Friday, June 04, 2010

Stalin's summer snowstorms

Some stories are too good - or bad - not to be retold. One of them is about Moscow's summer snowstorms that annually rage across the city at the beginning of June to the surprise and bewilderment of unsuspecting visitors. For Muscovites, they simply form a half a century old legacy of folly and megalomania.

As a guest to Russia's capital, waking up to to the sounds and sights of a bustling metropolis may also present a freak of nature in the form of an apparent summer snowstorm. For those not drawing the curtains again, going back to sleep as after a bad dream, curiousity drives the kind of questions that demand but do not await an answer. For most, though, they are simply met with a frown or a dejected shrud of the shoulders, possibly followed by a sighing sound exclaiming "pukh." If not mistaking this pooh sound for Russian rejection to an inquisitive foreigner, "pukh" is the first lead in a Moscow mystery waiting to be solved. Likewise, a subsequent "topol" should not be interpreted by prospective security specialists as some Russian trying to divulge secrets about the country's latest nuclear missile programme, coincidentally carrying that very same name. Instead, the true secret is - as many secrets are - common knowledge to any Muscovite.

So, "pukh" and "topol" - meaning tuft and poplar - are the first keys to a mystery waiting to be solved. Still, some visitors content themselves with learning that the white drifts amassing the streets of Moscow are simply poplar pollen that this time of the year terrorize the lives out of allergics and asthmatics. Looking at the mere mass of it, the question "why?" brings you back to an era when questions were dangerous and answers were deadly. It is the era of Stalinist folly and megalomania.

The year 1934 has come down in the historic annals for the Congress of the Victors, finalizing the success of the first five year plan. For 1,108 of the 1,996 delegates to this Communist Congress, it was to become the Congress of the Condemned. From this perspective, it is perhaps a historical irony that 1934 also serves as a constant reminder of how wrong things may come out when fulfilling the plan, and what punishment lies in wait for generations to come. So, what is the reason for this "Stalin's revenge" as an afflicted US ambassador once chose to call it?

Having in the 1930s razed Moscow of its pictoresque 19th century architecture to give way for his Empire style skyscrapers and stucco laden street buildings, Stalin was struck by the depressing sight of the urban stone desert he had set out to create. There simply had to be greenery to match the fearful façades with equally imposing trees to straddle soviet streets and avenues. Moreover, it had to be done fast, not merely fulfilling but over-fulfilling the plan. Whether dizzy with success or merely desperate, Stalin's city planners and gardeners made an unlucky choice, by settling for the poplar.

Surely, poplar is an imposing tree, reaching some 20 metres full-grown, giving ample shade during hot Moscow summer days, and - of crucial importance - grows faster than most trees accustomed to the dire Russian climate. For all reasons, it seems as a natural choice. That a quarter of Moscow trees would become poplars was not possibly perceived as any major problem. However, as a latter day potentate once put it: "We wanted the best, but it turned out as always."

In a freak turn of events, it so happened that the consequential mass tree plantation was exclusively of female poplars. So, each spring, as the poplars bloom, there are no male poplars to pollinate the abundant seeds of the females. The result is that the female poplars, let go of their seeds, as there are no males to fertilise them, producing clouds of white fluff floating through the air, in places creating ankle-deep drifts of pollen, and - with a gale - producing a virtual summer snowstorm. As usual, the soviet system could not let nature take its natural course, and now Muscovites have to pay the price for Stalin's megalomanic folly, presenting parades of poplar to the people.

If but one lesson is learnt from history, it is that victors often become the vanquished. Thus, turning from the victors of 1934 to those of 1945, a phrase from A.N. Vertinsky's triumphant song to Stalin comes to mind:

Slightly grey, as a silver poplar,
he stands to receive the parade.
What was not the price of Sevastopol,
not the price of Stalingrad!
And in those blind, cold nights,
when the front was swept by snowstorm.
These clear and penetrating eyes,
in the end looked through the enemy.

Perhaps, we - the people - should learn not to trust the vision of our leaders, whose sight may well be obscured by the vertigo of victory and absolute adoration. Perhaps, it is instead our task to penetrate the plans and programmes of populist power, or else have to suffer the summer snowstorms of natural condemnation. Perhaps, Moscow's Stalinist poplars could serve as a memento for us that politics of pure power may bring snowstorms in the summer and heatwaves in the winter.

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