voice of the city

Paris–Berlin–Riga. Travel Notes (1927)

Interior of the Wertheim department store, showing the bronze statue mentioned in the text.
Interior of the Wertheim department store, showing the bronze statue mentioned in the text.

“Here I go again...”

Visiting Berlin after Paris is like visiting Saratov after Saint Petersburg back in the good old days. Everything is pretty and dignified – and just as provincial. The street traffic that so many Berliners talk about is child’s play compared to what Paris has. The colored street lights, borrowed from Paris and gründlich perfected with the German earnestness, are a testament to Berlin’s high self-esteem, as well as its ample public funds. These expenses were not really necessary, mein lieber Herr; to control a queue of two automobiles it would be enough to employ one acrobatic Grüner

But what do I care. Admittedly, Friedrichstrasse is much lovelier with the hanging red, yellow and green lights dangling from above. 

Berlin smells already of Christmas. From the early morning onward, at the Wertheim department store, the Berliners are examining the beard of the Weihnachtsmann, converted from the bronze statue in the atrium built to symbolize the power of the German trade and industry. Above the statue, the traditional Christmas fantasy of mechanical puppets is spread. This time it is the pageant of various animals in the court room during the process of Reynard the Fox, which is presided over by the bright-eyed animal king, the Lion.

Berliners big and small are heard exclaiming: “Wunderbar!”

I don’t share their enthusiasm. I recall the majesty of the Christmas vitrines in Parisian department stores, and Wartheim’s carnival of colors pales in comparison.

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voice of the city

Leaving Shanghai for a wrong country (1933)

A life-long chain of ordeals awaits a woman, who spent her childhood and adolescence in Shanghai, only to be forcibly moved to the USSR, in 1933, on the insistence of her father, who opted out of going to the Palestine.

Я родилась в Екатеринославе 6 июля 1915 года. Бурные и опасные годы революции, смены приходивших к власти банд – всё это я знала по рассказам матери. Она часто вспоминала, как с приходом Махно была уверена, что всю нашу семью убьют, и вышла вперёд, закрыв собой детей. Она хотела быть первой... Многие евреи, не верившие, что революция принесёт им свободу и равноправие, уезжали в то время за границу. Вслед за близкими родственниками мои родители – отец Моисей Ефимович и мать Вера Исааковна – эмигрировали в Китай и сперва поселились в Харбине.

В пять лет родные определили меня в ивритскую школу. Проучившись там два года, я говорила только на древнееврейском языке. Родители не могли меня понять и решили перевести в русскую школу. Там я училась четыре года, хорошо усвоила русский. В 1927 году мы переехали в Шанхай, где я начала заниматься в частной американской школе. Там изучали стенографию, машинопись и много внимания уделялось английскому языку. После окончания школы я стала работать в английском журнале "Обозреватель". Мои родители были артистами Еврейского театра. Жили не роскошно, но вполне прилично. Шанхай был в то время изумительным городом: туда приезжали люди со всего мира, приходили суда под разными флагами. В Китае процветали английские и французские концессии.

Но беда уже подкрадывалась к нашей семье... В Шанхае открылось советское посольство. К тому времени многие эмигранты болели ностальгией. "Тоска по родине" заставляла их прислушаться к активной агитации за возвращение домой, в Советский Союз. Другие евреи "болели" Палестиной. Ещё в детстве я видела фрукты из этой сказочной страны – огромные апельсины, вкусные "рожки". Меня очень интересовала эта страна. Я мечтала поехать туда, но отец и слышать не хотел об этом. Без нашего ведома он оформлял документы в советском посольстве и был очень счастлив, когда получил их на руки. Ведь недаром говорится, что кого судьба захочет погубить, у того отнимает разум. Я очень рассердилась на отца. Возмущалась, доказывала, что нам ехать туда не надо, что я хочу в Палестину, что в России мы никому не нужны.

Уже несколько лет к нам просачивались тревожные вести оттуда. Русская газета, выходившая в Шанхае, писала о голоде, тяжёлых условиях, в которых живут советские люди. Печатались снимки Троцкого, Рыкова с соответствующими комментариями. Нам было непонятно, как это вдруг заслуженные революционеры оказались врагами и высылаются из страны. Видно, что-то там происходит неладное, и было страшно. Но отец ничему не хотел верить и упрямо стоял на своём. Я кричала, плакала, долго не разговаривала с отцом. Ничего не помогло.

Был пасмурный, хмурый день, когда мы прибыли во Владивосток. Низко висели над землёй полные воды тучи. Дул резкий ветер. Моя нарядная, "нездешняя" одежда вызывала угрюмые, недоброжелательные взгляды окружающих. Иногда слышались насмешки. Я подошла к краю причала, там ещё стоял наш пароход. Мне хотелось крикнуть: "Заберите меня отсюда, я хочу обратно, в Шанхай!" Но было уже поздно. Мне всё не нравилось – ни город, ни люди. Возврата не было. Неделю мы пробыли во Владивостоке. Всё время шло оформление каких-то документов, меня ничто не интересовало. Затем нас посадили на московский поезд. По дороге попутчик, военный, рассказал нам об убийстве Кирова, на которого он якобы похож, и о том, какой это был чудесный человек. Мы не знали, кто это Киров, за что его убили, нам всё было непонятно: мы были чужие в чужом мире.

В Москве я пыталась поступить в Институт иностранных языков, но, как только заполнила анкету, мне тут же отказали: я была из Китая, чужая. Кончились деньги, которые папа мне дал, я начала продавать оставшиеся у меня вещи. Помню, я сдала в комиссионный магазин новые китайские и японские халаты. Один был особенно красивый, на спине был вышит круг и в нём чудесные алые розы. У меня его тут же конфисковали под предлогом, что на халате изображена свастика. Я продала почти всё, что у меня было, но работу найти не могла. А тут получила от мамы печальное известие: за два дня до свадьбы арестовали мою сестру. Это было в сентябре 1937 года, а в ноябре арестовали папу. Я немедленно выехала в Днепропетровск.

Не в силах сдержать слёзы, мама рассказала мне, что накануне ареста, уже предчувствуя неминуемую беду, отец без конца твердил: "О, я дурак, какой же я дурак... Эстер была права, дочка была права... Надо было ехать в Палестину..." Мама мне рассказала, как это произошло. Они сидели с папой на улице у дома на скамейке. К ним подошёл незнакомый человек и пригласил папу "тут недалеко, для разговора". Мама сразу поняла, в чём дело, вошла в дом и наскоро собрала папе узелок с вещами. Родные попрощались друг с другом, больше им не суждено было встретиться в этом мире... По ночам я не спала, чутко прислушивалась к тому, что происходит на улице. Каждую ночь у домов останавливались чёрные машины, бесшумные тени скользили в подъезды – ангелы смерти..."

Source: Вайнцвайг-Скирто Э. Голубоглазая девочка, где ты? – Тель-Авив: Б. и., 1988. – 62 с.; quoted in В. В. Левитский, Опричнина, царевы слуги и холопы (2014).
voice of the city

More Alexander Rodchenko’s impressions of Paris (1925)

The first entry is here.


Image: MOMA

On fashion

Things are cheap here because the materials are poor. They like to buy cheaply, wear it while it's trendy, and then buy whatever new style becomes fashionable. If you want quality you have to buy German and American products, because their principle is different.

There's a cult of women as a commodity. A cult of women similar to that of smelly rotten cheese and oysters: these days, ugly women are in vogue – drab women with long and skinny thighs, breastless and toothless, with unsightly long arms, blotchy, Picasso-style, African-style, hospital-style, vagabond-style...

The French women use very little makeup – some don't wear any – and dress modestly; it is the Russians who overdo "the French look".

I had to buy a hat and start wearing the goddamned thing, because you cannot wear a cap here – not a single Frenchman wears those, so they look at me with disdain, as if I am a German.

I became very western: I shave every day and shower all the time.

I wait for summer heat with trepidation. What do they wear in summer? Not the button-down collars again? I have 12 collars now and two ties. You cannot live without it here. Still, I feel I look different, and here it is important to be like everybody else.

I started to proletarianize my costume and bought two sweaters – like the workers wear here – one blue and one brown. Now I even want to buy corduroy pants and a blue shirt.

On East and West

I expected to see Russian generals and officers in full regalia pacing in the streets, but the officers are now taxi drivers, and who knows where the generals are.

From here you see how healthy and simple the East is. The West copies the East in everything, stealing its dance, costume, colors, posture, lifestyle – but they do it so wickedly that what comes out is very far from the Orient.

I look at these flimsy, strange, fake houses as if from a bad movie. These flocks of cars on smooth roads, these tight dresses on women, these hats and these ubiquitous bidets. How I'd love to fly to Moscow on an airplane! How can these idiots not understand that East is better than West? How can they resist the urge to run from this noisy, papier-mache Paris? Why did I have to see the West at all? I loved it so much more before. If you remove its technology, all that remains is a stinky pile... I so dislike and distrust everything here that I can't even hate it.

Overall, Paris seen from Moscow is one thing, and Paris in Paris is something completely different.

Paris is like an old painter with gold teeth and a peg leg. I wasn't a lover of Paris – but I respected it. But the death of Europe? No, it won't die.

The art in the East must be nationalized and rationed. This way things will become meaningful friends of the humans, and the human will learn to laugh and talk with things. Things should not be the disgruntled old slaves, like they are here, toiling away and dreaming of revenge. Mayakovsky was right: books will explode and their pages will fly in every direction, smashing the rotten brains of their writers. The buildings will explode because of all this incessant f*kin and rinsing genitals in the bidets; the king-size beds will stand upright, throwing off limp, syphilitic bodies... Forgive me, I got too far into philosophy.

There are millions of things here; they make my head spin; I want to buy trainloads of them and bring them home. They produce so many things, that everyone looks poor from the inability to buy them all. If you live here you'll have to either be against it all, or start stealing. I now understand the capitalist who cannot get enough: things are the opium of life.


On art

The exhibition [International Exhibition of Modern Decorative and Industrial Arts; Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes, 1925] will probably be awful. They've built so many hideous pavilions, ugly even from afar. But our pavilion is simply genius. Overall, Paris is very provincial in terms of architecture. Only the bridges, elevators and escalators are good.

There is a new fad in Paris: they are putting geometric prints on the textiles, so it's not all that stuff that they copy in Moscow. The rooms too have geometric patterned wallpaper – so tell them at your factory, or they will forever be behind.

I visited the Salon des Indépendants – all trifle and no talent. The French have, indeed, lost their mojo. Thousands of canvases, all provincial bullshit. Except for Picasso, Braque and Léger, it's empty, huff and puff and no subject.

Our painters are not respected abroad, except for those who had been living in the west for a long time and already adapted to their tastes. The West will just rip off all the good ideas and rejuvenate itself. I've regretted a million times that I lent my objects to this exhibition. We're simply cornered.

After talking with Léger, I got proud of myself. I am an artist. What he's doing I already stopped doing. If I'd lived in Paris I'd have a bigger fame than his. But I wouldn't want to live here. We, the Muscovites, are no worse. Léger is working and working, but his life is worse than mine; doesn't have many works to show; everything is sold.

Now I understand that we don't have to imitate anyone; we should just do everything our way.




A. Rodchenko, Letters From Paris (in Russian), 1927.
voice of the city

Fake preservation alert: Wanzhu Street mansion




Like "Fake News" – the global danger that the audiences have been learning to recognize and resist – the city of Shanghai is a bottomless source of "Fake Preservation" cases. Fake preservation is just a commercial redevelopment method, in which one historic building is retained while the surroundings are demolished. The selected building then gets renovated or built anew from new materials, sometimes at a different location, and the result is celebrated in the Shanghai press as "historic preservation."

Recently, there's been an avalanche of visuals showcasing the "restoration" of a heritage shikumen residence, located at 41 Wanzhu Street 万竹街41号 in the old town. It was once known as 润泽堂, owned by Zhao Zhulin, of Ruikang Paint Co. The provenance or exact address hardly make sense now: all the buildings in the area have been demolished and the street grid has been redrawn, to create a new Luxiangyuan Garden estate.)

The mansion replication process is shown here: http://www.archina.com/index.php?g=press&m=index&a=works&id=4101

And some drone flyovers are here: https://www.vjshi.com/watch/5470951.html and https://www.vjshi.com/watch/5470944.html

So the "restored" building has lost its context and coherence – but at least it seems to retains its shape and position... But is it the same building? Unfortunately, not. As evidenced by the aerials, by the end of 2013 the site was wiped clean, and not a brick was left of the old No. 41 Wanzhu Street or its annex at 131 Qinglian Street 青莲街131号.

[See the aerials from 2004–2020]
2004 – the neighborhood still in place:


2008 – the neighborhood destroyed, the mansion stays:


2013: "Here, boss – nice and straight!" Nothing remains; new buildings are rising:


"What did you do to the building? Put it back! Lost the annex? To hell with it!" 2020 – the mansion plugged into the block of new terraced buildings imitating Shanghai-style lane houses:



This mechanistic approach is bordering on macabre. Torturing the building to death only to dissect the corpse and painstakingly remake it. But if someone loves these lines, these shapes and these patterns so much, couldn't they love them... a little bit earlier? When the patient was still alive, maybe?



Digital rendering or real photograph? Does it matter?
5df2a66208c40.jpg

Back in 2010:
voice of the city

Alexander Rodchenko’s impressions of Paris (1925)



Women cut their hair short – like you – and wear brown coats, mostly, fitted in the back and rather short; also – short skirts, almost up the knees, dark stockings and shoes. They are rather girly. Men dress differently, but not like I used to.
The car traffic is so intense that you have to wait on the sidewalk, mustering your courage, then run to the middle of the street, wait again, and finally run to the other side. My companion has to chase me. It turns out, I am quite good at this navigation, although he’s the one who had been abroad before. I crack jokes at him.
Buses are huge and run in large numbers, ten at a time; I call them rhinoceros. There are virtually no horses. A taxi ride from, say, the Head Post Office to Prechistenka costs 65 franks, which is 40–50 kopeks. There are many Russian drivers.
The fashions are really interesting. The advertising is, however, very bad. Some billboards have good ideas, but poorly executed. In the evening, everything is flooded with lights.


A. Rodchenko, Letters From Paris (in Russian), 1927.

Also curious: https://typejournal.ru/en/articles/Alexander-Lavrentiev-Interview

Image: Rodchenko by the en­trance of the So­viet pa­vil­ion, de­signed by ar­chi­tect K. S. Mel­nikov, in Paris, 1925.
voice of the city

Corruption flourishes when there’s disregard for human rights

“Over the past 30 years, how many tales have we been told about the miracles of authoritarian modernization? How many times have “experienced diplomats” waving realpolitik banners whispered in our ears, ‘Don't pressure this dictator about human rights, you will scare him away. He is ready for economic reforms, and that’s more important, you have to understand’? How many times have investment bankers winked at us from the pages of business newspapers, saying, ‘So what if there are some tortures here and there, what matters is that the economy is growing by 7% a year’?”

“A whole religion arose, which can be called the Witnesses of the Singapore Miracle. Many people from Washington to Frankfurt and London piously believed in it and continue to do so. Rwanda, Kazakhstan, Russia, Belarus and Chile were the prophets of this religion. They repeated like a mantra: “Don’t pester us with human rights issues, just fill the country with investments and we will surely turn into a second Singapore.”


“To steal something from a person, you must first deprive them of the right to a fair trial, freedom of speech and fair elections.”

https://eu.usatoday.com/story/opinion/voices/2021/10/05/alexey-navalny-russia-dissident-message-from-prison-human-rights/5947950001/
voice of the city

Message from Hong Kong to Harbin (1921)



Postcard addressed to Miss Elizaveta Lebedeva, Harbin. Sent from Hong Kong, via Shanghai, to Harbin, and received on October 3, 1921.

Sending our regards! Dear Lizaveta Nikolaevna, Olga Ivanovna and little Kira – on September 20 we arived in Hongkong, and soon we'll continue our journey. Goodbye, my darlings; I am very sad I didn't have a chance to see you. Anna and Ludwig.

Source: auction.ru