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Notes from an Expedition: A Tattoo, Not Taps, at the Kremlin

by David A. Andelman

MOSCOW—On January 30, 1982 I stood on Red Square with a CBS News camera crew, surrounded by an army of the world press, as the Kremlin leadership, marshaled in a long, straight line atop Lenin’s mausoleum, commemorated Mikhail A. Suslov, the ascetic keeper of the flame of Soviet Communist orthodoxy. It was, at that point the most elaborate state funeral since Stalin’s, as hour after hour, Soviet weaponry and manpower rolled through the square as we shivered in 30-below zero temperatures, ice crystals clogging our nostrils with every breath.

This past week, on that same Red Square, the temperature in every way was far warmer. Were Suslov, his stern bronze bust over his grave behind the tomb of Lenin at the base of the same Kremlin Walls able to react, it would no doubt have been in stony silence as the most closely held precepts of his brand of communism were shattered. Here, the last week in August, each evening, marching bands of a dozen nations strutted their stuff for thousands of guests, many paying prices for prime tickets that in 1982’s most austere times would have been a year’s salary.

The occasion was the annual Spasskaya Bashnya, in the shadow of the towering turrets of the Kremlin’s Spassky gate, “an international military tattoo.” But the military bands that marched through the square had little in common with the parades that marked the funerals of Stalin, Suslov, or Leonid Brezhnev. There was the military brand of a free and independent Ukraine—a nation that Stalin cemented into his Soviet Empire via sword and an induced famine that killed as many as 12 million Ukrainians in the horrifying winter of 1932. Imagine what Stalin or Suslov would have said about this band vintage 2011 marching under the flag of a proudly independent people—not to mention the boogie-woogie sounds that wailed from their brasses, woodwinds, and snare drums, as they gyrated their hips.

Then, of course, there were the Chinese stilt-dancers, the Jordanian bagpipers clad in their keffiyehs, the French Foreign Legionnaires, and the Swiss Top Secret Drum Corps. The only top secrets still held in today’s Russia are within the walls of the Lubyanka—the KGB (now FSB) headquarters/prison on Dzerzhinsky Square. Today, the statue of Felix Dzerzhinksy, the feared founder of the Soviet secret police, has been torn down and the large roundabout that carried his name from 1926 until 1990, re-baptized simply Lubyanka Square—a name it had held since at least 1480 when Ivan III transplanted to the neighborhood a horde from their native Novogord. Now instead of Dzerzhinsky, a simple stone memorializes the victims of the Gulag that Dzerzhinsky, his successor Lavrenti Beria, and their successors sent to their deaths in Siberia.

There are so many memories, so many ghosts in today’s Russia. Scores of landmark streets have been renamed. Gone is Gorky Street, the same broad thoroughfare returned to the name of Tverskaya that dates to the early middle ages and Moscow’s chief rival, the community of Tver. Gorky, the revolutionary, author, and founder of Socialist Realism, has been relegated to the same dustbin of history where he’d sought to remand scores of his predecessors of the Russian literary firmament.

Still, many remnants of those bygone times cannot be erased. The communist hammer and sickle linger on in the elaborate décor of many of Moscow’s elaborate, chandeliered metro stations that remain as tokens of Stalin’s promise to build “palaces for the people.” The bureaucracy that he encouraged, too, has hardly been erased—layers of propiska or permits, still indispensible for fulfilling many of the most basic daily rituals. “It may take a generation or more to rid ourselves of this mentality,” smiled one elderly Russian. “Or perhaps this will never happen, it is so much a part of our very soul.”

There are so many mixed feelings about the days before and after the revolution, as the firebreak of 1990 is called—when communism was finally scrapped, something its leaders had long promised would be the fate of capitalism. A recent poll by the website Slon.ru suggests that half the Russian people would want their children to grow up in a foreign, preferably western, land. And this includes the many who still yearn for the return of communism, or at least Vladimir Putin, who was himself trained as an agent of the KGB and exudes just a touch of its flair and power.

In three weeks, the promise emerged this week, Putin’s hand-picked successor as president, Dmitri Medvedev, and Putin himself, now serving as Prime Minister, intend to disclose their plans for next year’s presidential election. The whole nation is holding its collective breath.

In 1982 as Suslov was about to be lowered into the ground beneath the Kremlin Walls, Brezhnev, his long comrade in arms, by then ailing and enfeebled, read from a shaking piece of paper: “Sleep in peace, our dear friend. You lived a great and glorious life, you did much for the party and people, and they will maintain your bright memory.”  A memory that today so many are striving manfully, and apparently with growing success, to erase.

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David A. Andelman, editor of World Policy Journal, has just completed his 20th visit to Moscow… but his first since 1987. He is on a five-week expedition through Russia, Siberia, Mongolia, and China.

[Photo by David A. Andelman]

You can read his next dispatch, Driving to Distraction, here, or visit the Notes From the Expedition homepage here.

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