Atheism, Architecture, Mindset and Dachas: Five Books about Russia

Updated: Feb 18

As a tour guide I always find it useful to look at things the locals take for granted at another angle. So, I like reading books about Russia written by international researchers. However, far not all of them are trustworthy (a popular Natasha's Dance is a sad example of such) or able to immense the reader into the details. Here I list five book on very various topics - from a dacha to atheism - which I found entertaining enough, but with a responsible attitude to the facts.

Architecture in the age of Stalin: Culture Two

By Alexey Paperny

Have you ever noticed how heavy some Moscow metro doors are? Especially at the stations built in Stalin’s time. And not only in the metro. The entrance to any of the Stalin’s Skyscrapers (Seven Sisters) or any other building of this time looks quite the same – three or four tall and thick wooden doors with rich carving, framed into a marble portal (or into another, colossal ornamental door) and with a long and wide staircase leading towards them like some sort of pedestal.

The book I am recommending is not a study of doors, of course. Doors are just one of dozens less obvious features of the Soviet 1930-1950s architecture Culture Two observes.

This sumptuous “Stalin’s style” (the author calls it Culture Two) is shown in comparison to Culture One which is Constructivism architecture of the 1920s.

An architectural style always reflects some key points of the current agenda.

Culture One claimed: after the Revolution history started anew negating the previous centuries’ legacy; borders between countries, social classes or types of buildings will disappear soon; all people are comrades and all of them are more or less the same; the woman should be liberated from “home slavery” and become a full-fledged member of society – new houses had “cooked food factories” instead of kitchens.

Culture Two came to quite opposite beliefs: Revolution marked a summit of the world history and not its beginning; each citizen had their own deserved spot in the social hierarchy. In architecture it meant a return to classical shapes and now the national heroes enjoyed comfort surrounded by the most elegant elements of the world architectural legacy while various riff-raff deserved nothing more than basic dwellings. Social divisions and hierarchy silently returned.

And the doors are so heavy and beautifully made because crossing a border, a border between a street and a building, is an act saturated with meaning in Culture Two.

This book can be recommend to anyone who likes to ramble around the streets of Moscow and wants to look deeper beyond the facade.

The Sacred Space is Never Empty By Victoria Smolkin

“Was religion made illegal in Soviet Union?” I am often asked by tourists. “No, it never was” I reply.

Many other things were going on around the clergy, believers and churches though. First, Marx predicted that religion would disappear of its own accord after the demolition of the class system. Bolsheviks believed, however, that church drags society backward preventing the class system from falling apart and it is necessary to exorcise it from spiritual life. Anti-religious propaganda (Militant atheism as they called it) took a wide range of forms – posters, wild Anti-Christmas and Anti-Easter rallies, modifying the working week so that Sunday often was a working day. “The Goldless” newspaper had a huge circulation. A Christmas tree was proclaimed bourgeois (one of the worst term there was) and for several years had nearly illegal status until its revival in 1935, but already in a form of solely a New Year tradition. At the same time it was never officially forbidden to be a believer and until the end of the 1920s many churches still had services held in them.

During the 1930s though the process of closing churches down intensified, and by 1941 only 3,700 of them had been left in the entire country out of 78,000 of 1917. The war brought some ease to the Russian church one could hardly predict: in 1943 Stalin invited high ranking church officials to the Kremlin (some were urgently brought there straight from labor camps) to announce they are allowed to elect a new patriarch (for 15 years before that the Church had not had a leader) and reopen a Seminary in Sergiev Posad. In the two remaining war years the number of active churches tripled.

After a short break, though a campaign for enlightenment and against Christianity resumed – this time under Khruschev. Soon after his ascension he decreed intensifying atheistic education. “Little can be done with old backward-thinking babushkas, let’s at least save the younger generation from the darkness of religion” they decided. Sometimes the militia encircled churches not letting people taking children to services. In colleges a new subject of study appeared - Scientific Atheism. This study was called upon to put together a set of convictions of a high-moral, but not religious, socialist.

Young generation demonstrated zero interest and loyalty to these prescribed ideals and some of them, especially intellectuals, got interested in religion as a form of protest.

Land of the Firebird By Suzanne Massie

When I had been graduating my guide’s course ten years ago, we were recommended Suzanne Massie’s book The Land of the Firebird to see how things we take for granted should be explained to foreigners. This nearly 500 pages book is still never too far away from my desk. Massie opened the American readers’ eyes to Russian history, arts, music, traditions... Her description of a samovar for example:

“The Samovar, a metal urn in which water is kept boiling for tea, came to Russia from Persia and the Middle East in the 18th century. Charcoal or wood is burned In a vertical pipe through the center of the samovar, at the top of which strong concentrated tea essence is brewed. In Old Russia, tea drinking was a cherished ritual, the way of life. The friendly steaming samovar was everywhere, in homes and restaurants, on trains and street corners. Typically, as with everything else, the Russians immediately turned samovar from a strictly utilitarian object into a handsome object of art surpassing its Eastern models”.

Suzanne Massie wrote this book in 1982, at one of the peaks of the Cold War. The book’s subtitle is “The beauty of the old Russia”. It caught the interest of Ronald Reagan and he invited Massie to the White House. She became his informal councilor on “how to understand Russians” and served a messenger between the Mikhail Gorbachev’s and Reagan’s administrations. In many ways, her enlightening work helped the Cold War end peacefully.

In 2021 Massie was granted Russian citizenship.

Suzanne was married to Robert Massie, also a Russian historian. He wrote historical figures’ biographies – Peter the Great’s, Catherine the Great’s, the last Romanovs’.

This book might be of interest for expats and tourists who like going to museums and travelling.

Summerfolk By Stepehen Lovell

Every Friday night strings of red light stretch along the roads from big cities to country side: these are city dwellers going to their dachas. Two days later they will stretch in the opposite direction.

Why a dacha - often quite a rude hut at a modest garden plot - is so attractive for Russians? Almost half of city families have one. The book helps to understand the place of it in a Russian’s mind and tells the history of the dacha.

The word “dacha” appeared at the times of Peter the Great. He distributed plots of land along the road connecting Petersburg and the royal estate Peterhof to his closest friends with the condition that they would make an imposing household ready to receive a broad stream of guests including the court who would come for half a day to take a break from the city.

The next century the dacha became a space with a set of values opposed to those of the city.

“Already in the late 1800ss the idea that human beings, born as a part of the natural world, must not allow themselves to overexercise their rational, intellectual faculties, got strong. City dwellers must take time to enjoy – even if only intermittently – the rural “good life”. “Dachniki” were urged to create a more straightforward lifestyle over the summer months, rising early and taking frequent invigorating walks, avoiding excessive mental activity, greasy and rich food, and mid-afternoon snoozes”.

The Soviet history of dacha swayed from a cozy retreat of political and cultural establishment to an “weekend job” where the whole family toiled to grow food for the winter. After the WW2 mass garden-plot cultivation was a survival strategy and this habit of growing one’s own vegetables and fruits and building a house with your own hands remained a national trait for another half a century.

“A dacha has been treated as a link to a deeply rooted way of life and as an embodiment of a virtuous domesticity. It has been invested with a range of positive features of the Russian self-image: easy-going sociability, open-ended and vodka-soaked hospitality, rejection or ignorance of superficial niceties, appetite for physical toil, intuitive feeling for the natural world, and emotional freedom”.

Putin Country: A Journey into a Real Russia By Anne Garrels

When Anne had to decide which Russian city would be the field for her anthropological research, she threw a sharpened pencil to the map, like a dart. The pencil chose Chelyabinsk – a million citizens city on the border of Europe and Asia. Chelyabinsk became briefly world-famous in 2013 when it was hit by a meteorite and videos with its citizens phlegmatic reaction to the burst in the skies went viral. Anne actually starts her book with this episode.

Via multiple interviews and decades-long friendships (she came to Chelyabinsk for the first time in 1993) she paints the modern Russian mindset. The book was published in 2016, before the pandemic, so the economical and political situation and public mood have shifted since then, but there is something she grasped that remains relevant – the fluid, uncertain identity.

“Crudely put, Russians face an identity crisis over where their country fits into the overall global scheme. The last time Russia was Russia was 1917. The Soviet identity was in many ways an artificial construct, but it existed for a long while, and by the time it collapsed, who knew what Russia was or what being Russian meant? It turned out that ‘Russia’ was not all about being democratic and loving freedom, as some might have thought when the Soviet union collapsed. Then the country endured the traumas of the 1990s, when the quest for survival perhaps pushed aside the question of identity. Now there is a searching, on many fronts, for a definition of what it means to be ‘Russian’ in the twenty-first century.”

The heroes of this book tell about their “survival quest” in the 1990s after the instant switch from state paid jobs to wild market economy. This helps to understand what people mean talking about “Putin’s stability” they afraid to break so much.

During her visits Anne managed to make friends with 10-20 people – from an AIDS-positive taxi driver to well-off bussinesspeople, journalists and farmers.

I cannot quite believe her choice of Chelyabinsk was blind, she might have wanted her pencil to hit it. This city in the Urals Mountains has enough traits common for most Russian cities, and at the same time it is quite a tough place to live, by Russian standards as well, even though economically it is a relatively successful city.

92 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All