21 February 2007
The Big House
My affairs took me past the Lubyanka yesterday, the infamous headquarters of the KGB and its successor, the FSB. I've always tried to keep my distance from the Lubyanka, as its bloody and sinister history hangs like a dark cloud over its yellow brick edifice, sending chills down one's spine. At least it does mine; I don't know about ordinary Russians. I suppose deep down I have a fear that if I get too close it will lash out at me, snarling and baring its teeth before devouring me. Or in the very least someone will emerge from its unassuming doors to arrest me. Irrational, I know, but it's enough to keep me on the other side of the street when I have to walk past it.
Maintaining the "other side of the street" rule yesterday would have taken me around the perimiter of the massive square in front of the Lubyanka, a detour the length of 4 city blocks. Not wishing to spend more time than necessary chilled by the frigid winds, I gathered my courage, held my breath, and stepped into the street toward the building.
As I briskly clipped along the icy sidewalk stretched out before the notorious prison, I couldn't help but recall the thousands upon thousands of victims that had been incarcerated, tortured, and executed within its walls, their last vision on earth being the cold, dark, dank walls of its subterranean dungeons. Great and ordinary men alike had ceased to exist on the other side of the stone wall that I was now passing.
Casting furtive glances from time to time at the curtained windows and passing the surprisingly small, nondescript front doors (I suppose I was expecting a set of massive jaws filled with daggers for teeth), I reckoned that the odds of being devoured today were tipping in my favor. And in fact, the building seemed far less terrifying up close, when all you can see is a few square feet of stone and brick in front of you. The full and most chilling effect, I concluded, could only be gotten by observing her in full profile.
I had nearly covered the full distance and was nearing the safety of the next block when I caught something out of the corner of my eye. It was a large bronze plaque affixed to the wall of the Lubyanka. I recognized the sculpted relief profile in the plaque immediately - it was that of Yuri Andropov, who served as the head of the KGB before succeeding Brezhnev as General Secretary of the Communist Party. Risking being arrested, swallowed, and digested on the spot, I slowed my pace to read the text on the plaque.
It was of the sort that is common around Moscow: "In this building from 19XX-19XX lived/worked [insert important individual here]." While sometimes the individuals memorialized by these bronze plaques are well known, I'm often not familiar with the individual under consideration, as they include all sorts of artists, musicians, and scholars in addition to the better-known political and military figures. For example, there is a bronze plaque that I pass every day on the way to the metro stating that some Academician lived in the building; I can only hope that someday a massive bronze plaque at my graduate apartment complex in the States will proclaim to the world that I once lived there.
In the vast majority of cases the buildings to which these notices are attached would be unremarkable and indistinguishable absent the plaques and their semi-famous former residents. That is to say, they are normal apartment and office buildings in which someone important in the Soviet era happened to spend some time. Let me repeat that: they are normal buildings.
You can probably see where this is going, why I was so startled to see the plaque memorializing Andropov affixed to the exterior of the Lubyanka. The implication of that plaque is that Andropov is the most significant and memorable thing that every happened there. "Here is where a great man once worked!" it proudly proclaims. Absent Andropov and his bronze likeness, we are led to believe, this is just another building. "Now please, respected citizens, go about your ordinary business."
I can only assume that my gaping mouth was mistaken by the beast with dagger-teeth as a display of power (they say that if you encounter a bear you should make yourself big, loud, and scary. Perhaps Russia really is just a big bear). As such, it seems to have been scared away and didn't devour me.
Just another building? Can it really be possible that someone believes that Andropov's years there are what makes it notable? Is this what we should remember when we think of the Lubyanka?
What of the blood of generations past that still seeps out of its foundations? What of the cries for mercy that fell on deaf ears, trapped within its stone walls never to be heard by living souls (for the souls attached to those deaf ears had died long before their trembling victims)? What of the suffering wives who waited faithfully outside its windows every day, struggling in vain to learn the fate of their already-departed husbands? What of the children who were blackened as outcasts for life, paying a heavy price for the non-sins of the father? And what of that which could have been, that which never was - what of the stirring prose, flowing poetry, and delicate arias that were never written, never spoken, never sung, because they had been shattered by a piece of lead in the back of their creator's head? What of them? Where is their plaque? WHERE IS THEIR PLAQUE?
I assumed that the farcical revision of history could only have been the crude work of the Soviet "dinosaurs," the crumbling geriatric comrades of the Brezhnev generation. Likely affixed to the wall in that utterly unremarkable period between Andropov's death from kidney failure in 1984 and Gorbachev's ascent in 1985, this was perhaps the only notable thing that Chernenko's brief reign produced. Bravo, Konstantin Ustinovich! Perhaps you believe in the plaque and what it stands for. But as for the rest of us, we're not buying it!
This is where I intended to stop writing. A fine indictment of the pre-Gorbachev Soviet regime, isn't it?
You can imagine, then, my shock when my daily inhalation of Russian news this morning included a reference to the memorial to Andropov attached to the wall of the Lubyanka: after an extended absence following the collapse of the Soviet regime, the plaque was re-installed in 1999 by another former Lubyanka chief who made the move down Nikolskiy Street to the comfort of the Kremlin's brick walls. His name? I think you know it already.
And so, this is not simply a footnote of history, it is part of the narrative that is being written today. What is written on the plaque is insignificant; it is that which is left unsaid that speaks volumes. The silence is deafening.
Posted by Rubashov at 8:25 PM