Brushing Up on Russian Modern History
27 August, 2017
I am a self-professed history nerd, especially when it comes to modern history of Russia. As I’m now into my final week in St. Petersburg, I find myself looking at the long list of must-see sights I made in my first week and despairing at how few I’ve managed to cross off. The modern history of Russia was one of the main reasons I chose to study Russian, as it has always fascinated me – I visited the Museum of Political History on my first visit to St. Petersburg and loved it. Feeling inspired, I went on a post-class visit to the Museum of the Defence and Siege of Leningrad yesterday, which is located about 20 minutes away from the school by foot (Solyanoy Pereulok, 9).
The Siege of Leningrad is ingrained in national memory, and understandably so. From 8th September 1941 the city of Leningrad was blocked off to supplies after the Germans had reached the south of Lake Ladoga. Their aim was to suffocate the city into surrender, and for about 900 days Leningrad suffered. To make things worse, the winters were incredibly cold and ruthless, especially the first one of 1941. Of the 2.5 million people living in Leningrad in August 1941, only 557,700 remained in January 1944, the rest had been evacuated or had died.
The museum itself is a resolute and touching tribute to the events of difficulties experienced in every aspect of life during the Siege, while informing the visitor about the events at the front. The highlight of the museum is the sheer quantity of items that have been passed down from the time, including letters and diary extracts, currency, weaponry, toys, and even an example of the meagre bread ration of the time and a shell-damaged book. Another fascinating exhibit is the collection of German propaganda dropped into the city. The museum helps bring the time of the Siege to life with a replica of what a typical apartment would have looked like. As a visitor, you can only marvel at the strength which Leningraders showed. In the spring of 1942, as the snow melted, the dirt which had built up in the neglected city became apparent. Faced with the danger of epidemics, the population completely cleaned the city within three weeks – from the end of March to mid-April. A new wave of resilience began: vegetable gardens were planted on every free plot of land; sports competitions were organised (on 31st May 1942 three sporting events took place within one day). The permanent exhibition takes you all the way through to the last days of the Siege, and the remarkable feat of survival which the city had achieved.
The museum also houses temporary exhibitions, and the current one is ‘Witness and Memory’, with various works of art and quotes inspired by the Siege. One which particularly stood out for me was:
‘но надо сказать, что в эту зиму, со всеми её ударами, глаза разверзлись – все говорили: «как прекрасен наш город!» и это прекрасное открывалось во время войны..’
‘but it must be said, that during that winter, with all its atrocities, eyes were opened. Everyone would say “how splendid is our city!” and this splendidness really came to the fore during the war’
(Notes by L. A. Ilin, Winter 1941- 1942)
For a wider picture of the turbulence of the Russian modern history, pay a visit to the Museum of Political History (Kuybysheva ulitsa, 2-4). The museum building itself has historical significance, as it was the home of Mathilda Kshesinskaya – a ballerina at the Mariinsky before the Revolution and Nicholas II’s mistress before he married. After the Revolution, it became the Bolshevik headquarters in the city, and it is from one of its balconies that Lenin made a historic speech – his office has also been left as it would have done during that period. The permanent exhibition blends artefacts, explanations and film clips to take you on a trip through the end of tsardom, the Revolution and the Soviet Union, particularly with the help of room layouts (such as the last tsar’s bureau in his military train where he signed his abdication in 1917) and listening to survivors or relatives telling stories on film.
The museum also offers several temporary exhibitions on a multitude of themes, for instance this summer ‘Food is a State Matter’ on the changing nature of food supply under different regimes, or ‘The Driving Force of the Revolution’ about the importance of art during the Revolution and after.
So why not get yourself down to either of these museums after class and pick up some useful knowledge about modern history of Russia?