Back in the USSR: Recollections and pictures of six weeks in the Soviet Union, fifty years on

Jeremy Poynton describes his school trip across Russia, Georgia and Ukraine at the peak of Soviet power.

Red Square, Moscow, 1968. All photos courtesy of the author

Red Square, Moscow, 1968. All photos courtesy of the author

I have always felt very fortunate that I had the opportunity to visit the USSR. This happened as the school I was at, The Leys School in Cambridge, was one of only a few to have a Russian teacher; Mr. Armstrong was so fluent in Russian that he twice turned down offers from the UN to work for them as an interpreter. Happily he remained a language teacher – his vocation.

He had visited the USSR before – and been arrested. He took a picture of an old lady with a basket of mushrooms, not noticing that in the background there was a watchtower belonging to some sort of military installation. Within minutes he was surrounded – luckily he managed to persuade the police he was not a spy!

So in July of 1968, Mr. Armstrong, along with another teacher, an ex-pupil and eleven current pupils including myself, set off for the Soviet Union in a Bedford Dormobile van (shown below, being loaded onto the ship), and a Morris Minor Convertible. We embarked at Tilbury and a three day voyage across a very stormy North Sea saw us land in Leningrad, to start a trip that would take us through Novgorod, Moscow, Kursk, Kharkov, Pyatigorsk, the Caucasus, Tbilisi, Sochi, back up through Rostov-on-Don and finally Odessa.

Of course, at this time the Prague Spring was coming to its end. As a 16 year old, I had no interest in politics, other than knowing that the Cold War was at its fiercest. I still recall the Cuban Missile crisis and the fear that gripped everyone at the time. At the same time, I was fascinated to take a look behind the Iron Curtain. I was by no means a teenage Marxist, though there were a few at school (and even a token Maoist!).

The Bedford being loaded onto the ship at Tilbury

The Bedford being loaded onto the ship at Tilbury

Leningrad I loved; waterways everywhere, extraordinary Orthodox churches, so ornate and resplendent. We spent much of one day in the Hermitage; again, as a 16 year old I had little awareness of fine art, but was still awestruck at the extraordinary collection there – in truth, one would need much of a lifetime to take it all in.

On to Novgorod – I can still recall the wonderful old City walls there, and buying kvas, a rather revolting fizzy drink! Moscow I think was a disappointment after Leningrad and Novgorod; huge, hot and dusty; the Red Square and St. Basil’s of course impressed, as did a visit to the Kremlin, where I remember being staggered by the collection of Romanov Fabergé eggs. And the metro was magnificent, making the London Underground look very paltry and shabby indeed.

In both Leningrad and Moscow we had strangers come up to us and show us some of the magnificent cemeteries there. One in particular I remember had a photo of a pilot, and on the obelisk above his grave was attached a full size propeller! It was in one of the cemeteries in Moscow where we ran into the state, so to speak. A student came up to us to talk to us, and it turned out he was a Czech at Moscow University; he wanted to know if we knew what was happening in Prague. We didn’t, but very rapidly we had two plain-clothes policemen with us, one with his gun out.

The student was marched off at gunpoint, and we were told in no uncertain terms not to talk to strangers. This was hard, as people came up to us all the time when they saw we were from the West (wearing jeans was a good sign – I was offered ridiculous sums for my Levis!), they wanted to know what was going on beyond the Iron Curtain. Nowhere did we meet with any hostility. Another Czech student who approached us elsewhere was arrested – this time by soldiers, at rifle point – before we could warn him away.

Peterhof (then known as Petrodvorets)

Peterhof (then known as Petrodvorets)

Random memories. Buying vodka in a vodka bar. Go to counter. Hand over money, get a glass, small bottle, and a few slices of salami. And back again. And a truly terrible meal in a cafe, which I think was noodles and gristle. We did have some good meals along the way though, two in railway station restaurants which we were told were generally good; my first Borscht was, I recall to this day, delicious!

My memories from Moscow onto the Caucasus are dim – a lot of road, rolling steppes, and nothing that stood out. One memory – stopping in a very poor village where a funeral was about to take place at the little church in the middle; the dead man was laid in an open coffin, with pennies on his eyes. I knew this was a tradition in some parts of the world – nevertheless, it was odd to see it. The evident poverty of the village was plain to see.

Pyatigorsk is the next stop that I remember, near the splendidly named Mineralnye Vody. Pyatigorsk, on the approach to the Caucasus with the mountains ahead, was lovely. There was a lake which we swam in, and got shouted at when a couple of us decided to swim right across it!

Driving into the Caucasus the scenery became spectacular. We stopped at one place where pipes came out of the mountain side, with carbonated water pouring out of them, and people refreshing themselves there. Also, a gaggle of wild and woolly men, who had just slaughtered a sheep, invited us to share the truly delicious kebabs they were cooking over their fire.

We were told that the Trans-Caucasian highway was one of the marvels of Soviet road building. Well, maybe 400 yards were tarmacked – then it might as well have been river bed! Winter floods destroyed the road. Every winter! So our drivers had to pick their way carefully along the “road”, avoiding potholes and boulders. The scenery was spectacular – by one rushing river, we stopped for lunch, and a few of us climbed the steep side of the hills to explore caves which had clearly been used as homes or places of refuge.

Novgorod kremlin

Novgorod kremlin

Setting off from our campsite we decided we would go up into Chechnya a little way to take a look see. (By the way, our whole trip and every stop had to be pre-documented for approval before we came. We had an Intourist guide with us all the way, though we got rid of one as he was a drunk!) Chechnya was extraordinary – we stopped at a village, with small stone homes, that had the most curious beehive shaped stone buildings clustered a little way off. Speaking to the locals – who were clad in furs, and all the males were bearing ancient rifles – we found that the buildings were plague homes; whenever somebody in the village got the plague, they were put in these buildings and left to die. If you were “rich”, you got one to yourself or family. The others were jam-packed with bones and skeletons.

The locals did know of Manchester United. Thanks to Mr. Armstrong, by the time we left, they also knew of the new football league champions, my team, Manchester City!

Returning to our agreed route, we were hauled in by the local police, and charged with trying to destroy the Five Year Plan. I am not jesting. Quite how we got out of it, I don’t recall – I suspect after due deliberation, the officers decided that arresting 14 Brits in the middle of nowhere might not be the best thing to do!

And thence to Georgia. Lovely Georgia. It was like emerging into a Mediterranean country; cafes with tables on the streets, edible (gorgeous) flat bread, kebabs, lovely wine and some grape derived spirit we had at one vineyard, which left my eyes spinning for a few hours. Small and very old Orthodox churches here, there and everywhere, almost all abandoned, almost all covered with wonderful frescoes. Three, I think, great days based in Tbilisi, where, each night at 6pm on the dot, the heavens exploded and a monumental electrical and rain storm pounded us and the nearby mountains, finishing on the dot at 6.15pm!

We were heading for Odessa, from where we would leave the USSR, taking a ferry to Istanbul; our first stop after Tbilisi was of course Gori, to visit the Josef Stalin museum. (I would add that whilst we were driving through the Caucasus, painted in 20 ft high letters on the side of a cliff was “Long Live Stalin”!) I don’t remember a lot about it, bar that the house was within a marble shell to protect it, and there were many Stalin era, somewhat kitsch in hindsight, paintings of the great men and various people. Lenin we think had been “paintshopped” out of many of the pictures, although there were a couple in which you could see him peeping out from behind a crowd of people. Slightly surreal!

Church in Georgia

Church in Georgia

Thence, travelling inland of the coast, through some lovely hilly and forested countryside, to Sochi, were we slept on the beach; behind us a Soviet style “holiday” camp. Sochi was then the prime holiday place for those who could take them in the USSR. Sea and sand, a promenade by the beach, and at table after table, people playing chess. From Sochi we went through Batumi, to Odessa, where we embarked early, got the vehicles loaded and spent the day in Odessa, visiting of course the Potemkin Stairs, and in the evening, going to the Opera House to watch Boris Godunov.

До свидания СССР!

I feel very lucky to have experience this. We were aware of great hardship all around us, worse as you got away from urban areas, and it did seem that people’s spirits were, if not crushed, subdued. Regardless, I remember great friendliness and many loca happy to show us around wherever simply to be able to talk from people from the West and to practice their English. And I still have my passport, stamped with entry at Leningrad, and exit at Odessa.

‘Degenerate' German Art and the Russian Connection

Dr Peter Lowe examines the real and fabricated cross-cultural dialogue behind the art banned by the Nazis

Pictures at the "Degenerate Art" exhibition in Munich, 1937

Pictures at the "Degenerate Art" exhibition in Munich, 1937

Names and labels are important. The Wiener Library reminds us of this in its current exhibition remembering the display of 20th-century German art that was held in London over the summer months of 1938. With more than 300 works included, this was an opportunity for British visitors to engage with developments in the European art world. The greater significance of the exhibition, though, lies in the fact that the artists whose work was admired in London were those cited by the Nazi regime as examples of ‘degeneracy’. Their works had been removed from German museums and in some cases destroyed while they were subjected to personal attacks resulting, in several cases, in the decision to leave the country to avoid further humiliation or danger. By proudly showcasing the work of 62 artists that had been labeled ‘degenerate’ by the Nazis, the 1938 London exhibition deserves to be remembered as a stand against prejudice and persecution.  

To put the London exhibition in context, as the Wiener’s display so usefully does, we must go back to the summer of 1937 when the state-sponsored exhibition of ‘Degenerate Art’ opened in Munich. This allowed the Nazi regime to display the works that it judged unfit for the public in such a way as to foreground their offensive nature and lead visitors to concur with the state’s assessment of their faults. The exhibition, which later toured other German cities, was free to enter (no one could be asked to pay for such an experience, the Nazis argued) and designed to be seen alongside the inaugural exhibition of ‘official’ German art that was taking place in the vast galleries of Munich’s new neoclassical House of German Art.

Once inside the ‘degenerate’ exhibition, held in the cramped rooms of the University’s Archaeological Institute, visitors were encouraged to marvel at the ‘insanity’ both of those who would produce such artworks and those who could be duped into praising them. In a case of manipulation worthy of our own ‘alternative fact’-based media, artworks were often displayed with their price-tags showing values in the hyper-inflated Weimar-era currency in order to secure maximum outrage from the German public at the money that museums had ‘wasted’ on such things.

By outlining the Nazi cultural policies that formulated the state’s twisted ideas of order and style the Wiener Library enables the visitor to see why the bold experiments of artists like Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Emile Nolde, and Max Liebermann were judged ‘unacceptable’. This was not, however, a purely artistic assessment. The application of the term ‘degenerate’ enabled the Nazis to suggest a direct link between artistic work and the artist’s social and ethnic suitability for a place in the German state.

From there, it was a short step to connect the artists and their work with a network of museum directors, critics, and dealers who could be seen as subversive elements in the German community. Tragically, the fact that many practitioners and patrons in the German art world were of Jewish origin enabled the Nazis to argue that modern art was a fraud perpetrated on the German people by ‘alien’ elements. It was a cosmopolitan conspiracy, made and sold everywhere from Paris to Moscow and, as such, it owed nothing to the twisted ideas of racial, nationalist culture the Nazi regime wished to promote.


"The inclusion of works by Kandinsky attests to a process of exchange dating back before the First World War"


Although the two may seem to have little in common, Nazi propaganda made sure that Communism was seen as a correlative to artistic ‘degeneracy’. Thus, when faced with a London exhibition that attracted praise for the works on show, the Nazi-run Völkischer Beobachter saw this as proof that the British had been duped by “Judaism and Moscow” into aesthetic judgments that had no place in the German Reich. The inclusion of ‘Moscow’ here reminds us that by this point Nazi art criticism was not only positioned against the ‘Jewish’ artistic community but needed to see that community as being in league with the other tangible threat from which it was claimed that Germany needed defending – the ‘Bolshevist’ menace in the East. Using the convenient catch-all term Kulturbolschewismus (‘Cultural Bolshevism’), Nazi art critics saw modern art as a plot hatched on two fronts, both designed to undermine Germany’s racial and political purity.

Like the many lies of Nazi propaganda, the linking of Judaism and Bolshevism enabled the regime to see coordinated threats everywhere while relying on a conditioned populace not to think at length about whether the link was real. Had they probed more deeply into the Soviet artistic sphere they would have found that by the late-1930s the state’s policy was firmly behind the doctrine of ‘Socialist Realism’ that renounced ‘formalist’ experimentation in favour of a monumental depiction of ‘reality’ as it was in the USSR, or as the Party believed it would soon be. A regime that was prioritising monumental images of collective farm workers, factory personnel, and the cadres of its senior leadership all depicted with the emphasis on their being ‘life-like’ had no more time for the innovations of modern art than the Nazi Reich did. German attempts to link modern art with Moscow were by 1938 founded less in reality than in a desire to focus prejudices on perceived ‘threats’ to future German greatness.

The irony is that there had been a time when German artists had enjoyed creative dialogue with their Russian peers, and the evidence of some of those interactions was to be found in the works singled out for attack in the late-1930s. The inclusion of eight works by Wassily Kandinsky in the London exhibition attests to a process of exchange dating back before the First World War, when the young Russian had made his home in Munich and, working with Franz Marc and others in the ‘Blue Rider’ group, forged a new visual language for the new century.

Blue Horses , 1911, by Franz Marc (1880-1916)

Blue Horses, 1911, by Franz Marc (1880-1916)

Marc’s 1911 painting Blue Horses, which shows the influence of Kandinsky’s experiments with colour, provided the 1938 exhibition with its poster image. Three of the eight works by which Kandinsky was represented in the London exhibition were pre-1914 compositions, capturing on canvas the thrilling process by which he turned his borrowings from Russian folk art into the material for new experiments in colour and form. The outbreak of war had sent Kandinsky back to Russia, but after a spell teaching and working for the Soviet People’s Commissariat for Enlightenment he had returned to Germany in the 1920s, teaching for some time at the Bauhaus, that creative laboratory for German modernism, before finally leaving for France in 1933.

Kandinsky’s cross-border career was by no means unique. El Lissitzky had exhibited his work in Berlin in 1923, showcasing the architectural designs he had originally proposed while at the People’s Art School in Vitebsk, and his former colleague Kasimir Malevich had visited the Bauhaus in the course of a highly successful exhibition tour of his Suprematist work in Germany in 1926-7. In the early 1920s, with relatively open borders making travel between Berlin and Moscow possible, cultural dialogue had been a defining feature of Russo-German life. In 1937, however, 57 of Kandinsky’s works were seized by the Nazis as part of their purge of German galleries, with 14 of them displayed in the ‘Degenerate Art’ exhibition that year.

Untitled Improvisation III , 1914, by Wassily Kandinsky (1866-1944)

Untitled Improvisation III, 1914, by Wassily Kandinsky (1866-1944)

Sadly, the high point of Russo-German cultural exchange had passed long before the Nazi regime decided that ‘Bolshevism’ was the enemy. Modern art fell from favour in the USSR as swiftly as in Germany, although whereas Hitler’s regime promoted its imperial pretensions through a revived classicism indebted to Greece and Rome, the Stalinist state reverted to a monumentalised version of the 19th century Realist tradition. In both cases, though, the bold Expressionist colours and abstractions of early-20th century art could only be seen as threatening in their exuberance and presented only as the ‘tricks’ that the state’s enemies wished to play on the populace. In suggesting that these ‘degenerate’ works had backing in Moscow the Nazis further deceived a populace already overwhelmed by years of manipulation, for they would have been no more welcome there than they had received in Munich. Happily, they were able to find an audience in London, and in doing so could rebut the lies spread about their ‘degeneracy’ and that of their creators.  

The Wiener Library’s excellent exhibition reminds us that there was indeed a Russian element in the world of Modern German Art, but it was not the state-sponsored subversion against which the German public was warned to be on guard. Rather, it was something mutually loathed by both the Nazi and Soviet regimes – a process of cultural exchange, not ideological confrontation. Fittingly, then, the London exhibition of 1938, as this thoughtful display shows, highlighted not the ‘degeneracy’ of the art but the innovation and daring that neither fascism nor communism could wholly subdue.

‘London 1938: Defending Degenerate German Art’ is at the Wiener Library, Russell Square, until 14th September. For more information, see


Dr Peter Lowe teaches classes in English Literature at the Bader International Study Centre, East Sussex. His interests are in the culture and history of the early 20th century in Russia and in western Europe, and he is currently researching the nature and uses of 'nostalgia' in the early Soviet period

Finnish stereotypes in the works of Alexander Pushkin

Elisabeth van der Meer explores Russia's greatest poet's subversion of national tropes

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In 19th century Russian literature there is usually an abundance of stereotypes: rich landowners, unruly peasants, drunken and gambling officers, miserable clerks, but also reckless Cossacks, exotic Circassians, singing Gypsies, German tutors, French mademoiselles and the odd Finn. These stereotypes quickly set the scene for the reader and create a sense of ‘us’ versus ‘others’. But Russian literature wouldn't be as good as it actually is if it just left it at that. It takes the stereotype and forces the reader look at it again, and at themselves - are we really any better? What would we do if we were in their position? To mark the just-passed 100th anniversary of Finland’s founding as a state, let us explore the links between Finnish national stereotypes and the work of Russia’s greatest poet, Alexander Pushkin.

Russian - Finnish history

Throughout Russian history Finns have been considered as a rather non-threatening nation, innocent bystanders in their constant battles with the Swedish empire. Before the Finnish War (1808-1809, between Russia and Sweden, but fought on Finnish soil) Finland had been under Swedish rule for 600 years. During the war Sweden surrendered Finland to Russia, leaving the Finns feeling betrayed. Although they were suspicious of the Russians, the predominant sentiment became pro-Russia, helped by the fact that, as a Grand Duchy of Russia, Finland gained autonomy and Finnish culture and language were able to blossom. These events are described in The Tales of Ensign Stål, an 1848 poem by Johan Ludvig Runeberg, known to every Finn:

The Russian host could vaunt the name

Of many a seasoned veteran

Recorded on the scroll of fame

Before our war began.

Barclay, Kamensky, Bagration,

Were household names to every son of Finland.

When they hove in sight,

We could expect a fight.

But Kulnev's name was new to all

Before the flame of war was blown

And he came rushing like a squall,

Scarce dreamed of before known.

He struck like lightning from the blue

So terrible and yet so new,

But ne'er to be forgot, we felt,

From the first blow he dealt.


Pushkin and the Finnish stereotype

Alexander Pushkin (1799-1837) is still seen as Russia's national poet and his patriotic words still strike a strong chord of pride with many Russians. His legacy has contributed to the Russian identity, just as The Kalevala and the poetry of Runeberg have shaped Finnish identity. What may be more interesting is how his works have shaped the depiction of Finns. In his works we can find three very different examples of Finnish stereotypes in Russian literature. The first (the sorcerer) in the narrative poem Ruslan and Ludmila (1820); the second (the dutiful worker) in one of The Tales of Belkin (1830) - ‘The Undertaker’; and finally the most famous of all (the fisherman), in the narrative poem The Bronze Horseman (1833).

Ruslan and Ludmila

Ruslan and Ludmila is a fairy tale set in ancient Russia. Ludmila, the young wife of the hero Ruslan, has been kidnapped by an evil dwarf called Chernomor during their wedding night. On his journey to find her, Ruslan encounters an old man. It turns out to be a good Finnish wizard who helps him to find Ludmila. The old man, Finn, tells Ruslan his own story: when he was a young shepherd he fell in love with Naina, but she rejected him. To impress her he fought in wars abroad and returned to her with treasures, but again she rejected him. As a last resort he studied sorcery for years and years, but when he finally casts a love spell over Naina, he notices too late that she has turned into an old crone. He rejects her and now the old hag Naina hates Finn and takes sides with Chernomor. With the help of Finn, Ruslan is able to win his bride back and save Kiev in the process.

Pushkin's knowledge of Finnish mythology probably comes from the Russian historian and writer Karamzin, who Pushkin admired. Until Elias Lönnrot wrote down the Finnish myths in The Kalevala in 1835, they were passed on orally, and obviously some legends reached Russia. There are similarities between the good wizard Finn and the wizard Väinämöinen from The Kalevala. Ruslan and Ludmila confirms the popular belief in Russia that Finns “had a way with magic”. This is a story of good and evil, of struggles and unexpected encounters, of having faith that the good will eventually conquer, and of using your powers not for personal gain, but to help others: a typical fairy tale. But if we look simply at the names, it is literally Finn helping Ruslan.

But listen on: there in my homeland

among the lonely fisherfolk

there's lore mysterious and awesome.

Amid thick forests, wild, remote,

a guild of ancient sorcerers

dwells deep in the primeval stillness.

Their minds they constantly apply

to elements of highest wisdom.

Everything bows to their command -

what has been and what is to come.

They wield a terrifying power

over not only death but love.

The Undertaker

In ‘The Undertaker’ we find an ordinary, simple Finn. The story takes place in the first decades of the 19th century, when Finland was the Grand Duchy. A Russian undertaker (not to be confused with the jolly type of undertaker that Shakespeare and Walter Scott describe, warns Pushkin) moves to a different part of Moscow and is invited to a party by his new German neighbor, a shoemaker. At the party the gloomy undertaker meets several cheerful Germans and a Finn. This Finn is introduced to the reader by Pushkin in a rather curious and comical manner: “The Shoemaker’s small room was filled with guests, for the most part German craftsmen with their wives and apprentices. There was only one Russian official present, police constable Yurko, a Finn who, in spite of his humble calling, enjoyed the particular favour of the host.”

Compared to the German tradesmen living in Moscow, Yurko the Finn is Russian. This shows different degrees in foreigners, clearly those belonging to the Russian empire were somehow less foreign. Yurko is described as honest, loyal and hardworking, typical Finnish characteristics, but he can eat and drink like a Russian. During the French invasion of Moscow in 1812, Yurko’s yellow sentry-box burned down and he had to build another one. Unperturbed, he has fulfilled his duties for twenty five years. However, the Germans and the undertaker befriend him primarily because he can be useful for them, not because of his good characteristics.

Yurko embodies the way in which Russia saw Finland: as a useful buffer between Russia and Sweden, the innocent bystander in Russia’s conflicts, and a potential ally in wartime, better as a friend than as an enemy. But Yurko has the last laugh as he jokes to the undertaker that he should drink to the health of his clients. This causes the undertaker to have a terrifying nightmare in which his dead clients come to haunt him and reprimand him for ripping off their next of kin in their moments of grief. Pushkin leaves it to the reader's imagination whether or not the undertaker shall better his life.

The Bronze Horseman

The most famous description of Finnish people in Russian literature, “nature’s poor foster child”, comes from Pushkin's well-known poem The Bronze Horseman. The poem is about the great flood of 1824 in Saint Petersburg. The protagonist Evgenii loses his fiancé in the flood, and soon he loses his mind too. He curses the statue of Peter the Great, and the statue suddenly comes to life and chases Evgenii through the streets of Saint Petersburg. Later poor Evgenii is found dead, washed up on some desolate shore.

It is one of the most influential works of Pushkin. In the introduction Pushkin describes Peter the Great as he envisions a new, splendid city on the banks of the Neva, a territory that was recently conquered from the Swedes. That area was at that time sparsely inhabited by mostly Finnish people. Neva is the Finnish word for bog, or swamp. The first impression is that in a place where Finns were merely fishing and making a poor living, the Russians succeeded in building a magnificent city. On the other hand there is the image of the humble Finn, in touch with nature and less impacted by natural disasters; he is timeless and can always continue fishing, whereas Saint Petersburg was not a complete success: it had a hard time fighting the elements and was regularly plagued by floods. One of the themes of the poem is man versus nature, something that Finns are perhaps better at.

A hundred years have passed. We see,

Where swamp and forest stood but lately:

The city, northern prodigy,

Has risen, sumptuous and stately;

Where once a humble Finnish lad –

Poor foster-child in Nature’s keeping –

Alone upon the low banks had

Oft cast his time-worn nets when reaping

The waters’ hidden harvest, – now

Great towers and palaces endow

The bustling banks with grace and splendour…


In his inimitable way gives Pushkin the old Finnish stereotypes his own twist, making them fresh and original: the old sorcerer becomes a friendly helper, the dutiful police constable turns out to like a little joke, and “nature’s poor foster child” is now fishing somewhere else, blissfully unaware of whatever disaster has struck Saint Petersburg...


Alexander Pushkin, Ruslan and Ludmila, translated by Roger Clarke

----------------------, The Bronze Horseman, translated by John Dewey

----------------------, ‘The Undertaker’, translated by Gillon Aitken

The North in Russian Romantic Literature by Otto Boele

The many ways to read The Undertaker by Henri-Dominique Paratte

Imperial Rhetoric and the Finnish other in Russian literature by Tuomas Taavila


I'm Elisabeth van der Meer, Dutch and recently moved to Finland. I have a blog on which I share my enthusiasm for (mainly 19th century) Russian literature and try to make others see what's so great about it. I enjoy digging into specific passages, subjects or characters, trying to find connections and meanings hidden behind the surface. I'm also fascinated by the lives of these great writers, that were often at least as interesting as their works. To me Russian literature is an inexhaustible source for subjects to write about. 


Making a Soviet Murderer: The Case of Moscow Serial Killer Vasili Petrov-Komarov

Dr Mark Vincent investigates a scandal that shocked 1920s Russia

Photo credits: Mikhail Gernet (ed.),  Prestupnyi Mir Moskvy  (Moscow, 1924).

Photo credits: Mikhail Gernet (ed.), Prestupnyi Mir Moskvy (Moscow, 1924).

petrov-komarov 2

By 7th June 1923, anticipation had reached fever pitch in Moscow surrounding the imminent sentencing of Vasili Komarov and his wife Sophia, accused of murdering a combined total of 33 people between February 1921 and May 1923. These victims shared a number of common characteristics in that they were all male, all had a semi-rural background with an expressed interest in horse trading, and were all found in the vicinity of the city’s Shabolovka district with their limbs tied tightly together and packed into small sacks intended to disguise their size and shape.

In an early feuilleton, young writer Mikhail Bulgakov recalled how the case had captured the imagination of the public by describing how rumours circulated of pillowcases packed full of money and how Vasili would feed his pigs the victim’s intestines. Away from street-level gossip, the case also received the attention of the international news media through future Pulitzer Prize winner and controversial apologist of Stalin’s collectivization policies, Walter Duranty, a little over a year into his post as Moscow correspondent for The New York Times. Over the course of the twelve day trial, Duranty vividly detailed the protracted nature of the deliberations, moved from the regular court chamber to the Polytechnic Museum due to an ‘extraordinary interest’ in proceedings, and how the crowd broke into applause as Vasili and Sophia were sentenced to execution.

Proceedings depicted by Bulgakov and Duranty came at the culmination of a prolonged police investigation which narrowed in on the carriage driver after a large number of victims were found close to a twice-weekly horse market. Given that bodies were often discovered in the days immediately following trading, and that the sacks contained traces of hay or oats, further enquiries increasingly turned the spotlight upon Komarov who was identified as a regular attendee who appeared to do little business at the site itself.

Entering his property at 24 Shabolovka Street under the pretence of searching for an illicit brew house, detectives unearthed a corpse partially buried in a stack of hay in Komarov’s outside stable. Although the suspect was able to flee the scene through an open window, he was apprehended a few days later. Under interrogation, Komarov confessed without remorse to a total of 33 murders, 22 of which had already been accounted for. Five more bodies were discovered with the aid of his testimony and the remaining five had sunk to the depths of the Moskva River.

(Warning: The following paragraph contains a graphic description of murder; please skip to below the photos if you wish to avoid this.) An article published a year after the trial further detailed Komarov’s modus operandi, revealing how he would look to entice ‘peasants’ from the market to his apartment under the pretence of selling them a horse or other equestrian-related products. Upon the victim's arrival, Vasili would offer his prospective ‘client’ alcohol before producing a document for them to read while sat on a chair positioned in the centre of the room. While distracted, Komarov produced a hammer wrapped in a tablecloth and, approaching from behind, arched his arm around to strike them violently on the forehead. Suffice to say, this would knock his victim unconscious and, after letting their blood drip out into a bowl, finished the murderous act by strangling them with a noose. After initially stashing the bodies in a large chest inside his wardrobe, the corpses were later carried to a number of different locations on Shabolovka Street, including the derelict building next door and the grounds of a nearby mansion. Komarov’s pressing need to move the bodies further afield meant that he began transporting them to the nearby side street Konnyy Pereulok, then, using a horse purchased with money stolen from his victims, deposited them both on the embankment and in the Moskva itself.

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The aforementioned article originated from an edited volume produced by the Moscow Bureau for the Study of Criminal Personality and Crime, an organisation originally instigated by a delegate of the Moscow Soviet and headed by leading criminologist Mikhail Gernet. Operating under the control of the Moscow Health Department, the Bureau rejected elements of Lombrosian-based atavism in favour of understanding criminality through conditions of time and space.

The article therefore wove the Komarov case around the main themes of the volume, which emphasised the primacy of the urban environment, to the point of excluding any mention of the outside stable, and argued how Komarov’s relationship with alcohol (influenced by his parents and older siblings) was seen as ‘preparing the soil’ to be further cultivated by the ‘legalized murder’ of warfare. This was in reference to Komarov’s involvement in the First World War, in which he reportedly rose to the rank of general and authorised his own battalion to shoot a spy while also taking part in a vote to execute a captured enemy soldier. When later detained himself, Vasili had the foresight to change his surname from the original Petrov to avoid being killed (he is referred to as ‘Petrov-Komarov’ throughout the Moscow Bureau chapter but only ‘Komarov’ in reports elsewhere).

This issue regarding Vasili’s name shows one of the ways in the Moscow Bureau ‘Sovietized’ the Komarov Case to align it with their attempt to shift focus away from ‘celebrity’ individuals and toward a study of the unnamed criminal masses. Referring to the subject as Komarov-Petrov and excluding his nicknames (formed using bestial epithets such as the ‘Wolf of Moscow’ or the ‘Human Wolf’) took away a degree of Vasili’s individuality and played down the more sensationalised aspects of the case. This was also achieved through a discrepancy in the number of murders, with the Moscow Bureau chapter revising the number down to 29 as opposed to the 33 cited elsewhere.

Alongside this, the virtual absence of his wife Sophia despite the focus in the Bureau’s wider writings on the increase of female crime, and that she was also sentenced to the death penalty as his accomplice, remains a curious omission which can only be explained in that her inclusion would suggest the existence of traditional, patriarchal structures and dispute the arguments expressed elsewhere. While their approach shows that the Moscow Bureau were adjusting their language in an attempt to speak ‘Bolshevik’ this clearly came into conflict with the details of the case. Unlike the seemingly irrefutable evidence pointing toward Komarov, unravelling some of these wider contradictions may bring us closer to understanding the role of criminologists and the study of crime and punishment in the early Soviet state.


Dr Mark Vincent

School of History, University of East Anglia  


Where the Heart Is: Tarkovsky’s Nostalghia and Russian Nostalgia after 1917.

Dr Peter Lowe explores the artistic expression of émigré and exile homesickness in the Soviet Union.


With the events of 1917 now having been commemorated a century later, it feels timely to focus once again on those who left before, during, or after the October Revolution: those who were caught out by the sudden switch of historical direction after the Tsar’s abdication, and those who fled the prospect or the reality of Bolshevik rule.

In all of these eventualities the shared truth is that the life of the émigré — even for those born into the condition after their parents’ original leave-taking — is never easy. Pushkin House’s own history attests to the desire for those living elsewhere to maintain the social and cultural ties so important to their identities. The Russian mind is always at least partially ‘elsewhere’, and for those who have left it, or known it only through inherited memories, that elsewhere is always Russia.

In the wake of 1917 those that passed on the opportunity to leave at once, thinking perhaps that other chances would follow, found themselves confined by the borders of the still-developing USSR. In the interests of survival, some accommodation was necessary for those living in a state very different from what they had known and, increasingly, very different from what the rhetoric of its revolutionary promise had suggested. To acquiesce was, for many, the best approach in public at least.

For those unable to overlook the shortcomings of the Soviet utopia, the state, like its Tsarist predecessor, proved adept at giving its critics a change of location within its borders, exiling them to remote regions either in labour camps or in villages far from the cultural and social milieu that had sustained them. The pavilion designed by Alexander Brodsky for Pushkin House’s 2017 exhibition ‘101st km: Further Everywhere’ brought to life tales not of travel away from Russia, but deeper within it — a displacement as real as exile but arguably all the worse for its domestic nature.

In a world where hundreds of thousands consider themselves displaced, exiled, or forced into the life of a refugee as a result of circumstances in their homeland, nostalgia for a time or a place has become a powerful solace for some and a tool for others. The recent appearance of family memoirs like Mark Mazower’s What You Did Not Tell, and Mary-Kay Wilmers’ The Eitingons reminds us that these narratives are now in the hands not so much of their original émigrés but of subsequent generations of the family. Telling the tale is part of the process of reclaiming a past believed to be ‘lost’ but recovered through memory. Such tales are also a useful alternative to state-sponsored appeals to a collective Russian ‘past’ that may be more manufactured than real — the recourse of a government looking to channel discontent or divert attention away from other elements of the present reality.  

In Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1983 film Nostalghia, the protagonist, a poet named Gorchakov, wanders through a lush Italian landscape, ostensibly researching the life of another Russian émigré, a late eighteenth-century composer who briefly lived there but returned home to a Russia that he missed too acutely. Accompanied by a translator, Eugenia, Gorchakov visits locations without, it seems, ever really engaging with them, and it is unclear what, if anything, he is gaining from the trip except a more intense understanding of his own isolation. Eugenia frequently challenges him, exasperated by his enigmatic silences and the sense of distance between them.

Drifting in and out of Gorchakov’s reverie, the film allows us a glimpse of his thoughts, and they frequently coalesce around a vision not of where he currently is, but of where he is not: a Russian dacha in which his wife, children, and dog are all present. Only in the film’s celebrated final shot do we see Gorchakov in this setting, and then it is an imagined return, a return in spirit, as the physical man has, in that moment, died of a heart attack in Italy after attempting (in response to a challenge set for him by the local mystic) to carry a lighted candle across the hot-spring baths of a Tuscan health spa.

Gorchakov’s state of reverie arises in large part because even as he travels he is never really out of Russia: the country is carried within him as a blend of images, sounds, and physical sensations and in his final moments the desire for return provides the transition from life into death. The film realises his return home by making location not a physical thing but a state of mind, a return achieved in the final flickers of his consciousness.

For Tarkovsky Nostalghia was a landmark project in other, more personal ways.  When Mosfilm withdrew its support from the project he completed the film in 1983 with funding from the Italian broadcaster RAI — support that looked well placed when the finished work was rapturously received that that year’s Cannes Film Festival. The longer-term impact was more personal, though, as the following year Tarkovsky announced, at a press conference in Milan, that he would not return to the USSR, shooting his final film The Sacrifice in Sweden, and eventually settling in Paris where he died in 1986.

The figure of the Russian émigré has a much longer pedigree than Tarkovsky’s 1980s actions, of course, and Russian history is filled with examples of figures who have, for varying reasons, found that life outside the country is preferable to that within it. Faced with bouts of state-level repression, writers and artists have been among the first to forge lives elsewhere, simultaneously despairing of the prospect of ever returning, and yet unwilling to fully concede that their country is lost to them. Their nostalgia is indeed the longing for a place they know to be effectively irrecoverable but which they cannot wholly abandon in their thoughts.

The need to retain a sense of ‘home’ in both physical and temporal terms, and to believe that it remains accessible, in thought if not in actuality, continues to underpin so much of the art and literature not only of Russia, but of all other states. Released thirty-five years ago this month, Tarkovsky’s Nostalghia remains a testament to a state of mind both Russian and universal: the need to feel that there is always a place called ‘home’.

peter lowe profile pic

Dr Peter Lowe teaches classes in English Literature at the Bader International Study Centre, East Sussex. His interests are in the culture and history of the early 20th century in Russia and in western Europe, and he is currently researching the nature and uses of 'nostalgia' in the early Soviet period.