to "just" 6.35 million German, 6 million Polish or 400,000 US casualties. So to some degree, it is understandable that Russia would tender to this chapter of history more than any other country involved in the war.

But even so, one can get the impression that Russians (yes, they are not alone with this, but they do it in a rather eye-soring manner) like to forget the sorrows of the present by always reminding them of a heroic and glorious past that gives them their self-worth. Brutally put: Their heads live in the past, a past in which they were "winners". Putin also often reminds his people that they are a "nation of winners" - these days, you see "Pobyeda" (victory) signs everywhere reminding of the 70th anniversary of the end of the war. Nothing like this in American or British or even Polish cities - the Poles anyway do prefer to cultivate their image of being heroic, martyrial victims of evil neighbours rather than being winners of a war.

"One for all - Victory" - sign in Khabarovsk for the victory parade and festivities that will take place on September 2 to remember the end of the Second World War

Similar sign in Moscow at the airport Sheremetevo
In Russia, people distinguish the "Second World War" and the "Great Patriotic War" (Великая Отечественная война).

  • The "Second World War" one started in 1939 with the German and Soviet occupation of Poland, and it ended in September of 1945 when the Japanese surrendered (the Soviet Union quickly declared war on Japan in the summer of 1945 to snap the island of Sakhalin back from Japan). 
  • The "Great Patriotic War" instead was sometimes mentioned to me by people as "the part of the war in which the Soviet Union was involved" (as if it hadn't been involved in the attack on Poland and the executions and deportations there).

So most memorials only show the years of the Great Patriotic War (1941-1945), as if 1939-1941 (and with it, obvious Soviet guilt and wrongdoing) had never happened, probably the most striking example of the selective historic memory distorted by Soviet legacies reducing the Russians to sole defendors, victims, heroes and winners. That memory is still alive with many (not all!) people here to this day, and Putin does a good job of making sure it is here to stay.

To keep the illusion alive that Russians have been and still are predominantly heroic winners - or at least a great, strong nation, they have built and keep building colossal memorials. Some of the more drastic examples that I have seen:
  • In every Russian city, be it large or small, there is a Lenin memorial to this day even when the Communist ideology could not be further from the rather raw form capitalism that Russia is experiencing nowadays. These must have cost billions to erect and still probably cost huge sums to maintain (they look pretty much intact and well-cared-for everywhere I went).
Lenin in Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk

Lenin in Vladivostok
  • Volgograd, formerly Stalingrad (it was allowed to call itself Stalingrad again two years ago for a week or so when they commemorated 70 years of the battle of Stalingrad. "Stalingrad" is still a popular name there, many I talked to would like this name back and see no negative connotation with "Stalin" in there).

    Volgograd/Stalingrad has the largest statue of a human on Mamaev Kurgan (Mamaev Hill, conquering this hill was important in winning the battle). The statue itself is surrounded by other gigantic temple-like Soviet-style memorials and churches on the hill. It all looks quite impressive and shocking at the same time, it is like a temple made for the religion of Russian nationalism.

    The city where millions of soldiers and civilians died (and where, to this day, war materials and helmets of unidentified soldiers are found every day in the surrounding steppe) boasts many other massive heroic memorials (one of them of course being Lenin). All are in pretty good shape, whereas the rest of the city is just rotting away. Of all the larger cities I have seen in Russia, Volgograd was the shabbiest one. Nowhere else were the streets fuller of potholes, the buildings in a worse state, and, coincidentally maybe, nowhere else were people living in the supposedly glorious past as much as here. To be fair, these memorials were built in Soviet times, but they are being kept intact which costs a lot while the city around it crumbles.
    Rodina-mat' on Mamaev Kurgan

  • Sakhalin: When I arrived on the shores of Sakhalin, the largest Russian island north of Japan, my ship landed at the port of Kholmsk, a town where the houses, bridges and the port itself looked as if we had had time-travelled back to the Soviet days. What is worse though: The buildings are the same, but in the Soviet days they were at least still new. Now they are falling apart and rusting along on the background of beautiful green, misty mountains:

    In the capital of Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk, however, you see a lot of new representative buildings and an uber-gigantic war memorial on the Square of the Glory of the Russian Soldiers. The city has only about 100,000 inhabitants, so you would wonder whether one such memorial wouldn't be enough, but no, yet another huge arc-type memorial including a huge church with golden roofs (ok, golden roofs are standard in Russia) and a square (Victory Square) are being built at the foot of the cable car to the gorny vozduch mountain (where you can go skiing).

    To be fair, Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk at least has decent streets (they remind me a lot of American streets, so they are not great, but ok), but the huge oil money that comes in here from Exxon, Shell and Gazprom could be used more to the benefit of the people here. A better and more comfortable ferry connection to the mainland, a tunnel or a bridge to the mainland, better housing, a lot of sensible things could be done.

    But apparently, the biggest gas-exporting region of Russia does not even have plans for the installation of gas services on the island itself. So the gas goes to China and Japan and Korea, but the local population gets not that much out of it. Also because of corrupt politicians: A friend here put it like this: "They do spend a lot on infrastructure, but nothing gets done." (Meaning the money is being gathered and "spent", but it stays in the pockets of those who received the money without much action. The last governor of the island was recently put into jail because of corruption, in September there will be elections of a new governor.

    On September 13, elect the Governor of the Sakhalin Oblast (Region). Hotline number.

    A banner warning of corruption and the consequences: "Want to offer a bribe? Think of your responsibility." The poster then quotes the law that can make people sit in prison for up to 12 years, with a penalty of  70 times the sum of the bribe. 
    The island has the highest rate of youth crime and the pollution through the gas and oil exploitation dirties the groundwater and causes higher rates of cancer than anywhere else in Russia. So there are a lot of real problems that could be dealt with better with all that money. But since the present is so complex, let's live in our glorious distorted image of the past and build another gigantic memorial first... 
Gigantic church and "victory arc" currently under construction in Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk
The same from another perspective

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