Sunday 21 September 2014

The sun sets on St. Petersburg...

After living, working and just about surviving in Peter for the better part of three months this summer, there was one final chance for me to see the city from a fresh perspective. Having come to the end of my time in the archives, feeling both satisfied and somewhat saturated in equal measure, I was joined by a couple of friends in the midst of a grand tour of Europe.

This was my opportunity to play tour-guide, translator and even tourist. It's the first time I've had people from the 'outside world' over to Russia and it forced me to sit back and think about what the city has to offer in terms of culture, history and landmarks (not to mention food, drink and evening entertainment!).

I think we struck the right balance. With only a couple of days available - thankfully gifted with great weather throughout - I offered them views of the centre, tastes of Russia and even an experience of my last few months at home in Primorskaya. To give me an outlet for exercise I've spent a fair few hours on the basketball court (trying to get to grips with necessary vocabulary). There is a universal language where sport is concerned however and the quality and enjoyment of play involved mostly spoke for itself.

Credit for the view above has to go to my buddy and his fortuitous employment of Google to find a suitable setting for our penultimate evening. A rooftop terrace view of St Isaac's Cathedral as the sun came down, good wine and good company to boot. Although this end to the trip has stretched my budget - and my last reserves of energy - I couldn't have asked for a better finish to the final stage of my research it represents.

My ultimate aim when I began this blog was to prepare myself for this, my doctoral thesis. I wanted to feel like I could operate in the archives and produce original and insightful research on a fascinating country. I also hoped to be able to communicate and express myself in a new and challenging language. Although there is still work to do where both these aims are concerned, my confidence continues to grow and my passion for history persists.

Sunday 31 August 2014

Politics without a manifesto...

I've tended to avoid politics in this blog. If nothing else, until my language skills are suitably developed I don't feel inclined to try and speak on the subject in Russian when I can't articulate what I want to say with any real clarity and conviction.

That said, politics are increasingly seeping into everyday life and my regular interactions with the country. Its my reason for returning so soon after my previous trip (to use time available on a visa I fear might prove harder to renew in the future) and a simple visit to the supermarket is a reminder of the existence of sanctions, embargoes and the tit-for-tat politics playing out between Russia and the West.

Politics was also at the centre of much of the contemporary art on display at the current 'Manifesta 10' festival running at sites around the city. I took a trip today to one of the spaces neighbouring the more established cultural home of art in the centre, the Hermitage, finding an impressive range of media and motives behind the works.

There is nothing to be gained from my photographing the works and repeating them here. Photography was nominally forbidden anyway - as usual that stopped few from snapping away regardless. I instead took it as a challenge. Below are a selection of images of the space around me. Consider it a tacit reminder of an Englishman's preference for rule following and a visual symbol of my tendency to overlook the politics on display and seek the story behind the scenes. How wonderfully pretentious!

Tuesday 15 July 2014

Hipsters of the world, UNITE!

Welcome to the revolution re-imagined for the 21st-century. In what I'm sure is a reaction against inflated coffee prices and the global domination of Seattle's finest, I'm currently sat in one of St Petersburg's "anti-cafés" (the article linked here profiles a similar establishment over in London and provides a little more background...which I've yet to read since I'm too busy enjoying my free coffee and cakes).

It's a real hipster's dream inside, a fading mish-mash of furniture, old typewriters and Arcade Fire on the stereo. There are a couple of boutique shops next door and a bohemian looking hairdresser working in the corner. The concept is simple - you pay by the minute, not by the coffee. Everything else is then 'free', including tea on tap, a proper espresso machine and access to a selection of cakes and savoury snacks.

I don't want to give the impression I'm above all this for one second. I love it, it's a great idea. I just hope I don't get too comfortable and forget the time...

Side-note: Speaking of the 21st-century, this post is an experiment in voice recognition and just how revolutionary this little gadget is in my hand. It seems to be a success, a few corrections here and there, but I may never have to type again...So much for those hipsters and their old typewriters!

[Update] While I remember, the bill came to 140 roubles (less than £3.00) for an hour and twenty minutes. Seriously, you can struggle to get a coffee in the centre of the city for less than that. Consider me a convert.

You can find the cafe, Цифербург on Nevsky Prospect, at the top floor of 'Пассаж' (not the posh bit, the entrance closest to the Fontanka. Link to the Russian website attached, with the cafe marked on Google Maps.

Sunday 13 July 2014

The Terminology of Terror...

I have had a great deal of success this week working within the National Library's reading room for newspapers. It has given me access to both central Party newspapers from the Soviet Union and the key regional newspaper for Leningrad, Leningradskaya Pravda.

Printed in Pravda, 3 December 1939, p.5

I've spoken a little about my research over the course of this blog, but my preoccupation has always been about the development of my language skills. This week I have enjoyed the interaction of both, coming together to help take another important step towards completing my doctoral studies.

I wanted to share a little about what I've been working on in recent months (and years!) and hopefully give an impression of how important the language skills are to my work, even as we move ever closer to instant and accessible translation by the likes of Google and other digital services.

My research - as a reminder - centres on the impact of the Soviet-Finnish War of 1939-40 on the international communist community. That means not only citizens within the borders of the USSR, but the global collective of communists abroad, many operating under the umbrella of the Communist International (Comintern) and its numerous satellite parties. Official news of the war and the party line on developments related to the conflict were disseminated through various sources. One of the most important was the press.

Over the last week I've been studying newspapers to unravel the strategies adopted by the Kremlin to deal with a war that went very badly for the Red Army. For a regime used to a strict control over its press and propaganda, the need for positive spin was apparent. My work looks at the strengths and weaknesses of the party machinery to deal with the crisis and what window it offers into the mechanics of the Stalinist regime.

The aspect of my research I'm focused on currently is the language and terminology prescribed to its supporters when talking of Soviet-Finnish relations and events across the border (and I should stress, from the Soviet perspective, this was never a "war", this being one term consistently avoided in the press and public speeches). A vocabulary developed, influenced by the history and ideology of the Party, that allowed writers in newspapers, politicians at the lectern and party activists on the factory floor, to describe events according to the official Party Line.

Out of this research I began to notice a key trend. The kind of violent, coercive and arbitrary force historians today associate with the Stalinist regime in the treatment of its own citizens, was being used to conjure up an image of an equally tyrannical regime in Finland.

The language of terror, of repression, of mass arrests and the victimisation of peoples, was regularly appearing in print, not to acknowledge the extremes of Soviet power, but to justify the Red Army's invasion and Moscow's intervention in Finnish affairs.

As I explored further, I realised this was a tactic not limited to Finland. The press regularly adopted this terminology of terror to point the finger at rival states and powers. Furthermore, this was not a strategy limited to the regional level but is visible in central party newspapers that too shared and depended on a key institution for the collection, dissemination and control of news at home and abroad, the Telegraph Agency of the Soviet Union (TASS).

It was through TASS bulletins - short, back-page news items culled from the international press - with evocative headlines and only cursory detail of events, that the Party made it quite explicit that life outside the Soviet Union was far worse than within. Often the sources quoted were simply the newspapers of communist parties abroad - such as The Daily Worker in London, an organ of the Communist Party of Great Britain - though no indication of this convenient connection was made public (indeed I know from my research in Moscow that the journalistic practices of the Telegraph Agency would be enough to make even the former editors of the News of the World blush). The priority was always the party line.    

"Terror by Mannerheim's Gangs"(1)

"Outburst of white terror in Mannerheim's Finland"(2)

"Mass Arrests in India"(3)

"Mass Arrests in Helsinki"(4)

"Repressions in France"(5)

"Fascist terror in Spain"(6)

These examples above, like the opening image, indicate that the regime was supremely comfortable employing this tactic despite its own record of violence. Indeed, scholars today still largely categorise the years of 1937-38 as witnessing Stalin's 'Great Terror', when whole swathes of society suffered arrest, exile, years of forced labour and even execution at the hands of the state. Where the regime has explicitly used the term 'terror' to challenge and attack its opponents at home and abroad, this has either been overlooked or lost in translation, with the more current and less evocative 'terrorism' often used in English texts.

What I hope my research will eventually offer is pause for thought, that it will challenge the fast and loose adoption of the term 'terror' to describe a state and ruler that felt confident in 'casting the first stone' in an attempt to justify their own actions. They clearly didn't see a danger in people drawing unhealthy comparisons between terror abroad in 1939 and recent waves of violence that swept through the Soviet Union. One of the reasons for this, I will argue in my thesis, was the strict control and censorship of its own extra-legal activity alongside the long term development and dissemination of a terminology of terror to deflect negative publicity onto its rivals.

I hope to publish an article on this topic prior to completion of my final doctoral thesis. As with my article on the developing role of TASS in the Soviet-Finnish War, I will upload a link on the blog when, and if, it emerges for anyone interested in a more in depth study of these ideas and sources.


Although references below are to single newspapers, these TASS bulletins were generally circulated to all central and regional newspapers, filling print space with sanctioned and carefully censored material.

1. Leningradskaya Pravda, 22 December 1939, p.4
2. Pravda, 16 December 1939, p.5
3. Pravda, 16 December 1939, p.5
4. Leningradskaya Pravda, 11 December 1939, p.4
5. Leningradskaya Pravda, 11 December 1939, p.4
6. Leningradskaya Pravda, 21 August 1939, p.4

Saturday 12 July 2014

Опера - всем!

I take it as an indication of how far my Russian has come, that while taking the long escalator ride to the metro platform this morning, my ears pricked up unexpectedly to the sound of an advertisement on the tannoy system. For a long time I've just considered the sounds of the metro indecipherable background noise. I remember one of my first victories was realising I could understand the format of the station announcements from the train car. This felt like another important step.
The chatter was about a summer festival of opera in the city. Russia was my first introduction to the classical arts - opera and ballet - and the thought of a free concert in the city appealed after a long two weeks of Soviet press and propaganda. I needed some culture, some escapism. I'd caught enough of the advert to know what I was looking for online and after a few hours in the library, I made my way a restaurant to refuel and track down the essentials.

A series of weekend concerts are being held as part of 'Опера - всем' [Opera for all] around the city. Tonight's performance of 'The Golden Cockerel' was being staged in the grounds of the Peter and Paul Fortress. It was a test of my Russian to track down the official website and navigate my way to the relevant information. I'd worked for this, I felt like I'd earned an experience.

That I got. I turned up with about half an hour to spare. There were crowds of people milling about, some had arrived early enough for seating, the majority had picked a spot on the grass with a view of the stage and big screen display. I found myself a patch too and lounged out on the grass. As the performance hit its stride, the sun burst through and the whole setting offered a perfect way to unwind. I was there for the music, my brain drifted off and made little effort to translate, but it was enough to enjoy the moment. I could certainly get used to summers in St Petersburg.

Tuesday 8 July 2014

A little place in the country...

The weekend just past I finally made an excursion out to Peterhof, site of one of the grand palatial homes of the Romanov dynasty. Built by Peter the Great and developed and expanded by his successors, it was occupied by Nazi forces during the Siege of Leningrad and only restored to its former glory at the turn of the millennium.

I took advantage of an organised trip with the school, so the headache of working out the best way to travel down was already sorted. We had the option of a boat ride across the Gulf of Finland - about 600 roubles - or a quick trip by metro and bus - the bus was 60 roubles - since most of us were on a student budget we went for the cheaper option.

The weather is still glorious, almost overbearingly hot in the city centre during the day, so a chance to escape to the country was much appreciated. We took the red line to 'Avtovo' and then hopped on one of the glorified mini-buses that appeared every 5-10 minutes at a stop just outside the station. It was my first experience on these private buses. Get on, don't expect to find a seatbelt and I'd recommend bringing the correct change if you're uncomfortable watching the driver with one hand on the steering wheel, the other counting your change while alternating with his mobile and gesturing wildly at the usual progress of Petersburg traffic. An experience.

The palace complex required a ticket to enter (250 roubles for students; 500 for adults) and contained a multitude of museums and buildings you could then pay further for access. It was enough for us to spend a few hours walking the gardens and taking in the sight of the many fountains. It really was a beautiful, well manicured space. Overcrowded, yes, but there were enough beauty spots to house all of us and if you avoided the scrum around the major attractions it was easy enough to feel like you were getting a break from the heat and noise of the city. A shame the grassed areas were largely off limits, so no real opportunity for a picnic, but there were plenty of food kiosks along the way and benches to rest weary legs.

Attached are a few photos from around the complex. If you can avoid the posing natives, there are a few sights worth snapping, though the internet is probably awash with better examples than my efforts.

Wednesday 2 July 2014

V.I.P. treatment...

Yesterday was a bit of a turn around. After the frustration of finding my main archive inaccessible for another week, I managed to regroup and plan to still be productive. I was initially facing a slight delay before I could hit the ground running, requiring my migration document to register at the National Library. This was due after two o'clock, so I decided to kill some time by following up another archive in the city I'd tracked down before my arrival.

The Central Museum of Communications (named in honour of Alexander Stepanovich Popov, the famous Russian physicist) is just down the road from Winter Palace. Attached is a research library and archive that I thought was worth investigating since part of my work involves studying the role of the Telegraph Agency of the Soviet Union in the press and propaganda of the 1930s and early 1940s (see here for my article on the subject). It turned out to be a dead end, but I was no worse off for trying and got a little practice in trying to explain my research to the librarians there. Opting not to explore the museum itself - I should point out that from the outside of the building you'd be forgiven for walking past without giving it a second look - I headed back to the centre of town, intent on picking up a book I'd spotted earlier in 'Dom Knigi', then finding a cafe to do some reading.

However, on the way I wandered past the Musuem of Printing. I vaguely remembered spotting it before. Advertised was an exhibition on printing in the city, before and after Lenin. It sparked my interest so I headed in. I found a quaint looking bookshop, old leather bound editions and prints on the wall. The entrance to the museum proper was just behind, with the standard issue babushkas on hand to distribute a ticket. They seemed charmed by my Russian and accepted I was eligible for the student price (£1.50 and worth every penny by the end of my visit). I declined the offer of an individual excursion, but much to my amazement found I was passed along from room to room, given an introduction to each space by one of the on staff 'curators' (old ladies with a keen interest in offering up their wisdom seem to be standard issue in the city's museums. A wonderful resource if you're willing to ask questions and show an interest).

The museum was a bit of a maze of rooms with small exhibition spaces and recreations of the printing, typography and daily life of these buildings - largely through recreations using of-the-period furniture - from the hundred years or so leading up to the revolution. You could probably fly through in half an hour, but taking a moment to listen to these ladies offer up a little bit of history was a great way to put my Russian to practice and interact. I think they were equally pleased for the chance to speak, I saw only one other visitor as I moved from room to room. I really felt like I was given special treatment, being shown hundred year old copies of Pravda straight from the displays and offered the chance to sneak behind the 'velvet rope' for a close up view (and lesson) in the mechanics of printing.

It certainly boosted my confidence in the language and set me up nicely for my first visit to the National Library. The registration proved simple, I was issued with a card bearing my details and a passport sized photo that is better than I usually produce. I even had time to order my first editions of Leningradskaya Pravda and size up the task ahead of me. I've got a lot of reading to do...