In Moscow traffic with Walter Benjamin

Dragan Klaic in signandsight:

Always when in Moscow I think of Walter Benjamin and his “Moscow Diary”, a record of love, pain and misery in a shabby city. In the past weeks I had been reading his “Memories of a Berlin Childhood” and the evening before I had eaten in a cafe Dona Clara in Maloya Bronya, decorated with his 1920 Berlin photos. So I imagined how I would explain present-day Moscow to the ghost of Walter Benjamin, were he to come down and sit with me here in the back seat of the Mitsubishi 4×4.

What would Benjamin want to know and how would he analyse the latest twists of the post-communist transition? When Benjamin came to Russia in December 1926, pursing his erotic fascination for the Latvian poetess Asja Lacis, Russia had abandoned its New Economic Policy, a brief flirt with small-scale capitalism, and was sliding into the long, cruel night of cultural destruction and terror. Benjamin’s peregrinations through Moscow’s streets and courtyards mark the traces of an old city, soon to be erased to make place for the huge edifices of Stalinist architecture. The Berlin writer saw that the communist project was hopelessly stuck, just like the Mitsubishi in traffic.

Now, 82 years later, Russia is about to take leave of the Putin-era prosperity, shored up by high energy prices, and to slide, with the rest of the world, into the turmoil of protracted economic recession. Stability, prosperity and the 7% annual rise of the GNP has brought little progress to this distant Moscow periphery other than a few Western cars, some small-scale consumerism, patched up kiosks, countless construction sites and street repairs that only exacerbate traffic congestion.