story | Avery Simmons, Guest Writer
photo | Avery Simmons
Where I grew up, Communism was a dirty word.
For the first 18 years of my life, I lived in a conservative white American suburb. There, the best way to insult a political figure was to call him or her a Communist: even before I knew what it meant, the word dripped with implications of sinister intent and foolish idealism.
But this past summer, Melody Tay ’19 and I had the opportunity to travel in Russia, Mongolia, and China for seven weeks. Our project focused on stories: we wanted to learn how hearing stories about a place changed our initial perceptions.
Melody and I agreed we wanted to keep an open mind when asking for stories about life in the former Soviet Union. Even so, I didn’t anticipate how the combination of hearing stories and inhabiting historical places would change the way I viewed communism. The change was slow, just like our train journey across Russia.
First, we went to Catherine Palace in St. Petersburg, built by the Romanov family for Peter the Great’s wife. Even before we got inside, I was struck by the palace’s absurd opulence. The exterior of the palace was painted an unnatural blue and a thousand windows glittered, adorned with gold embellishments. We stared at the palace’s imposing decadence while we queued for two hours as if waiting for an audience with the Czar. When we were finally allowed in, room after room sparkled with gold and amber and paintings of the royal family.
“I can see why there was a revolution,” I said quietly to Melody as we entered the ballroom. Even though the room was beautiful, all I could think of was how the Czar and his family danced and drank while their people starved.
The picture of obscene wealth stayed with me as we travelled east to Moscow, Yekaterinburg, and Krasnoyarsk. After spending 28 hours sitting on a train, Melody and I decided to spend the day hiking in Stolbi National Park, outside Krasnoyarsk. There we met Victor, an older man who has lived in Krasnoyarsk his whole life. After helping us survive a dangerous climb, he gave us a tour around the park.
Victor led us through a meadow of purple and yellow wildflowers before stopping at a rocky overhang with a plaque in Russian. All I could read from it was the inscription of the years “1905–1906”. “Revolutionaries came here to plan, away from the police,” said Victor. “This used to be a house, with a wooden front.” I stepped underneath the rock and noticed the soot-blackened ceiling—a definite sign of former habitation. I imagined the house, deep in the woods, filled with earnest men and women taking refuge from the Czar’s police. Together they would huddle by the fire in quiet camaraderie, exhausted after having hiked seven kilometers to reach their meeting place. I touched the sooty stone wall. The revolutionaries were up against the splendor of Catherine Palace, and still they fought.
“Nearby is a place we call Dasha’s Road,” said Victor. “Once, there was a female revolutionary, a Communist named Dasha. And one day she was running from the Czar’s police and took this road that had a step—” he gestured with his hands to indicate a small ledge “—and then a cliff. The police were running after her and she jumped off the road down onto the small step. And the police went—“ he whistled and indicated soaring off the edge with his hands. “So now we call this Dasha’s Road.”
As we proceeded down the mountain, I thought about the stories Victor told about the revolutionaries. That, early in 1905, people wouldn’t have known how the Bolshevik Revolution would unfold. They didn’t know about Stalin or how he’d insert himself into communist ideology. All they knew was that the world was full of deep injustice, a world where some glittered with gems in Catherine Palace while others starved. I found myself admiring the revolutionaries for the audacity to imagine a very different world, a world of equality across class and gender, a world without tyrants and warlords. I wouldn’t have had the courage.
At the exit of Stolbi Park in Krasnoyarsk, hidden in the trees and half-covered by foliage was a Soviet-style statue of a man and a woman. It stood about four meters tall. There was no sign to explain its meaning, but I guessed it commemorated the revolutionaries who met in the Stolbi forest over a hundred years ago. The statue seemed neglected and lonely. I wondered what Dasha would have thought of the past hundred years of history.
Throughout my travels in Russia and China, I saw hundreds of Communist-era posters describing the glorious aspirations of the revolution. But after Krasnoyarsk, I looked at them with more empathy. If you had lived in Qing Dynasty China, or had experienced suffering at the hands of the Japanese in World War II, wouldn’t you want a revolution that would change everything? One that would wipe the slate clean and create a better world?
Growing up, I saw Communist revolutionaries as the villains of history. I was wrong. Now I think of the revolutionaries with mixed admiration and sadness. They strove for a better world. Yet over the years, their dreams were twisted by men who saw the chance to seize power for themselves.
Next year, I may return to the United States, but I’ll be bringing my realization with me. I only hope I have the words to convey my message. For, thanks to Victor’s stories, the otherwise ordinary forest outside Krasnoyarsk will, in my eyes, forever be full of revolutionaries, their lanterns the only specks of light in the deep woods.
What’s this got to do with communism?