:: Article

Proletarian Alhambra

By Kirill Kobrin
Translated from Russian by Anna Aslanyan

cinema

To O. H.

It used to be, and what’s left of it still is, located in the north-western corner of what was known as Culture and Recreation Park and belonged to the Avtozavodsky district [1] of the city of Gorky. The park itself formed, still does, despite the city’s new name [2] and its life’s new content, a triangle with one point cut off by Kolomenskaya Street; in fact, it’s not really a street, just a lane separating park trees, which are protected by a fence against an unknown enemy, from an artificial lake referred to as Zemsnaryad, or Hydraulic Excavator: a technologically challenging term, that. It is the north-western corner, where our protagonist used to stand (still does), that is chopped off. The base of the triangle stretches from east to this point, along a broad, totally deserted road which used to be called Zhdanov Avenue (after one of the most notorious Stalin’s henchmen) and was later renamed Molodezhny, or Youth Avenue, following certain events. A tram used to run down Zhdanov Avenue, along the park’s edge, but then they disassembled the tracks, levelled the ground, built a Metro station, and now the two entrances of Culture Park are facing the wrought-iron fence. But that’s over there, in the centre of the triangle’s base and by its eastern point. As for our north-western corner, there is nothing, absolutely nothing new here.

Anyone entering this part of Avtozavod Park some thirty, perhaps thirty-five years ago, off Zhdanov Avenue, through the gate opposite school No 126, where English used to be taught at an advanced level, would run into it. That is to say, into an entire composition of landscape architecture and park sculpture. First there stood, surrounded by a rather paltry flowerbed, a shortish plaster Lenin, his hand, needless to say, summoning passers-by to you-know-what beyond (in that particular instance, he was pointing towards the school, adequately enough: to study, to study, and again to study). And then, once gone past the leader, you found yourself face to face with Rodina, or Motherland, an open-air cinema. To find out what its programme was you only had to look at the posters stuck to the fence, back at the entrance, but the titles of today’s films were doubled, just in case, on the facade billboards, in big letters; and were you to come by the ticket office you could see listings for the month ahead. Fancy watching Fantomas Strikes Back now or taking in Comissar Miclovan’s adventures a couple of days later? Or, better still, would you rather wait till the end of the month and see Belmondo’s Professional, killed in the finale to an infernally sad, courageous tune? All of that could only happen in summer as Motherland remained true to its seasonal design; also, sitting in the unheated wooden structure after September would be a risky business – we are talking Volga-Vyatka region here, not Sicily.

To walk round Motherland you could venture either right or left, but going left was, of course, far more exciting. To begin with, there were vending machines with soda water and faceted glasses, permanently nicked; beyond them, at the end of a broad shady walk leading to the park’s eastern corner, a wonderful wooden pavilion, apparently pentagonal in shape, skirted by a terrace café. It used to serve ice-cream in metallic bowls; at weekends the terrace was overcrowded, so you had to queue for quite long before you could get a portion of cold, sweet happiness. They also sold lemonade there. Whereas if you went right, there was nothing like that – indeed, the part of the park overlooking Kolomenskaya Street and Zemsnaryad used to be (and still is) completely empty, with some trees and bushes growing over it, but no buildings apart from some sheds for storing garden tools. Come spring, school kids were rounded up and sent to those sheds where they were given rakes, brooms and shovels to clear the grounds, to tidy up the park after the snow has melted and gone. And I was there, too; I, too, would get rakes and shovels; I, too, would smoke behind the bushes next to the fence. Besides, if you headed back from that spot, towards Zhdanov Avenue, and walked for a bit, you would come to the best beer stall in the locality. In fact, it stood in the very cut-off corner, near Zhdanov Avenue, directly opposite school No 126. The latter, as already mentioned, was teaching advanced English, and so during “technical translation” lessons (you were put in a classroom for four periods in a row and handed old Ford patents, then the schoolma’am would go out to run some errands, locking you inside) – during those sessions we would nominate a messenger who had to climb out of a window, cross the avenue, get into the park and, reaching the stall, fill a three-litre jar with disgusting slops which caused heartburn and drowsiness at the same time. On the way back, the messenger would stop at the corner of Zhdanov Avenue and Krasnodontsev Street to buy a few boiled crayfish, ten kopeks apiece, from a stodgy drunk who never left his post. The whole operation took about fifteen minutes, so we (those who contributed, of course) had enough time for it all: beer, crayfish, patents.

But the most exciting things usually started once you’d gone around Motherland: on the right or on the left, no matter. The open-air cinema had an extension at the back, a stage, also designated as open-air, with rows of benches facing it. At weekends it used to host various performances: dance groups from the Avtozavod Culture House, the factory’s folk orchestra and workshop bands, their names long forgotten, an amateur theatre and what not. There would be Avtozavod proles, strolling leisurely, dozy with summer heat, taking over benches, kids running everywhere, gloomy-looking blokes prowling around in search of drinking companions, accordions and balalaikas belting out their tunes from the stage, drowning the omnipresent radio; all the park’s loudspeakers were tuned to the same station, Mayak (Beacon), which unhurriedly ticked off every quarter of an hour of the day disappearing into the Soviet nothingness. Anyway, the place used to be fun; later, in the early 80s, already at university, we would sometimes skip our Sunday trip to a vinyl black market in the city centre and come to the open-air stage instead, to drink wine, to smoke on a bench, basking in the gentle May sun, to listen to a guitarist friend, a Robert Fripp and Jimmy Page fan, play a domra.

Beyond the stage, there were four directions open to you. You could turn right, struggle your way through the bushes, find a hole in the fence to get out, run across Kolomenskaya Street and here you are, on the Zemsnaryad beach. Or you could go straight on, past a small, permanently idle fountain, towards a pavilion, just built and, it would seem, never opened, leave behind another, smaller open-air stage, also unfinished and ravaged in no time, which stood on your right, along with some tables and benches given over to chess and card players (the latter, of course, were allowed unofficially). Then you came to a huge wasteland, a grassy field, in fact, and from there you had to take a right and carry on, down a walk, never completely paved, under the shadow of big trees, all the way to the acute angle of the north-western point. It was always very empty, more than the rest of the park and, as a consequence, somewhat dangerous, but not particularly, just a little bit. However, let’s get back to Motherland and its stage. The other two routes you could take from there no longer had to do with the romantic notion of desolation and decay, but rather with the classicist concept of order. The main alley of Avtozavod park, its pride and joy, branched off to the left, just past the small fountain, and was flanked by numerous benches intended for sitting down, having a little smoke, crunching sunflower seeds and discussing fellow passers-by. Down the centre of the alley there were flowerbeds planted with incredibly vivid, rich-coloured flowers that reminded you of a cemetery; that palette, in its intensity, still brings to mind the fusty aroma of Red Moscow, once a traditional perfume. It’s hard to tell why. Every thirty or forty metres the flowerbeds stood back a bit, giving way to miniature wrought-iron toy fountains; these were almost always functioning, the murmur of water patently enriching the soundtrack of this part of the park’s life. The alley led to a square with yet another fountain, a real one; it looked colossal at the time, so big you could launch – and lose – ships in it, DIY wooden and shop-bought plastic models, Avroras, Potemkins, Varyags. Some (supervised by their parents, naturally) would even launch remote-controlled submarines, but that was extremely rare – and, in a way, challenged the placid social homogeneity of the district’s population.

Finally, one more direction, between the second and the third, between Nature and Culture. Across from the small fountain, the one right behind the open-air stage of Motherland, our flâneur would find himself at a children’s playground, one might even say, an adventure park, complete with swings, slides, a shooting gallery. These were followed by more serious amusements: various rides, contour flying airplanes that spinned screaming, happily scared kids round and round, and a big wheel in the furthest corner. A few minutes’ walk from the wheel, the park ended and you came to apartment blocks built in the Khrushchev era, dull, cosy, surrounded with lush greenery; these were hedged by a street named, for some reason, after Leskov, a 19th century writer; after that, more Khrushchev blocks and more greenery; then a main road, Yuzhnoe Shosse; more houses, Brezhnev’s architecture replacing Khrushchev’s; and out yonder, the muddy flow of the river Oka.

cinema2

I used to walk past Motherland – to be more precise, first I was wheeled in a pram, then walked and later even wheeled somebody in a pram myself – for the first thirty-six years of my life. I watched this summer altar of cinematography every day, from the school’s porch and, on lucky days, from the classroom’s window. That was my favourite part of Avtozavod Park which, I am deeply convinced, was the best part of the city of Gorky (and, more recently, Nizhny Novgorod). All park routes started from that point, leading to adventures, everyday, romantic, cynical and, as it transpires now, cultural. Be it as it may, no one bothered to pay any attention to the structure itself; you strolled by it, ran or skied past it, you puffed and poured in its shade, went inside to admire the beautiful Angelica and the resilient Disco Dancer, and yet. And yet, Motherland is one of the strangest buildings I have ever seen in my life, and I am sure many of Avtozavod’s denizens have never set their eyes on anything remotely similar either. Imagine a wooden frame, prolonged and rectangular in shape, with a duo-pitched roof and a triangular gable. Its facade overlooks the northern entrance to the park, while its south-facing rear, the shorter side of the rectangle, forms an open-air stage. The walls are painted yellow with a faint darkish tinge. The facade is adorned with three circular arches, the one in the centre a little bigger than the others, resting on white pillars, their order rather unusual, crenellated. At its flanks Motherland has gallery extensions with white colonnades and identical orders, wooden trellises with ogival arches inserted into them, more Oriental than Gothic in style. Each pillar is crowned with a small yellow octagonal star, also quite Oriental (although not entirely uninfluenced by Flamboyant Gothic). The whole structure looks positively arabesque. Arabian nights at a working class recreation ground. Proletarian Alhambra.

I have been reflecting on this strange Motherland for a while. At first, not so much reflecting as simply admiring it; the further it disappeared into the past – the golden age of Avtozavod Park, Avtozavod, the city of Gorky and the Soviet Union – and the more this part of the world and this part of Culture and Recreation Park sank into dilapidation, the more beautiful my Alhambra grew. They demolished the lemonade-and-ice-cream pentagon, uprooted the soda water machines, the beer stall died out, the park itself became desolate, wild, went into a coma, then started to wake up, though definitely not to a better life, emanating a greasy stink of kebabs to the accompaniment of the tarty shallow rhythm of post-Soviet pop. Here at the north-western edge, however, everything was dreaming a beautiful dream: the peeling walls of Motherland, its doors boarded up with iron shields, a delicate tree growing from the roof, the floorboards of the stage broken, then ripped out, then ruined altogether. Lenin was taken away, destination unknown, the flowerbed turned into a wild island, overgrown with weeds. Now there is a concrete circle where the statue used to stand, as if the leader has climbed down from the plinth and into a tunnel, replacing the hatch behind him. There, in this underground retreat, he is writing a new version of The Development of Capitalism in Russia.

Eventually, several years ago the cinema caught fire, and what’s left of it now hardly amounts to more than walls. The stage is completely gone. The rows of open-air seats have long been dismantled, the new grass is already sprouting through the tarmac where they once stood. The Soviet civilisation is over, but many of its mysteries remain. For instance, this Hollywood-style Aladdin’s Lantern set illustrating the history of philistine tastes typical for the second third of the last century. Who built it and why? This might sound like an easy question to answer. The open-air cinema, Pobeda, or Victory (it became Motherland later), was erected in the summer and autumn of 1944 on the site of a former market. It was conceived as the first element of a park complex which the city council decreed to develop as early as before the war, when building the Gorky Car Factory and the residential area around it. The project was designed by Boris Mikhailovich Anisimov, a local architect; for the impetuous erection of the “theatre” (as it was referred to in the documents of that time) Anisimov and Elizarov, the chief building engineer, were each awarded a golden watch. In the view of some, Victory – with all its wooden orders and galleries – was built by German and Hungarian PoWs. That’s, basically, it. There are, of course, other facts one might be interested to find out; for example, why Anisimov (1909–1985) was so enamoured of these styles, Oriental and neo-Gothic? (Another weird monument Avtozavod owes him is a children’s railway station, now converted into a Registry Office, but that one is simpler, more Nazist, more Stalinist.) Also, were they really Germans and Hungarians? What did the city authorities say at the time, upon seeing this architectural miracle? What, after all, have generations of locals thought of it? However, these questions are private, asked out of mild curiosity, and can be answered by any knowledgeable local historian, provided you can find one in Avtozavod. There are more complex things. Such as: what does it all mean?

If this was an architectural folly of an American millionaire living in the times of The Great Gatsby, if our Motherland was situated somewhere in California or Las Vegas, there would be no questions, everything would be explained. Hemingway was right in his debate with Scott Fitzgerald; the rich are not like ordinary people only in that they have more money. And, let’s add, more resources, including the opportunity to outfit their habitat according to their sense of beauty, no matter how bizarre. The rich generally love all things beautiful: just like the poor, come to think of it. But ours is a different case. What does it mean, then, this passion for fine things in a country devastated by the war, in a hastily knocked together industrial township; the passion manifested by local big cheeses anxious, under the threat of labour camps and executions, to produce lorries and tanks? In a world like this only ideology can soar over miserable everyday necessity; indeed, what we have before us is an ideological gesture, timely, shrewdly calculated, fully deployed. Superfluous oriental features, ogival arches, semi-Masonic stars and other exoticisms all unmistakeably indicate: we are dealing with an empire that rules half the world under its sceptre and would like to claim, if not the other half, at least some part of it. All styles will be our guests, all beauty is at the beck and call of the Third Rome’s subjects. The World War will, no doubt, be won, meaning that the Soviet Union will be transformed from a local superpower into a global one, with clear further implications, both geopolitical and cultural. We already have Stalin’s Empire, of course, but on the fringes of this big style we need another one, a marginal big style; and what, if not extreme exoticism and radical historical eclecticism, could it possibly be? Oh no, our 1944 Avtozavod bosses and architect Anisimov were more sophisticated than they might have appeared. Let’s remember two details, seemingly insignificant: first, Germans and Hungarians, second, the name of the new open-air theatre. What better candidates than the defeated to build an amusement hall, especially one named Victory, for their victors?

This is why the locals ignored the structure’s exterior, so natural it looked in its absurdity. It served as an ideal complement to the Stalinist architectural landscape, along with a radial Empire house across from the park’s corner, the school opposite, also built in the Stalinist style, and a cinema erected after the war, named Mir, or Peace, totally Speerian (proletariat and peasants united in a sculptural pantomime on the roof), as well as many other things. Victory, later Motherland, stood on the outskirts of Avtozavod Culture and Recreation Park, much in the same way as it was, style-wise, on the outskirts of Soviet architecture, back in its day. It may seem a stylistic trifle, a detail, a trick, but without it the picture would not be complete.

Today the burnt-out wooden walls of Motherland, drowning in a sea of greenery or in huge snow banks, which no one has any reason to clear away, resemble the ruins of the Temple of Mithras near Hadrian’s Wall. We are no longer able to understand anything about those times, long or not so long gone; all we can do now is attempt to guess their strange meanings.

[1] After the car factory, Gorky Avtozavod, based in the district&#8617

[2] Nizhny Novgorod since 1991&#8617

kirillkobrin

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Kirill Kobrin is an author of essays and short stories. Trained as an historian, he works as a radio journalist. His latest book is Europe: The End of the Noughties (Европа: конец нулевых).

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Friday, April 29th, 2011.