A Living Culture
When you move from one place to another in Russia, you travel through time as well as space. As distance from the capital increases, you soon find you’ve moved several years, or even several decades, backwards.
Or so I told myself as I left Moscow—that turgid, tentacled metropolis, the capital of Russian-style neocapitalism—on my way to Alexandrov. My journey by electric train served to set back the clock. Modest, but sturdy, with these trains you feel the love of metalwork, of nuts and bolts, that went into them; the locomotive is painted in a nice clear green, accented in yellow and decorated on the front by a star in combat red. Two hours of crossing snow-laden landscape, populated by modest homes and monotonous woods, and then, as if you’d just made a short trip through a starry sky on a dim, disreputable night, you return to a previous decade. Roads ruined by deep potholes, crumbling façades, untrustworthy sidewalks.
In an earlier era, Alexandrov had been a vacation site for czars who set out on a pilgrimage. Once during the sixteenth century, it even became the center of the country’s administration. But after the murder of his son, in order to turn the page, Ivan the Terrible left Alexandrov behind, never to return. A local legend has it that his library still lies hidden somewhere in the catacombs beneath the city, and from time to time someone still sets off in search of this treasure trove from the past. The Alexandrovsky Kremlin is blessed with magnificent sixteenth-century walls and glorious gold-incrusted portals. Yet despite these embellishments from its proud past, today Alexandrov is a provincial town that feels distant from everything, located roughly a hundred kilometers northeast of Moscow. Out of the many layers of memory in this small town, a city that on surface seems to lack any stories at all, abandonment plays a particularly important role.
During Soviet times, Alexandrov was a refuge for exiles, both those deported years ago and recent releases from the prison camps. According to an administrative regulation, the majority of people who had served their time, especially in cases of political crimes, were prohibited from residing within a hundred kilometers from major city center. They were told they could live at “Kilometer 101.” Their place of residence was required to be, minimally, at this distance from the two capitals, and often from other major sites throughout republics—in short, from an entire list of large cities. In this manner, a sort of belt tied Alexandrov’s local population together with a mixed influx of convicts, criminals, and intellectuals, living at a distance of just over one hundred kilometers from Moscow. And thus fertile soil was formed for culture of a very particular sort.
All this we heard from Lev Gottgelf, the director of the very active local Museum, which also serves as a cultural center. Lev’s destiny has itself been deeply marked by the pecularities of Soviet administration. After completing his secondary school education with high honors in Byelorussia, he was accepted into the Engineering school at Moscow University. After pocketing his diploma, however, he was unable to find employment anywhere in the capital—a necessity in order to obtain the famous propiska, the permission for residency stamped into his passport; without it, citizens were effectively rendered foreigners without visas in their own country. Thus Lev could no longer live in Moscow. And yet, given that he was a classical music fanatic and had for years enjoyed only the best, he simply couldn’t imagine living without the great concert performances of the very best musicians. So he decided to find a place for himself within a reasonable distance from Moscow. Alexandrov had been connected by train to Moscow since the end of the nineteenth century. The small city also had a research institute that produced quartz and artificial diamonds. The young engineer found a job there, and he took the train two or three times a week to hear performances in the grand concert halls of the capital. Today he invites all the best artists to come to Alexandrov. Passionate about literature too, and a poet himself in his spare time, back in the ‘90s he decided to direct a cultural center, at a time when locals in the process of rediscovering their civil liberties chose to fund by subscription a museum in honor of the poet Marina Tsvetaeva, who had herself lived in Alexandrov.
Lev didn’t stop there. More recently, within his museum he dedicated a pair of rooms to a entirely unique subject: the Museum of the 101st Kilometer. It houses objects that have belonged to a variety of prisoners, exiles, and dissidents who came to reside in Alexandrov. Among the letters, photos, and everyday objects are found, for example, the medical instruments of Doctor Maslennikov. Immortalized in The Cancer Ward, this doctor—who discovered a unique form of cancer-fighting mushroom growing in the region on birch bark—took care of Alexander Solzhenitsyn, as is shown by a letter from the celebrated writer, also on display. Striking paintings depicting the everyday world of the camps can also be found, their traits sketched out painfully in gray and brown oils. A pocket-sized icon, painted on a scrap of bark, was hoarded secretly by a detainee. There are no explanatory panels posted: you must visit the exposition with experts capable of making these stories, characters, and snippets of memory come alive for the visitors. The museum forms part of the oral culture so important to this country; a living culture comes out of these discrete, at times insignificant objects, walled up in their silence.
Geneviève Piron directs the Smith College Program in Geneva; she is the author of Léon Chestov, philosophe du déracinement (L'Age d'Homme, 2010) and L'utopie au quotidien: La vie ordinaire en URSS 1953-1985.
Translated from French by Jim Hicks