Razing Red Square is a narrative reflection on the fall of the Soviet Union and a meditation on memory, family and exile. Through the eyes of Alex, a journalist sent to Moscow on assignment, the reader learns the changing face of the USSR and the consequences of Gorbachev’s reforms: punk musicians emerge from the underground, teenagers and parents fight over the remote control, and housewives gossip about their favourite American soap opera. A tear in the Soviet narrative is made; an ideology becomes strained and is soon to break.
In Razing Red Square, British journalist Alexander Brody travels to the Soviet Union in 1987 to make comment on the progress of Gorbachev’s reforms following Margaret Thatcher’s visit earlier that same year. Newspaper and video archives reveal countless articles, features and editorials on Thatcher’s visit and it is said the two leaders could not resist talking although most conversations ended in an argument. Gorbachev, the reformer who wanted Europe to cease building nuclear stockpiles, must have riled the staunch Thatcher who believed nuclear weapons deter war (Thatcher, 1987).
What I set out to achieve in writing Razing Red Square was to show that writing history as narrative offers access to the past that is not readily accessible through traditional forms of historical discourse. Narrative history allows personal or collective experience an opportunity; it is often the encounters we have and the stories we tell that make history accessible, memorable and applicable to our present. Historian Frank Ankersmit reminds us that:
[H]istorical reality is not something that we stumble upon in the way that we may find out about the chairs and tables in a room that we have just entered… Historical reality… is only encountered in our attempts to define our relationship to our past, in our attempt to “write ourselves” by writing history (Ankersmit, 1998: 193)
Ankersmit proposes that when a society or nation experiences revolution or a rupture, such as the collapse of the USSR in 1991, a separation occurs in terms of its historical, political and social understandings of identity and a chasm appears between the past (the era of Soviet rule) and the present (1991 and beyond). Ankersmit calls this a ‘sublime historical experience’. Negotiating this divide is a complicated task, as although within reach, the most immediate past is near unrecognisable in the present:
For a nation, a collectivity, a culture, or a civilisation that has had such a sublime historical experience, the past and an awareness of this past will become ineluctable realities. The past will then be for them no less a part of what they are as our limbs are part of our bodies – and forgetting the past would then be an intellectual amputation (Ankersmit. 2005: xv).
My narrator’s role then is to discern through his own experience if Thatcher’s observations are accurate. Gorbachev perplexed the West and Alexander Brody is sent to Moscow to observe Soviet Communism in reform not simply to repeat Thatcher’s praise. Brody as a narrator is a device used to explicate how individual experience, encounters and perspectives explore areas of history which are commonly omitted from traditional studies. Brody’s personal account of Soviet Communism in flux broadens the reader’s understanding of the period and, through him, the reader witnesses the fruits of Gorbachev’s reforms: punk musicians emerge from the underground, teenagers and parents fight over the remote control and housewives gossip about their favourite soap opera. These are scenes that would rarely be witnessed in a traditional study of the social lives of Russians, yet they are nonetheless crucial to an understanding of the impact of Gorbachev’s reforms. The role of Brody as an ‘outsider’ observing from within questions Western assumptions of what life was like in the Soviet Union; he meets a patriotic people who do not necessarily reject the Communism the West derides. From the outset, Brody’s assumptions are threatened and his ideological predisposition is challenged.
I ask that scholars and readers of the past overcome their demand that historical works must always present clear, documented evidence to be taken as true, and challenge the assumption that all fictions are merely stories conjured in a writer’s mind. Razing Red Square examines how much ‘truth’ a fictive text may command, and asks that narrative is not seen to be compromising ‘truth’ but that it is able to offer readers access to a past unavailable to traditional or ‘proper’ modes of historical research. I argue that narrative history allows experience an opportunity and that it is often the encounters we have and the stories we tell that make history accessible, memorable and applicable to our present.
Tolstoy wrote a long Epilogue to War and Peace now commonly referred to as his ‘Thesis on History’. He spoke of his understanding that human experience — history — is not ‘chance’ or made of men of genius, rather, that all events have a multiplicity of causes that eliminate the heavy hand of chronology or ‘traditional analysis’ from historical writing’ (Tolstoy, 1982: (1342-1343). History and narrative share the same claim to truth; that is, it is communicated through a personalised perspective, and based on witnessing and experience. History is not ‘factual’ but always an interpretation of fact. Tolstoy utilises the eyewitness narrator to ‘tell it how it is’ in order to construct a representation of a moment in time. History, therefore, becomes a narrative grounded in lived experience.
Razing Red Square seeks to reflect a unique perspective of the ideological divide between East and West and to challenge Western understandings of Soviet ‘otherness’. When the USSR collapsed the ideological battle between Communism and Capitalism that had been waged since the end of the Second World War was no longer the central concern of world politics. Paradigm shifts in the social sciences are used to describe a turn in the set of experiences, beliefs and values that affect the way an individual or nation perceives reality and responds to that perception. A paradigm shift reflects a change in how a society goes about organising and understanding itself or its worldview. The collapse of the USSR during the years 1989-1991 caused a paradigm shift — a break — in the worldview of Soviet citizens as they moved from the ideological basis of Socialism to the market-based economy of Western democratic nations. The Berlin Wall had fallen and the Cold War was over. MTV, Doc Martens and a life free of surveillance became honest aspirations rather than wild fantasies. Capitalism was triumphant, and the United States entered the new paradigm as the lone-standing superpower.
My novel looks at the past from a double perspective; like a Janus-faced observer gazing forward and backward, Razing Red Square makes use of contemporary knowledge to convey a historical moment. The narrator, Alexander Brody, is a young London-based journalist sent to Moscow to report on the seventieth anniversary of the 1917 Russian Revolution. His assignment:
I want you to report back on what it’s like to live in Moscow, to be a Communist in 1987. We’ve got all these crazy Czech writers claiming persecution and demanding independence but we haven’t heard anything from the Union since Solzhenitsyn. What we’re sensing with Gorbachev is that there’s a major shift about to happen… Has he finally realised that Communism isn’t the ticket to true happiness?’
Brody travels to the USSR with a suitcase full of stereotypes and anticipates an ideological clash between his Western upbringing and life in the Communist bloc. He may know something about Marx, but he knows nothing of the Soviets’ everyday lives, and he is confused when attending the Revolution anniversary celebrations that he doesn’t find people unified by their faith in Socialism. Instead, he encounters groups protesting against the Party’s reforms and what some believe is their revolution betrayed. Decades of hardship and autocratic rule haven’t killed off nationalism just yet, and Brody’s assumptions that everyone behind the Iron Curtain emulates the West are challenged. He is positioned in Moscow to narrate the political disintegration a contemporary audience knows is inevitable. Yet from Brody’s 1987 perspective, the KGB is still keeping watch, queues continue to form to secure limited goods, and citizens remain wary of Gorbachev’s insistence on criticising the Party apparatus. A local Muscovite tells Alex:
[No] matter how cosmopolitan that Gorby thinks he is, he is just another President. He has international guests at the Kremlin but he doesn’t have anyone outside Moscow convinced. The bums drinking mouthwash may be easy to … make promises to, but there are many million decent Soviets who just want a television and he can’t seem to provide us with that. He came in with such a bang and such promise: … but he is the same as the rest, just younger and more foolish…’
Through Brody, the reader witnesses the fruits of Gorbachev’s reforms as punk music emerges from the underground and housewives gossip about the latest South American soap opera. He watches the old guard of Western foreign correspondents scratch their chins when Gorbachev promises Ronald Reagan he will stop building nuclear arms. He learns the horror of Soviet-era hotel accommodation and the majesty of its underground railway. Brody sees Gorbachev’s reforms as the beginning of the end; he identifies the paradigm shift that occurred when the push of too many holes in the Soviet armour, combined with the pull and allure of Western liberties contributed to the collapse of European Socialism. A break between the then and the now is inevitable. My narrator reports the impact of these reforms from the perspective of an outsider but his assignment quickly becomes a personal pursuit for truth when he discovers familial ties that invoke Stalin’s Terror, the Soviet avant-garde and exile.
Razing Red Square is a parallel narrative; it uses flashback scenes as a device to present a future/past perspective. Chapters situated during the Second World War allow an obvious and literal break in focus and are utilised to illuminate the past through ‘factual’ accounts of the 900-day siege of Leningrad or censorship under Stalin. These chapters drive Brody’s journey and also shape the Soviet character and ideology as seen through the contemporary, 1987 narrative. This extract recalls Alex’s visit to the Lenin mausoleum — the pinnacle of Soviet deification — a critical juncture in the novel that sees him break from his assignment to find the answers behind his family’s mysterious past.
Snow on the ground of Red Square is thick, with neat tracks crisscrossing the footpaths that guide Lenin’s devotees to his resting place. Snow has been falling since last night and a carpet now drapes the city. The air is white, my breath is white. I can feel the back of my throat freezing over. I’ve made my way to Lenin’s Mausoleum, thinking the weather may deter visitors, but there is still a long queue waiting to enter.
That Lenin did not want to be idolised in such a grandiose way doesn’t raise an eyebrow here anymore. When the great man died in 1924 (on the record as the result of a fourth stroke but rumours abound that he succumbed to a nasty case of syphilis) he was raised to the spectre of national martyr encased forever in a glass box and glazed with formaldehyde, his body embalmed seen by millions of loyal citizens and tourists each year. Before the anniversary parades, I was sceptical that a man long dead and long known as a tyrant could command such respect. From the West, it’s impossible to understand Lenin’s significance and how the cult of personality and the corpse itself was used as a tool for myth-making, but it only took a moment for me to become convinced. Hundreds of Lenin statues are dotted around the city. There are red flags hanging everywhere, the hammer and sickle are etched into the façades of most buildings. A recent national survey revealed strong support for Lenin’s body to remain where it is, over 53 per cent were in favour. I see this as a sort of ‘up yours!’ to Western reports that suggest Lenin will be a casualty of the Cold War. If anyone will fall it will be Gorbachev. Lenin is staying right where he is, as will the queue, which now snakes behind me into the nearby Alexandrovsky Gardens.
There are metal detectors at the entrance but they don’t work, so everyone walks around them. Guards stop the procession every so often to check inside someone’s coat, but mostly they just stand and watch. They let us inside in small packs, five or six at a time, and direct us along a black marble path to where another guard is waiting. This one is a carbon copy of the previous and more like an usher than a military recruit. He swings his left arm toward the entrance.
I walk along a corridor lined with black marble and descend a flight of black marble stairs. It’s so dark I can’t make out my feet and I feel like I’m floating along the sleek, black floor. Conversation has ceased as we enter the building and a reverence for the dead hits me like a thunderbolt. I lose my footing in the blackness, absorbed in thoughts of where I am and what I’m about to experience. Lenin.
A lone guard stands at the base of the first staircase; he is rigid and pale-skinned in his grey soldier’s uniform, grey hat and polished red lapel pins. He raises his left hand to point me in the direction of the main room; a simple routine so well practised he could perform on stage. Black marble walls, black marble floor for eight steps, maybe ten. I feel like a child on Christmas morning tentatively approaching the Christmas tree to see what Santa has left for me. Stark, bright light draws me towards the viewing chamber: red-on-black marble walls, heavy red drapery hanging floor to ceiling and a three-sided viewing path skirting the corpse, or what remains of the corpse, of Lenin.
I force myself to appreciate, to inhale, every detail. The room is wide and open; the hollow pyramid-shaped ceiling reveals a massive skylight illuminating us. The silence is eerie. Lenin’s waxen corpse is raised on a bed of red velvet, his skin flaking and haggard, totally artificial and showing signs of his dedicated and constant preservation. Yet it is unmistakably Lenin. He welcomes us in a neat, albeit aged, suit with one hand open, the other closed, his fingers slightly curled. The propaganda of leadership has not ended with death — Lenin’s distinctive beard is clipped just right; his high forehead is strong, if not a little shiny; his chest is so puffed up it seems he has been holding his breath for the past sixty years. There’s little human about this Lenin.
I’m given no time to pause and wonder; one of the teenage guards coughs politely to break my reverie. I make my way along the platform and up a dark, black staircase, back into daylight. I pause in the doorway, not wanting the experience to be over so soon. Outside I’m greeted by Lenin’s successors; the statues of Stalin, Brezhnev, Andropov, Chernenko and the rest of the Kremlin’s necropolis. Each grave bears a crop of red poppies carefully maintained and manicured with each leader soberly revered.
Small snowflakes fall on the dark marble and granite graves along the Kremlin wall. I turn out of the gates, nod dourly to the guards, and make my way across a near-empty Red Square. Fresh tracks have been cleared and are yet to be covered in snow, my path and everything around me is silent. When my grandmother told me stories about her visits to Moscow, snow was always falling, as constant as breath. She set her stories against a white backdrop and the snow-hushed everything. She drew visions of girls running across Red Square, their coats flapping and the wind gusting, but everything was silent. Her memories were wrapped in a blanket of white. On the nights she tucked me into bed she would always tell me the same story:
The last time I saw Lenin was on a visit to my cousins in Moscow in 1938. I took the train by myself for the first time, I shared the cabin with a woman who was so glamorous! She wore a real mink coat that someone must have given her from the days of the Tsar — nothing like that was made in Russia anymore. I was too shy to speak with her and I don’t now remember what she looked like, just the coat and a string of pearls around her neck.
The next day we went to Red Square and I made my cousin Natalia wait in line with me for two hours in the snow. In those days, the queues at the mausoleum were long with Party members, comrades, mothers with babies, and because it was a holiday the queue was even longer. Behind us in line were two drunk homeless men who were trying to get inside, to get warm I think, but they were turned away. Not everyone was allowed inside, you see. Lenin looked just as he had every other time I had seen him like he had a pillow underneath his shirt and was sweating a little. Everyone was so quiet, so reverent, that Natalia and I couldn’t help laughing. Everyone shushed us, so we pushed ahead of the people in front and ran out the exit. When we got out we were still laughing and the guards made us leave. We ran across Red Square giggling like school girls. What fun it was!
Did you know Lenin was removed from the mausoleum during the Great Patriotic War and kept in a safe house in Siberia? Imagine what Hitler would have done with him if he’d seized Moscow. Maybe he would have propped him up at the dinner table!
On that last trip to Moscow, it was the middle of winter and snowing, snowing, snowing every day. It was so beautiful — not as beautiful as Leningrad but it was nice to not have the freezing wind blowing in from the River Neva! We hurried to the Metro to get warm and Natalia took me to see this marvellous thing Stalin had built for us. There were three rail lines open and we rode round and round for hours, swapping between the lines. The stations are buried so deep underground, the escalators are so long and deep I got dizzy! You will see for yourself one day just how magnificent the stations are — perfect underground palaces, each one dedicated to the workers, to Lenin, to this or that other cause. I could not believe that the interior of Okhonty Ryad station was completed in just two weeks! It was like nothing I’d ever seen. Such shining marble and clear, yellow lights, so many people moving in and out, trains arriving every few minutes. I don’t know where all the marble came from but the chandeliers must have come from a palace somewhere. All of the trains were brand new, sparkling metal, all shiny and proud like tin boxes. When I came to England and I saw the loaves of bread for sale in the bakeries it made me think of the Metro, the same rectangular shapes, nothing fancy. I joked to your grandfather that we were eating a piece of Moscow with our breakfast each morning.
Natalia and I took the Metro to Gorky Park so we could go ice-skating. Of course, it was still snowing but it wasn’t too heavy, just small flakes that sit on the end of your eyelashes — the type that just evaporate and never make you feel wet. There were so many people on the rink that it was hard to move about. Everyone was practising their new fancy routines and wearing homemade costumes: lots of sequins and short skirts like the top athletes. So many people fell over, it was very funny.
Natalia had decided not to put her things in the lockers and when we returned to our place someone had stolen her shoes. We looked under all the chairs and made sure they hadn’t been moved. We asked the attendants if someone had handed them in but they were gone. It was funny because she had to walk to the Metro and travel all the way home in her ice skates! It was almost impossible for her to walk without rolling an ankle, and it took us so long to reach the station. She had to hold on to me the whole way and we were both doubled over laughing. It looked so funny on the train, a petite girl in her Sunday best jacket towering over me in her skates! When we got home my aunt Maria was furious. For the rest of my time in Moscow, she sent Natalia out in a pair of holey shoes to make her learn a lesson! In the snow!
My grandmother never pushed me to visit Russia or to learn the language which I had taken as a blessing as I watched friends drag their feet to various Sunday schools when we were kids. But as a teenager, I had connected this to her refusal to speak about her Russian past. So now as I walk in her footsteps on my way to the Metro, passing the onion domes of St Basil’s Cathedral, I wonder what stories she would tell me.
Ankersmit, Frank (1998). ‘Hayden White’s Appeal to the Historians,’ in History & Theory, Vol. 37, no. 2, May, pp. 182-193
_____ (2005). Sublime Historical Experience. (Stanford: Stanford University Press)
Thatcher, Margaret (1987). Speech at Soviet Official Banquet [30 March] https://www.margaretthatcher.org/document/106776 [accessed 21.12.17] Tolstoy, Leo (1982). War and Peace, Edmonds, Rosemary, trans, (Melbourne: Penguin Books)