Click on photos to enlarge.
Two days ago in Moscow I attended a memorial to Russian politician and activist Boris Nemtsov on the six-month anniversary of his murder. I was one of what I might call a big crowd in a small space. There may have been 150 people crammed into the hall at the Sakharov Center. We were told there were that many again standing outside listening to the goings-on by way of an outdoor PA system. Three hundred people honoring one of the great men of his generation six months after he was gunned down on a bridge outside Vladimir Putin’s office in the Kremlin. Was that a lot?
My wife Oksana Mysina and I were – how shall I put this? – surprised by many of those who did not, could not, find the time or energy to attend. There were two actors there – Oksana and the divine Natalya Fateyeva, both of whom delivered heartfelt, even fiery, messages that many said afterwards were the highlights of the evening. To my knowledge, there was one writer – Dmitry Bykov. God bless him for coming. He was in a hurry though. He came late and left shortly after speaking.
What is my point, and what does it have to do with the photos I’m posting today? Well, this: It is often an uphill battle getting folks in Russia – especially those in the creative professions – to get off their duffs when the topic of conversation is one that surely concerns them more than anyone else. I’m talking about Russia’s long history with repression. There’s a legend – probably apocryphal – that the architect of the spectacular St. Basil’s cathedral on Red Square in the 16th century was summoned to the Kremlin by the Tsar and asked if he could do that again. When the proud artist said, “Yes,” the Tsar – according to the legend – had his eyes put out and said, “No you won’t.”
True or not, myths and legends come into being for a reason. The fact of the matter is that artists have run afoul of Russian authority for a very long time. We can go back to Alexander Radishchev in the 18th century to find a writer sent to Siberia for displeasing Catherine the Great. (I’ve written elsewhere on this blog about a way-station in Tomsk where he stopped during his trip into exile.) In the early 19th century the persecutions increased, affecting in different measure many of Russia’s greatest minds and talents – Alexander Pushkin, Pyotr Chadayev, Alexander Herzen, Nikolai Chernyshevsky (see my blog on this site), Fyodor Dostoevsky and many more.
By the time we reach the 20th century – particularly in the Soviet period – the topic takes on diabolical proportions. The numbers of writers, artists and performers who disappeared, or whose lives were crippled, in the labor camps or in exile, are staggering.
A few years ago – 2012, to be exact – we saw a heartening upsurge in the activity of creative people protesting increasingly oppressive government policies. There was a marvelous, so-called Writers’ Walk down Moscow’s boulevards that drew a substantial number of readers and writers – probably 12,000 or more. Shortly after that there was the so-called Artists’ Walk, which drew fewer people, but was every bit as spirited and freewheeling. But that was three years ago. Laws oppressing free and creative speech continue to pile up and artists appear to have withdrawn into themselves. The grueling war in Ukraine and the murder of Nemtsov (he was shot four times in the back by as-yet unknown – or undisclosed? – assailants while walking home after having dinner) cast a pall over Russian opposition activities and thought. Despair, fear, indifference and aloofness have taken over.
But enough of the pathos. I’m here today to share some photos of the Solovetsky Rock which – rather incredibly – stands in the shadow of the imposing NKVD/KGB/FSB headquarters on Lubyanka Square. The rock, a piece of granite transported in from the notorious Solovki labor camp (which in the Soviet years replaced the Solovki Monastery, which, in its turn, was founded in the 15th century by the monk Zosima, whose name was used by Dostoevsky to designate a humble church elder in The Brothers Karamazov) is here to commemorate the victims of repression during the Soviet years. The monument was unveiled Oct. 30, 1990. At that time, curiously enough, a towering statue honoring Felix Derzhinsky, the first head of the Soviet secret police (the CheKa), still stood just a stone’s throw away. Thus, right there in that one plot of land there were monuments commending one of the great killers as well as those whom he and his successors had killed.
These days the Solovetsky Rock usually looks rather forlorn. For a short while, in 2011-2012, it was the site of occasional political protests. Not so any more. It is now a mostly forgotten and relatively ignored spot on the Moscow map. I rather suspect that if anyone were to dare mounting a protest here now, they would be hauled off in an instant. On any given day there may be more or less flowers laid on the pedestal supporting the rock. There are a few dusty old wreaths, left from some time in the past. There are precious few people around them, however. And with that ominous FSB/KGB/NKVD/CheKa building hovering in the near distance (read a blog about that on this site), you get the feeling that there is something quite anomalous about this whole thing. As if you know the authorities would just love to clear this crap out of here but they don’t quite know how to get away with it. (There is constant talk, for instance, of returning Iron Felix Derzhinsky to his original perch on the still-empty pedestal on Lubyanka Square. That might be a suitable pretext.)
In the meantime, this strange, virtually invisible, stand-off continues – the rock reminding anyone who wants to remember how bloodthirsty various Russian governments have been, while ground zero for the vast majority of the bloodshed looms large and proud over the territory. Russian Wikipedia informs us that Russian President Vladimir Putin, a former KGB officer, has never visited the Solovetsky Rock. Anyway, there it stands, a symbol of our time – surely a thorn in the side of some, but essentially ignored by everybody.
The paradox of this monument and its location is echoed by a restaurant located in a modern shopping center across the street from both the FSB headquarters and the Solovetsky Rock. The name of the restaurant is quite astonishing: The Dissident. You can see that title on the right-hand side in the second photo below. This name stares directly at the FSB headquarters and can be seen by anyone standing at the rock monument. The facade of the shopping center is visible in the photo immediately below – it is the rounded structure immediately to the left of the first of three pine trees (counting from left).
Isn’t that something? Everybody knows. Even a restaurant that is probably frequented by FSB agents on their lunch break is called The Dissident. Meanwhile, a granite boulder plucked from one of the deadliest prison camps in the Soviet Gulag, stands facing the secret police building, although nobody really pays it any attention.
The reality, however, remains. At least 60 of the 188 posts I have made on this blog involve people or places directly or indirectly affected by the forces and events represented by this monument and the building, next to which it stands. Recent texts about Igor Stravinsky, Sergei Rachmaninoff, Joseph Brodsky, Lev Loseff, Mikhail Chekhov and Osip Mandelstam all involve people who either fled repression or were caught up in it.
I am intrigued by the deceptiveness of the rock itself. Viewed from one angle, it appears to be just an inert, shapeless, massive blob. See several of the photos above, for instance. But from other angles, it suddenly takes on a sense of dynamism and sleek form, and appears to be in the process of trying to stand up. See the photo immediately below for that. This feels very much like Russia today – inert and motionless, yet striving to raise itself, all at once. An enigma, indeed.