Jacek Purchla: How do you see today’s Russia between the past and the present? The reason I start with this question is that you have written an excellent book on this subject and this is the title you chose for the book. Has anything changed since you published it?
Aleksandr Lipatov: It is difficult to find a different way of putting it: Russia is stuck between its past and the present in which it exists in the world today, and in which it has to find its way – as a state, a nation, but also as a regime. It means that there is no clear answer as there is more than one Russia, and there has never been just one Russia. Since the very beginning, since the emergence of the Moscow Principality and the Grand Duchy of Moscow (the original name of Russia) in the second half of the 15th century, a fissure appeared between the population, the nation, and the regime. This led to the adoption of the Mongol system by the Russian government: the Mongols created the largest empire in the world but which had nothing to do with the old Russian tradition (of prince, retinue and rally). The Mongol system proved effective for Moscow which had been a third-rate principality, immediately and unconditionally submitted to the Khan, and even offered its assistance in suppressing the numerous uprisings of particular principalities. And as a subservient tributary it gradually came into the foreground. But a completely different alternative existed: the republics of Novgorod or Pskov, and the Grand Duchy of Tver, which were in various ways immersed in the old Russian tradition. The alien system of government created a split among both the elite outside Moscow and the population, which could not understand why the old system was still being maintained although a new state had allegedly been created. This was how the term “Inner Horde” came into being. The Outer Horde was the Mongol one and controlled the political territory in which the Russian principalities functioned, while the Inner Horde was the new Moscow system. Let us take a look at the name itself – Muscovy, or the Moscow State. It is not Ruthenian nor Russian. The term “Russia” emerged in the late-15th century and only came into general use during the following century – but at first it was called the Moscow State, as essentially it was not an all-Russian state. The succesive Moscow rulers, who with the consent of the Khanate subdued other political entities with force, fire and sword, extended this name to the conquered territories. Although, on the one hand it was effective, this system was effective from the point of view of subjugating the territory and population, while on the other hand, from the very start it produced fissures and conflicts. Conflicts at the level of the elites – Novgorod, three bloody expeditions, from the first Grand Duke of Moscow Ivan III to his grandson Ivan the Terrible. Novgorod was a huge state stretching from the Baltic Sea to the White Sea, and all the way to the Urals. The three bloody expeditions ultimately crushed the republican thinking and system of governance. And although crushed, the concept of otherness stayed in people’s minds, which is why local traditions retained the concept of a small homeland and of separate existence. Republics of Novgorod, Pskov, Vyatka, and the Grand Duchies of Tver or Ryanzan were subjugated with cruel force, and this is probably the reason why a model of government analogous to the European one has still not emerged. These deeply ingrained divisions as well as the system of government itself made it impossible for a modern Russian nation to come into being. We must remember that the emergence of this state was accompanied by peasant and urban revolts, despite the fact that it was supposed to be their own state. Only in later times, in order to meet the demands of the new era, the authoritarian system of Mongolian origin was modernised from above through enforced westernisation. From Peter I, through his daughter Elizabeth, and then Catherine II, can we speak of a state which is westernised in its official culture (not the national one). This also included the political culture which produced the social classes. In Russia everything emanates “from above”. The system, originally Mongolian, not only retained its centralist nature but also an inherent factor of pressure and persuasion, running from top to bottom, crushing both the territory and the people. Hence the grand vision of Peter I was that Russia can exist as a modern state but social classes must emerge like they did in the West but created by government decree and every class must have obligations towards the state imposed by the government. Two classes, the nobility and the bourgeoisie, were arbitrarily created by decree. The names had to be borrowed as there had not been such a thing before. But how does one give a name to a social class fashioned after western models? Of course! Szlachta (gentry), a Polish term. And how does one find a name for the urban social class? Mieszczaństwo! (townspeople); again Polish, a neighbourly borrowing. These extensive Polish influences, largely of a cultural nature, were widespread and especially strong during the 17th century, , paved the way for the westernisation of Russia. This is the origin of Russian Polonophilia, which still exists, in opposition to official policy and the very essence of the Russian regime. The nobility created by Peter I and everyone willing to educate themselves – although the government also financed education for many abroad – gradually escaped from being controlled by the government, at least those with intellectual aspirations. An independent thinking inspired by a new culture emerged, Western European culture, which this class adopted. These were inevitable consequences of Westernisation leading to the formation of civil society.
J.P.: The Decemberists, for example?
A.L.: Exactly! This is personalist thinking. And what followed from that was the first uprisings, revolts, both urban and peasant, although initially it was the nobility that rebelled. As soon as it came into its own it acquired a certain “western” level of intellectual development (the use of the French language by the aristocracy, for example in Poland, is an external expression. At the Slavonic-Greek-Latin Academy Polish was taught until the end of the eighteenth century). The first uprisings of the nobility were directed against Tsar Nicholas himself, and against the same regime which the Poles were to revolt against five years later during the November Rising. And then, throughout the 19th century, conspiracies and all kinds of small groups comprising civil society were another sign – besides peasant rebellions – of continuing internal duality: Russia as great government power and Russia as “split” nation, which consisted of state-controlled society, civil society and the peasants maintaining their traditional culture. Therefore Russia has never been conquered from the outside, but has always destroyed itself from the inside. We witnessed the most recent example of this in the collapse of the Soviet Union. Fundamentally, this is the problem: Why has a modern state not emerged which is integrated with its society, which has communication and dialogue between all social classes and the government? Why has a “monologic” state come into being? This is Russia’s great weakness as well as its power, but I must repeat that it is a fractured thing.
J.P.: Thank you for such an extensive historical background, explaining also the fundamental difference in thinking about our identity, the difference between Russia and Russians and the nations of Central Europe, which are mostly Slavonic but the process of their maturing, seen from a long-term historical perspective, was a quite different experience. So I would like to talk about Central Europe, which during the 1970s, through the voices of many eminent intellectuals, expressed the need to protest but also distanced itself from the tradition you have described. This tradition was then personified by Leonid Brezhnev and involved in what we subsumed under one word – Sovietisation. What was Central Europe from the viewpoint of intellectuals in the Soviet Union, including yourself, and what is it from today’s perspective when the Soviet Union no longer exists? Is its separate character and independent agency recognised at all?
A.L.: You have mentioned that the Soviet Union no longer exists. I would like to draw an analogy with the “Inner Horde”, which is what happened when the true Mongolian Horde ceased to exist. I would argue that there is something called the “Inner Soviet Horde”, which still exists. It exists in the mindset of a part of society, for we must remember that the multiethnic population of the great empire did not form a unity after the revolution, despite the government’s efforts aimed at creating a new Soviet nation. These attempts were not completely successful, as each nationality, including the Russian one, retained a mentality, customs and cultural habits which could not be neutralised by alien patterns, especially since these patterns were artificial – I would call them armchair patterns – which meant that they were alien to everyone. In addition to that, there was widespread fear, as the Gulag Archipelago was not just a method of enlisting the cheapest possible labour for building communism – in this system, labour cost nothing. They were slaves building the power of the Soviet Union, although an equally important goal was to shape social awareness, and the image of the Gulag was to strike terror into the hearts of people.
A double thinking emerged: publicly you said what you were supposed to say but in private, for example among friends, you said what you really thought. I don’t agree with the claim that this great experiment in creating a new man, a new nation, and a new state, failed completely. The Soviet state succeeded in this venture to some extent. In the generation which followed – which was shaped by school (radio and television did not exist yet but they were soon harnessed to this task), literature, indoctrination and uprooting of every religion – the new awareness indoctrinated by the system conquered part of the population, although we have no statistics allowing us to assess its size. Why did it happen? We must remember that the pre-revolution intelligentsia was physically destroyed, went silent or emigrated (more than one million people!), and this pattern was repeated in the following generations. Intelligentsia in the wide sense of the term, including the clergy, landowners and the middle class, is the nation’s brain (I mean here people who had a vision of the world and who brought down the Tsar, since the March Revolution was not Bolshevik at all). Society remained in complete isolation, both externally and internally, as the continuity of tradition had been broken. The traditions which still existed were either destroyed or reinterpreted, the entire body of Russian literature, for example. Moreover, the Soviet system created a state with huge disparities in the quality of social life. This is one reason why the first revolution, as well as the Bolshevik Revolution, was successful. The slogans of the Bolshevik Revolution were prime examples of demagoguery: “land to the peasants”, and we know what happened to the land after the victory of the revolution, some of the peasants followed the Bolsheviks; “factories to the workers”, and we know whom the factories were owned by after the revolution. Compared to the quality of life before the revolution the Bolsheviks promised a paradise on earth. And a significant part of the population, especially the poorest, followed them. If we forget about the way it was implemented, the idea itself was really noble. Equal rights for everyone, universal access to education, including university, and so on. Later an extremely democratic constitution was passed, although in the Soviet Union everything, including the constitution, was one big façade hiding what was really going on. The quality of life did not improve, quite the contrary – women had to go to work. Previously, a woman had been a mother and a housekeeper, while after the revolution she had to work since her husband’s salary was not enough. The lofty ideas rallied a significant part of the population and people believed in what the government said: these are temporary difficulties, which are not our fault, they are caused by the hostile bourgeois world, which is eager to destroy the brave new world we are building. Those who did not believe in this argument fell victim to being purged. Young people, initially very enthusiastic about these slogans, gradually began to see that quite the opposite was happening. And in the 1930s revisionist groups inside the Komsomol were established. Many members were either executed or sent to the Gulag and the first secretary of the Komsomol was shot dead, despite being very popular. An opposition started to emerge among those who had initially believed in the new order. This was going on also after the WWII. Several million Soviet soldiers personally saw the West, and they came back amazed that other people lived like that! I remember many stories about this from my childhood. One soldier said he couldn’t believe his eyes when in a working class home he saw three suits belonging to the father of the family and was told that this was normal, while this soldier didn’t even own one suit.
The second wave of great repression occurred after the war. It fell on the victors and it was then that the slow death of Soviet ideology began. People stopped believing and the government had to find some new symbols, notions, and means of persuasion. Of what kind? The Great Patriotic War – foreigners, including Poles, are still astonished that anniversaries of this war are still celebrated, and that it lives on in the hearts and minds of all generations. The country was unprepared for war, and thus there almost wasn’t a single family who didn’t have a member killed in the conflict. Everybody lost their loved ones and so the memory of this tragedy had nothing to do with ideology. Victory brought relief, but the joy was a sad sense of joy.
In 1946, right after the war, Stalin took away bonuses from people who had been awarded official medals. We must also remember what the living conditions were like after the destruction of the war. Even Victory Day was a normal working day. Soviet people had to wait 20 years before this day was decreed an official holiday (the government said it was a gift to the people), and magnificent celebrations were organised with rich symbolism, although not Bolshevik. The ruling ideology died a natural death.
J.P.: How does it square with the issue of anti-westernism, about which you have also recently written? How strong is it today in contemporary Russia, as a result of all these great historical developments and processes? What role does the Moscow Orthodox Church play in promoting it?
A.L.: Anti-westernism is a quite old tradition, which, incidentally, was not present throughout the entire territory of historical Rus’. The beginnings of such thinking reach back to the invasion of the Golden Horde and are connected with the foreign policy of the Mongols. Anti-westernism appeared in specific circumstances and in a specific period, and therefore when we look at contemporary Russia in this light, we again see this split, this fracture which I have already talked about.
On the one hand, there was the dream of western modernity, since Mongolian Russia, if I may call it that, was lagging behind. On the other hand, to protect what was Russian from “pernicious” influences, it had to be insulated from the West. How should these two approaches be accommodated? Is there a need for the necessary contact for building modern industry and the development of science and education and the instinct for isolation?
This thinking, formed under the rule of Nicholas I – “Orthodoxy, authoritarianism, nationality” – was adopted by the Bolsheviks and reinterpreted for their own needs. They isolated the country from its own past and its own tradition, as well as from the West, and for this purpose a demonic image of the West as something thoroughly alien was built and fed to the population. In the past, when there has been no real enemy, every government has had to invent an enemy in order to mobilise the population. The West was such an enemy and religious differences proved particularly useful. Even before Bolshevism they played a significant role, especially in the case of the Orthodox Church, for which everything apart from Orthodoxy was something alien and hostile. So the indoctrination had a dual nature – the West was alien both in the lay and the religious sphere. Interestingly, at the turn of the 20th century, Russian ethnologists studied the awareness of the peasants and did not find any Polonophobia or anti-Semitism, and as we know, Poles were presented as being the external enemy number one, just as Jews were presented as being the internal enemy number one. In fact most peasants had never seen any Jews or Poles, and for them it was completely unreal. The situation in the cities, however, was different.
J.P.: Let us leap from history to the present, to 2011. Contemporary Russia is a global power. It is opening up to the West in various measures, but at the same time Russians are experiencing a kind of national revival, where from my Polish perspective the return from atheism to the Orthodox tradition seems to play a significant role. Is the Moscow Orthodox Church an obstacle in Russia’s opening up to Europe and the West?
A.L.: Again we can speak about a split. The anti-westernism of the Orthodox Church is an attitude of the institution itself, but various tendencies committed to the message of the Gospel have existed within the Orthodox religion since time immemorial, up until today. Let us look at the Russian philosophers from the late 19th century, for example Vladimir Solovyov, who is also known in Poland. They represented the ecumenical tradition, referring to the Gospel and the original Christianity. This inner split still exists in the Orthodox religion: hostility towards Catholicism on the one hand, and openness on the other. I know young Russian priests who think differently than the older generation, who are open to dialogue and ecumenism. We must remember that the only pope who made a mark on the awareness of the entire history of Orthodox Russia – of the Tsars and Soviet Russia – was John Paul II. Last year a statue of the Polish Pope was unveiled – it was an unprecedented event in Russia and symptomatic of the internal changes which have been occuring.
J.P.: Can we treat this as proof of the intellectual Polonophilia of the Russian intelligentsia, about which you have written? Did it have any impact during the Soviet times of isolation, and does it have any impact now? There is no denying that you are a Polonophile.
A.L.: I am not denying that, but I would like to say that Russian Polonophilia is part of Russian Europism. What is important for us is this open Polishness, beginning in the 17th century: the Polish culture including the wonderful everyday culture and Polish fashions on the one hand, and the democracy and freedom of the Polish nobility on the other. In a word, it is this Polish version of Europism which we are opening up to. It is a constant feature of our history. Let us recall the friendships of the future Russian Decemberists with Poles, or even the Polonophilia of Alexander I, who was friends with Adam Czartoryski, his Minister of Foreign Affairs. In Soviet times, Poland was our only opening to Europe, since the Khrushchev era, in particular, it was necessary to give people at least some glimpse of how our socialist “brothers” lived. There was also an opening up to the socialist camp in general, but above all to Poland – particularly Polish film, Polish literature, Polish clothes, and Polish vodka…
J.P.: …pop music and cosmetics…
A.L.: …and contemporary music, and painting. All this was unrivalled in comparison to other socialist countries, and Polish literature started to be translated, albeit very selectively. The magazine Polsha was published, which Poles edited in Russian, and which offered a glimpse of the world with all its well-known restraints. There were bookshops specialising in publications from socialist countries, first in Moscow and Leningrad, and then in the district capitals. The shelves with the most books were Polish, and people started to learn Polish on their own so that they could read these books. And there were books not just by Polish authors, as there were also Polish editions of works that had not been translated into Russian. This is how I first read Hemingway – in Polish. The best example Nobel Prize winner, Joseph Brodsky. He belonged to the group of people who taught themselves Polish, which gave them “access” to Europe and European literature rather than just Polish literature. I repeat: Poland was and is close to our hearts and important for us in as much as it is European – this Europeanised part of Polishness from the 17th century onwards. It is true that one can freely travel abroad now and Poland has lost its monopoly. It does not play such a great role in Russian awareness as it once did, but there are still generations brought up on Polish culture and courses in Polish Studies in Moscow, St. Petersburg and Kazan, in which we show the reality of modern Poland. Meetings of Polish and Russian writers are organised and many translations are published. Even Dorota Masłowska has been translated into Russian. I cannot assess the result for I haven’t seen the book yet, but the very fact that such a book such as “The Polish-Russian War” could appear proves that contemporary Russians have wide-ranging interests.
J.P.: And what about the question of Pan-Slavism? I was recently explaining the following paradox to some Germans who were asking me about Polish identity: Russians and Poles are Slavs, but Poles often stress that our identity is closer to the German tradition rather than the Russian tradition. It is enough just to mention Christmas carols, Wiener Schnitzel and the Christmas tree. Does the Pan-Slavic idea play any role and has it had any use, from Moscow and Russia’s perspective, since the collapse of the Soviet Union?
A.L.: We have to distinguish between Slavophilia and Pan-Slavism in the history of Russia. Slavophilia was a reaction against the fascination with western culture in the first half of the 19th century, and which was also observed in Poland. In other countries it was meant to protect one’s identity. It was not opposed to the West but was meant to prevent, for example, colonisation by French culture. This was when the Slavophile movement emerged. It rediscovered its roots, tradition and culture for the reading public, including the culture of Novgorod, the pre-Muscovy one, as well as the political culture of Russia. They said that republicanism was not the exclusive property of the West, that we had our own tradition, and that we should turn towards it and attempt to adapt it to modern times. Representatives of this movement were persecuted by the government, their publishing houses were closed down and it wasn’t until the 1850s that the original Slavophilia began to acquire a state-building character, based on the model of the Russian Empire. And this is what we call Pan-Slavism, or unification of all Slavs: we are Slavs, we have common roots, similar languages and so on., and we have to unite under the Russian banner, for the Slavs in Austria-Hungary or Prussia are not different from the rotten West, they are something alien to our nature, and so only Russia can save all Slavs! This movement was sponsored by the Russian government and existed as long as the historical Russian Empire did. It was rehashed by the Soviet regime shortly after the outbreak of the Second World War and continued to develop, for socialist internationalism did not always work. So the regime reached for what was inherent in Slav nations regardless of political beliefs; for the historical ethnogenetic community. The matter was given a greater impetus in the final months of the Second World War when it had become clear that the world would be divided and how the new border would be drawn up – the Empire and the countries subordinated to it. Once rehashed, it worked and is still working. At first it was based on socialist ideology, and when the Russian Federation was established, the new-old regime – which had got rid of the intelligentsia despite the fact that this was the very same intelligentsia which had brought it to power – didn’t managed to create a vision worthy of the 21st century. Therefore, the new-old establish is clinging to what is available. They reach for Pan-Slavism in order to attract the former communist countries and Soviet republics, such as Ukraine and Belarus, back. And it seems to me that the only way of luring them back is to invite them to an ethnogenetic community. This means that this movement is still alive with its entire pedigree and remains sponsored by the government.
J.P.: So what identity do 20-year-olds have today? And how strong is the tradition of Imperial Russia among them?
A.L.: They present a broad range of beliefs shaped by the information flow, the internet and the openness I have already talked about. After the collapse of the Soviet Union there was a saying, “Russia is a country with an unpredictable past.” And indeed it was a time of rediscovering our past, which had been destroyed by Bolshevism and repressed from the awareness of the people. The new generation has a wide space for formulating notions about Russia and Europe’s past, as well as the present. So we cannot reduce everything to one common denominator. We have true advocates of democracy in the western sense rather than “sovereign democracy” the Russian authorities speak about today (they call their rule sovereign democracy, which is a distinct system with its own pedigree, not originating from the West, which means that only we are able to control it and make corrections to its model). We also have advocates of the Russian democratic tradition, not the Novgorod one but the tradition initiated by the Decemberists. This ideological spectrum is shifting, shade by shade, to national chauvinism, in many different ways (not always visible to the public). National chauvinism is cultivated by the regime which painfully remembers the impossibility of controlling the separatist forces in the former republics; forces which brought them independence. Only chauvinism offers some promise of maintaining the much-reduced status quo.
J.P.: Does this mean that the difficult relations of Russia with the Baltic or Caucasian countries are a syndrome of postcolonial regression? Can we speak about a weakened empire which had to relinquish its sphere of influence?
A.L.: I am going to speak about the regime, for there are citizens, communities and political parties which think differently but which have no impact on the political situation.
Deputies to the Duma in a large measure represent a Soviet political culture and mentality, which, as I have already said, are a product of the Russian imperial tradition. They still cannot come to terms with the fact that they have to arrive at a negotiated settlement with the Ukraine and Poland. They don’t regard themselves as an older brother, but simply as master and superior. Someone controlling the destiny, the present and the future of subject nations. Such is their mindset.
However, reality is slowly but surely eroding this rock. The regime is starting to realise that you cannot speak to representatives of the Polish government in the same way as the Soviet authorities once spoke to the government of communist Poland. Poland is no longer alone and therefore great Russia cannot have it its own way. Poland is part of a united Europe, and regretfully for our authorities, they have to speak differently to Polish politicians and Poles in general. Our regime is starting to realise that Polishness and Europeanness are again going hand in hand. The same applies to Ukraine and the former Soviet republics, including the Asian ones. The regime may not like it but the situation forces it to show respect to these nations and cultures, or at least feign respect. Representatives of the new regime must at least pretend that they understand that something has changed and that they are trying to treat these nations as partners.
As far as the Baltic countries are concerned, there is an important, but largely unknown, fact: in the referenda on independence, the majority of Russians living there (this is also true for Ukraine) voted for the separation of their republics from the Soviet Union. It wasn’t nationalism, but democracy, that was at stake for them, and Russia should draw conclusions from that.
J.P.: And what about Kaliningrad? The Polish perspective on Russia is the centuries of coexistence between two great nations and the sense of neighbourhood on the one hand, while now the only common border with Russia, territorially and geographically, is in the Kaliningrad district. I am interested in the identity of the inhabitants of this area. It would not be an exaggeration to say that most of them have never been to Russia proper, if you can call it that without denying the Russian integrity of this region. Do the people of the Kaliningrad district differ in their identity from the rest of the citizens of the Russian Federation?
A.L.: As we know, those people who live there moved into the area after the Second World War. The Germans were deported either to the interior of the Soviet Union or to the western occupation zones in Germany. And these new arrivals – who were of various nationalities, although mostly Slav – found themselves in a region which was completely alien in terms of culture, architecture and landscape. Only those who had been born there started to perceive this place as their own. They have been connected with it from earliest childhood so they have their own small homeland. When they compare the quality of life and social arrangements in Poland, Germany and Scandinavia with what is happening in Russia, their identification with the country as a whole is undermined even more.
They see the development prospects for the region quite differently – not from the Moscow perspective, but in the way their neighbours do. There is also one more factor to be taken into account. Putin has centralised Russia from the Pacific Ocean to its western border. The result is that there are some new centrifugal movements, which are not political, although sometimes they assume such overtones. The starting point is economic and administrative, for example the problem of taxes, which go to Moscow where the decision is made how much of that money will come back to the region to stimulate its development. And it is the local people who know best what is needed. This sensitive issue is starting to produce new divisions in Russia. Administrative divisions as well as political ambitions of the local elites also come into play. This is what we see in Kaliningrad, although with one reservation – the district is isolated from Russia, it has its own problems, its own needs, and its own points of reference. Strikingly, the inhabitants of the region are shutting themselves off to Russian culture and opening themselves up to German culture. The name Königsberg is preferred to Kaliningrad. There is a “Königsberg” beer, and people are referring to themselves as inhabitants of Königsberg. It is a reaction to the coercive policy of the Russian regime (not only towards Kaliningrad): people are not allowed to live in their own way, according to their own needs. The Mongolian system is operation – everything is centralised and controlled from above. This is why I constantly talk about history, and as Cyprian Norwid beautifully put it: “The past is today but a little further away.” The Russian past is still contained in the present.
J.P.: Statues are always an important test, especially when we talk about the identity of the inhabitants of a particular place on the earth. Hence my last question about the past. When I visit St. Petersburg, I am always fascinated with this striking dichotomy: in St. Petersburg, in the city of the Tsars, the imperial capital of Russia, and in Leningrad, the city of the Revolution…
A.L.: …but also the counter-revolution…
J.P.: …indeed! Two narratives which seem mutually exclusive coexist in the same city. How is it possible that monuments of Lenin, which no one intends to remove, stand side by side with carefully rebuilt and restored statues of the Tsars? Perhaps it is symbolic of the post-Soviet Russian identity? Is it only a problem of St. Petersburg or a wider problem of contemporary Russia, of contemporary Russians?
A.L.: I will again refer to the idea of a split, because statues perfectly illustrate this situation. They are still standing in Russia because after the break-up of the Soviet Union, the Communist Party was not dissolved and the communist system was not taken to account. It is not a question of sentencing this or that person but of passing judgement on the system responsible for the death and suffering of many millions of people. In the entire history of Russia no enemy has wrought such devastation on the country as the communist regime did. I would say that the Soviet mentality is alive and kicking. The communist party is on a leash of the regime, for it obviously does not represent the real interests of the workers and peasants. It pretends to be in opposition but in fact it always votes with the government in the Duma. The monuments reflect this schizophrenia: monuments of communism, monuments of the past and the present – in Moscow, in Sakharov Prospect, a little further away in Lenin Prospect and still further away in Andropov Prospect.
J.P.: With all these wonderful, monumental edifices and palaces, such as the Palace of Culture and Science in the heart of Warsaw, how is socrealism interpreted or perceived today? I would also like to ask a provocative question: Do you feel at home looking at this architecture? Is this heritage your heritage?
A.L.: As far as my own taste is concerned, I have been in love with Russian Constructivism, known as Modernism in Poland, since my childhood, perhaps without consciously knowing it. This movement was crushed in the 1930s. It was a great school, we were visited by Le Corbusier, “the founding father of European Modernism”, and he even built two houses in Moscow.
J.P.: And I also love to visit the Belarusian capital, Minsk, where there are many fantastic examples of this architecture.
A.L.: Socrealist architecture never made an impression on me but the buildings have become historical monuments. They reflect a certain historical period and I treat this architecture as a relic of history.
J.P.: As a closed chapter of history and a monument of a certain epoch?
A.L.: Architecture is history carved in stone! And you have to respect history, whatever it was. These buildings are aesthetic reflections of a certain epoch and this is how I perceive them, differently than in communist times.
J.P.: And finally I would like to return to the question of Central Europe, which you still have not answered. I take it as a signal that Central Europe is a marginal question from the Russian perspective. Does Russia need it at all today?
A.L.: As I understand it, the image of the West through eastern eyes is slightly different than when the West is looking at itself. In Russian there is no such term as Central Europe. The Russian word for it is not particularly attractive: Srednja Evropa. It is a relatively recent term, borrowed from the German, from Neumann’s Mitteleuropa, and we only use the term Western Europe. Historically, however, the borders of Western Europe have also changed in people’s awareness: for example, Western Europe once started behind the Polish border but moved to the western border of the former Poland after the Partitions.
J.P.: And both the Russian army and the Red Army, in their own way, moved the borders of Western and Eastern Europe.
A.L.: Yes, and therefore perceptions changed. However, it was no longer Europe as such but European culture, and the culture of European nations was seen as distinct. In Soviet times, for example, the architecture of the Baltic nations made the Russians realise that it was a completely different culture. The Baltic republics were labelled as European culture in Soviet times, with Poland and Czechoslovakia also being considered as the West, and part of Western Europe.
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