Matthew Parris

In St Petersburg I glimpsed the hope and decency of Soviet communism

In St Petersburg I glimpsed the hope and decency of Soviet communism

Text settings

It came upon me powerfully, momentarily and quite unexpectedly. Perhaps a couple of vodkas at a bar by the railway station in St Petersburg were to blame. But all at once I realised that if I were a 50-something Russian living in the former Soviet Union today, I would be a communist. It happened a few weeks ago. I was boarding the overnight train from the city formerly known as Leningrad, to Moscow. In a short, spine-tingling moment I understood something to which my mind had been closed all my adult political life: the thrill of the communist ideal.

My train was due to leave at five minutes to midnight. Around this time there is a tight cluster of departures from St Petersburg to Moscow. Along an almost ruler-straight railroad across flat marshes and forests, the journey of some 500 miles can be accomplished without hurry by overnight trains taking about eight hours — time to get a good night’s sleep — and the sleeper services on Russian railways are clean, comfortable and cheap. So a clutch of trains leave within a short time of one another and chase each other down the track, arriving in Moscow in time for breakfast.

Railwaymen the world over are conservative. Probably some of the last and most recalcitrant of the shattered communist bureaucracy of the Soviet Union are still in post across the network, working for the Russian railways as if glasnost and perestroika had never happened; and at the station in St Petersburg it showed. The Soviet architecture had been treated with respect. The decor remained pristine Marxist-Heroic. The undisciplined tide of cheap billboarding, commercial fly-posting and Tannoyed advertising messages which is engulfing the once ordered streetscapes of Russian cities as glum austerity yields to glum anarchy — Russia is becoming a sort of gloomy Brazil — seemed to have been held back at this station’s gates. An atmosphere of calm control reigned.

Many Russian towns and cities have changed their names since the collapse of the Soviet Union, and some of the new names have been in place for a decade, but my Russian-speaking companion pointed out that on the massive, fine old departures board, the stationmaster at St Petersburg had made only one concession to glasnost pc. All destinations retained their Soviet names. Only the point of departure was — no doubt reluctantly — allowed to be Leningrad no more, but St Petersburg. I think if I were a Russian I would still be pointedly calling the place Leningrad, in the way grumpy old conservatives in Britain used to refuse to accept the arrival of Avon, Humberside or countless Mandela Squares.

Grumpiness, however, is not the only prompt. I visited St Petersburg when it was Leningrad, 33 years ago, at the age of 21. Capitalism has not improved it. A vast amount of restoring, reconstructing and general tarting-up is going on — for tourists’ benefit no doubt, tourists bring dollars — but the city has lost some of the integrity which in 1971 it still kept. Tsar Peter the Great, whose vision and creation this city is, would not have been a neocon. Laissez-faire would have appalled him. The choking of St Petersburg’s wide, straight boulevards with automotive junk, the covering-over of 18th-century windows with advertising billboards and the cluttering of the pavements with barrows vending tourist tat would never have been allowed. This city was designed as a visible expression of enlightened central design. Every vista speaks of a plan. Every perspective whispers authority. Every cobble breathes control. I preferred Leningrad as it was in 1971: somewhat drab, a little grey, showing its age and fraying at the seams, but massive, calm, dignified, a great echo in stone of human intelligence and human authority, just as Peter intended.

At 23.45, ten minutes before my train was due to depart (and having established myself in my comfortable sleeping compartment), I decided to alight for a few minutes, walk the length of the train and inspect the locomotive. This, as it happened, was the moment for the departure of the night express running ahead of us, waiting over on the next platform. Each of its carriages had a uniformed attendant. Each attendant stood smartly at the door of his or her carriage, ready to close the doors once the last passengers had scuttled in. Departure was announced. Right across the station, from every loudspeaker, came a tremendous burst of swelling music — rich, orchestral, triumphal, horribly moving. On cue, every attendant boarded his respective carriage and shut the doors. As the music died, the train moved slowly off, gathering speed, bound for Moscow.

And I thought of that great departures board with all the day’s trains, against each journey the times of departure and arrival and the number of hours’ travel: some to places as far as Kiev and the Black Sea, Archangel and Murmansk, many taking 30, 40, 50 hours or more, part of a system spreading out in a huge yet simple network across the immensity of Europe, Central Asia and the East that is Russia and her satellites. For each departure a fanfare of stirring music, timed to the minute. Every passenger, every orderly, every samovar in place beneath the eyes of the statues and mosaics — images of commitment: brave soldiers, handsome women, proud peasants, enthusiastic workers — full of heroic intensity, faces beaming with idealism for the collective cause, brows chiselled by love of country and countrymen, all steeled by belief in a common creed: science, knowledge, doctrine, the greatest good of the greatest number and the advancement of all mankind. And I thought that there was something good about this; and that in its failure something has been lost.

Here is something I never expected to write. As the music swelled and died, I felt the force, I understood the nobility of socialism. I felt its claims to moral superiority over other more selfish, more pessimistic systems of economics and government. I saw the appeal of socialist theory to what is best, most virtuous and most optimistic in human nature. Yes I know — you do not need to tell me — that it wouldn’t work, and didn’t work. I spent my political youth arguing and working against collectivism, I would do it all again, I know the score. I know those brave soldiers were betrayed; I know the credulous peasants starved; I know the enthusiastic workers were exploited in stupidly run industries. I know that a corrupt elite traded on these beliefs to gather for itself the very privileges and luxuries which socialism had been meant to strip. I remember the last scene in Animal Farm. It’s just that, for a moment, I glimpsed what it had been meant to be, and felt uplifted by all the hope and intelligence in that vision, and by a feeling of shame at having all my life felt only derision, only anger, only fear in the face of the socialist prospectus.

The next musical fanfare was about to begin, and it was for my train. I boarded.

Matthew Parris is a political columnist of the Times.