Posts Tagged ‘communist’

Busting out Stalin in Bedford, Virginia

06/14/2010

Commemorating WWII can be tricky, as the administrators of the National D-Day Monument in Bedford, Virginia recently found out. They recently revealed a bust of Stalin as part of the large narrative monument, and this has some people up in arms for what they believe is the glorification of a tyrant.

It is undeniable that Stalin’s involvement in WWII turned the tides for the Allies and it’s doubtful if the Nazi Axis would have been defeated without the Red Army. But including a bust, and quite a Soviet-styled one at that, of a mass murderer who purged the Red Army during WWII and sent soldiers who had been captured as POWs by the Nazis to the Gulag at a national monument to D-Day? Questionable.

This May marked 65 years since Stalin led the Soviet Union to victory in the Great Patriotic War (WWII for all you Westerners out there), fanning the flames of the controversy surrounding the Man of Steel. From the Stalinobus cruising the streets of St. Petersburg, to debate over Stalin billboards going up in Moscow, to a movement in Ukraine to erect a statue honouring Stalin as the unifier of the country, there are many different opinions on how to deal with Stalin in a post-Soviet world. Re-writing history is something of a Soviet past time, one that has carried on to the post-Soviet era. As they say: Russia is a country with an unpredictable past.

In an age where attempts to erect monuments to Stalin in the former Soviet Union are met with rabid protest, it seems unreasonable and illogical to erect such a monument in North America. But I’m all for accurate representation of history, and perhaps the bust is contextualized in such a way that Stalin’s role can be properly understood. Until I see it for myself, I’m going to reserve judgement. In the meantime, here is a short piece on the sculptor who created the controversial monument, published on the D-Day Memorial’s website.

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“I painted Tank Pink to Get a Girl”

04/12/2010

Last time I was in Prague I came across a little girl playing on a tank painted pink. The sculpture, picture above, is in a residential area on the less-touristy side of the Vltava River. I had always wondered what the story was, and now I know. Apparently artist David Cerny painted the tank pink in an attempt to get the attention of a girl he had his eye on. That and he was making a bold anti-war statement… Read the interview, the guy’s charming. If he wasn’t so into art, he’d be a pilot.

There are a lot of military remnants throughout the former Soviet Union and in former communist countries like the Czech Republic. Many of them are on display in more sombre ways than this particular installation. It’s good to re-work these objects with a sense of humour. Perhaps more people will be interested in finding out about where the tank came from (I suspect it’s leftovers from Prague Spring 1968) and learn a bit about the history of the city while they’re buying their Czech glass, taking the historic (empty) synagogue  tour and searching for the perfect Kafka snow-globe.

Soviet Town for Sale: the life and times of Skrunda-1

02/25/2010

Inspired by this article: For sale: one communist-era ghost town

Occasionally after a research trip I spend a month or two in Latvia at a translators’ and writers’ house in the small city of Ventspils, on the shores of the Baltic Sea. One afternoon last winter Ieva, one of the administrators at the house, and I climbed into her green Lada Zhiguli and drove out into the Latvian countryside. I’d been talking to Ieva about my fascination with abandoned Soviet-era military sites — the shores of the Baltic made up one of the borders of the USSR and were heavily fortified — and she thought I should see the abandoned city of Skrunda-1.

The drive took about an hour. We travelled along a narrow highway through thick pine forests then made a right hand turn on a marginally paved road that led towards the radiological observatory, visible from the highway. Part of the site was dismantled in 1994 (the radar) and what remains looks like a giant satellite dish and is currently used by Latvian scientists at the International Radio Astronomy Centre. During Soviet times it was part of the early warning defence system and is rumoured to have been used to intercept communications of all sorts.

It is possible to tour the Radio Astronomy Centre but no one was around so we couldn’t go inside and climb to the top of the dish. Instead we got back into the Zhiguli and drove about two kms back towards the highway to the site of the town. About 5,000 people lived and worked in this secret city during Soviet times. There was a chain over the entrance but we just stepped over it. A couple of young Latvian guys were tearing down a building nearby. Ieva asked them what they were doing. They pointed at the bricks piled neatly at the edgs of the access road — “Selling bricks.” During the late 1990s, this site was being considered for an amusement park but now, according to the workers, the crumbling ruins were going to be torn down and allowed to be rehabilitated slowly by nature. According to them the site is quite polluted with heavy metals and leaked oil and petroleum.

We asked if we could explore the buildings. They just shrugged.

All the buildings were in a serious state of disrepair. Any metal objects of any value had long been stripped. This is the case in most of these military installations; scrap metal equals money. There were many broken windows and a lot of evidence of squatters and parties. Racist graffiti, of course. And a lot of faded murals. It was eerie and beautiful and sad. Most of the people who lived here were kicked out very suddenly in 1994 when the Russian military was ordered out of Latvia. A few hundred stayed for four more years to manage the site, but it was fully abandoned in 1998. According to Ieva, many of the apartment blocks, buildings of reasonable quality, were abandoned with furniture and appliances intact. Something could have been done with the infrastructure, but there was no organization, no money, no foresight.

Skrunda-1 was sold to a Russian company last month. There have been rumours that it will be turned into a huge pig farm or a large factory of some kind.

Whatever ends up on that location, it’s going to cost a lot of time, energy and money to remove this relic. Multiply this story by hundreds of kilometres of border land to be protected, throw in the Stalin Line and the Molotov Line and you’ll get a sense of just how militarized the former Soviet region was, and how much clean up there remains to be done.

Cold Beer and Warm Women: Communist Tourism in Krakow

02/17/2010

I’m currently working on a chapter about Nowa Huta, a suburb of Krakow, Poland. Here’s a brief summation.

Nowa Huta was built between 1949-1954 to support the Lenina steel works. The city was constructed by workers brought in from all over Poland and in 1949, the area was nothing but farmland; by 1954 housed nearly 200,000 workers in one of the finest examples of deliberate social engineering in the world. Described as a “Polish socialism city of dreams” Nowa Huta is now a tourist attraction — a group of young entrepreneurs have formed a company called Crazy Guides, offering communist-themed tours of Krakow that include a visit to an “authentic” communist apartment and a ride through Nowa Huta in a GDR-built Trabant.

According to Jakub, general manager at Crazy Guides, an overwhelming number of people lived normal lives under communism. The conditions were different than in Western countries, of course, but people raised families and had fun just like in the West.

Nowa Huta was one of the most successful communist projects in Poland and one of the goals of the tour is to show that there were, as my guide Eryk puts it, good points to communism.

“Our parents lived through communism. They survived and they had fun. There was fun,” says Eryk. “We grew up under this and it’s really disrespectful to say that it was all bad. People lived, had families. I’m a child of that period. We are all a result of that period. And look at me – I’m a bit twisted, but I’m doing quite well.”

Is what Crazy Guides are doing simply nostalgia tourism? There are definitely elements of nostalgia, but neither Eryk or Jakub believe what they do is simply caterer to a desire to return to an idealized past.

“My parents and grandparents did experience life under communism and we have to live with this reality as well,” says Jakub. “We see communism all over the place, still. In particular in my grandparent’s generation. My grandmother says that everything’s the same, that nothing has changed. Maybe we can travel abroad a bit more, but it makes difference to her. It’s of no advantage. My grandfather sees it this way: in communist times we had warm vodka and cold women. Now we have cold vodka and warm women.”

This brings me to the other half of the Crazy Guides organization, the Crazy Stag, basically Pimp-my-Ride plus a stag party. Crazy Guides provide a pimped out shaggin’ wagon for a stag party on wheels. Extras available include sexy hitchhikers, a bad cop booty call and the option of having the groom-to-be kidnapped by Polish mafia.

Communist kitsch and sex tourism: Welcome to the new Poland.

Check out Crazy Guides online.