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Cherepovets Journal: In Russian City, a Time Capsule to Comrades of the Future

Digital SLR and iPhone cameras snapped as it was placed into a new steel capsule, forged, just like the one before, inside the searing blast furnaces of Severstal, the city’s steel plant. From atop a stone plinth a hundred yards away, Lenin looked on.

A century ago, the tsarist monarchy was toppled and the Russian Empire replaced with a revolutionary socialist system. The October Revolution (which is marked on Nov. 7 because Russia was on a different calendar when it took place), was celebrated as the Soviet Union’s foundational myth. The Soviet collapse in 1991 ushered in political and economic turmoil that enabled a select few to become fabulously rich while the majority of people struggled, bringing staggering inequality to a country that until recently could by definition have none.

President Vladimir V. Putin came to power promising stability, and since 2000 he has sought to merge the various periods of Russia’s turbulent past into a 1,000-year linear narrative of progress, with a powerful state as its guarantor.


To help celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution, the Komsomol veteran organization held a concert in Cherepovets. Credit Valeri Nistratov for The New York Times

In that narrative, there is no place for upheaval or revolt — not for the 19th-century uprising of Russian army officers, not for the decade-long parliamentary system that ended in 1917, and especially not for the revolution itself. A generation socialized in the revolutionary Soviet discourse is growing old under a counterrevolutionary state.

And so on Tuesday, it is the Communists who will stage a march through Moscow’s streets — the Kremlin has shunted off commemoration of the event into academia, funding a series of conferences and art exhibitions throughout the year.

It is left up to local institutions like museums and city councils, and to Soviet nostalgists, to fill the void. From the village of Filaretovka in Russia’s Far East to Sevastopol in annexed Crimea, messages buried in time capsules are being read out. And in some cases, their authors are there to witness the scene.

Valery Belyayev is one of them. Born in 1941 in a village 40 miles from Cherepovets, Mr. Belyayev grew up desperately poor. He was 2 months old when his father left to fight the Nazis in Stalingrad, in a battle that would claim two million lives.

Throughout the postwar years, Mr. Belyayev watched life in Cherepovets improve, and it was as the 25-year-old deputy head of the city’s Komsomol committee that he helped write the message that was placed in the monolith there back in 1967.

He could not have known then that everything he believed in would fall apart.

“We were convinced that if we could transform our lives at such speed, then of course in 50 years a new era would arrive — we had absolutely no doubt,” Mr. Belyayev said the morning after the message was read aloud to a new generation, as he and other former Komsomol members reminisced, as they often do, inside their community center.

In Cherepovets, a gritty factory town about 300 miles east of St. Petersburg, Komsomol veterans like Mr. Belyayev have their own disco nights, their own clubs and funding from the mayor’s office for events that resurrect a bygone era. For them, the Soviet Union represented a noble idea, and the Komsomol — whose membership reached over 40 million by 1991 — was its social underpinning.

For 17-year-old Andrei Tolokontsev, a member of the Youth Army who took part in the ceremony in Cherepovets, the Soviet Union was a bloc of brotherly nations. Mr. Tolokontsev has lived all his life under Mr. Putin’s rule, and for him the letters U.S.S.R. conjure up images of the Soviet emblem and its hammer-and-sickle flag, and of the ruthless wartime leader — Stalin — whom the young man credits with the country’s development.

Standing in the ranks of the Youth Army, which was begun in 2016 by Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, means keeping the Komsomol legacy alive, Mr. Tolokontsev said. He hopes to stand in the same spot in 50 years as an army veteran, in a powerful Russia at peace with the world.


Cherepovets was a village when Stalin ordered the construction of the steel plant that would transform it into an industrial center of the north. Credit Valeri Nistratov for The New York Times

“They told us what we should and shouldn’t do in the future,” he said. “And we wish the same for the generation to come. The situation in the world is tense now, but everything will be resolved.”

Cherepovets was a village when Stalin ordered the construction of the steel plant that transformed it into an industrial center of the north. Severstal opened the steel mill in 1955 and has powered the city’s economy since, with steady global demand for the metal helping it weather economic upheaval after the Soviet collapse and the recent Western sanctions against Russia.

Today much in the city has changed. There are shiny shopping malls, and a refurbished bus station is opening. But on the outskirts, a creaky tram still courses at 15-minute intervals along a track that runs between crumbling Soviet-era housing blocks and the mighty smokestacks that dominate the skyline, shuttling workers across the plant’s sprawling territory.

With the speeches over and the new time capsule sealed, the crowd left to escape the cold. Mr. Belyayev made his way to the old movie theater across the square, joining fellow Komsomol veterans as they crowded into its auditorium.

They donned commemorative medals and called each other “comrade,” then sat bright-eyed and nostalgic as a choir sang songs about a Soviet youth: “Let one misfortune after another threaten us, but my friendship with you will only die when I die myself …”

Across town, Marina Gorbunova showed visitors around the history museum. An exhibition on the revolution had opened, and Ms. Gorbunova told stories about young men from Cherepovets who left to fight in the civil war that followed the Bolsheviks’ overthrow of the provisional government.

“The dream was to abolish class differences, for us all to be equal,” she said. “And now it’s the way it used to be. There’s a class of the poor, the middle class and the rich. What was all the blood, hunger and cold for?”

Asked about the enduring strength of Soviet nostalgia, she paused to reflect. “Youth is always a source of joy,” she said. “It always seems to us that things were better then.”

The new time capsule will be kept in this museum, stowed away until a new generation, with a new set of ideals, gathers to hear its message.

Source: NYT > World

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