Monday, October 21, 2013

Soviet City

(Or, alternatively: Back in the USSR)

Last night we got to see an amazing performance at the State Ballet by the Stars of the Russian Ballet.  I haven't seen men in tights since May or so, when we went to Don Quixote, which is clearly too long!  My only complaint is that the best pas de deux, in my opinion, was the second performance of the night, which made the rest of the very spectacular performances kind of a letdown.  I think I liked that one so much because it was just so different - not only was it set to Regina Spektor's "Après Moi," which made a nice contrast to the classical music that all the other performers danced to, but there was also such passion behind this dance, that it really just killed everything else for me.  I wanted to see more modern ballet like that!

Well, I wrote about the ballet already last year, but while last night's performance was the reason why I didn't sit down and blog yesterday, it also makes a good introduction to my topic for this week.  When reading about Ulaanbaatar you will not be able to escape the description of its ugliness, and how it has such a Soviet-era feel to it.  This is absolutely true, on both accounts.  UB is not going to win any beauty pageants for many a moon, but there is good reason for that.
If you look closely between the two ridgelines, you can see Zaisan Hill, where the above monument is now located.
Here's a photo of Ulaanbaatar from 1913 - a hundred years ago (you can see it and more like it in this post from Wall to Watch).  There's not a lot there, but that's what happens when you have a nomadic population.  You pull up tent stakes - or in Mongolia's case, ger posts - a few times a year, which means there's not much permanent development. 

That all changed when communism came to town.  Mongolia has a history with Russia, and while you might not jump off a bridge if your friend does it, when Russia jumped off the communism bridge, Mongolia decided they should, too (the looming presence of China might have had something to do with this).  And while communism might be long dead in Outer Mongolia, the friendship with Russia lives on, as does its communist legacy.

For starters, there was a Lenin statue downtown up until last fall.  I've heard that in Russia you'd be hard-pressed to find either Lenin or Stalin, but although this statue was removed and sold, there are still remnants of him scattered around.  A building on east Peace Avenue, less than a block away from my favorite Indian place has "BИ ЛЕНИН" spelled into its side in bricks.  And the monument whose picture started this post, the Zaisan Memorial, has him pictured next to Sukhbaatar.
You'll see sculpture in the city made in the Soviet style.  Even if you know nothing about art, you should be able to pick on the not-so-subtle nuances in this photo and the top one of Zaisan.  Not only do they show epic themes of the people and the military, but the squarish, stylizes figures absolutely scream communism.

While you can't read too much into t-shirts in Asia (my favorite being one I saw in Korea, "A call to all chunkily penised men to do her and do her well"), in Mongolia it's a pretty fair bet that they know what the hammer and sickle mean, even without CCCP printed underneath.  In case you didn't know, CCCP is USSR in Cyrillic, and until the recent past there was a Russian restaurant by that name in town.  I may be wrong, but I have a feeling not even the hippest hipsters back home would be caught ironically wearing a communist t-shirt.

And I haven't even gotten to the architecture yet.  As I said earlier, just about everything in UB has been built since the beginning of the communist era, under the influence of Soviet style.  Well, the Soviets were definitely more about function than form, which is unfortunate, but since everything up here on the hill has been built in the last 8 or so years, we don't have to look at it (since mostly what I see out my window is construction, I'd probably prefer the ugly communist apartment blocks, but what can you do?)  But there is at least one nice aspect of these buildings:
Mosaic murals adorning the walls.  Many buildings have these taking up one whole wall on the outside, and again you may notice the sharp-edged figures, but the scenes are so nationalistic, featuring the Mongolian people and scenes from the countryside that you have to love them.  And while its communist years might not have been Mongolia's finest hour, their relationship with Russia not only saved them from being absorbed by China, it continues to reap benefits such as gorgeous visiting cavaliers from the Russian ballet.  All countries should be so lucky.

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