Social Enterprise in Russia – Week 3 - Moscow & Aleksin

If you want to read from the start of my July in Russia experiences please start from Social Enterprise in Russia – Week 1 - Moscow, Schekino and Kaluga

My last weekend in Moscow (until October) turned out beautifully: still hot and sunny, but a gentle fresh breeze took the temperature down a little – to the high twenties rather than the mid thirties – and cleared the air.

The weekend highlight was the modern Tretyakov gallery – I finally understood socialist realism as something more than what I think Adorno called 'boy meets tractor' art. Right next to what is I guess the most famous architectural model in the world – Tatlin's Monument to the Third International – was the gallery shop: a few books and cards half-displayed behind counter and glass. This is Russia's equivalent to the Tate gallery – where I'm sure there would be half the floor devoted to sales. Later in the Oxfam office Sergey told me that the government (the Tretyakov is a state gallery) had been advised by top gallery consultants from the west on just such social enterprise, but they couldn't get a big sales floor past the middle level bureaucrats. I left the Tetyakov with 2 10-rouble postcards and wondered outside through the labyrinth of street artists painting portraits and selling picturesque landscapes, and thought about the commodification of art. Maybe the beaurocrats got it right after all...

Our last journey was to Aleksin. Southwest out of Moscow the countryside gradually becomes more like Britain – no hedges or stone walls, but bigger fields on rolling hills, sometimes even separated by lines of trees that if you're feeling a little homesick might just be mistaken for hedges.

Victor saved the best of his mini-guide to Russian food and drink to the last: in Aleksin we stayed in a log cabin and cooked 'shashlyk' over an open fire. Victor's friend Sasha brought his 12-string guitar and played 'chanson' – a French name for a uniquely Russian style, music shot through with minor chords and words of loss, remembered home and family, doomed love. All westerners here must at some time think about what Anna calls – with some irony – 'the mysterious Russian soul'. The sentimentality and nostalgia of these songs is clearly part of the Russian experience – natural enough perhaps for people who have suffered such huge dislocations over many generations. Sasha handed me the guitar and, although not used to a 12-string I managed to play a couple of western pop songs in major keys. Only afterwards did it occur to me that they were about individuals remaining strong in the face of minor difficulties like the end of a 'so-so' love affair. Sasha – who has lived in the frozen north, served in the soviet navy, been sent to prison and is now a lawyer – might, had he understood the words, have thought 'so what?'

The next day in Aleksin we met 2 more projects centred on children: a school social enterprise at Comprehensive School No.11, and a chldren's television production company (all jobs done by and for the children). At the back of School No.11 they have preserved a bullet and shell marked wall as a memorial of the Second World War – what the Russians call The Great Patriotic War. The German army reached the river at Aleksin and either deliberately or accidentally shelled the school. When asked recently to photograph the most important places in their town the schoolchildren came here first. I grew up in a time when the shadow of the Second World War loomed large in Britain, but I find it hard to conceive, let alone communicate its significance for Russians. We sometimes complain about the American film industry's portrayal of the War as won by the Americans, but we hardly think about the Russians. Looked at from here, however, it seems very much like a War between Russia and Germany, with a few skirmishes involving other nations around the edges. One in three of all the people killed in the Second World War was a Russian. In the battle of Kursk the Germans lost more tanks than in the whole of the rest of the War put together.

St.Basils CathedralSt.Basils Cathedral

I was never moved, or much interested, in the big military parades in Red Square, but that of 1941 certainly was dramatic – the Red Army went straight from Red Square to the front, which at the time was only a few miles away on the outskirts of Moscow. They held the line, and then slowly pushed it back all the 1000 miles to Berlin. Russians can indeed be over indulgent to the point of tastelessness – just look at the confection of St.Basil's Cathedral on Red Square – but they do understatement pretty well too. The tomb of the unknown warrior in the Alexander Gardens under the Kremlin wall is a simple flat stone slab draped with a bronze flag, at the end of a long row of sombre stones each carved just with the name of a city that was attacked but did not fall to the German Army.

So the Aleksin schoolchildren each May still lay flowers by an ordinary brick wall, pock-marked by bullets and shells over 60 years ago.