Pingyao and its People

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He rattled through the streets on a motor tricycle which was as rusted as he was wrinkled with age. Half a century ago, the whole town would have dressed as the old man still did, in the rough tunic and peaked cap of his better years.

The couple with the donkey cart were silver-haired too. Though they wore modern clothes, their cart might have been already ancient when they were born. It had been built, without thought for aesthetics, from timbers which would have served for a seagoing junk.

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Pingyao is more or less bang in the centre of Shanxi Province. It is four hours from Beijing by bullet train, but the China of bullet trains seems a fantasy of science fiction from inside its city walls.

Virtually all of the 4000 buildings on more than 100 streets and lanes across the square mile within the walls were built in the Ming and Qing dynasties, between the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries. Some are older than that, and the walls themselves have been standing since 1370. There are deep grooves worn by cartwheels in the roads leading up to the gateways.

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The dust of centuries clings to the bricks of the shops and courtyard houses. Their doors are gouged and dented from the mishaps of generations long passed. Lanterns hang underneath the swooping eaves. Silks, ceramics, antiques and decorative bottles of Shanxi black vinegar are arranged in doorways and tables outside the shops.

A mechanic has dragged a moped out of his workshop into the road. He crouches over it, surrounded by spanners, in an unwisely white vest. The unstoppable tide of domestic tourists eddies around him. Grim-faced ladies cycle against the flow on bikes which creak and crunch and squeal with every stroke of the pedals.

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The pagoda-like Market Tower broods over the main drag, which in other cities might qualify as a side street. A road sweeper leans against the wall with studied nonchalance. The reason why is working a street food stall, and he is managing to make her laugh.

Incense wafts from the splendid temples, Taoist and Confucian. There is a small Catholic church in one corner, as well. Marinated pork skewers are rotated over a grill by a contraption which looks as if it is driven by bicycle chains. A clunking museum piece of a machine laboriously produces confectionery. Hole in the wall restaurants serve Pingyao beef and Shanxi noodles, and they are a bustle of scraped chairs and excitable voices in the middle of the day.

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The city was an important banking centre in the nineteenth century, although it is hard to credit now. Rishenchang Exchange House Museum is one of several courtyard houses open to the public, either as themed museums or preserved family homes.

It was originally built in the eighteenth century for the Xiyuecheng Dye Company. To spare the worry of carting sacks of silver coins across China, the company began issuing drafts which could be cashed at any of its branches. The idea took off among merchants and became so popular that the owners of the company got out of the dyeing business and became bankers instead. Other draft banks set up in competition, in Pingyao and across the province.

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Away from the shops, the restaurants, the temples and the courtyard houses turned into museums, there are quieter corners which the tourists mostly avoid where the shops sell mundane staples and old posters are peeling from the walls.

The dust is more thickly encrusted in these parts. The lanterns are faded and ragged. Chickens scratch around junk in the courtyards. Chillies are laid out in baskets to dry in the sun. Washing is stretched out on lines across the fronts of buildings. The fruit seller has parked his three-wheeler in the shade of the parasol over his stall and is sound asleep in the back. At first horrified glance, he looks like a cadaver.

In the evening when the lanterns are lit outside the shops and the sky fades to a deep blue streaked with pink, then a deeper blue and eventually black and the air is still warm and a girl chars water spinach on a grill on the cobbled pavement with the paifan gate silhouetted behind her and a neon sign for a practitioner of traditional medicine glows in the background, the tourists thin out and the city relaxes and slows to a pace altogether more fitting.

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It is a surprise to find the road sweeper still working. But he is perhaps catching up with the work which he should have done earlier that afternoon when he was chatting to the woman with the street food stall.

© Richard Senior 2019

VDNKh: Stalin’s Theme Park

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The All-Union Agricultural Exhibition was intended to showcase the success of the collective farms.

There was an immediate problem in that the collective farms were a disaster: output collapsed, there was a terrible famine and millions died. But they were Stalin’s idea and Stalin – Orwell’s model for Comrade Napoleon – was always right and his policies never failed, they were just sabotaged by “kulaks,” “Trotsky-fascists,” “imperialist lackeys” or whatever label he decided to pin on the scapegoats.

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Construction of the All-Union Exhibition went ahead, originally on 330 acres of wasteland in the northern suburbs of Moscow. It opened in August 1939, a few months after the New York World’s Fair with which it was sometimes compared.

There were pavilions to represent each of the Soviet Republics, territories and regions, all built to impress on a scale to match the General Secretary’s ego. Statues, stained-glass, mosaics and bas-reliefs spoke of plentiful harvests, well-fattened animals and happy peasants, interleaved with the corporate logos of Soviet communism, the hammers and sickles, the stars and the CCCP’s. Inside were exhibits of agricultural techniques and machinery.

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While the New York World’s Fair was quickly dismantled and slowly forgotten, the All-Union Exhibition expanded in scope and area to become the Exhibition of National Economic Achievements, abbreviated in Russian to VDNKh. It gained more pavilions, magnificent fountains and a stop of its own on the Metro.

Cosmonauts Alley leads up from the station. It is more allée than alley: a broad, straight avenue cut through parkland, lined with trees.

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There are statues along its margins of iconic figures from the Soviet space programme: the likes of Yuri Gagarin and Valentina Terashkova (first man and first woman in space), Alexey Leonov (first spacewalk), and less happily Vladimir Komarov (first man to die on a space mission).

At intervals up the centre line, there are granite plinths cut into the shape of the Soviet star, planed to an angle and topped with bronze plates, also star-shaped, detailing events from the earlier years of the Space Race (before NASA caught up and went into the lead). They are interspersed with vibrant flower beds.

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An oversize statue of Konstantin Tsiolkovsky – the original rocket scientist – stands at the end of the avenue and, beyond it, the grandly-named Monument to the Conquerors of Space, a 400-foot-high swoosh of titanium representing a rocket aloft with its exhaust plume beneath it.

The park and exhibition centre at the other side of the monument now sprawl over 2.3 sq km, roughly equivalent to Monaco and the Vatican City combined.

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In the Yeltsin years, VDNKh was parcelled up and leased out to private companies, which gutted the pavilions, threw away the exhibits and turned the empty spaces into warehouses and retail outlets.

The historic pavilions, soon half-hidden behind illegal extensions and advertising hoardings, fell into disrepair. Hundreds of jerry-built temporary structures were thrown up between them. The complex seemed unlikely to survive. There were proposals to demolish the lot to make room for a shopping centre.

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When I went in the summer of 2015, I expected to find the decaying remains of what had once been described as “the Soviet Versailles”. But, unknown to me, the authorities had recently demolished a few hundred illegal buildings and extensions, torn down the ugly hoardings, cleared out 10,000 tons of garbage, remade the roads and paths, added benches and bins, replanted the flowerbeds and restored the eighty-year-old pavilions.

It was surreal to walk among buildings evocative of the international expos that captured so many imaginations between the Thirties and the Sixties and which are still studded with Soviet iconography. They have been cleaned up and repainted, but the stonework, the stained-glass, the mosaics are original, so there is none of the sense that there often is after major restorations that you are effectively looking at a modern replica.

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The parkland around them is pleasant to walk in and full of surprises with gushing fountains and monumental gardens, a boating lake, a photo exhibition in a rose garden, a tiny Orthodox church, a Vostok rocket and Buran spacecraft, a theatre, an aquarium, an SU-27 fighter jet and YAK-42 airliner.

The BBC journalist, Martin Sixsmith, called it “Russia’s answer to Disney World, but without the rides,” but the comparison is unfair, both to VDNKh and to Disney World.

© Richard Senior 2016

Rīga, You’re Lovely, but Please Let Me Sleep!

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A breeze blew off the Daugova River and tempered the munificent sun. Trams howled and clanked along the boulevards which frame Old Rīga. Cobbled lanes converged in squares with verdigrised spires, turrets and towers, gargoyles, grotesques and columns.

The sun brought out the Beautiful People. They strolled in the squares, ducked into shops and draped themselves over chairs at tables under awnings, accessorising with cigarettes and espressos; they sprawled and frolicked in Batejkalna Park across the boulevard at the edge of the old town.

It is a pleasant park on a sunny day with its sloping lawns and meandering paths and cast iron standard lamps. The Pilsētas Kanāls divides the park into two and hands out half each to the Old Rīga and Centrs neighbourhoods. A pretty wooden launch from 1907 chugs tourists along the canal. It chugs under bridges, past a fountain, through a tunnel, alongside the Central Market, then chugs out onto the river under the railway bridge and the road bridge and back through the marina, past moored yachts, and round again to the canal.

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The market was the biggest in Europe, once. Its buildings were made from old Zeppelin hangers. The stalls spill out into the surrounding streets and occupy several blocks. You can buy a whole salmon, a big sack of cat litter and a Soviet air force uniform, if they all happen to be on your shopping list.

Centrs is quieter than Old Rīga but just as beguiling. It has more Art Nouveau facades than you will see in one place anywhere else in the world, and they are as exuberant as anything but Gaudí’s Modernista buildings. Mikhail Eisenstein, father of Sergei, the Battleship Potemkin director, designed some of the more arresting, with eagles, sphinxes, lion’s heads, keyhole-shaped windows, and human faces with gaping mouths and expressions which suggest they have just seen the architect’s bill.

I had a room in the top of a townhouse right in the middle of Old Rīga. It was just a mattress on the floor of a room little bigger, but I was happy enough with that. Or at least I was until I tried to sleep and found out how good the sound system was on the late bar round the corner. Earplugs just muted the higher frequencies and seemed to trap the bass in my skull.

I got up and got dressed and went out in the end. It was a warm night and I walked round Old Rīga, then sat a table at a bar in the square and saw off a couple of beers. The music had stopped by the time I got back and I slept then, finally, for a few hours until the other guests began to get up. Whenever the heavy front door slammed shut, as it always did, it shook the whole fabric of the building; two people walking down the corridor was like a surprise attack by a battalion.

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The next night was the same, except that people moved into the room next door a couple of hours after the music stopped and the walls were so thin that their conversation was as clear as if they had been sitting on the edge of the bed.

I logged, fuzzy-headed, onto a booking site and paid a lot more than I normally would for a nice hotel overlooking Batejkalna Park. It was a lovely room and, on a normal Saturday, it would doubtless have been as peaceful as I had hoped; but that Saturday was the Rīga Festival and right across the street there was a 24-hour basketball marathon with booming commentary and amped-up EDM.

Fine, then, I thought, perhaps I will sleep when I get to Estonia.

© Richard Senior 2015

On Nevsky Prospekt

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“There is nothing finer than Nevsky Prospekt, at least not in Petersburg; for there it is everything. And, indeed, is there anything more gay, more brilliant, more resplendent than this beautiful street of our capital?” Nikolai Gogol, Nevsky Prospekt

There were once wooden blocks set into the cobbles to muffle the sound of carriages. Nevsky Prospekt, they reckoned, was the quietest high street in Europe. Not now. Ducatis howl, Porsches snarl, and a pair of rally cars crackle and pop as they tailchase towards the Neva. Smoky old Ladas keep up as well as they can.

The crowds spill out of the five Metro stations along its length and stroll across the series of bridges which span the canals while skaters and bladers weave between them and leafleters step out, proffering flyers for bars and restaurants and ‘gentlemen’s clubs’.

There are hot dog carts and ice cream carts every few hundred yards along the pavement. Tour reps stand ready with maps and tickets and credit card readers, and sightseeing boats chug along the canals which bisect the street; the commentary echoes under bridges.

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It is a four-and-a-half kilometre slice out of Russian history. Mussorgsky lived at No 13. He met at Balakirev’s apartment at No 84 with Tchaikovsky, Borodin and Rimsky-Korsakov. Shostakovich gave his first public performance at No 52; Anton Rubinstein gave his at No 30. Tolstoy lived at 147. Pushkin dropped into the cafe at No 18 on his way to the last duel of his life. Dostoevsky edited The Citizen magazine at No 77. Nadya Krupskaya lived at 97; her fiancé, the barrister’s assistant, Vladimir Ulyanov lived at 83. He got involved in radical politics in his spare time and, like Dostoevsky, was arrested for it and sent to Siberia. He returned, under the assumed name of Lenin.

Neither the Soviets, who renamed the city Leningrad, nor the Nazis, who laid siege to it for over two years, changed much about Nevsky Prospekt. Some buildings were wrecked in the War, but rebuilt – if not as they were, then at least sympathetically with the rest of the street. ‘School No 210’ was built in 1939 and is as austere as its name suggests, but it is the only Soviet building on the main strip. There remains a painted sign on the wall from the days of the siege, which reads:

“Citizens! This side of the street is more dangerous during artillery bombardment.”

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The facades of Nevsky Prospekt are still, by and large, what they were when Lenin returned in triumph to Finlyandsky Station. Some date from the time of Catherine the Great, most from before Nicholas II.

The morning air is no longer “filled with the smell of hot, freshly baked bread” as it was in Gogol’s time. Chronic shortages at the bread shops on Nevsky Prospekt sparked the riots which set off the revolution which swept away the Tsar. The bread shops would disappear, as well; and the silversmiths, the perfumiers, the French confectioners and English merchants and the civil servants who parade through the pages of Dostoevsky and Gogol.

But, when communism fell, the banks, the insurers, the luxury shops and the five-star hotels came back to this Russian Champs-Élysées. Макдоналдс, Бургер Кинг and Старбакc кофе came with them: two burger joints and a coffee shop, whose world-famous logos help decipher the Cyrillic script. Sberbank remains; so does Intourist, once the state travel agency, staffed by KGB agents, now in joint venture with Thomas Cook.

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The Art Nouveau landmark, Dom Knigi, offices of the Singer Company in Tsarist times, is still the city’s largest bookstore, as it has been since Lenin’s first years of power. Tourists flock in and go upstairs to sit in Café Singer. They cross the road to see Kazan Cathedral, modelled on St Peter’s Basilica; and stroll round the corner, along the canal, to the onion-domed exuberance of the Church on the Spilled Blood – built on the spot where a Tsar was shot dead.

Back on Nevsky, they walk a block to the west to the pink-painted excess of the Stroganoff Palace, where beef stroganoff was supposedly invented, and on, then, to the top of the street with the gleaming spire of the Admiralty building directly ahead and, to the right, the most opulent of St Petersburg’s opulent buildings, the Tsar’s Winter Palace.

They might cross the Neva to Vasilyevsky Island or head north to Mars Field and the Summer Gardens or south to St Isaac’s Cathedral, but they will, without doubt, end up back on Nevsky Prospekt.

© Richard Senior 2015

The Dictator who Came in from the Cold

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Stalin lookalikes work Red Square, puffing on pipes and pretending to talk into mobile phones. There are Lenins, as well, and a much less convincing Putin; but it is Stalin the tourists want to be photographed with, as if with a favourite uncle.

There was nothing avuncular about Stalin, although sycophants gave him cuddly names like “Father of the Peoples” and “Best Friend of All Children”.  Even a Marxist historian described him as “an autocrat of exceptional, some might say unique, ferocity, ruthlessness and lack of scruple*”.

Death solves all problems,” reckoned Stalin, “No man, no problem”. It took little to get yourself shot under his regime, much less to get 25 years in a labour camp. An incautious word, a malicious rumour, a family connection, a suspect nationality, a friendship with an unperson, a target not met (obviously sabotage), surviving a Nazi camp (obviously a spy), or just because someone with power took against you.

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The number killed in the purges, starved in the famines and worked to death in the labour camps has been estimated at anything between 4 and 60 million, most often between 10 and 20. But at such orders of magnitude the exact figure hardly matters. Stalin knew that well enough. “One death is a tragedy,” he said, “a million deaths is a statistic”.

In his lifetime, he was lauded as “the Greatest Genius of All Times and Peoples,” but Khrushchev denounced him in 1956 and he remained an unperson – Khrushchev became one as well – until the end of the communist era. But there was always a current of affection for the old dictator. The idea of being ruled by a silnaya ruka – iron hand – is deeply embedded in Russian history; and the industrialisation, under Stalin, of what had been a hopelessly backward agrarian economy was truly impressive, although achieved at appalling human cost.

Stalin’s legacy is everywhere in Moscow, from the ruby glass Soviet stars on the Kremlin’s towers, through the famously extravagant Metro stations, the yet more extravagant All-Russia Exhibition Centre in the suburbs, to the skyscrapers known as the Seven Sisters, blending Modernism, Baroque and Gothic in the Stalin Empire Style, and the Four Seasons Hotel with its asymmetrical front, because the Greatest Genius of All Times and Peoples approved both of the designs he was asked to choose from and the architect dared not tell him he had goofed.

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The vanity projects siphoned funds away from public housing, and as the ‘Palaces for the People’ were going up, the people themselves were crammed into communal flats.

“The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again; and already it is was impossible to say which was which.” **

Stalin’s reputation, paradoxically, began to improve when the Soviet Union collapsed. Less than half of Russians surveyed in 2001 had a negative impression of him. By 2006, it was only 29%; some 47% had a positive impression, and 35% said they would vote for Stalin if he were alive and standing for election today. In 2008, he came third in a poll to find the Greatest Russian in History.

This all might seem incredible, looking from the outside, but patriotic nostalgia, anywhere in the world, often does.

Statues and billboards of Stalin have begun to reappear in the past decade, for the first time since the Khrushchev years. Government-approved schoolbooks put a positive spin on his actions. President Putin has responded to questions about him with classic whataboutery. Yes the Great Terror was bad, he acknowledged, but not as bad as Hiroshima or Vietnam. “What’s the real difference between Cromwell and Stalin?” he asked rhetorically, and answered himself, “None whatsoever”. 

It might seem  counter-intuitive for a leader from the authoritarian-nationalist right to defend one of the revolutionary left. But Stalin, in turn, admired Tsar Ivan the Terrible. A silnaya ruka transcends ideology.

© Richard Senior 2015

*Eric Hobsbawm, Age of Extremes

**George Orwell, 1984

Escape to Alcatraz

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It is only a mile and a half from the mainland, but the water is cold and the tides are strong, and the authorities were confident that no one would escape from what would become the world’s most notorious prison.

There is still a stern warning as you approach by boat from Pier 33 about the penalty for procuring or concealing escapes, but the old sign is rotten and the letters have faded and it is half a century since Alcatraz closed.

Winds howl across the island, gulls screech overhead. The perimeter fence is threadbare with rust. Paint is flaking, windows are broken, lichen is overwhelming the walls. The concrete is cracked and crumbling in the old recreation yard.

Knowledge of the outside world is what we tell you,” declared the Warden in Escape from Alcatraz, “…your world will be everything that happens in this building”. But the outside world was teasingly close. The recreation yard overlooked the Golden Gate Bridge. Music and party voices drifted over the water. It is hardly surprising that three dozen inmates tried to escape, in two dozen separate attempts. The only surprise is that there were not more.

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 “No one has ever escaped from Alcatraz,” said the Warden in the movie, “and no one ever will”. But on 11 June 1962, three bank robbers crawled through holes they had spent a year chiselling into the walls of their cells with spoons, into a service corridor, up a ventilation shaft, onto the roof, down the prison wall and over the fence. They left dummy heads made of toilet paper, soap and hair in their beds to fool the guards – which it did until morning – and paddled away in a dinghy made out of raincoats. They were never found, nor heard of again.

The movie implies that they got away. Some believe that they did. The evidence they rely on is flimsy, but so is the evidence the authorities relied on to conclude that the escapees drowned. The official version meant that the Warden could carry on boasting that no one had ever escaped from Alcatraz: it saved its reputation with the public. Yet within less than a year it had closed for good.

Native American activists occupied the island in 1969; they stayed for nineteen months. Faded ‘Red Power’ slogans are still plainly visible on the prison block and watchtower. The Warden’s quarters are now just a shell, after they were gutted by a fire which got out of hand during the occupation, or – say conspiracy theorists – which was started deliberately by saboteurs out to discredit the activists.

Everything on Alcatraz looks to have been left as it was when the last of the inmates departed, or when the occupation ended. It has not, as so often, been repainted, remodelled and rebuilt until you wonder if anything you see is much older than things which you have in the back of the shed at home.

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The cells, five feet by nine feet, are kitted out as they were with a bunk, a tiny cold-water sink and toilet, and a few are left open so you can step inside. You can wander down the wings, known as Michigan Avenue, Broadway, Park Avenue and the Sunset Strip, into the cavernous dining room secretly fitted with tear gas canisters, and the kitchen with the breakfast menu for the last day the prison was open, assorted dry cereals, steamed whole wheat, scrambled egg, milk, stewed fruit, toast, bread, and butter, and out into the recreation yard.

There are none of those stupid interactive exhibits which kids run round trying to break. You are not subjected to tabloid-style propaganda about evil inmates and hero guards and told that crime does not pay and that prison works. There is an audio guide but it is a lot more interesting than they usually are, with a well-thought mix of information – neither dumbed-down nor sensationalised – and accounts by ex-prisoners and guards. Mostly, though, you are just left alone to explore at your own pace and work things out for yourself.

© Richard Senior 2015