Tag Archives: Leningrad

War Heroes and Empty Frames

28 Nov

In a room full of portraits, I look at empty frames.

This is the War Gallery of 1812 in the Winter Palace, now part of the Hermitage Museum in Sankt-Peterburg.

Here’s the story:

Alexander I commissioned portraits of some three hundred military heroes who achieved the rank of general in the Patriotic War of 1812 against Napoleon.

English artist George Dawe, with a couple of Russian assistants, completed portraits of all but thirteen, who (I have been told) died before any likeness of them had been preserved. For each of the thirteen faceless generals hangs a canvas covered with green silk, framed, and bearing the general’s name.

The whole of Russia knew the names of those whose portraits were placed in the War Gallery of 1812.

One could write a heroic ode to each of them.

So says the Hermitage website.

Now, if you’ve ever gone to a Russian museum, you know that a Russian babushka (an old–frequently, very old–woman) militantly guards each exhibit.

I dare you to put your dirty boots on that velvet-covered bench. Or sneak a picture with a flash. Ha! Or forget to check your coat at the garderob, god forbid.

That is nekul’turno. And babushkas will tell you about it.  Forcefully. The whole of Russia knows that they are in charge.

I swear, one could write a heroic ode to each of them.

More than twenty years have passed since my first visit to the Hermitage, and the babushka brigade is unchanged. Still wrinkled, stern, frumpy, and often barrel-shaped.

Except that the brigade has totally changed.

My Hermitage babushkas have long since retired; most, I suspect, are dead.

They were the Greatest Generation of babushkas.

Forget the Patriotic War of 1812, our 1980s babushkas had lived through the Great Patriotic War, the one we call (prosaically and impersonally) World War II.

They had survived the blockade of their city. For nearly three years, Leningrad was under siege.  No public transportation.  Often, no heat, no water, no electricity.  Mass starvation. Rumors of cannibalism.  Countless deaths.

Real war heroes.

I’m sorry to say that the babushka pictured above is more recent, part of a terrific photography project called The Guardians of Russian Art Museums. I love what the photographer has done.

But, he was too late to capture the likenesses of the women I try to remember.

Not for the General Reader

12 Jul

I do not believe that butterfly-chasing, literary superstar Vladimir Nabokov worried much about what people thought of him.

And, yet, Nabokov’s memoir (Speak, Memory), a lyrical conjuring of a very privileged childhood in pre-revolutionary Russia, snaps out of its reverie in Chapter 3 with this aside:

The following passage is not for the general reader, but the particular idiot who, because he has lost a fortune in some crash, thinks he understands me.

My old (since 1917) quarrel with the Soviet dictatorship is wholly unrelated to any question of property.  My contempt for the emigre who “hates the Reds” because they “stole” his money and land is complete.  The nostalgia I have been cherishing all these years is a hypertrophied sense of lost childhood, not sorrow for lost banknotes.

And finally: I reserve for myself the right to yearn after an ecological niche:

…Beneath the sky
Of my America to sigh
For one locality in Russia

The general reader may now resume.

I love this passage.

I love it because we are all, in fact, robbed of the ecological niche of our childhood, bolsheviks or no bolsheviks.  (The house I grew up in is now rented to a bunch of college students.  Or, here’s an example a little closer to Nabokov’s ancestral estate:  There’s an IKEA store on the outskirts of Moscow today.)

I love this passage for my own selfish purposes also.

For years I have tried to imagine how I might reserve for myself the right to yearn after my own particular ecological (and temporal) niche in Russia: a dilapidated student dorm in Leningrad just before Perestroika.

It’s unseemly to love those last crumbling, corrupt years of Soviet rule.

Unseemly because we, American students, were just visitors, not permanent inmates.

Unseemly because Americans were in deficit (to put it in Soviet terms), and we enjoyed a wholly unjustified popularity everywhere we went.  We had the right jeans, the right backpacks, sturdy (and stylish!) boots and coats.  With western currency in our pockets, we were like billionaires.  We had access to everything, and Russians wanted access to us.

Getting a date was a cinch.  You didn’t have to be particularly pretty, particularly witty, particularly smart, particularly anything.

But those are just the banknotes.  You must not confuse me with those Westerners who returned again and again to Soviet Russia to bask in that sort of easy attention.  My contempt for them is complete.

My old (since 1991) regret at the opening up of Russia is unrelated to any question of property.  I regret the loss of a wretched, shabby, peculiar moment that happened to be mine.

The nostalgia I have been cherishing all these years for Leningrad in 1983 is a hypertrophied sense of lost youth, not sorrow for lost banknotes.

The general reader may now resume.