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Stalin's Garden

Editor's Note: Editor's Note: Julie Sanfaçon planned, funded and carried on two international study projects in Scotland and Russia. She is currently spending six months in Australia, taking part in a Youth Employment Strategy internship at the Vision Australia Foundation, in Melbourne.

I had been in Moscow from September, 2001 to March 2002, but I had to fly back to Canada because of serious health problems. After having made many trips to a Quebec hospital and having passed many medical tests, I was declared fit enough to fly back to Moscow, where I was studying the Russian language.

The last months I spent in Russia were immensely interesting and were, honestly, a shock. I met my match during that time, a city I would learn to love and to understand: Moscow.

My activities quickly resumed when once again, I made the long journey across the Atlantic. I did not feel nervous when I reached Moscow because this time I knew what was waiting for me. My little room, my other computer and my Russian books had also been faithfully waiting for my return. I crept along the dark corridor in my residence hall, most of the neon lights having died out, and put my key in the lock. Welcome back, weary traveler .

Moscow is still a beast I need to understand. It is too easy to perceive it as just another stinky city plagued by a chronic shortage of toilet paper.

This needs a bit more effort. However, it is tough to cope with life in Moscow and with such elements as the reek of vodka in the metro and in university lifts, the sight and smell of garbage lying around the forest and the constant presence of green-clad soldiers or policemen armed with automatic weapons. It all seems odd and normal at the same time. I still wake up wondering where I am and shudder and then laugh when I realize that I am in Moscow.

In September, when I landed in Moscow, I could hardly speak Russian and decipher the information written on road signs and on street maps. I did not dare wander too far for fear of getting lost. This time, I have already sustained the initial shock of stepping into another time zone and of digging a small space for myself in an environment that is sometimes hostile. I quickly started to explore my surroundings. Two days after my arrival I hopped on a suburban train and visited Sergeiv Passat, a town near Moscow. I will be planning one more little trip before I go back to Canada.

Lately, I put some questions to a very good friend of mine whose help offers me a unique perspective on Moscow and on Russia. Since last January, we have had long talks in Russian and in French about life in Russia and sometimes about life in Quebec. I usually ask questions and she answers after having conducted enquiries with family and friends. She makes considerable efforts to explain her views on typical Russians, Russian national traits and the current state of affairs.

We had two of these conversations lately. The second one was held in a tiny park where children zoomed past us on their shiny bicycles and tricycles.

She wanted to explain how Russians once perceived socialism but got mixed up and was frustrated about not being able to express herself fluently. She asked me to find precise questions on this topic. I asked her about the goals and motivations of socialism and if Russians consider that it succeeded at some point. I kept my mind open while asking questions and tried to put myself in Russian shoes instead of using North American rhetoric about the absurdness of mass socialism. It was hard to do because propaganda on this particular issue has been huge, especially in our times.

My friend thinks that socialism was made by Russians for Russians and that it corresponds perfectly to their national traits: putting collectivism before individualism, accepting self-sacrifice for the good of all, dying for a noble cause and exchanging goods and services instead of using money to meet everyday needs. Such a system could never have originated in America because it does not correspond to American national traits, she says. She believes that this system had, like any other system, good and bad elements but that it was perfect for Russians.

I did ask what she thought about the atrocities committed in the name of socialism when men like Stalin seized power. I knew I was stepping onto unstable ground but these issues have to be explored. She said that North Americans have no idea about what Russia really is and that our views on Stalin are limited to evil only. Stalin was good to the country but, according to her, I did not know about it. I said that Stalin devised the first comprehensive urban plan for Russia, ordered the creation of the Moscow metro, which is one of the wonders of the city, and, by 1939, turned Russia into the third most advanced industrial power in the world. She said that I knew about it because she told me. I answered that I knew about it because I read about it.

I imagined a country where every man, woman and child was told that each and every one of their actions was directed towards creating a better world for future generations and that, with time and hard work, they would build socialism, an ideal that would spread throughout the world. I imagined a society where sacrificing oneself for a cause and living through hardships to enable future generations to enjoy happiness were the only driving force of one's life. I imagined a world where collectivism was the single most important thing and tried to understand how some elements could be removed for the good of the nation. I told my friend about the ancient Inuit custom of leaving the old and the sick behind when these persons could impede the well-being of the tribe. I also told her about old nomads waiting for death to take them, knowing that if they stayed with their tribe, they would slow it down during migrations and put its survival in peril. These customs were part of the natural circle of life and were practiced and accepted by all, including the old and the sick. For the good of all, these persons could be killed or abandoned. My friend said that I understood. She depicted the image of healthy vegetables and weeds growing in the same garden. The weeds have to be pulled out to prevent the garden from dying out. For the good of all, Stalin was removing elements that could impede the march of socialism.

Stalin was Russia's gardener.

Here I am, walking in Stalin's garden. The old and sometimes the young brandish red flags, photographs of Trotsky, Lenin and, yes, Stalin. I am walking near a group of foreign students holding a banner and protesting against racism and fascism. Somehow, I feel that they are in the wrong protest march since everyone else is shouting "Red Moscow!" at the top of their lungs. I observe, take photos and smile at all these people crying out "Revolution!" and wearing Nike shoes. Before I head home, I trot towards my favorite toilet, the McDonalds restaurant near Pushkin Square. The place is absolutely packed. I do not think that any significant revolution will take place during May Day 2002.

Here I am, in Stalin's healthy cabbage patch. My friend and I are riding bicycles on a dust path and staring at dilapidated dachas. Suddenly, a policeman armed with an automatic weapon orders us to pull over, so we do. I realize that, as always, I have been wise enough to take my Canadian passport with me. I suddenly realize that I have not been wise at all: I used my passport as a wallet. Since I did not bring my wallet along I slipped a one hundred ruble banknote inside my passport so I would not lose it while taking objects out of my bag. A banknote can easily fall out of a bag and be lost, I thought, so here is my banknote, pressed inside my passport. I now have to hand in a passport with money in it to a Russian policeman. How awkward. I grab my passport, pull the banknote out and stuff it in my bag.

Of course, the policeman sees the banknote. I hand in my passport and he stares at it with a disdainful look. His eyes glide from my face to my hands and halts on my bag. "I don't need your documents", he says, and then whispers to my friend, "You know I would rather have the money". My friend reacts appropriately by saying that we are two ladies riding bicycles, like dozens of people like to do on a sunny day, and that everything is in order. He realizes that we are not scared of his authority and of his automatic weapon. He tries another trick and makes an attempt at planting a kiss on my friend's cheek. She gently pushes him away and climbs on her bicycle. We leave the reaper behind without his harvest.

Moscow is a city that could and does take a lifetime to understand. For foreigners, it contains mysteries alone. For people who take the time and trouble to get to know it, it is a city whose culture and people are truly rewarding. This is why I want to go back there and to continue my amazing journey.

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