Six Places to Visit in Red Petrograd

St. Petersburg may boast many sights, such as the Hermitage Museum and its Rembrandts, the bustling stretch of Nevsky Prospect, the stunning theatres with ballet and opera, or the Orthodox Cathedrals. But a very different city beckons anyone who is interested in its red history. This was the place where the Russian Revolution first happened, the home of massive strikes, protests, the overthrow of the tsar, counter-revolutionary and revolutionary waves, especially the victory of the Bolsheviks in October 1917. What parts are ‘left’ of Red Petrograd, as it was known?

Finland Station

Arrive by train from Finland, or simply walk over the Neva River. Finlandskii, the Finland Station, will greet you. Or rather, Lenin’s statue will greet you – with his arm outstretched, addressing the gathered crowds as he did on his arrival at the station in April of 1917. He and other Bolsheviks had returned to Russia from exile in Switzerland in the ‘sealed train’. They were stunned by the sheer enthusiasm of the massive crowds, including many soldiers, who greeted them on arrival. But Lenin was to stun the crowds in return, calling on the people to complete the revolution that had merely begun in February of that year with the overthrow of Tsar Nicholas II. No one was persuaded at the time, but by October he had done so. The rest, as they say, is history. If you are prepared to search more diligently, the original train engine that hauled their carriages into the station may be found in a glass shed and the armoured car from which he delivered his speech is held in the Russian Museum.


Slightly away from the centre of town lies the Smolny Institute, now the residence and offices of the governor of St. Petersburg (one of two cities in the Russian Federation, the other being Moscow). But Smolny’s claim to fame is that it was the buzzing nerve centre of the October Revolution. At that time in 1917, cars and trucks would race off and back, with urgent messages, leaflets, posters, Red Guards, equipment and what have you. Armoured cars stood guard, lights blared, people barely slept, keeping up a frenzied pace as the revolution unfolded.

Here too Lenin stands at the foot of the steps leading into the institute. He is poised in a gesture of urgent speech, clothes swirling about him, intense look on his face. Behind his back, in the institute itself, is a Lenin room, his office during the revolution. It still has many of the memorabilia from the time, but you need to make an appointment. But he faces the Square of the Proletarian Dictatorship, which stretches before Smolny. Walk down the wide avenue through its centre and you meet Engels, framed by the cupolas of the Smolny Cathedral. Engels looks across to Marx, who stands there in eternal reflection. Beneath them both children play with each other.


On the Neva sits the cruiser Aurora at anchor, a ship more than a century old. On board you will find that it was the ship that came up the river in support of the revolution, firing the shot that was the signal for the storming of the Winter Palace, where the government (Provisional Assembly) was holed up. Its crew was run not by officers but by a soviet (council) of sailors, which made all of the decisions. The ship itself came from Kronstadt naval base, the radical core of the military that had gone over to the Bolsheviks (and a reminder that any successful revolution needs to win over the military). Wander the decks, stand by the gun that fired the famous shot, ponder how 570 men made a small ship their home, and encounter item after item that commemorates its role in the revolution. Flags, medals, plates, insignia, all with hammers and sickles aplenty.

Peter-Paul Fortress

Crossing the Neva you cannot miss the stunning gold spires of Peter-Paul fortress. It was a place of dread for revolutionaries before October 1917, for here they were incarcerated while awaiting sentence (usually to Siberia). With little warmth, dreadful food and over-crowding, it took a sturdy soul indeed to hold up under what was regarded as ‘normal’ punishment at the time. Siberia was a holiday by comparison. Every single one of the Bolsheviks spent time here, Lenin included.

But come the revolution and Peter-Paul became a vital point, for here was the all-important Petrograd military garrison. Would they come over to the revolution or not? They met and met again, discussing the question endlessly. Members from the communist movement would address them and so would opponents. In the end, some of the garrison went over, while the rest decided not to assist one way or the other. (At this decision, the Aurora, which has trained its guns on the fortress, swung them over to aim at the Winter Palace.) When the revolution was won, they all joined in to defend the new order.

Mars Field

Less known but well worth a visit is Mars Field, where political protests would first gather before marching out on the streets. In the centre of the vast open space is square a surrounded by a two-metre stone wall. An opening in the middle of each wall, three fir trees and a red flag in each corner, an eternal flame burning in the centre in memory of those who fell in the October Revolution and in the ‘civil’ war that followed for some four years – ‘civil’ since the White Armies were funded, equipped and assisted with troops by the international forces opposed to the new communist state.

Each entryway has poetic texts engraved in stone, using religiously inspired language of  martyrs, seeds sprouting from the fields of the fallen, the new world that was being created, the sheer moments of grandeur to which their grandchildren would bow down in awe. But who was the author of these texts? Look carefully and you will find the plaque that tells you they were penned by Anatoly Vasilyevich Lunacharsky. He was the ‘poet of the revolution’, but also a ‘God-builder’, playwright, polemicist, gifted orator, romantic, art and literary critic, prolific writer, expert on the history of religions, revolutionary, inspired first Commissar for Enlightenment in the new Soviet government, key to winning over the intelligentsia to the new project, and even the one who coined the term ‘cultural revolution’.  He was hailed by admirers throughout the new Russia as ‘a true apostle of enlightenment’.


St. Petersburg may have returned to its former name after 1989, but is Leningrad still to be found? Arrive by plane and look closely at the international airport code. LED it is, short for Leningrad. And go into the country outside the city; there you will find that it is called Leningrad Oblost (region). But the greatest surprise is to depart the port by ship. Not a passenger ferry or liner, which leaves from the other side of the port, but the container terminal Ro Ro. If you are lucky, a container ship carrying passengers may be about to set sail (I took a Finnlines ship, full of Russian truck drivers with massive guts and huge, bristling moustaches). If it is winter, or even on the edges of winter, the port and the Gulf of Finland in which it lies may be frozen over. So as the ship crunches its way out of the port, keep a watch for the headlands. There, in massive letters, welcoming and farewell sailors and their ships, is the word ЛЕНИНГРАД.


Travelling the Soviet Union

Gennady Andreev-Khomiakov was one of the many anti-communists writers who came to live outside the Soviet Union and direct many of their energies to undermining the Soviet project. Arrested while still a teenager for counter-revolutionary activities (probably in the White Armies, but he does not say), he was given a commuted death sentence in one of the labour camps. After ten years (1926 to 1935), he was rehabilitated – as many were from the camps – and then spent a happy number of years working various parts of the Soviet Union before Hitler invaded in 1941. Voluntarily enlisting in the Red Army, he was captured by the Germans and chose to stay in West Germany after the war. What intrigues me about his memoirs, Bitter Waters, is that he found himself drawn into the socialist offensive, the amazing, chaotic and productive years of industrialisation and collectivisation in the 1930s. Despite his best efforts, he cannot conceal the ingenuity and enthusiasm that characterised most people during that time.

However, I am most drawn to his depictions of travel after he was rehabilitated, one a brief account of living in a small village after his release and of walking, the other a longer account of an early motorcar journey.

Living in the Village and Walking the Steppes

The house had a typical provincial yard, spacious and thickly covered with a shaggy grass – called ‘broomstraw’ by the locals – lilac bushes, and dozens of fruit trees. In the back yard the widow kept a goat and five or six chickens. The animals, the fruit trees, her hand-knitting, and my rent were her livelihood. Constantly busy with her domestic chores, the fussy old woman inaudibly and unhurriedly moved about the house, accompanied by a lazy old cat whom fate also smiled upon. Evenings I went out into the yard, lay down in the grass, and for hours idly gazed upward at the magnificent sky, the brilliant, starry abyss. Alone with the rustling grass, the lilac bushes, and the dark foliage of the trees in the quiet reverie of the southern night.

As a teenager I had been a great wanderer and loved to spend the whole day out in the steppes. Traveling around the district, my former passion was rekindled. Sometimes I would walk ten or fifteen kilometres just to feel again the thrilling closeness to nature that I have fully experienced only in the steppes: the road, weaving in and out among the hills and foothills; the endless hum of wires buzzing overhead; a dung beetle suddenly appearing out of nowhere, droning resonantly; the song of an invisible bird filling the endless sky. Vast expanses, and in my chest the exact same expansiveness, happiness, and light, peaceful calmness. No one is visible for tens of kilometres around. I walked alone, with nothing but the eternal quiet and calm of the steppe surrounding me – no past, no future. Walks like these are like a bath. You are absorbed in them, cleansed; and afterward, you breathe more easily.

The Motorcar Journey

Once I was getting ready to go to Moscow on business. Neposedov, who had no travel plans, suddenly announced that he was going, too. He proposed traveling by car via Rybinsk and Yaroslavl, I was surprised: ‘For pity’s sake, Grigory Petrovich, that’s more than six hundred kilometres away! What do you think we are, champion auto racers? Six hundred kilometres on our roads! We would devour so much gas that it would cost us a fortune. And your tyres couldn’t take it’.

‘That is exactly why I am going – because they cannot take any more’, winked Neposedov. ‘We can swing by Volga Construction in Rybinsk and buy tyres from the chauffeurs there at a good price. Get my drift? The gas is a trifle, and the road from Rybinsk isn’t bad; we can somehow manage up to Rybinsk as well. How about it? I don’t want to go alone’.

It would be easier, of course, to go by train and be in Moscow in three hours. Neposedov’s route would take a minimum of twenty-four. But the weather was marvellous and the thought of more travel to new places was tempting. I agreed.

It was mid-morning, about ten o’clock, when we left. We drove hastily through town, scattering chickens in the dusty streets on the outskirts, then set off down a soft country road. A cool breeze wafted through the open windows. The road wound along a meadow with yellowing birches, set like a picture in the quiet drowsiness of Indian summer.

Twilight was rapidly approaching. The farther we went, the worse the road got. The car tossed about mercilessly on bulges in the pavement, pushed up by tree roots. ‘Let’s hope we don’t wreck the shocks’, worried Neposedov, letting up on the gas.

‘Shouldn’t we stop for the night in the next village?’ I suggested. ‘The road is lousy, and our tyres are no better; if we rip them up, we’ll be stuck’.

‘I’d rather not’, Neposedov said, twisting around in displeasure, ‘but since there’s no hurry, I suppose we can stay over one night’. (61)

The high cottage with four windows also looked uninviting. The walls had been darkened by time, and paint was peeling from the intricately carved window frames, which were rotting in places. The sharp peak of the roof leaned forward, as if the house were frowning morosely. Yet the thick log walls revealed that in its day the house had been built wonderfully well, to last many years.

We rapped on a small, sturdy gate, which also had weathered many a year, but received no answer. We went into the yard – not a soul in sight. There were no carts, sleighs, or harrows leaning against the barn, either. The doors of the wide barn had been thrown open, and one surmised that it was also empty in the darkness behind them. Beyond the barn, a few sheds and coops huddled together. Farther on, behind a picket fence, there appeared to be a kitchen garden. The yard, too, had been converted into a garden. The only footpaths were right next to the house and farther back, near the coops. Cultivated beds, either bare or with the withered remnants of potato plants, occupied the remaining space. There was no movement or sign of life anywhere, A broom leaned against the door on the high porch—evidence that the master of the house was away.

We sat on the little porch for half an hour, awaiting the owner. It was already dark when a tall, spare, sinewy old man of about sixty appeared from the back yard. He greeted us without apparent surprise. We informed him why we were sitting in his yard.

‘You can spend the night, we’ll make room for you’, the owner responded unenthusiastically, stepping up onto the porch. ‘Come on in’.

In the house he lit a little kerosene lamp and we looked around. The room was orderly and clean: a table; a wide bench along the outside wall; several Viennese chairs; a little fireplace; darkening lithographs on the walls. The place looked shabby, but it was evident that at one time its inhabitants had lived well. Neposedov inquired whether we could get some milk, eggs, something to eat.

‘Of course you can, but do you know what they’re charging for milk and eggs these days?’ asked the owner in a dry, unfriendly tone, ‘They really sting you’.

When Neposedov responded that we would pay city prices, the owner softened a little. ‘My wife will be home soon and give us a bite to eat. Till then, why don’t you have a seat?’

We sat down. Our host puttered around the house morosely. Conversing with him was going to be a hopeless task. His wife turned out to be the exact opposite. About ten years younger than her husband, friendly in appearance and efficient in movement, she greeted us cheerfully: ‘Welcome! Be our guests’. She brought us an earthenware jug of fragrant milk, some bread, and a bit of butter. Supper for herself and her husband was bread, milk, and boiled potatoes. ‘Take some potatoes, too; so tasty with milk! And even more so with butter; they will jump right into your mouth!’ the loquacious woman rattled on in a pleasant Yaroslavl accent. Neposedov, who always felt very much at home with simple people, began to joke. By the end of supper the host had also thawed, and he did his part to keep up the conversation.

After supper we sat and rested, offered cigarettes to our host, and chatted about life. The old man had come out of his shell completely and now talked readily.

It had rained a little in the night, and the sun gleamed brightly in the puddles as we drove on. The dust had been dampened down by the rain, the air was intoxicatingly clear, and we cheerfully rolled along the soft country road.

There wasn’t even a whisper of trouble in the air, and we were in a great mood. The weather was perfect, the car was running well, the road was smooth, we had lots of gas – what more could we want? Forgetting that good fortune always goes hand in hand with bad, we would pay dearly for our complacency.

We had gone about ten kilometres when the ear began to weave strangely, as if it were lame on one foot. Neposedov’s face fell. He stopped the car and threw himself out of it as though it were on fire. Following after, I found him already squatting next to the right, rear wheel, sombrely examining the tyre casing.

‘Well, here we are’, growled Neposedov in response to my inquiring look.

The casing had come apart – lengthwise, no less. Not only the rubber, but the inner cloth layer had been abraded, leaving only a swatch about a foot long, riddled with holes, through which the reddish rubber of the tender inner tube shone pitifully. Give it a little more pressure and it would completely disintegrate. We could go no farther; we were finished.

‘Well, here we are’, Neposedov repeated thoughtfully. ‘What should we do?’

What could we do in such a situation, stuck without a spare tyre in a dense forest about fifty kilometres from Rybinsk, on a country road travelled only by a Volga Construction gasoline or other truck once or twice in twenty four hours? There was no way out of this situation.

‘If only we had something to hold the casing together’, remarked Neposedov. ‘Perhaps we could somehow hold out until Rybinsk. But what could we tie it with? We have nothing’.

We dug around in the trunk, in the tool box – sure enough, nothing there.

We looked around: a wide clearing, with forests on both sides. No sign of anything we could use to secure the casing.

Suddenly I detected an amused glimmer in Neposedov’s eyes. Smiling, he flung open his coat and took off his belt.

‘Uncinch yourself!’ proposed Neposedov, laughing. ‘Your trousers won’t fall down, and if they do, you can hold them up with your teeth! We won’t be sitting in the middle of the road, but getting out little by little’.

With absolutely no other way out, I also removed my belt. Fortunately, my trousers stayed up without it. We bound the casing tightly with the two belts and proceeded cautiously. But no matter how soft the road, the belts did not hold very long; they were worn out after a few kilometres. However, we had gotten closer to civilization. A field appeared on the right, surrounded by wire fencing. In it we found good pieces of telephone wire for binding up the casing.

‘Just hope it doesn’t cut the inner tube’, worried Neposedov. So we crept along at the speed of a horse, checking the casing frequently. A farm village came into sight. There Neposedov bought dozens of rawhide thongs – long, thin belts. We substituted the thongs for the wire and crawled along farther at the same pace. The stops, the unwinding and rewinding of the casing took up a lot of time. The hands of the clock passed twelve. It was more than a little wearing on the nerves. At first it was funny; then dealing with the casing became tedious; finally, we were fed up.

After a couple more hours we came to a large village. In its centre stood a rural cooperative retail store. We went in and greedily eyed the shelves. Wouldn’t something be suitable for our casing? Learning what we sought, the saleswoman led us to the harness department. It was a treasure trove of saddle straps and small belts of all kinds. We were dazzled. We picked over strap after strap, testing its durability and elasticity, and stumbled on some thick, soft rawhide strips, as wide as the palm of one’s hand, which could not have been more appropriate for our purpose.

‘What are these things for?’ queried Neposedov.

‘I do not know, myself’, responded the saleswoman phlegmatically. ‘On the invoice they appear as lassoes, but nobody knows what they are for. They are not in demand in our locale, so they have been lying here since they arrived. No one has bought any. Almost all the goods here are defective: either too short, too narrow, or too wide’, the saleswoman explained with the same indifference.

‘Well, we will relieve you of some of your defective items’, remarked Neposedov. ‘Give us five of those lassoes’.

Not to be embarrassed in front of anyone, we drove out of the village and stopped in a field for capital repairs. We wrapped the torn casing so well and firmly with a lasso that all of the holes were covered. We also wrapped another casing that looked to be in danger.

Finishing our work, we stepped back, entranced: The vivid, bright yellow belts looked splendid against the black background of the automobile.

‘They turned out fine’, Neposedov shook his head. ‘We’ll be just like a circus, entertaining the public. Since everyone who sets eyes on us will be amused, we can collect money for providing a diversion’.

At first we drove slowly, frequently checking the patches. The straps held. We quickened the pace – the straps held. Our spirits rose. Perhaps we would get to Rybinsk? We arrived in Rybinsk – the straps were holding and nothing had happened to them.

We could find no tyres either in Rybinsk or in Yaroslavl, so we travelled on the lassoes all the way to Moscow, which we reached only toward evening of the third day. Neposedov had driven the car from Yaroslavl to Moscow at a good clip, because by then we had a strong faith in the durability of the lassoes.

Images, Statues and the Representation of Revolutionary Leaders

Having visited a number of socialist countries – both former and present – I have begun to notice a few differences. It may be called socialism with ‘national’ characteristics. I do not mean the big-picture issues of governance, economics, social organisation and ideology. No, I refer to more everyday matters, especially the practices and naming and representation.

On one of my first visits to Eastern Europe and Russia, I was drawn to a flea market outside the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral (Eastern Orthodox) in Sofia, Bulgaria. Amongst the usual junk stood a gleaming bust of Lenin. ‘Fifty euro’ said the weathered man behind the pile of old goods on the table. I made a half-hearted effort at bargaining, but he could tell I was not skilled and that I really wanted the statue. He would not budge – and soon enough had fifty euro in his fist. But I had the statue, made before 1989. It sits at home, the far-seeing eyes and chin of history still trying to discern the future. Beside him stand a number of comrades who have joined him over the years. These days in Eastern Europe you can find statues and busts aplenty, as the old factories have begun to pump them out for tourists seeking communist chic – Lenin, Stalin, Brezhnev. Every flea market across Eastern Europe has them, but they do not quite have the same claim as my original Lenin bust.

Since then, I have encountered the comrades on many occasions in that part of the world. Turn a corner in a metro station in Red Petrograd and there is Lenin, casting his eye over proceedings. Walk through the Square of the Dictatorship of the Proletariat and there are Marx and Engels, with children playing at their feet and a majestic bronze statue of Lenin pointing across the square. Explore Stalin’s Seven Sisters in Moscow and be overwhelmed by the symbols and insignia of Soviet presence. Take a road trip in a beaten up Volvo across Bulgaria – with a chain-smoking opera diva as a driver – and see new statues of Dimitrov, the communist hero, or even plaster casts of Marx, Engels, Lenin, Stalin and Dimitrov sitting around a table at a coffee shop. Cycle along the Spree River in East Germany and, in village after village, encounter a Friedrich Engels Strasse, or perhaps a Karl Marx Allee, or even a Karl Liebknecht Weg.


The governments may no longer be communist, but the presence is palpable. What about China, where the government is very much the communist party? Any preconception that no-one talks about Marxism or even Mao Zedong is soon dispelled. On a visit to Mao’s birthplace in Shaoshan in Hunan Province, I could have acquired a three-metre statue and taken it home with me (I settled for one of ten centimetres – easier to pack). At the ‘red tourism’ site of the Yan’an Soviet in Shaanxi Province, I haggled over a green t-shirt with Mao’s image and a slogan emblazoned across the front. After paying my respects at the mausoleum in Tiananmen Square, I somehow acquired a pocket watch, silk painting and Beijing Opera style stage set, all with images and writings by the good chairman. In Nanjing, a paper cutter made me a glorious image with Marx, Engels, Lenin, Stalin and Mao all in a line – Maenlestamao, they call it. And in Hunan Province, I marvelled at all the taxis and cars with statues of Mao on the dashboard. He is there to ensure that the driver remains safe on the road.

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Yet I struggled to find a single town, road, street or even tiny lane named after one of the revolutionary leaders. Puzzled, I asked someone. ‘Chairman Mao expressly forbade us to do so’, she said. ‘Why?’ I asked. ‘Well, he did not want us to get too carried away with worshipping him and the others. But there is also a Chinese tradition: you do not use the names of the dead – for children but also for streets and towns. The dead keep their own names’. Perhaps the closest the Chinese come to such a practice is the common saying, ‘Let’s meet at Mao’s statue at nine o’clock’. Of course, this can be said only in China.

Only recently have I visited the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, or ‘North Korea’ as it is known informally elsewhere (the people there do not like the name). Keen to acquire a statue, t-shirt or perhaps another item with an image of Kim Il-Sung and Kim Jong-Il, I began browsing the various shops and markets we visited. I soon found I could buy books written by them and about them, with photographs and paintings inside the books. But statues for sale were nowhere to be seen. They have plenty of t-shirts, but only with flags of the DPRK, place names, messages of welcome or even a representation of the Pyongyang metro. Yet none with either or both of the Kims. As for place names, forget it. They might have Pulgunbyol (Red Star), Kaeson (Triumphant Return), Samhung (Three Origins) and Rakwon (Paradise), but not Kim senior or junior. I asked whether it was possible to get hold of some images. ‘We do not do that here’, I was told, ‘since we regard them as almost sacred’. ‘But what about the shirt pins I have seen? I said. ‘Some have both of the leaders, others have one’. ‘Oh’, she said, ‘they are marks of merit and trustworthiness for those who have shown long-term loyalty. You cannot but them; only the government can give them to you’.

In the cities and towns were statues aplenty, colossal ones of almost Pharaonic proportions. Here we offered flowers and bowed to show our respects in the Korean way. We could take images on our cameras, of either the two Kims who had died, or even of Kim Jong-Un who was still very much alive. Even then, we were advised: ‘Please take whole photographs and not parts of the statue, since that is disrespectful’.

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In Russia and Eastern Europe recalling and respecting revolutionary heroes meant: representations yes, place names yes; in China: representations yes, place names no; in the DPRK: representations no, place names no. From naming everything to naming nothing, from an endless supply of images and statues for purchase to none at all, at a cultural level ‘socialism with national characteristics’ has taken very different forms. I am not sure who shows the greatest respect, since for me the ability to have fun with the revolution is the way of showing the greatest respect. But perhaps this is itself another particular characteristic.

Review of Christian Wolmar’s ‘To the Edge of the World’

Review of Christian Wolmar. To the Edge of the World: The Story of the Trans-Siberian Railway. London: Atlantic Books. 2013

No reliable recent history of the Trans-Siberian Railway exists. Unfortunately, Christian Wolmar’s book does not fill that role. It is many things – advocate of the railway, entertaining read, anti-communist, ode to tsarist faithfuls – but it is not a history that will stand the test of time. For that, we still have to go back fifty years to Harmon Tupper’s To the Great Ocean (1965), and even there one encounters a curious mix of history and anecdote that also appears in Wolmar’s book.

This is not to say I did not enjoy reading the book. I did so in bed in the evening, racing through the chapters and dreaming of my next journey on the Trans-Siberian. Wolmar writes lightly, if a little too hastily, so the text is easily digestible. To his credit, he focuses mostly on the railway itself. It is the real actor in this story, which runs from the long process in the late nineteenth century of deciding on such a massive project to its role today. Almost half the book concerns the railway’s construction, from the slow process of deciding to undertake the project, through a loving portrait of the man who made it happen (Sergei Witte), to the extraordinary engineering achievement of completing a 9,288 km line in a little over a decade (1892-1903). It passes through some of the most difficult terrain in the world – through remote mountains, vast forests, marshland, endless steppe, permafrost and areas with constant seismic activity.

The initial line ran in its eastern section through what was known as Manchuria, cutting out a long loop, running north-east from Lake Baikal and then down the Amur River to Vladivostok. It also relied on an ice-breaker to take the train across Lake Baikal, due to the forbidding terrain around the lake. Manchuria, of course, became a flash point, for the Russian tsar turned the Chinese concession to build the railway through their land into outright imperial expansion. A modernised Japanese navy also had imperial ambitions, so it was inevitable that a clash would ensue. The Russo-Japanese war (1904-5) was the result, and the railway was one factor, although not the prime factor, as Wolmar suggests. Due their severe losses in the war, the Russians decided to complete the north-eastern loop to Vladivostok, which was ready by 1916 – the year before the October Revolution in 1917. Yet, this focus on wartime is one of the weak points of the book. Wolmar has a hawkish bent for military matters, having a written a book called Engines of War (2010). Railways were, of course, as much military constructions when they were first built as anything else. Until the advent of aircraft, they were the fastest way to move troops and military hardware. So we find long sections on the Russo-Japanese War, the Civil War, and the Second World War. All the same, wars are interludes to the much longer peacetime running of a line, and Wolmar leaves one unsatisfied on that account.

He cannot quite decide whether the railway was a triumph or a tragedy. On the one hand, he exults over the greatest railway in the world, writing of its profound effect on Siberia. The commission in charge of the railway spent more money fostering Russian settlement in Siberia than on the railway itself. Whole towns were built, settlers were given reduced fares and financial assistance, and the agricultural and mineral wealth of Siberia began to make an impact. Some of the richest coal and oil fields in the world were opened up, and agricultural products such as grain and butter (yes, butter) flowed westward. The railway – at least the regions close to it – became woven into Russia as never before. On the other hand, he constantly notes the mistakes made. While he berates western naysayers, who were vocal from the moment construction began, he too joins the chorus from time to time. The line required constant upgrading, from the initial single track with its too-steep gradients and light steel, to the multi-line arterial that it is today. The cost of the construction was astronomical, a cost that the tottering tsarist regime could ill-afford during revolutionary times.

However, he reserves most of his carping criticism for the long era that the railway was crucial to the Soviet Union. No lover of anything that tastes remotely of socialism, he praises the monarchist Sergei Witte (minister of finance and in charge of the railway commission) to the skies. Meanwhile he berates the soviets for their misuse of the line. In passing, he cannot help note that the railway provided both the means for the massive industrialisation under Stalin, as also for the extraordinarily rapid relocation of industry eastward after Hitler’s invasion in 1941. Indeed, he hints that were it not for the railway and what it enabled, the Red Army may not have won the Second World War. Yet, he betrays a distinct wish that the White Armies might not have been so brutal, that the massive support (in money and equipment) for those armies might have been better coordinated, that they had used the railway to better effect, so that they might have triumphed in the Civil War that followed the Russian Revolution. That Wolmar’s father was Russian, sympathised with the White Armies and hated the socialists until his death is clearly a factor here.

However, it was the soviets that made the line what it is today, a massive arterial route that is fully electrified from Moscow to Vladivostok. Some of the most difficult aspects of reconstruction, with tunnels, better gradients, and multiple lines were undertaken by the Soviet government. Much of the line had to be rebuilt after the Civil War. The soviets too constructed the BAM, the Baikal-Amur Mainline that runs hundreds of kilometres north of the eastern section of the Trans-Siberian, from Tayshet near Lake Baikal to Sovetskaya Gavan on the Pacific Coast. Perhaps one of the most formidable projects ever undertaken, it is 4,324 kilometres long, passes over and through impossible mountain ranges, alpine rivers, permafrost, and required the construction of 60 new towns. Begun in the 1930s, it was completed only in the 1991.

The paradox of the Trans-Siberian is that one usually thinks of it in terms of a passenger service. It takes seven days (six nights) to travel the full length, as I did in 2010 and will again in 2014. Wolmar cannot help providing anecdotes, either from his own trip on the line, or more often from others who have written of their varied experiences over more than a century. This practice is of course part of the genre of travel writing. One attempts to give a feel of the landscape, the people met, the quirky moments and crises overcome. I was often absorbed by these accounts, especially of the BAM and the appeal of travelling on the remotest line in the world (Wolmar relies on the entertaining account by the septuagenarian, Devla Murphy, in Through Siberia by Accident, 2005). While entertaining, it also reveals a dilemma Wolmar is unable to resolve. He cannot decide whether he is writing a travelogue or a history, and often falls in between both. The catch is that the prime purpose of the line was and remains freight. Massive amounts of minerals, timber, agricultural produce, and finished products are hauled over its length day and night. Indeed, it is far quicker to go overland with such freight than by the ocean. But the story of a freight line is far less interesting for the travel reading public, even though that would be a proper history.


A Sign of Intelligence: Stalin in Siberia

A sign of intelligence is the ability to make the most of the situation in which you find yourself.

This old piece of advice came to mind as I followed none other than Joseph Stalin to his second Siberian exile. In 1913 he was arrested by the Okhrana and sent for some years to the northern Siberian territory of Turukhansk – a vast area of taiga, winters of nine months, and minimum temperatures of -60 degrees. Initially, he stayed near the capital, Monastyrskoe, on the Yenisei River, which flows northward into the Kara Sea. The consummate escape artist was well-known to the Okhrana, and they were tipped off regarding yet another planned attempt.

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Joseph was promptly sent 180 versts (almost 200 km) further north, to the hamlet of Kureika on the Arctic Circle. Here 67 residents, made up of three inter-related families, lived in eight communal huts. Joseph – Osip to the locals – was allocated a corner in one of them. Existence was a struggle, to say the least. When Joseph had to visit the outhouse during one of the long nights, he made sure to take his rifle with him. A shot or two was needed to keep the wolves at bay. The inhabitants looked longingly southward, down the Yenisei River, for this was the only means of getting out the village. In winter, one would use a sleigh pulled by reindeer dogs (and surrounding by the howling of wolves), while in the brief summer, river boats were hauled along by dog teams. In between, the ‘bad roads season’ meant no-one could move.

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But others made this part of the world their real home: the Evenki (Tungus) and Ostyak peoples. Semi-nomadic fishers and herders of reindeer, they had creatively combined some elements of Russian Orthodoxy with their shamanistic practices – ‘shaman’ is itself an Evenki word. As one who had studied theology for many years, Joseph was intrigued by the way they held to beliefs in the spirits that inhabited the vast regions of Siberia. He would visit them, staying all night at their parties, and they would do the same to him. At other times, the company tended to be peaceful. When they visited, they would sit down for an hour or more in complete silence and then say, ‘Goodbye, we’ve got to go’. Joseph took to them.

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With a compliant companion-guard – Merzliakov – in the later years Joseph was able to roam freely with the Evenki and Ostyak. Initially, they brought him fish and reindeer meet, but soon they taught him to catch his own. A close companion, Martin Peterin, showed him how to make a fishing-line and cut a hole in the ice of the Yenisei River. Soon he had learnt the skills of hauling in sturgeon and sea-salmon. His skills became such that even the locals were impressed. ‘Thou ist possessed by the Word’, they said.

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Yet the fishing was not simply a matter of sitting quietly by the ice-hole on a sunny day. The Arctic is an unforgiving world. On one occasion, he was returning with a group of Ostyak comrades from a successful fishing trip. A blizzard blew up suddenly and separated him from the others. What to do? Abandon the heavy load of fish and speed up to catch his friends, or hang onto the fish and trudge on? There was little choice, for the fish would provide weeks of food. He stumped on, until figures loomed up in the snow. He yelled to get their attention, but they scooted away. Finally, a hut appeared with a light shining. He crashed in and his comrades said, ‘Is that you Osip?’

‘Of course it’s me. Why didn’t you wait when I called?’ He said

‘We thought you were a demon spirit’, one of them said. ‘You were covered in ice and snow’.

‘As you can see’, said Stalin. ‘I’m not a wood spirit’. He slept for eighteen hours after the ordeal.

On this occasion, Joseph was lucky. Losing a man on a fishing trip was not uncommon. On another such expedition, thirty men had gone out but only twenty-nine returned in the evening. When Joseph asked where the missing man was, they said, ‘Oh, he remained out there’.

‘What do you mean “out there”?’ Joseph asked.

‘He’s drowned’, said one of them.

‘Drowned?’ Said Joseph.

‘Why should we have pity for men’, said the other. ‘We can always make more of them, but a horse, try to make a horse!’

Many years later, Stalin would still eat fish the way he had learnt in Siberia. With little salt and with temperatures well below zero, they would pile the fish in the outhouse, stacking them up like wood. When hungry, they broke off flakes and let them melt their mouths.

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But the hunting he loved most, especially its solitude. Dressed from head to foot in reindeer skins and fur, he would head out on a sled hauled by reindeer. Of course, reindeer meat was one of the staples, but arctic hare, partridge and ducks also added to the stock. In summer, he took to a boat, hauled by dogs upstream and rowed downstream. Indeed, in the last summer of his exile (1916), he disappeared for some months. The fact that his young girlfriend, Lidia, was pregnant was perhaps an added incentive. Yet the main reason was common to all the Evenki and Ostyak: a long winter in crowded and reeking accommodation would lead to an almost insatiable desire to be out in the wide world of Siberia. Joseph was off too.

No-one quite knew where he had gone, although his amiable guard had an idea: ‘It’s an empty (uninhabited) place, this Polovinka. Just sand. Where was he fishing? There was nobody else there’.

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He was indeed on Polovinka, a remote island downstream on the Yenisei. He built a small hut with birch bark. The only others on the island were the few members of the Dubikova family, who had their own birch shelter. Occasionally he visited, and shared a meal of grilled sterlet. Otherwise, he was on his own. He fished for himself, tended his hut, went on long hikes around the island. Above all, he learnt to be comfortable and content with his own company – an invaluable skill.

As Molotov put it much later, ‘A little bit of Siberia remained lodged in Stalin for the rest of his life’.

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Tongues, Faces and Bodies: Another Way of Listening

‘Would you like to hear the talk?’ She said.

‘Yes, why not’, I nodded.

‘But you won’t understand anything’, said her friend. ‘How can you sit and listen for an hour to language that makes no sense. Surely you want a translator’.

‘Not at all’, I said. ‘I’d rather just listen and watch.

I was in Bulgaria, having completed a road trip from Sofia to the Black Sea Coast. The talk in question was about one of Bulgaria’s greatest women writers, and it was to take place at the town hall of Dobrich, a little inland from Balchik, the seaside palace of a former princess.

So what is it like to listen to a language one does not ‘understand’ in the conventional sense? Obviously, language involves so much beyond the ostensible content. Yet, so fixated are we on the content of the message that we miss all that goes on. Language training has as its aim the ability to ‘communicate’, to be understood and to understand, in written and spoken form. But it thereby misses the richness of language. Often I prefer not to be distracted so, released from the shackles of content. That way you can pay attention to all the other dimensions, such as the intonation, the type and mix of sounds, the movements of tongues, faces and bodies.

Let me give three examples. The subtle lilt of Bulgarian demands little if any movement of body and face. Eyes, nose, facial muscles remain largely still. The head barely moves and the body is kept still. Everything relies on the voice, its loudness or softness, its pauses and rushes, its consonantal conjunctions. By contrast, Russians throw their whole body into a talk. To make a point, a Russian pushes her whole body forward, projecting the words into the midst of the listeners. Her face runs through a gamut of expressions, whether defiance, disdain, charm, sensuousness, seriousness, or a lighter touch. The arms assist in the process, while not drawing attention to themselves. And the Russian sibilants, the breathed consonants, give a weighty feel to what is said – only to be lightened by the ever-present ‘y’ that precedes so many vowels.

What about the Chinese? Once, I attended a group discussion for over two hours, of younger men and women. The men embody in subtle ways the demeanour of the ancient scholar: the goatee being grown, both elbows on the table, which keep the shoulders up. The body is in constant low-level movement, and the hands, holding a pen or perhaps a page, lean over the text. Rarely do they put a hand on the face – to lean, scratch, stroke or pick (hygiene!).

The women have no such ancient model to be absorbed quietly and subconsciously over many years. Still both elbows are on the table, pages and arms move, and they too lean forward. Occasionally one leans back, but the head is held at a tilt.

A speaker is actually quite animated, although rarely does anyone look directly at the speaker. Thin-fingered hands touch, fold and unfold, hold a page, make a note, rub, straighten and curl. Now the elbows move back and lift a little. The head moves minimally and continually, tilting and turning. The eyes are quite expressive, darting about. Eyelids lift and fall, while eyebrows draw together and then part. All while the Chinese tones rush out in a fast-play musical score. As for the sounds, all one need do is rapidly move from curling the tongue slightly back, to pushing its tip up against the upper teeth, to pulling the lips back, to rounding them momentarily…  Soft gutturals emerge, myriad vowel-diphthongs, ringing syllables – all produced effortlessly. As for me, I continue to ponder the strange places my tongue would have to find to make such sounds.

Stalin’s Seven Sisters

What should one do in Moscow? Apart from paying your respects to Lenin and exploring the metro system, you cannot miss Stalin’s seven sisters. Sisters? Did Stalin have any sisters? Are they embalmed in a secret location, or are they a row of statues commemorating the man of steel’s siblings? Not at all, for they are among the most significant architectural wonders of Moscow.

This is a low cost exploration of Moscow, a real bonus since the city is not the cheapest of places to visit. All you need is one of the freely available maps, some loose change for the metro, and walking shoes. The seven sisters lie in a loose circle around the city, most of them in the Garden Ring. A single day is all it needs, although you can take a more leisurely pace over two days.

But what are Stalin’s seven sisters? They are a series of massive buildings constructed in the style of what is now called Stalin Baroque, a distinct architectural style that developed during the 1930s and carried through to the following decades. Since they are still among the highest buildings in Europe, the locals call them Vysotki – the tall buildings. They are known for high quality materials sourced from throughout the USSR, careful attention to detail and fine craftsmanship, and architectural sensitivity to human-centred experience. That is, quality was the operative word, for they were intended as showpieces, to display what was possible under communism, in terms of technological, artistic and aesthetic achievement. That they manage to dominate the skyline even today, in the midst of trashy contemporary efforts, is a testament to the achievement back then.

Many other buildings in Moscow also hail from this period, and they too are variations on Stalin Baroque. Our hotel, the Peking Hotel, is one of those. But we are keen for the sisters, so from the hotel we set out, in a counter-clockwise direction. Within half an hour’s walking distance is the Kudrinskaya Square Building – one of two apartment buildings drawn up in the original plans. Already visible in the distance from the moment we leave the hotel, suddenly it soars upwards at the moment we turn the last corner.

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Involuntarily we take a step back, attempting to absorb the initial impression. Here you can see the effect of the new building techniques of the time, with steel frames, concrete slabs, and then ceramic tiles and panels, all of which enabled the massive size of extremely solid buildings. My eye is drawn past the gardens in the front to the layout of the building itself. Following a wedding-cake design, with outer layers leading to the central spire, it draws your eyes ever upwards. At the top of the spire, at times wreathed in clouds, is the red star sailing in the heavens. Perhaps it is appropriate that Kudrinskaya was originally intended for scientists, cosmonauts and pilots.

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Drawing closer to the building is like approaching a massive painting, for now the ‘brushwork’ becomes apparent. Flowers, leaves, budding plant, and intricate patterns weave their way around the stonework, while balconies, pilasters and pylons are adorned with geometric patterns. Over the deeply wrought timber door – itself as high as a vaulted ground floor – are the dates of construction, 1949-54. And you cannot miss the claims of the Soviet era, with red stars and hammers-and-sickles encased in images of fecundity.

This will be hard to beat, I think. Surely, Kudrinskaya has set the standard to which all the others are to be measured. I am wrong, for our next stop is Hotel Ukraina, a short walk away.

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Rising from a turn in the Moskva river, it dwarfs all that is around it, making the later high-rises built in the vicinity look like cheap efforts lacking in imagination. Now the parapets are topped with urns, red stars in wreaths stand out from all points, the vast entrance doors seem like tiny trapdoors beneath the central tower spire that is literally reaching for the stars. And here too is another red star asserting its own place in the heavens.

Thus far we have encountered an apartment building and a hotel. Now we walk a short way to a government building, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.


This one is different from the other two, for it is set in the midst of other structures, many of them residential buildings and shops in Stalin Baroque as well. The Ministry is more compact, holding its outlying columns in close, keeping the leaping spire of the centre at a more modest level. The ornamentation is of a simple, geometric pattern, but the effect is to draw one’s gaze to the prominent symbol at the centre of the spire: a massive red star encased in a wreath.

For the fourth sister, we need to break away from the Garden Ring in which most of the sisters are found. Moscow State University is further out, almost at the end of the metro line 1 and across the winding river. Unlike the other sisters, which we take in from a distance and then explore at close range, the university emerges from the trees in parts. The intimacy of arrival initially conceals its grandeur, so we touch its statues of youthful and vigorous homo sovieticus:


and peer up at the stone banners and flags festooned with myriad reminders proclaiming the USSR, the victory of the Great Patriotic War, the stars and hammers-and-sickles:




Here the stonemasons and artists went all out, working every conceivable corner with relief sculptures, with symbols of plenty and the breadth of universal knowledge, all of it set in red, yellow and cream stone. How to take it all in? We found ourselves walking backwards for quite some time, until at last the whole panorama lay before us. Now the outer towers spread out, like arms from a torso – the walk around the whole building is three kilometres. The central structure itself rises and rises again, sporting statues and layers until the characteristic red star on its spire touches the planets. It remains the tallest educational building in the world.

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The remaining three sisters are not of the same expanse, but they each have their own character. The communal apartments (originally designed for elite housing) on Kotelnicheskaya Embankment are back in the Garden Ring, so to the metro we return.


Set on the confluence of the Moskva and Yauza Rivers, here the construction is simpler, with cream stone in a hexagonal design with three side wings, and each pinnacle finished with a flower yet to bud. A hotel and a ministry building remain; both of them close by Komsomolskaya metro station. The whole area around the metro is festooned with communist names and buildings, for outside the metro is Leningradskaya square, as is the hotel itself with the same name.

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The most modest of the sisters, it simply sports a central tower and is constructed of red, yellow and cream stone. Both it and the Red Gates Building can be seen in the span of a single look, so it is a short walk from one to the other.


Red Gates once housed the Ministry of Construction of Heavy Industry, although it is now an administrative building. The story goes that it was originally completed in a Moscow winter, so it was settled at an angle to allow for settling when the ground thawed. However, when the thaw set in, the building still did not settle sufficiently, so engineers pumped in hot water. Now it tilted too far in the other direction; not too far, thankfully, for it was still within in the angle of safety.



As we wearily tread our way into the last metro station, I ponder the era that produced such buildings. It spanned more than two decades, from the 1933 Palace of the Soviets competition to 1955 when Khrushchev did his best to unravel Stalin’s legacy. Two decades is not such a long time, especially when one considers that a considerable portion of that time involved the monumental effort of defeating Hitler’s massed armies in the Great Patriotic War. But what intrigues me the most is what these constructions reveal concerning both the spatial vision of a new communist order and Stalin’s surprisingly (at least, for his myriad knee-jerk critics) democratic way of operating. As was the case with his generals during the Second World War, Stalin gathered the most talented architects and designers and let them do their thing in open and vigorous debate. So, within a year of approving an ambitious plan for rebuilding Moscow, Stalin called together the Union of Soviet Architects and let them loose. Their mission was to let their creative talents run, to design and oversee the building of a memorable Moscow. The seven sisters were but one of the projects, which included many other buildings and the extraordinary construction of the Moscow metro system. Immense energy, immense organisation, immense gathering of materials and labour – all by a country that was still emerging from its industrial and technological backwardness.

Perhaps it is a testament to the achievement embodied in the seven sisters that the new Triumph Palace apartment building, near Sokol metro station, takes its inspiration from that era. Completed in 2003 with a height of 264 metres, it is designed in the same spirit – a nod in a lesser age to the grandeur of those times.



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