Words and Images by Elizabeth Rushton
Before arriving in Petrozavodsk, one of the things I was most looking forward to was discovering more about the city’s history during the years of the Soviet Union, and what reminders of this time can still be seen. Having now been in the city long enough to explore it thoroughly, I’ve noticed several ways for history enthusiasts to observe Russia’s changing face over the last century.
One of the most obvious ways is through the actual faces of the statues around the city. Today, statues, monuments and memorials are all still used to convey revealing messages and values to the society they are situated in. As such, it’s no surprise that one of the statues closest to the city centre is one honouring Lenin, found at the centre of a roundabout near the city’s park and war memorials. Standing below it and looking up, you can only imagine how imposing statues just like this one contributed to the idolisation of Lenin in Soviet society and the impact this had on the psyche of Soviet citizens. More Communist idols can be found on the street named after Karl Marx, in the form of a statue of the man himself in deep conversation with Friedrich Engels. It’s interesting that statues such as these are presented without any sort of comment, perhaps indicating that simply a recognisable named figure is enough to make their presence and what they represent part of the average passer-by’s everyday normality.
A third statue of interest honours Sergey Kirov, a Bolshevik leader and victim of Stalin’s purges for whom the Mariinsky Ballet and Theatre was named in Soviet times. Similarly to Lenin’s, the monument stands in a grand spot where the eye is immediately drawn to it – at the centre of a square which also bears Kirov’s name, and precedes the magnificent Musical Theatre. This is a building which I find epitomises the neoclassical style of architecture popular under Stalin, prevalent in the centre of Petrozavodsk. Despite being built two years after Stalin’s death, the theatre is very much in keeping with this grand style – its exterior and immediate interior is all ornate pillars, shiny chandeliers and luxurious velvet. But the trusty hammer and sickle is never far away; it can be found on lampposts surrounding ploshchad Kirova, and on the walls either side of the stage inside the theatre’s auditorium.
Prospekt Karla Marksa also bears witness to neat, classical builds with ornate crests featuring proud stars and the hammer and sickle. Their frequency is food for thought as to the power that even small symbols have over the people who pass them every day – it’s easy to see how easily they can alter a person’s view of what normality means to them. This is a key idea within the Socialist Realist movement, which can be observed in the form of a mural above the main entrance to the pastel green 1940s building which is home to Karelia’s government. Beneath the Karelian bear, the mural displays soldiers fighting to defend their motherland, while other comrades work together in apparently harmonious cooperation, inspiring citizens to do the same.
Further up prospekt Lenina, more symbols of Socialist Realism can be observed on the façade of Petrozavodsk State University’s main building, another construction of the 1940s. As Soviet students arriving for class each day looked up at the building, they would have been reminded by the carvings of microscopes, books and torches of knowledge alongside more recognisable Communist symbols such as a sickle harvesting crops that their pursuit of knowledge was just as important to supporting their Marxist motherland and ensuring her future achievements as any worker’s role.
For a real life role model and figurehead of the achievements made possible by scientific research and technological prowess in the Soviet union, students and citizens alike only had to look up the road to Petrozavodsk’s train station, and the square in front of it. The square bears the name of Soviet hero Yuri Gagarin, the first man in space, whose historic feat is memorialised in a plaque on the side of a relatively new addition to the city’s landscape – a clock tower installed in 2013 to mark the city’s 310th birthday, which is affectionately known as “Big Ben”. The station itself is also a classic of the Soviet brand of Neoclassicism, incorporating ornate crests and pillars alongside a stark spire with a hammer and sickle at its base and topped by a wreath and star which is clearly visible for some distance surrounding this part of the city centre.
This all exists in stark contrast with the architecture of the later Soviet era and the new symbols of today’s Russia which stand alongside them. Despite huge billboards advertising fancy new building projects in the city centre, travelling further out reveals a skyline of grey, concrete tower blocks. Mixed in with prospekt Lenina’s neoclassicism are two huge, shiny shopping centres, with another two close to the city centre – their presence is startling against a backdrop of symbols of a time, only a generation ago, when such rampant consumerism would have been unimaginable.
All things considered, it is incredible to walk around a relatively small part of this city but nevertheless see within it how many wildly different artistic and architectural styles, ideologies and influences have been daubed on the blank canvas of Russia’s landscape in its relatively recent history. One can only wonder too, what will we see next?