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The “Russian Idea”, Lost?

In the ‘Battle for Red Square’ – for the meaning of Red Square in post-Soviet Russia – between the Kremlin and St. Basil’s (state and church), standing with one’s back to the dour, red brick Russian Historical Museum, I believe that “GUM”, the State Department Store, now occupied mostly by very expensive, international brand name shops, has won.

Lenin’s Mausoleum, State Historical Museum and GUM (State Department Store) on Red Square in Moscow
Lenin’s Mausoleum, State Historical Museum and GUM (State Department Store) on Red Square in Moscow

I am sitting on some steps along Red Square; some Russian police, called “militia”, are nearby in their car guarding the Square, as they also did in the times of the USSR when I first journeyed here as a tourist. Sitting as I am now on Red Square was impossible, because impermissible, in those days; I would have been immediately rousted up by the police – indeed I saw it happen more than once to tourists who tried. Then – with Lenin’s geometric tomb at its “heart” (maybe rather at its “aching head”?) – this was a powerful, serious “Red” place; one rightly seen as the symbolic center of the USSR. Anyone who came here during the days before perestroika and glasnost had taken effect – into the heavy, serious, controlled atmosphere of the USSR – could feel the power which social ideas, institutions and imagination gave to this Square. Now…no one, not the many Western or Russian tourists to Moscow, nor the casually strolling local Muscovites, can feel anything of this lost great power and atmosphere; for it is gone.

Since the late 15th century this Square was often used as a market place; some photos of it from the late 19th century show it covered with hundreds of small merchants’ stalls. In the Soviet period it was the location of huge public political demonstrations and military parades of soldiers, tanks, intercontinental ballistic missiles, etc. Now it is a place mostly for strolling, photographing, national or city celebrations and concerts, and modest military parades. – A jogger, by appearance a “Westerner” from a nearby hotel, just jogged across the Square in his shorts. – People do not know what to think or imagine of Red Square these days. Not now anyway. It is essentially lost to a defined feeling – like Russia is “lost” to a clear, common idea of itself now. Even a commission specially delegated to come up with a coherent idea, and ideology, for the post-Soviet Russian state in the mid-1990’s…to follow on “The Third Rome”, “Orthodoxy, Autocracy, and Nationality”, and replace Marxist-Leninism, failed. It’s members could not agree!

The impressive, prestigious “changing of the guards” formerly at Lenin’s Mausoleum (“Sentry Post No. 1”), has now been replaced by a similar ceremony – if only for tourists – at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, with its “eternal flame” – where foreign heads and representatives of state ceremonially must pay their due respects. But now alongside, where eight red granite blocks lay with the names on them of the “Hero-Cities” from the “Great Patriotic War” (WW II): Leningrad, Odessa, Sevastopol, Kiev, Volgograd, Minsk, Novorossiysk and Kerch, teenagers now can often be seen sitting indifferently, smoking, chatting, snacking and drinking, perhaps in no real way aware of the reverence that such a place commanded in the understanding and imagination of old and young alike just over a decade before, when the USSR still existed. Just a couple of days ago walking nearby I asked a Russian colleague if this could have happened in the Soviet time. “Impossible,” he said with insistence, and some hurt disdain at the idea in his face. I recall some insightful words of Goethe on the temporary character of monuments…

On July 5, 1827, Goethe mentioned to Eckermann: For one who, like me, lives through the ages, it always seems odd when I hear about statues and monuments. I can never think of a statue in honor of a distinguished man without already seeing it cast down and trampled upon by future warriors.

Now, before the guards are changed on the hour, teens must often be shooed away from the “revered” place, so that the soldiers can march by in an appropriate “solemn” ceremony. The relaxing teens likely do not even imagine how they would have been severely punished for sitting there, and “hanging out”, on these memorial stones. No one consistently now – not older people raised in the powerful times of the USSR, nor, most of the time, the militia – chastises or prevents them; nor do they now know not to do so.

Marshal Zhukov monument
Marshal Zhukov monument

Essentially, “anything goes” now. I have even seen frisbees flying around the nearby recent bronze statue to the World War II Hero Marshal Zhukov – apparently by Western travelers. (Odd “future warriors”?!) No one really knows what can and cannot be done here in the center of post-Soviet Russia. Most Russians are, naturally, loyal and patriotic to “Russia”; though few now know or much agree as to a clear idea of what that means now. Lenin, Stalin and the USSR?…for some still; for most no. St. Basil’s Church?…for a few yes. Democratic, reformed Russia?…“a good idea” many will say – but “impossible” many will also add. Even the exact geography of “Russia” is disputed these days. Patriotism for “Russia” now seems more a somewhat vague, shared emotion, history and tradition, than any commonly shared, defined idea. But as these days everyone walking Red Square now certainly, thoughtlessly, has once-punishably-forbidden US dollars in their pockets, I say that of military or patriotic political parading on Red Square, or the religious life and processions with icons (which sometimes still occur), that “GUM” and shopping (and street parties!) have won the ‘battle for Red Square’, and is now the main provisional idea of life and society in Russia – in Moscow in any case.

The famous “Russian Idea” – amidst the majority, though not amongst the intellectuals of various differing views – for now, seems much more than less lost.

Meanwhile, “Hollywood”, “global culture” and consumerism increasingly influence and define the ideas and culture, the manners and the life of many here – especially teenagers and the passive majority.


First published in the magazine English #26, July 2001, p. 1-14.