Dreaming the revolution

Shushenskoye, in south Siberia, is where Lenin lived in exile between 1897 and 1900. Devoted Nadezhda Krupskaya came to join him, mother in tow, and married him here.

It’s hard to sympathise with revolutionary fervour repressed by a brutal totalitarian regime when you see where they lived. Large light airy rooms in a house with a pillared porch and a vine-covered arbour and flowers in the yard (sweet peas and pansies and marigolds – the same flowers still carefully planted and tended by museum staff). Inside, a desk, a bookcase, a samovar, a hunting rifle. They were even paid a monthly government pension to live here.

Here Lenin read his revolutionary books and wrote his revolutionary tracts, and Krupskaya worked as his secretary and tended the flowers, while her mother kept house for them, and all around the stable-owners and traders and beekeepers and prison officials – kulaks, rich peasants – lived as their fathers and grandfathers and great-grandfathers had lived, snug as bugs in their flammable wooden houses, little knowing what spark burned in their midst.

Lenin’s room. Photo by Sayana Mongush

They are so lovely, these wooden houses (whole streets of them carefully preserved in Shushenkoye museum). So neat and cosy and perfectly designed for long cold Siberian winters;  the bunk above the stove and the fat brass samovar and the scrubbed wooden table under the icons, geraniums in the windows of the parlour, the sewing machine in the corner, birch-bark boxes and carved wooden spoons on the shelves with the teapot and the saucers for raspberry varenya. Outside the horses munched hay in long wooden barns; the families heated themselves to boiling point and sweated and scrubbed themselves with bunches of birch twigs in the banya. Even the poor peasant’s tiny one-room hut is bright and clean, with its flowered cotton curtains and the baby’s cradle hanging from the ceiling.

I have a whole imaginary picture of Shushenskoye in 1898, packed with romantic exiles, Decemberists and Narodniki and Polish nationalists with curling moustaches and old-fashioned aristocratic pronunciation, sitting round the samovar excitedly discussing poetry and art and war and revolution in French, full of the latest news from Petersburg (only four months late), while outside the thick soft snow falls, falls, falls, and the bears roam, and the wild unwashed Tuvans and Khakhassians beat their shamans’ drums round the ova on the hill; deep in the taiga the Old Believers study the bloodlines recorded on the front page of the family bible to see whom their sons and daughters may safely marry; in the snug one-room izbushka Masha and Vanya are curled up on the stove sucking their fingers as they listen to Uncle Petya’s stories…

And at the end of the street in his warm study sits Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov, who will soon become Lenin; that new breed of revolutionary, not romantic at all, cold-bloodedly planning the wholesale destruction of this Siberian fairytale.

But I suppose in truth it was not like this at all, and it must have been hard enough to be sent away from urban industrial intellectual revolutionary St Petersburg to this remote backwater where the men drink and beat their wives, the streets are knee-deep in mud and the houses crawl with flies; the rich peasants exploit the poor ones, the village administration locks up whom it likes in the stockaded prison; in her unbearably cramped one room hut the woman worn out with bearing eighteen children knows she will never ever have anything nice for herself, never escape from this one room, and she sits unable to think, unable to do anything but mindlessly rock the cradle where the baby sucks on a rag soaked in pig fat and home-made vodka, the sores blooming round its mouth like a ring of roses…

And I have a whole other imaginary picture of Lenin and Krupskaya forced to attend the festival I went to in Shushenkoye, supposedly to celebrate the ecology and biodiversity of the Yenisei river and protect it from some unspecified environmental threat.

A dreary gathering on a concrete embankment of the Yenisei, adorned with graffiti and broken glass, in the rain. The ensemble of large Soviet matrons in their fifties, gamely smiling under stiff dyed and permed hairdos, knowing they look ridiculous in their turquoise satin gowns and headdresses hung with plastic pearls, singing (out of tune) songs about the water and the birch trees and friendship and smiling children and and United Are We by the Mighty Yenisei, all the cheap rubbishy sentimental rhymes that are so easy to make in Russian, here made up by the local bard, Vladimir Vladimirovich or whatever his name is, Vladimir Ilyich, and I think the original Vladimir Ilyich would absolutely hate it, the petty bourgeois self-satisfaction and aspiration thinly laid over a pit of deep anxiety and despair, the meaningless slogans, the cheap imitation of real culture, real tradition –

but it is all his fault, this ensemble, this scruffy concrete embankment, the crappy slogans (Children of One River, whatever that means, an annual ecological festival approved – of course – by Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin himself, tsar nebesny), the dresses made of cheap synthetic fabric from China, the dark-eyed children from the children’s home dutifully reciting rubbish poetry; orphans, abandoned – all this is the result of the revolution, this is what it made of Siberia.

Photo by Sayana Mongush

Just outside Shushenkoye is Lenin’s shalash, the birch-branch bender where he spent a few hours once when out hunting. As children, a Russian friend tells me, we believed this was where Lenin lived, poor Lenin, persecuted and sentenced to freeze his arse off for years in a birch-branch shelter in the middle of the taiga. We didn’t realise that really he was living in bourgeois comfort in town and went off hunting bears now and then for fun, like some rich oligarch.

Shushenkoye airport, where once plane-loads of pilgrims arrived to pay their respects at Lenin’s shalash, stands overgrown and abandoned now. In the museum, the visitors want to be photographed next to the samovar, carrying the milk pails, with the woman dressed up in traditional Russian costume selling painted wooden spoons.

No one takes a photo of Lenin’s statue. No one buys a Lenin mug.

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