Lenin – the pretendy man

Small boy; big name

Small boy; big name

It was half term here in Moscow, so, of course, we went to see Lenin. He is, after all, indoors, and it was a bit drizzly. Also, I have felt oddly guilty – I’ve been here over a year, been to the Bolshoi, the Tretyakov, even Ikea, but not to visit Vladimir Ilyich… it was starting to seem disrespectful.

There’s the possible deadline too (once a journalist, always a journalist: I like a bit of pressure). Lenin’s embalmed body has lain in a mausoleum on Moscow’s Red Square since his death in 1924 (it was temporarily whipped off to Siberia to avoid the approaching Nazis during World War II), but now there is renewed talk of moving him at last. Putin’s party, United Russia, launched a web referendum last January on whether it might be time to let the leader of the 1917 Revolution rest in peace beside his mum in a St Petersburg cemetery, and though nothing’s been decided it’s hard to believe he has many more years to go on public view.

So, I didn’t want to miss him: people can still disappear suddenly in Russia.

It was a damp Tuesday when I turned up with two of the three children (daughter, 11, and son, five) to join the Lenin queue. We trekked past St Basil’s across the expanse of Red Square towards Lenin’s red and black stone pyramid, only to be directed out again on the far side of the square to a spot at the foot of the Kremlin Wall beside the Alexandrovsky Gardens. There were maybe 100 people queuing – Russians, mostly, all ages, some with kids; all waiting patiently. I can’t say there was a breathless sense of anticipation – the whole set-up is typically “public Russian”: low-key, orderly and self-controlled – but the handful of returning visitors making their way back past the queue had that strange look worn by worshippers who have just taken communion: a sort of brief transfiguration, a borrowed specialness, swiftly lost as they headed off towards Tverskaya and the shops.

Some 40 minutes passed; my pair of pilgrims grew restless and a delegation was despatched to bring back McDonald’s muffins and coffee. I hoped Lenin wasn’t spinning in his mausoleum. Chilled-looking soldiers ushered groups of 15 or so past a barrier and up into the corner of Red Square, and suddenly we too were waved through. There was a strange temptation to break into a trot, as if this were Harrods’ sale, but we resisted and went to drop off my mobile in the bag locker (no camera, video or still, may record Lenin, and I wouldn’t recommend trying to bend the rules). Leaving your stuff costs a few roubles, but seeing the man himself is free – an unparalleled bargain in modern Moscow and sufficient reason in itself to visit.

Phone deposited, we passed through metal detectors and a bag check by more guards and then, finally, were allowed into the secured area alongside the sheer red Kremlin wall, where plaques mark the ashes of major Communist figures and Soviet heroes such as Gagarin. There’s a Scot there too: Arthur MacManus, first chairman of the Communist Part of Great Britain and the second “signatory” to the forged Zinoviev letter inciting the Brits to revolution.

Again, there’s a small temptation to run towards the hefty granite blocks of the mausoleum, but as you enter the theatrics kick in and larky visitors are swiftly put in their place. You descend down steps within a corridor of polished black stone (it’s labradorite, the latest thing in mausoleum interiors), passing adolescent but solemn soldiers stationed at each turn of the stair. The lights are dimmer, turning to a strange red glow in the central chamber itself, as if Lenin were lit by fishtank heaters. In the centre of this underground room (there’s no natural light) stands a glass-topped sarcophagus – the sort Snow White is usually pictured in, though of course she woke up. Lenin lies inside, propped up slightly, hands folded, wearing a suit (he used to wear a military uniform but then someone decided it gave the wrong impression). He’s entirely unghoulish – like a model of himself, not a corpse. A little behind other visitors, we passed through alone, the children peering but not in the least alarmed. “His whiskers are funny,” said my son as we were ushered on by the guards (stopping is not permitted). “He looks like a pretendy man.”

It’s true: in the pinkish gloom nothing looks real, least of all the bloke under the glass. In an odd way, the décor is almost more striking than the body: red porphyry jags slice across the glittery black of the walls. The drama is deliberate, borrowed from a thousand pilgrimage sites and maybe a bit from Disney, but stopping short of kitsch. The atmosphere is genuinely solemn: you’re not allowed to laugh and you don’t want to, whether you understand the full bloody force of Russian history or not. Lenin isn’t Lenin now: he’s a symbol of Lenin, and that’s why he’s so difficult to move. Corpses can be buried; history can’t.

We stepped back up the dark steps and out into the light, where the graves of Stalin (once co-occupant of the mausoleum), Brezhnev, Andropov, Chernyenko and others await.

Behind us, the slow trickle of visitors – tourists, the curious, pilgrims – carried on.

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Posted in Moscow, not Mrs Putin's Diary, Russia | Tagged , , , , , | 3 Comments

Kal and corruption

I never want to see another of these...

I’m sorry to begin this way, but I’m going to talk about poo. And anyway, this story is really about corruption, and how – no matter how upstanding you are – it can overtake you almost before you know what’s happening, so really the poo element is hardly the worst bit.

First, some background. My small son attends a kindergarten in Moscow – what Russians call a dyetsky sad (children’s garden). The children stay there much longer than they would in England, moving on to school only at six or seven. In our dyetsky sad, there’s a facility given the grand title of basseyn (swimming pool), but which is in fact about five feet across and about the depth of a sheep dip.

To be allowed to bathe in this thing (I’m not sure even a toddler can swim in it), children must first bring to school a special certificate confirming they are healthy. Russians are extremely keen on these health documents – before our son joined the kindergarten we had already shelled out around $200 on a “spravka” – a fuller certificate requiring a blood sample, lots of weighing, measuring and general eyeing up, and a rather unexpected anal swabbing which has given my son a lifelong fear of cotton buds.

When the white-coated “med-sestra” (school nurse) collared me at nursery to tell me I needed the latest certificate, at first my hopelessly inadequate Russian wasn’t up to it. As we stood on the stairs, I understood she was asking me to get hold of a document, but couldn’t recognise a word she kept repeating rather quietly. “I don’t understand this word “kal”,” I interrupted, then noticed her looking flustered and blushing (usually she is, frankly, a bit scary – the kind of nurse that would yank out your wobbly tooth with one twist).

Too late, I realised the word I was shouting means “faeces”. I needed a sample from my son, she explained in hushed tones, then I should take it to be tested and return with the appropriate bit of documentation. The easiest place would be the local dyetsky polyclinika (children’s medical centre), where I should simply hand in the sample and her note explaining what was needed, after which my son would have the freedom of all five feet of the school pool with the other children.

This presented two challenges. Get hold of the right documents and, first, persuade your five year old to let you grab a bit of his poo. Any self-respecting small boy will never allow this, and my son took to sneaking off to poo in the mornings before I was ready to pursue him with my small pot. I grew nervous as the time came to drop him off at school in the mornings: often the nurse would pop out of her office in her white coat, smiling expectantly and asking “Uspech?” (success). “Paka nyet, ” (not yet) I would mumble apologetically, silently cursing both my son and the Russian obsession with health bureaucracy.

Several weeks later, when I had almost resigned myself to permanent playground humiliation and my son to a life of giant arm-bands, I finally caught the little toad off-guard one morning and secured the necessary sample.

Wrapping the precious pot in a swaddling of plastic bags, I set off for the clinic, finally finding it lurking – as with many Russian facilities – in a residential building and marked only with a small municipal plaque denoting it as Polyclinika Two in our district.

The door opened onto a hubbub of crying babies, over-worked medics in white coats criss-crossing back and forth, relentlessly bright lighting, and a row of glass-fronted cubicles housing uncompromising-looking ladies stamping endless closely-typed documents. In front of them queued strained but patient parents, clutching more “dokumenty” and attempting to pacify wailing infants overheating in full snow gear.

Resisting the temptation to turn round and walk straight out again, I dodged a couple of workmen trailing a drill and loose cables and homed in on the least occupied-looking person in the room: a woman in a white coat who appeared to be running a stall of magazines no one was buying. She was knitting. I waved the nurse’s note at her and ran through my usual “I speak Russian badly – please can you help me?” routine. Go and join the cubicle queue, she gestured, before returning to turning a heel.

I queued; was queue-jumped; queued a bit more. At the window at last, I found the gap through which communication occurred was set roughly at rib height, requiring the queuer to adopt a sort of genuflecting crouch, head to one side. In this position, I again proffered my note, together with the pot (still in its bags).

“Ah,” said the robust lady (also in a white coat) sitting on the other side, “This is no good. You must bring your son to the clinic between 9am and 10am to provide a sample here.”

This was disastrous news. Not only had all my efforts to get hold of the “kal” been in vain, I now faced the impossible challenge of persuading my son to poo on command. The clinic wanted to be sure the poo was authentic; I knew the plan was a non-starter.

“I can’t do this,” I wailed in my awful Russian. My son is at school then. And he won’t do what you want.”

The solid lady looked at me a moment, then leant forward conspiratorially. Rapidly, she wrote down some figures on a piece of paper, each linked to one of the documents I required. Still crouching sideways, and squinting as I tried to follow her Russian, I finally, stupidly-slowly computed what was happening. I was being invited to bribe her.

It was an odd sensation. Surprise, shock, a weird petty lawbreaker’s thrill. And, to be honest, relief: I could finally get this infuriating problem sorted, allow my son to swim and stop dodging the nurse each morning.

Directed to the next queue, I finally paid my 800 roubles (about pounds 16), though only after having naively misunderstood the instructions and trotted obligingly off to the – real – cash desk with my bribe bill (I was sent back with a sneer). Bribe Lady’s colleague wrote out all my forms and stamped them repeatedly and forcibly in blue ink. She was friendly, even providing her mobile number on a scrap of paper, presumably in case I needed to purchase a few fake innoculations or a pain-free blood test.

I left, closing the door on the wailing, the long-suffering parents, the small-scale bribery. I’ve done nothing wrong, I told myself: in England we never need all these tests so they can’t be necessary for health protection, and anyway my son is perfectly healthy. The other kids have probably got fake forms too, so we’re all in this together.

In one sense all that is true, of course. It doesn’t take a year here to work out that the Russians typically place a line of bureaucratic hurdles in front of most activities, then offer a way round them – for a price. The oldest defence – everyone’s at it – is true, and makes righteous personal actions seem pointless.

But the taint remains. Barely even aware of what was happening, I was sucked in. I took the easy route the moment it was presented to me: I didn’t stop for a moment to mull or moralise. I decided I could judge for myself whether a rule could be broken, even though, theoretically, my actions could have consequences for others.

I don’t judge every small-scale rule-breaker in this way. That clinic is in one of the nicest Moscow districts, and it was harsh and tough – maybe the care was good but the atmosphere had an edge of desperation to it. If I had to pay to get my child faster care (and I don’t mean a daft certificate), I am sure I would do it.

The shock was in the easiness of joining the game, of seeing principles honestly held crumble a bit without even much pressure.

On the way home, I chucked the real “Kal” no one had wanted in the bin.

Posted in Moscow, not Mrs Putin's Diary | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 7 Comments