Irkutsk

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Ten years ago, when travel was altogether an easier undertaking, I travelled by train to Siberia. Following the route of the Trans-Siberian Railway, and taking a few detours along the way, I eventually got as far as Lake Baikal before I turned around to head back home once more. The most easterly city I visited was Irkutsk. Lying at about the same latitude as Birmingham but as far east as Bangkok, it seemed strange after many days of rail travel to arrive in an Asian city that seemed to still cling firmly to Europe, or at least the part of Europe that was Russia.

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Lenins of the world, unite!

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I don’t quite know what it is but whenever I have come across an old Lenin statue anywhere in the territories of the old Soviet Union I have usually not been able to resist taking a photograph. It may be it purely a matter of posterity – these things will not be there for ever. But perhaps it for other reasons – vague nostalgia for something I never had the opportunity to experience, or a sneaking regard for an idealistic yet flawed political system that had such indomitable self-belief? Another part of me acknowledges that I am drawn towards old Soviet statuary in the same way I am attracted to photogenic ruins: as revolutionary ghosts manifest in stone and concrete that serve as repositories for the recent past.

IMG_6856The countries of the former Soviet Union have widely differing attitudes to displaying representations of their erstwhile leader Vladimir Ilyich Lenin. The new Baltic countries and those of the Caucasus region, keen to sever any lasting connections with the USSR, tend to shun them completely – most of the old statuary has long been toppled and reduced to rubble or hardcore for roads. In a few cases, like the irony-heavy Grutas Park in Lithuania, the statues have been collected together and repurposed to make a joke of the past by creating a sort of Soviet-era theme park. This comes complete with statues, barbed wire, military music and canteens that serves ‘Soviet-style’ food – dishes that feature cabbage, beetroot and, of course, vodka.  Such a move is motivated by nostalgia to some extent, but it is also undoubtedly partly taking the piss.

IMG_7900Ukraine, which once had an impressive number of Lenin statues, has got rid of up to 500 of these over the past couple of years, an ideological casualty of the civil war and perceived Russian aggression in that divided land. Currently many still remain in place but President Petro Poroshenko has recently signed a bill setting a six-month deadline for the removal of the country’s remaining communist monuments and so their days are probably numbered – in the pro-European west of the country at least.

IMG_5854Elsewhere, where Soviet-era murals are attached to buildings or just too cumbersome to remove wholesale, the offending revolutionary faces are simply scratched away. I once saw a hillside in Uzbekistan where a Lenin-shaped ghost image was left where a giant face had been erased from the landscape. Once lovingly marked out in stone, the image of the revolutionary leader was no longer needed – or indeed desired – in a newly independent country presided over by a self-elected president-for-life. I have seen much the same sort of thing in Georgia – murals of Soviet period scientific achievements in which Lenin’s face has been clumsily redacted by means of a chisel. Curiously, local boy Stalin – a far more murderous character than Lenin ever was – is still revered in some circles in that country. A museum to the ‘Man of Steel’ – more a shrine of very dubious taste – still stands at his hometown of Gori together with a statue that used to have pride of place in the town’s main square.

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Russia has long condemned Stalin’s brutal excesses but his predecessor Lenin can still to be seen in more or less every town and city the length and breadth of the land. The same can also be said for Belarus, Russia’s closest ally in Europe. Kyrgyzstan – the Central Asian country I know best – is much the same, the only only place in Central Asia where it would appear that the recent Soviet past is not thoroughly scorned. Weather-beaten statues and busts of Lenin can still be seen in most towns in the country, although these are now slowly being usurped by shiny heroic representations of national heroes like Manas and Kurmanjan Datka.

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Photographs from top to bottom (all ©Laurence Mitchell)

Lenin and bust in Soviet sculpture park, Moscow, Russia

Lenin waving at civic buildings, Yekaterinberg, Russia

Lenin in taxi-hailing mode, Irkutsk, Siberia, Russia

Nonchalant Lenin, Pskov, Russia

Redacated Lenin face on Soviet space travel memorial, Akhaltsikhe, Georgia

Lenin and friends, Russian flea market, Tbilisi, Georgia

Dynamic ‘caped crusader’ Lenin, Tirasapol, Transdniestr

Lenin the theatrical performer (note the redacted face on plinth), Kochkor, Kyrgyzstan

Lenin the thinker, Jalal-Abad, Kyrgyzstan

Lenin points out the lofty Ala-Too mountains beyond the city (not any more though, he’s been moved and now faces the other way), Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan

Stoic upright Lenin with Kyrgyzstan flag, Chaek, Kyrgyzstan

Pleasure of Ruins

IMG_9714Abandoned Soviet-era hotel, Kazbegi, Georgia

“You don’t know why ruins give so much pleasure. I will tell you. . . Everything dissolves, everything perishes, everything passes, only time goes on. . . How old the world is. I walk between two eternities. . . What is my existence in comparison with this crumbling stone?”   Denis Diderot

IMG_9700Mount Kazbek and valley seen from abandoned hotel, Kazbegi

Entropy has its own beauty: the serendipitous artfulness of decay – the romantic ruin aesthetic. The crumbling stone mentioned above, quoted in Rose Macaulay’s Pleasure of Ruins, refers to the classical world but the principal is the same. Like the effect of medieval cathedrals on awestruck, little-travelled peasants, ruins put the viewer in direct contact with the inevitability of time, with their own mortality and decay. Like mould growing in the Petri dish of mankind’s hubris, they illustrate the way in which the delicate interface of man and nature can perceptibly change in a relatively short period.

IMG_4567Abandoned Soviet-era restaurant, near Mestia, Svaneti, Georgia

Sometimes, there are darker violent forces at play, the guilty, flinching schadenfreude of gazing at post-conflict landscapes. More usually though, architectural ruins simply result from financial or political bankruptcy, of a national or regional ideological refit. Abandoned to nature, they stand quietly rotting before consignment to the architectural skip of failed (or rejected) narratives.

IMG_4560IMG_4561Abandoned restaurant near Mestia, Georgia

These days such sights tend to be more common in the countries of the post-Soviet world than they are in Western Europe. Nevertheless, even these are vanishing fast and I have no idea whether the Georgian buildings shown in these images from 2010 are still nobly rotting away or have been bulldozed to make way for new development. Georgia is, after all, a country that in recent years has distanced itself as much as possible from its neighbours across the Caucasus and, in defiance of its recent history, done its utmost to buddy-up with the neoliberal West. I like to imagine how these places might have looked 30 years ago: the Kazbegi hotel filled with holidaying Soviet workers; the Mestia restaurant, with Moscow apparatchiks slurping borscht and slugging vodka. Surely they must have enjoyed the view?

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Lake Baikal

Listvankya on the northern shore of Lake Baikal in east Siberia is a small fishing village and port that also serves as a holiday destination for Russians in the short Siberian summer. By late September summer is definitely over and there was a melancholy end-of-season feel about the place when I visited in 2010. It was also surprisingly cold and the fact that Lake Baikal freezes so solidly in winter that you can drive trucks over it seemed perfectly believable.

This was the furthest east I got on that trip, having arrived in the nearby city of Irkutsk on the Trans-Siberian railway from Moscow. The Russian tourists had all left Listvyanka by the time I arrived and apart from a few fishermen, a handful of locals and a large population of ravens I had the place very much to myself.

Dacha

Reading a recent article on the excellent Earthlines blog about Gerry Loose, and then finding out more about the Scottish hutting movement and specifically the Carbeth hutters community in Stirlingshire, I have come to the conclusion that I am probably something of a closet hutter at heart. The best that I can ever probably hope for though is to have my own shed one day.

It is a common enough passion – indeed, books have been written about British (predominantly male) shed culture. But, with no rear garden and a backyard too small to comfortably squeeze a shed into, the closest I currently get to fulfilling my fantasy is my city allotment where I have inherited a tumbledown structure without door or window glass that is filled with garden tools and grumpy secretive spiders. Too small and decrepit to serve as a comfortable retreat, this shed is clearly no place to linger but at least I have a plastic chair en plein air for whenever I need a rest from wrenching couch grass out of the ground. 

In northern Europe, and especially in Scandinavia and Russia where even the middle classes live in apartment blocks,  the situation is quite different. Here, many city dwellers have a wooden hut and a patch of ground to call their own – a simple rural haven where they can enjoy a little R&R and temporary respite from urban life. No nation embraces this tradition more than Russia, where a country dacha is seen not only as a place to grow vegetables but something akin to a holiday home: a base for collecting berries and mushrooms in autumn, for fishing, for sunbathing; a place for friends and family to gather around food, to drink vodka, play games and sing. A dacha is a place to spend summer weekends al fresco, a place where city children can learn about nature. In Russian society, a dacha serves a function that is a combination of allotment garden, beach hut and social club. To have a dacha is not a Walden-like solitary pursuit but, rather, something that proudly shouts out ‘community!’

I was lucky enough to visit a dacha a couple of years ago on a long, late-summer Russian journey from Pskov, close to the Estonian border, to Irkutsk near Lake Baikal in eastern Siberia. At Krasnoyarsk, 18 hours west of Irkutsk on the the Trans-Siberian railway, I had arranged to stay in the family apartment of a local tour guide and political science lecturer called Anatoliy. After picking me up at the station and meticulously showing me all the permutations of the city bus route to and from his identikit Khrushchevki apartment block (the very last stop, thankfully) he took me out to show me his country dacha that, coincidentally, was close to the railway tracks that I had just travelled along. 

There is more to Siberia than gulags and permafrost but life is hard nonetheless. In the few months of the year when the ground is not snow-covered there are plenty of other things to contend with, notably predatory mosquitoes and nasty infective ticks everywhere in the grass. Given such limitations, I was hugely impressed by the size and vigour of Anatoliy’s cabbages and also by the efforts he took to tend them given that we had driven for more than an hour to reach the dacha. Even more  impressive was the air of autumnal tranquility that seemed to hang over the place like a healing balm. In Siberia, autumn may be just a brief golden precursor to a long dark winter but  September is the most glorious of months.