Thursday, July 30, 2009

[old names, new names] it's still mother russia

It's silly season in the news services when a writer tackles the topic of street names and yet Vladimir Kara-Muza, a Russian dissident, says:

The naming of streets is not a trivial matter.

The preservation of Soviet toponyms is a symptom of the illness of our society, which has still not been able to cure itself of the totalitarian infection.

We were able to take the first step - in August 1991, the power of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union was broken and in 1992 the Constitutional Court declared the communist regime "criminal".

But we were afraid to take the second step by condemning these crimes at the state level, by banning totalitarian ideologies and their symbols, by undertaking a process of lustration aimed at all the former prison guards.

From what I saw over there, the renaming was of less consequence than actual changes. Statues of Lenin were removed and the mausoleum in Moscow was just too big to remove, yet I saw the process of change taking place in a number of Russian towns. It couldn't have been done holus-bolus though, done too quickly, as he suggests because a sizable proportion of the citizenry, the older generation mainly, were still attached to the notion of Papa Joe.

Sitting on a divan, sipping tea and listening to my gf's grandfather, in his final years, speaking of it was a reminder that it still held sway.

Come May 9th, 1997, I was in the street, I recall and someone was selling a newspaper, "Nash Prazdnik", which I took. There were raised eyebrows when I got to my gf's place - why on earth would a foreigner wish to buy a Communist Party rag, claiming the holiday was ours - meaning the Communist Party and the nation as one indivisible unit?

These were the pre-crash days of brave new worlds and the gradual dismantling of the anachronist apparatus in the towns such as the state shops.

There were three types of Russian shops in those days - the large, long, State affairs which occupied much of the ground floor of tall housing blocks and in which the system of purchasing was an eye opener, there were the western shops with western or some of the higher quality Russian goods and then there were the first few new entrepeneurial shops, mainly hypermarts of a sort, with an oligarch's son owning it.

As the prices came down in the western shops and as the state stores were bought up by the entrepeneurs, life changed materially for the better. I was more than fortunate, I feel now, to have been there for the end of the Soviet era and to watch it all unfold over the next decade, including riding the crisis of '98.

To return to the State-run shops. The system of purchasing had to be seen to be believed. For a start, being highly inefficient, there were long queues and in the elongated rectangle of space one stood in; there might have been four ladies total, in jackets and caps, grimacing in the best tradition at the next customer.

When you finally made it to the front, the glass display cases showed one example of each item sold, with price tags amateurishly scribbled and attached. There was intense pressure for the shop-woman - and they were not shop-girls as yet - to have you quickly point out what you wanted, if it was there, of course, at which she'd go out back for three or four minutes, return and say, "Eto u nas nyet," at which we'd have to either hurriedly choose another which we could see diplayed in the glass case - but not think for one second that she was going to rummage about out back for what we really needed.

She'd stand, glaring at you and then you'd have to take what there was. She'd write out a chit, give it to you, you left the queue and joined another queue over the other, long side of the room - a bit quicker, this queue, thank goodness - you paid, she tore the check and gave it back, you'd then return to the counter, squeezing between two queues, jostling irritable people, until you'd reach the counter, at which the woman who'd sold you the item would steadfastly ignore you until she felt you were nicely pickled and then she'd swiftly turn the head and hold out her hand for the check.

Then she'd go over to the back wall, collect the item, wrap it in brown paper and tie it up with string, give it to you and you were away - the whole thing rushed through in ... oh ... well under an hour and ten minutes - good going in those days.

Then it would be a case of taking the overcrowded tram back home. When I think of the deserted trams and the overcrowded but modern, red Chinese buses in latter years, it was another world.

And yet it was a leafy world, with not bad grassy yards between the tall houses, benches to sit on and a much more leisurely pace.

It was just the public utilities which palled. To make an international phone call, you had to go to a place down the road, set into the ground floor of a particular housing block, utilizing its electricity and you could go left to the phones or right to the post office.

If you went left, there was a counter at the far end and along the wall, let's say to your right, the booths were arrayed. You'd go up to the queue at the counter and when you reached the front, you'd be told the other queue was yours.

Fine, you'd queue there. You'd give the number, pay and go to a bench for how ever long it took to connect.

Eventually your name would come through the tannoy and the number of the booth to go to. Now you'd pre-paid for that call, so there was no extension from the other end nor from yours.

If I give the impression of being disgruntled, that was not so for 90% of the time but that remaining 10% tried the patience sorely. Not for a Russian though who had this interesting attitude of natural impatience and irascibility when stalled and yet the ability to go all Doctor Who and shut the mind down when in a queue, something it took me a long time to master and even then I never completely did.

One didn't have to queue so much as the situation changed and became more western in a comparatively short time. By the year 2000, the place was recognizably western, even down to the clothes women wore and yet it never quite reached German standards.

I say that because I was in Frankfurt and went to a Post Office.

Now, back in good old Russia, posting anything, anything at all - imagine the New Year season - was a half morning affair. The laboriousness, the sheer inefficient time-wasting, the obtuseness of the woman and her "go-slow' policy, should you show the slightest impatience, was legendary.

Here in Frankfurt, I stepped inside, saw the huge snake queue with all the erected barriers, as in an airport and groaned, turned to leave and then noticed that the queue was moving. Well, to cut a long story short, I was at that counter quicker than you could say Deutsche Post one hundred times - one must do something to relieve the tedium - and the whole thing was done in under a minute and get this - with a smile!

Russia did change that way and in the early noughties, girls began to replace the old battle-axes and though half of this new crop still didn't know how to give service, the tills had gone onto the counters, there were many pay points, the system of queuing became reasonable and a change came over Russian society.

In short, people became more relaxed in their attitude but at the same time, they became faster, as the pace of life picked up. I was not all that sure that that was a good thing and true to the boiling frog principle, maybe none of us saw it actually doing that unless we thought back to "the old days".

The old, rollicking tramway, the unhurried days, particularly in summer, had been nice. Days and weeks in the garden out of town [see my novel, accessible from the navbar above here, first chapter] brought on a lethargy, there were lakes people flocked to and all in all, it wasn't a half bad lifestyle in those early days, provided you didn't have to deal with officials in any shape or form.

To come back to the writer Vladimir Kara-Muza's statement:

No one is surprised that the map of today's Berlin does not show an Adolf-Hitler-Platz (which was what the current Theodor-Heuss-Platz was called from 1933-45) or a Hermann-Goering-Strasse (as Ebertstrasse was called from 1935-45).

So why do the cities and streets of our country continue to carry the names of executioners who are covered in blood; who plundered its riches; who profaned its spiritual and cultural heritage; who executed and deported its peasants, priests, and writers; who destroyed all that was best and living and creative in the Russian people?

Well, I'd answer him - not all were so up in arms, as I recall. It had always been Dzerzhinski Street as far as anyone but the really old could recall. It had always been the HQ of the KGB and Black Lake opposite, itself a bit of black humour. In the early days, my guide made a joke, "Would you like to go in and visit?"

"Oh yes," I replied.

She smiled a wry smile, as she she added, gritting her teeth, "Well, you won't be back for a very long time."

Someone chimed in, "If at all," and they all actually laughed.

Yes, there was this, yes they used to produce eggs which were sent to Moscow by train and people would then take the train to Moscow to collect them to bring back again, yes there was all this. Yet no one was too phased by it all and the new changes were a bit bewildering now.

There was a new anxiety in the people's minds which caused people to ask, palms beseechingly turned to the listener, "So, now we have this democracy - what are we going to do with it?"

Change the street names?

Not sure about that. You see, they're a sort of link with the past, a link with the more secure world of State provided facilities, of being sure that if you queued long enough, you would be fed. My mate over there used to get annoyed when the foreign media spoke of the shortages and the western notion of people starving on the streets.

"We always ate, James," he said quietly.

By and large, the shortages were at certain times in the year but overall, there was food and unprocessed food too - kasha, cabbage, meat, other produce and it was guaranteed.

Now there were no guarantees.

Change the street names? Not as high a priority, I should have thought, as bringing in some guarantees for a population, just as we are currently hoping for, gearing up for the long hall in subsistence conditions.

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