Two things hit me as I emerged from the Oktyabrskaya metro station on Saturday morning to check out the KPRF May Day march. First was that God himself must have been smiling down on the KPRFers. After several days of on and off rain, his holiness decided to part the clouds, let the sun shine through, and let Russian commies do their thing without the hindrance of rainfall. The second thing that hit me was that unlike most, or should I say every political rally I’ve been to, the Communists began marching on time. Who would have ever guessed Communists to be prompt. And they say Leninist discipline is dead. As soon as I pushed through the heavy glass metro doors, I had to quicken my step to catch up with the dancing red flags on the move.
Luckily, a rapid pace quickly turned unnecessary. The Communist march stretched at least three, even four blocks down Bolshaya Yakimanka (Anyone who’s been to the capital knows that is a pretty long distance.) The KPRF at the head of the ruddy train was already out of sight. Before me and my four companions stood the tail which consisted of the “far Left”–Trudovaya Rossiia, the Red Youth Vanguard, the Revolutionary Communist Youth League (RKSM (b)), the National Bolshevik Party, and a variety of anarchists, antifascists and left frontists.
The attendance was large. It felt that there were at least five thousand people. The Russian media is saying that there were indeed 5000; the organizers say there were 7000. The English press pegged it at a lower 3000.
The attendance was an eclectic mix–young people, old people, even children. Red was the dominant color, of course. The sounds were that of political chants–“Peace! May! Labor! Socialism!”; “Nato–Get the hell off of Red Square!” (in reference to plans for the Americans, British, and French soliders to march in the upcoming Victory Day parade.); “No Predatory Rise in Utility Prices!”; among others. Brawny speeches bounced off of the buildings lining Zamenka Street. Old Soviet songs raised a comradely spirit. Down the train there was even a brass band blowing marching songs. People carried KPRF flags and fine Soviet era banners of Marx, Engels, and Lenin. Marchers hoisted pictures of Stalin. Homemade signs bobbed along. One read: “Bureaucrat! You are a servant of the people! Not the bosses!” What concerned people was not the abstract issues of “human rights,” “democracy,” “law and order,” or “free speech.” Those were to be addressed at the sparse Solidarity rally later that day (which of course the Western media focused on). The communist rally was about the social economics of everyday life, tradition, and good fun.
Of course there is Stalin, again something the Western media makes sure to note without any critical reflection. Yes there were lots of Stalin signs. There was even a large Stalin banner. Stalin was on homemade signs. Stalin was on t-shirts. But what did Stalin mean? This is probably one of the most perplexing, yet mostly ignored questions.
It was clear what Stalin was not. Stalin, for better or worse, was not the NKVD, terror, Gulag, or totalitarianism. That’s what it meant to the people of Solidarity with its artsy display of Stalin portraits with red-blood vampire teeth.
But for a little old man holding a photo of Stalin? For him, the dictator means something wholly different. There is certainly a large element of historical nostalgia embedded in Stalin’s portrait. Stalin is mostly about the USSR’s victory over the Nazis and a time when Russia was a superpower. This is especially the case since the 65th anniversary of Victory Day is a few days away. The Stalin posters also signify a longing for an imagined past of stability, predictability, and ironically, a paternal state that dealt a measure of social and economic justice. Stalin’s image, I think, is also about class. Stalin is the antithesis of the oligarchs, the capitalists, the bureaucrats and the intellectuals–the very people that causes the Russian working class man seething hatred. Stalin is a metaphor for the longstanding class divide that haunts Russia and a time of class justice rendered. Lastly, Stalin is also defiance. People carry posters of Stalin simply because others tell them they shouldn’t. Hoisting Stalin to the sun is about the current war over memory. It’s about saying without hyperbole: This is my Stalin and he has nothing to do with yours. In this sense there is no historical Stalin. The Stalin that is illuminated through documentary evidence and historical truth has no bearing. Stalin is a metonym for the political struggles of the present. One may disagree. One may even be disgusted. But like it or not this variegated memory of Stalin must be reckoned with.
The crowd had visibly thinned by the time the march reached its destination at Teatralnaya Square and nestled in front of a stage shadowing the Karl Marx monument. The nearly eight kilometer march exhausted some. The inevitable boredom that would accompany listening to didactic speeches vanquished more. Politics caused the rest to move on. After all, the stage was a KPRF only event. The united left front splintered off to join other rallies around the city, home, to a pub, or who knows where.
The speeches commenced. I ignored them as I strolled around eying the remaining crowd as they held their banners, sat in the courtyard of the Bolshoi Theater, rummaged through the several second hand booksellers along the sidewalk, or licked much deserved ice cream purchased from a nearby vendor. One noticeable moment was when the Soviet National Anthem began blaring through the sound system. The crowd paused and stood at attention in solemn reverence.
“And now Comrade Zyuganov will speak.” Well, that was our signal. Time to jet. Sorry to no time to hear the bald, warted one. Our growling stomachs were pulling us to a nearby cafe.
The day didn’t end there. Though I had grand delusions of attending as many rallies as possible that day–United Russia, the Russian Federation of Labor march, Just Russia, and even the Eurasian Youth League, one of my companions got a call from a friend at the Solidarity gathering at Bolotnaya Square. We decided to head there. To my disappointment, the crowd was predictably sparse. The ‘roid raged riot police clearly outnumbered the participants. Orange flags stood at attention as bad punk music blared from the stage. Kasparov has spoken sometime before. No loss there. The only things of note were signs reading “Russian without Putin,” a display of Stalins with the vampire teeth, and a series of political cartoons mocking the Russian legal system. The twenty minute minimum I decided to grant Solidarity couldn’t come fast enough.
Just before we left, I noticed one large photo from 1990 of a 100 thousand strong protest for “democratic reform.” I guess the liberals suffer from a bit of historical nostalgia of their own, I thought to myself. As the Solidarity gathering proved, the days of thousands demanding “democratic reform” are long over. . .