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Sometimes you love some past so much that you somehow forget when you live, now or then, especially if “now” differs from “then” quite sharply. If the present does not differ from the past — and even diligently does not differ, seeks to identify with it — it is more difficult to love and forget.

Text: Grigory Revzin

In a career, criticism is the first love. In my student years, I became interested in the neoclassical architecture of the early 20th century, and then I even wrote a book about it. This architecture is, to a certain extent, the quintessence of the St. Petersburg Silver Age: Kamennoostrovsky Prospekt, Bolshoy Prospekt, Kamenny and Krestovsky Islands. It combined everything that seemed worthy and undoubted to me - the beauty of St. Petersburg, what Nikolai Antsiferov defined as "the city of tragic imperialism", the classical tradition, art history, which at that moment was just being born and contributed a lot to that neoclassicism, and I I was just studying, in a word, it was my everything.

And suddenly I discovered that people whom I unconditionally respected - my professors or friends of my parents - do not share my enthusiasm at all and even have a certain disgust for this architecture. The delights that I have now - there are not many of them - no one shares with me at all, so that the deep displeasure of friends and acquaintances about the vaults of those almshouses where I was taken seems familiar to me. But then I walked in the status of a young talent and I was hurt by disapproval. The reason for their squeamish bewilderment was that the best architects of neoclassicism that captivated me - Ivan Fomin, Ivan Zholtovsky, Vladimir Shchuko - became the main figures of Stalinist architecture.

I spent a lot of effort to prove that the neoclassic of the beginning of the century and the Stalinist empire are two different things. I pointed to the majestic figures of Marian Peretyatkovich, who died in Kyiv of a heart attack in 1916, Marian Lyalevich, who fled to Poland and died in the Warsaw Uprising in 1944—these masters of neoclassicism had nothing to do with the Stalinist classics. The inspirer of neoclassicism was Alexander Benois, who emigrated in 1926, the ideological center was the Apollo magazine, where is Stalin, and where is Apollo? "Apollo" is acmeism, Akhmatova and Mandelstam, they grow from the same root as Fomin and Zholtovsky, only architecture is not poetry, it cannot be made at one's own expense. First of all, I convinced myself and, perhaps, some of those around me. (But not all of them at all. I remember how one eminently worthy and very majestic lady told me sternly: “You shouldn’t confuse Mandelstam with Peretyatkovich,” but I didn’t confuse it, I compared it, but it’s still clear that I made a mistake.)

And now I understand: no. No, this is the same architecture, the same ideal, the same masters. One neoclassicism is separated from another by only 20 years, and this is almost nothing. These masters, beloved by me, were captured by the past - ancient Rome and Piranesi's Rome, Renaissance Florence, Pushkin's Petersburg, and I loved them because it captured me too. The problem is that it also captured Stalin.

The state sometimes says that it is acting according to a plan, doing terrible things, but the plan itself is not clear. The scope of Stalin's violence is such that it seems that it was for some reason, but I don't know why. And if you are not satisfied with the widespread assumptions about psychopathology, paranoia, you begin to look for a utopia that would justify practical murder as an ideal. The difficulty is that Stalin's time defined its ideal as communism, although it more or less had no points of intersection with communism - it is difficult to imagine goals more absurd for Stalin than universal equality, free labor and the withering away of the state.

He wanted to build an empire more majestic than all that preceded and contemporary him. With certain reservations, we can say that it was a retro-utopia. Unlike the more practical and petty killers, Stalin was a kind of fan of a grand style, he wanted a state cast, as they say now, in the granite of classical architecture, painting, music, theater and literature. Of course, not in the same way as Antsiferov, but in Russia he discerned this spirit of overstrained imperialism, and he overcame the overstrain, advancing towards triumphant, triumphant imperialism. In the history of utopias, since the 1850s, it has been customary to single out aesthetic ones - those that are not about a social or economic ideal, but about the fact that "beauty will save the world." These utopias traditionally belong to artists and philosophers, people deprived of a state resource. But in the case of Stalin, an aesthetic utopia of the state appears - the state as a work of art of great style on blood (Boris Groys once called it Gesamtkunstwerk Stalin).

I am far from asserting that everything that Comrade Stalin did, he did for beauty, but what he did for her casts an ugly shadow on her. Mandelstam and Akhmatova were lucky in this sense - Mayakovsky so vividly stated the futuristic image of Soviet power that their classicism more or less automatically became anti-Soviet, and it is difficult to suspect even a remote affinity of their roots with Stalinist tastes. In architecture, alas, everything is more unambiguous and, if you like, dumber. The brilliant, virtuoso graphics of Ivan Fomin in his utopian project "New Petersburg" in 1912 are treacherously similar to the Stalinist perspectives of Moscow, and there is no room for doubt about what kind of almshouses you have been brought under the arches of. Those same and skidded.

Assume that Europe is close to you due to education and upbringing. In this case, with some probability, you will like the Europe of the past, since the modern one did not have time to enter the protocols of education and upbringing. You will admire the Parthenon and St. Peter's Basilica, and modernism will evoke a certain irony in you. And you will put the collection of the Accademia Museum in Venice above the exposition of the Venice Biennale. All this makes you a person, albeit conservative, but on the whole not falling out of the civilized world. And suddenly it turns out that Comrade Stalin adheres to tastes and views similar to yours, that in a certain sense he is also, so to speak, a gentleman of the old school. This brings you to the fact that you, perhaps, are not part of the civilized world, but rather the opposite. It's not that the past that you loved was stolen from you, but rather that the past that you loved is stealing you from yourself.

I not only loved the neoclassicism of the 1910s, I was actively engaged in its revival in the 1990s-2000s, I considered it my life task. I still really appreciate the architecture of Mikhail Filippov, Maxim Atayants, Mikhail Belov. I tend to exaggerate the significance of my attachments and actions somewhat, but it sincerely seemed to me that people would live much better in the cities and buildings that they painted than in industrial housing construction products. And I still believe that our neoclassical school is much more artistic and of better quality than the one that His Majesty Charles III supported in England when he was Prince, and we could be proud of this.

But I'm not sure I would repeat my actions today. The idea that the past needs to be Kenselled on the grounds that an unacceptable present is its continuation does not appeal to me, but the past has the property of being Kenselled on its own. From the Jewish point of view, if the temple is destroyed, then not only this destruction is sacrilege, but also an attempt to build the temple anew, and many arguments have been accumulated in favor of such a position.


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