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Book Review November 26, 2004
 
Chatting with Stalin’s Crones
By John Dolan Browse author Email
 
 
A Portrait of Russia Today through One of Moscow’s Most Famous Addresses by Anne Nivat

"A Portrait of Russia Today through One of Moscow’s Most Famous Addresses" by Anne Nivat

Anne Nivat came up with a good, simple gimmick: a book of interviews with the residents of the vysotka, the big Stalin skyscraper on Kotelnicheskaya Naberezhnaya. Since she lives there herself, she wouldn’t even have to leave home. Which is handy, because it’s impossible to get a taxi from there.

I should know, because I’ve been to the building hundreds of times. Some close friends live in that building—Ames used to live there—and I’ve often wondered about the weird, mostly old, grumpy tenants who crowd the elevators and sit sunning their little dogs on the benches outside.

That made the book pretty interesting for me; I’m not really sure how much it would interest people who’ve never been to the building. Nivat tries to claim a wider significance by making the vysotka into a microcosm, subtitling her book "A Portrait of Russia Today through One of Moscow’s Most Famous Addresses." As you can see, the two phrases are at odds; you don’t get "a portrait of Russia today" by dissecting "one of Moscow’s most famous addresses."

What you do get is an interesting mix of Soviet celebrities and New Russians, along with a few expats. Nivat starts the book with a quick history of the building: built by convict labor, designed to be one of eight massive castles ringing Moscow. It was equipped with German elevators taken as reparation after the war. (Funny, because at least one elevator in the wing I used to go up was always broken.) Apartments were handed out as rewards to the Stalinist elite, a strange mix of composers, ballerinas, actors and NKVD officers.

In the biographies of some tenants, virtually all these elements combine, as in the case of sixth-floor tenant Nikita Bogoslovsky, famous composer and KGB informer. One of the highlights of the book is hearing about Bogoslovsky from Galya Yevtushenko, who speaks with a very healthy lack of respect, not only for Bogoslovsky but for her ex-husband and the rest of the 60s Soviet elite.

One reason Galya Yevtushenko’s bleak view of her fellow tenants is so welcome is that Nivat herself seems to worship virtually all her interviewees—particularly the mean old sovok ladies who run the building, led by the arch-bitch Sofia Perovskaya, president of the owners’ association. Nivat introduces Perovskaya as "…one of the vysotka’s veterans, queen of the old comrades" and praises her as "a dedicated Communist…faithful to those principles."

Here’s where having a personal knowledge of the subject comes in handy. It so happens that Moe Snideman, Esq., Special Counsel to the eXile, happens to be a resident of the vysotka and has, perhaps inevitably, tangled with Queen Sofia before. In her interview, Sofia complains about Snideman’s outrageous behavior—he "succeeded in getting all the [remodeling] work he wanted by bribing all sorts of authorities." She doesn’t bother double-checking with Snideman whether this is true, or explaining why this was such an evil deed; it is an outrage simply because it was done without Sofia’s permission.

When not fuming over the Snideman Scandal, Sofia waxes nostalgic for the Stalin era in ways which are unintentionally hilarious: "When our friends came to visit us, they thought they were entering a museum! At that time, most of them still lived in huts….I don’t understand all the criticism of those days."

Another "Queen" is Valentina Ivanovna, an even chattier old fascist, who happily recalls the old days of the vysotka, when "in our wing there was nothing but NKVD officers, chosen personally by Stalin." Such was the atmosphere of freedom that wafted through those corridors that "in the summertime, we left the doors…wide open…and dogs and cats walked freely from one apartment to another." Occasionally a dog or cat would get that knock on the door at 4 am and vanish forever, of course, but for the most part—total freedom!

What really upsets Valentina Ivanovna is the memory of that big wuss Khrushchev: "Khrushchev had the nerve to rehabilitate everyone Stalin denounced! For my father, who had devoted his entire life to the fight against crime, these rehabilitations were incomprehensible." Valentina is at pains to correct the slur that the vysotka was an elite address in the Stalin era: "I have had enough of the way journalists…describe this building—as ‘elitist,’ ‘special,’ ‘an island’ of I don’t know what…In Wing A, we didn’t install a telephone until 1952, not before. Even then, my father didn’t really want it or need it. His boss and many of his colleagues lived in the same podezd. Who needed a telephone?"

That’s the wonderful thing about a building full of NKVD torturers—the communication, the trust. And if you needed to send a message, you could just tape it to one of those free-range dogs and cats.

After a hundred pages of listening to these senile fascist ladies spew, you get a little impatient with Nivat. She seems to have an infinite tolerance for this particular kind of dementia. You begin to smell condescension. Would she be as indulgent in a book of reminiscences by every mean-hearted concierge in Paris? Does she really think Russians are so much less capable of humanity, so that swine like these Chekist spinsters must be given the benefit of endless doubt?

Nivat overrates, or lets her interviewees overpraise, everything about this building. The manager of the Gastronom on the Moskva-River side of the complex goes on and on about how well she pays her employees, how hard they work, and what fine wines and fish she sells. Well, I happen to remember standing at the checkout while those eager workers chatted on and on in the corner, until another customer started screaming at the top of his voice that "This is why we lost in Afghanistan! This is why the Soviet Union fell! People like you, you lazy, worthless trash or care about nothing and do nothing!" It worked, of course; the checker scuttled up to her station and processed us; but it didn’t convey a sense of high morale.

As for the fish they sell, I’d never even think about buying it. Not even for a free-ranging cat. It’s as fixed a feature of the store as the tiles, and gets changed about as often.

Nivat seems unable to resist the prattling of boastful Moscow women, no matter how vain and silly it gets. Nobody who’s lived in Moscow more than a month would have any trouble recognizing the likes of Sofia and Valentina. They are legion—a vast legion of ill-tempered old biddies wishing ill to everything alive, pining for the days when the handcarts piled with corpses shuttled to and fro all night, every night, in the Lubyanka cellars.

God knows there were many real victims of the Gaidar years—but Sofia & co. don’t make very good spokeswomen for them, sitting in their NKVD suites bitching about illegal remodeling. In fact, the vysotka simply isn’t a microcosm of "today’s Russia," no matter what Nivat claims. The voices of the real victims pop up only rarely in this book, when celebrities’ wives, chosen for their beauty and youth to be lifted from the podmoskovoe masses, recall the awe they felt when passing the vysotka, which they would never even have dreamed of trying to enter on their own.

When Nivat moves away from her beloved crones to interview something like a cross-section of tenants, the book picks up momentum. As a frequent visitor, I’d always wondered about some of these distinguished-looking freaks you meet in the elevators, like the old man with the four Borzois. I was delighted to find out all about his weird life. In fact, nearly all the interviewees’ stories are weird enough to be entertaining. Russians haven’t yet turned into Europeans, thank God; they still have the capacity to tell their lives as epic narrative.

When Nivat shifts, in the last section of the book, to interviews with expat tenants, it’s like going from color to B&W, so flat and restrained are the Westerners’ accounts of their doings in Moscow. Of course, that needn’t have happened, if she’d had the sense to interview Snideman, who has never been accused of colorlessness—but Nivat’s prejudices would never allow her to give someone like Snideman his chance on tape. He would have stolen the show.

You finish the book intrigued, annoyed and disappointed. It’s a great concept, no doubt. And in some ways Nivat handles it well enough. Her babble of voices manages to convey a vivid, if depressing, sense of Russia passing from Mordor to Anaheim, horror to schlock, with no stops in between. The New Russians are interested in business, which just isn’t that interesting; and the old ones are not only fascists, but annoying, uninteresting fascists, pompous and self-pitying. That’s not what Nivat intended, but that’s what she’s written. It’s interesting enough, if you know the building as well as I do.

But if you’re not a frequent visitor to this particular vysotka, save your money and steal Nivat’s gimmick. It’s a good one, and would work even better in a more typical Moscow apartment building. You lucky bastards who speak Russian fluently—go down your building’s corridors getting the old weirdos on tape before they pop their clogs. It can be done so much better than this.

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