When the Soviet Union fell, not all of the statues fell with it. In Moscow, in August 1991, protesters were quick to dispose of Lubyanka Square’s Iron Felix, the 15-tonne representation of Felix Dzerzhinsky, the founder of the secret police, and there were fewer busts of the party leadership about than there perhaps had been before. But there was no nationwide or-y of unmerciful iconoclasticism of the kind we sometimes associate with regime change and popular uprisings, not least the one that followed the ascent to power of the Bolsheviks themselves, and indeed travelling west towards the capital from Vladivostok one is bound to encounter more than a few examples of quasi-religious Communist brutalism as perfected by the revolution’s sculptures.
Every city out here has a Lenin or two. Overcompensating somewhat, Omsk has at least five, although one of them is admittedly very small. Most are full-body representations of the Bolshevik leader, usually dressed in his customary three-piece suit and worker’s cap, and tend to represent him in one of three iconic poses.
In Vladivostok, he rouses an invisible proletariat, pointing off in the direction of some enemy of the people and thundering against them. In Yekaterinburg, he spins his audience a tale of Communist utopia, the thumb of one hand hooked in his waistcoat and the palm of the other faced open to the sky. He looks like a magician releasing a dove. In Novosibirsk, where he wears a winter coat over his usual attire, his stone visage gazes meaningfully into the distance and towards a better tomorrow. Communist leaders from Stalin and Mao to Kim Il-sung and Ho Chi Minh have been gazing meaningfully in sculptures and paintings ever since, but Vladimir Ilyich was the first to do so and out here maintains his monopoly on the practice.
If none of the aforementioned Lenins have quite the same impact as Ulan-Ude’s, it is surely because the city has eschewed the aforementioned trio of poses in favour of something rather more abstract. Three and a half thousand miles from Moscow and a little under two and a half from Vladivostok, Ulan-Ude has decapitated the revolutionary and put his 42-tonne, slightly cross-eyed head on a plinth in the middle of town. Installed in 1971 to make the 100th anniversary of Lenin’s birth, the head is a little like one of those creepy sphinx lights, whose eyes seem to follow you around the room. Iron Felix may have been the Soviet Union’s most hated representation of the police state, but Ulan-Ude’s head might be the most striking example of a sculpture that actually felt like a tool of surveillance itself. From beyond the grave, or at least the mausoleum, Lenin was always watching the capital of the Republic of Buryatia.
(To this extent, the head is the Communist equivalent of Prince P. N. Trubetskoi’s bronze sculpture of Tsar Alexander III on horseback, today located outside the Marble Palace in St Petersburg, which locals quickly took to calling “The Hippopotamus” and that Orlande Figes says was “such an ingenious and formidable representation of autocracy in human form that after the revolution the Bolsheviks decided to leave it in place as a fearful reminder of the old regime”. Lenin’s head serves as such a reminder, too, though given the trick-perspective photographs in our hostel’s lavatory, of the head smoking cigarettes and reading womens’ magazines, one doubts that it serves as a fearful one.)
It would be wrong to assume that the continued presence of these statues is the result of nostalgia for the old regime. At the same time, it would be wrong to suggest that such nostalgia doesn’t exist, especially in those cities and towns where its impact really was for the good. In Khuzhir, a village of about 1500 on Lake Baikal’s Olkhon Island, the old way of life left the new one for dead. “Before the collapse of the Soviet Union,” a guide who visits the island regularly tells us, “everyone worked for the town’s fishing factory. Now everyone fishes for himself. Before the collapse of the Soviet Union, there was a weekly flight from from Irkutsk to Olkhon Island and Khuzhir even had a cinema. Now the plane doesn’t come any more and that” — he points at an abandoned building — “is where the cinema used to be.”
The local museum contains several exhibits donated by locals that recall that time. The guide shows us the merit certificate of a fisherman who met his monthly quota by more than a 150%. “People took pride in their work back then,” the guide says, “and that pride was all the payment they needed.” On the drive back to Irkutsk, we notice a couple of wooden houses along the way that are still flying the old hammer and sickle.
In Krasnoyarsk, a 12-hour train ride to the west, the local museum contains several similar exhibits to those that we encountered on the island. One glass cabinet is full of Orders of Lenin awarded to locals in the Stalinist era and another exhibit pulses with the optimism of the early days of the space race. The museum also contains several rooms dedicated to more recent history. Vladimir Putin’s visits to the city are commemorated with framed photos and a large black button he once used to open a factory or kick-start some new machine sits proudly before the one of him doing so.Indeed, the farther west one travels, the more the present takes precedence over the past. Novosibirsk, the unofficial capital of Siberia, is the first place we have visited in our travels that appears to be gripped election fever, though this is less true of the city’s residents than it is of its billboards, bus shelters and facades. There seems to be no end to the range of election-related signage: in addition to the most simplistic and commonly encountered poster — “March 4: Russian Presidential Election” — one comes across public service announcements about the web cams that have been installed in polling places, at a cost of about $US345 million, to guard against ballot-stuffing and other irregularities, and a Brady Bunch-like grid of photographs of doctors, engineers, teachers and farmers looking noble above a rousing caption: “Our country. Our election. Our president.”
These signs are amusing for the manner in which they remind one, not only of the Soviet-era portraits of workers in the Novosibirsk State Art Museum, bovine-eyed and chiselled of jaw, but also of political propaganda back home. I remember attending a Coalition campaign launch a couple of years back that opened with an infomercial starring many of these same archetypes, with the wheat farmer in Deniliquin inexplicably finishing the sentence of the schoolteacher in Ballarat, and so on. More amusing still is the fact that “Nasha Strana”, “Our Country” in Russian, can’t help but evoke the country’s unlicensed Little Britain spin-off, Nasha Russia, which pillories precisely these hard-working, hard-voting types. (I am particularly fond of the F.C. Gazmyas sketches, in which the pipsqueak coach of Omsk’s hopeless fourth division football team routinely beats up up his much larger players, though the country’s favourites seem to be Ravshan and Jumshud, the shortcut-taking Tajik guest workers who anchored the 2009 movie version of the show, Nasha Russia: Balls of Fate.) Imagine a British get-out-the-vote campaign that immediately called to mind Vicky Pollard or Carol Beer and you’d have some idea of the sign’s general effect.
But what is perhaps most striking about these public service announcements is the fact that they are virtually indistinguishable from Vladimir Putin’s campaign signage. Colour, font, choice of words — all are more or less identical. One could almost be forgiven for thinking that Putin’s campaign was also in charge of getting people to the polls. Actually, the campaign staff probably thinks that they are. What with all those web cams installed, and with the opposition primed and ready to raise hell should the vote give even the slightest hint of having been rigged, Putin’s team is having to rely for the first time on his still genuinely high popularity.
In the meantime, they seem content to prevent the prime minister’s opponents from stealing some of that popularity for themselves. Omsk is the first place west of Vladivostok that gives any indication that Putin isn’t running against himself. The billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov smiles from banners in the train station’s ticket hall and we even come across some Communist Party campaign materials on the city’s main avenue. But Prokhorov’s banner is one of the rare few in the country that hasn’t been damaged or removed since campaigning began. According to a spokesman for the candidate, seven of 21 banners in Saratov, seven of 33 at St. Petersburg’s Moskovsky Station, 64 out of 77 at various train stations in Moscow, and all nine in Nizhny Novgorod, have been taken down illegally over the course of the campaign. Indeed, by the time we leave Siberia, cross the Urals, and arrive in Nizhny Novgorod ourselves, Putin’s monopoly on pubic space appears to have been fully restored. What Vladimir Lenin is to statues, Vladimir Putin is to billboards.