In St. Petersburg, spaces to explore the relationship of the individual to the power of the state

April 28, 2013

One of the most striking objects on display at a new museum exhibit here is an ordinary, old, yellow roll of film.

On it is an illegally photographed copy of “The Gulag Archipelago” by Alexander Solzhenitsyn, ready for the underground distribution of literature known in Soviet days as samizdat. The film was shot by Oleg Moskvin in 1976. When he was betrayed to the police, he was certified as insane and packed off to a psychiatric hospital, where he stayed until 1984.

He defied the system, and though he paid a terrible price, the book and the knowledge it contained outlived that system.

The exhibit, which opened this month at the Museum of Political History, explores the relationship of the individual to the power of the state. Housed in the former mansion of the ballet dancer Mathilde Kschessinska, who was the mistress of Nicholas II, the museum was 10 years in the making and is, in a significant way, more relevant in Vladimir Putin’s Russia than when it was conceived.

Yelena Lysenko, who helped plan the exhibit, said the idea was to show the effects of state power — and resistance to state power — on personal life, through documents, photos and artifacts. A snippet of a century-old moving picture hints that Nicholas II, the last czar, was thinking of the good of his family when he abdicated the throne. An open drawer, in what might be thought of as a cabinet of perestroika, reveals a yellowy photo of a woman selling her household goods, spread out before her on the ground, by an old, beat-up Soviet car.

A tin lunch pail, raggedly pierced by bullets, belonged to a soldier in besieged Leningrad during World War II. A tin bowl, intact, was used by one of the crowds of ordinary people who, for three tense days, stood up against the failed Soviet coup of 1991.

Portfolios hold the summonses, verdicts and poignant letters of Stalin’s victims. A woman is photographed standing in a field of bodies: It is the Russian civil war in the early 1920s. You can’t quite tell whether she is bewildered or jaded.

Between 8 million and 13 million people died in that war, and an additional 2 million left the country. There were 4 million to 7 million abandoned children, Lysenko said, “and these are the people who then began building the Soviet empire.”

“Labor in the U.S.S.R. is a matter of honor, valor and heroism.” So said a sign posted at a prison camp.

“The people who had been in the gulag tried not to talk about it,” Lysenko said. It was shock at what befell them, but also humiliation and fear, and a conviction that no one would believe them. Solzhenitsyn broke that ice jam with his history of the gulag. Maybe, thanks to people such as Moskvin, that was the moment the Soviet state was doomed.

The challengers

The exhibit begins with the Decembrists, who plotted a failed revolt in 1825, and it ends — ironically, perhaps — with a copy of today’s Russian constitution, which, like its Soviet predecessor, guarantees freedom of assembly and speech. Those rights have been sorely tested by the protests of the past year and the crackdown that followed.

“There were times people realized they could influence power and must,” Lysenko said. “We understand how delicate this is. We really hope visitors get our point.”

If any do, you might find them at a bar called Svoboda, tucked away in an old St. Petersburg courtyard off the Fontanka River. It’s a dingy place, though it just opened in December, and it doesn’t make any money, but it has staked out a claim as the home base for the Petersburg opposition. Svoboda is Russian for freedom.

Here you can find a “Peter Against Putin” T-shirt, a bottle of Putin’s Blood wine, a copy of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech, a bunch of rickety tables and a large “svoboda” banner that comes from a Ukrainian nationalist movement. Andrei Pivovarov, the kinetic part-owner, is an all-around enthusiast.

Drinks and debates

Svoboda is a place — a basement hangout, with barrel-vault ceilings and two rooms — where if you want to have a meeting or a debate, you can. That fills a need right there, because indoor spaces for out-of-favor causes are hard to locate these days.

So it’s no surprise that the police have come calling. There have been two full-fledged inspections and an accusation that Svoboda is playing recorded music without paying royalties.

To that, Pivovarov has no rejoinder, except that every other bar in St. Petersburg does the same thing.

Pivovarov, who has a day job selling brewery equipment (and whose last name means brewer), said the bar hosted a group of socialists recently, though socialism isn’t his own brand of politics.

“They came and bought 15 cups of tea and sat here for two hours,” he said. “But we don’t mind.”

The staff works for nothing or close to nothing.

“My business is to pour wine and not have debates,” said Stepan Yatsko, one of two bartenders. “But if you want to debate me, I’m ready.”

Pivovarov and his partners took over a space where three previous bars had failed because it’s not in a busy part of the city or particularly evident from the street. They put as little money into it as they could.

“I just like this space,” said Nadia Chulkova, a customer. It’s a comfort zone. There’s a wall calendar called “Twelve Angry Women.” They’re all angry at Putin.

The bar was packed for debates this past winter on St. Petersburg’s anti-gay-propaganda law and on gun control (the majority was against it). Social media made it an instant brand. The owners say they think the bar’s popularity protects it. But if the police shut it down, Pivovarov said, they’ll just find someplace else.

“There’s a common way of thinking here,” Pivovarov said, as if mentally channeling the point of the museum exhibit half a city away. “You can’t do anything yourself, even with your own hands. Well, when you come up with new ideas and new projects, then you have new people coming to you.” And that’s where Svoboda starts.

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