I’ve done something that I really don’t do often enough, and sat down with no distractions, and written a short piece of prose from beginning to end. No grand, ambitious plans for a multi-storyline epic that fizzle out into nothing, just a brief, punchy little story.
I hope you enjoy it.
Shukhov’s Glass Ceiling
Comrade Sidorova stood on the Middle Line of the Moscow GUM, looking down to the Lower and observing what capitalism had brought upon his country.
Huge arches, maybe fifteen feet across each, contained the glass storefronts of shops owned by multinational corporations. The architecture was stunning – Pomerantsev’s genius had survived communism from beginning to end, which at one point he feared nothing in his beloved homeland would manage. But their use was a barbaric joke – he could see three arches in a row containing the name and products of an American jeans company.
Sidorova had never been able to follow the logic of jeans as a luxury product. He had worn them on occasion in his younger days – they were uncomfortable against the skin, and downright abusive when wet. It was the propaganda which swung it, he had decided – marketing, to use the capitalist term. Perhaps knowing that the product itself was not much use, units of the rough material were moved out of stores worldwide by using imagery of rugged American cowboys and trendy modern party-goers.
It hurt Sidorova’s pride to know that, for many young Russians today, their ideal of masculinity was not their fathers and grandfathers who had worked without complaint in the fields and the military, but an American posing in the Texas sun.
Sidorova looked upward. Shukhov’s glass ceiling was magnificent – even a century after its construction there were few like it anywhere in the world. It flooded the building below in so much light that Sidorova could almost believe a God must have created it. There was a train station in London whose roof was also built more of glass than metal. But even there the ratio of iron to glass weighed more heavily on the side of practicality. Saint Pancreas? Some body part, but he wasn’t sure which. Even the great Victorian engineers – perhaps the greatest engineering nation ever to have lived – could not match the innovative genius of Shukhov.
Beauty comes from that which is natural, Sidorova felt, and man should only interfere when it is a necessity. Centralised planning is the worst form of human interference.
This building had played it’s part in Sidorova’s awakening from his propaganda induced childhood stupor. As a young man, he had been assigned here, in the days when queues for the more practical items it stocked stretched across Red Square.
Although the desperation on the people’s faces were hideous, his superiors had drilled it into him that one day this magnificent, palatial shopping centre would serve it’s purpose, to help feed and clothe the people of the world’s rising superpower. The problem was that the party simply had not had enough time to get things working the way they should.
But the offices of the shopping centre silently debated this point. A few were still used, a faded image of the days when this was the central point of planning for Stalin’s first five-year plan. Many more laid empty, abandoned.
It was as he stood here, in this very spot so many years ago, that he was struck with an idea. Simply seeing the sheer amount of light that flooded in from the ceiling, while the ceiling held solid, was a revelation to him. A combination of nature and man – the warmth of the indoors, with every inch of the hallways flooded with natural sunlight. He saw the beauty of the natural world with eyes that he had never used before, and realised immediately that it must have been a genius who could build such a structure. A genius who built a thing of beauty before the Communist party rose to power.
It was a beauty that was misused by the party – he could see thugs in state uniforms pushing around the poor as they merely looked for enough food to keep their families alive.
Sidorova had thought of the entire building as a new form of propaganda, created not for the glorification of Stalin, but the glorification of the natural world, and the men who could tame it.
As he took the train journey back home, Sidorova appreciated the beauty of the fields, the skies, even the ramshackle huts, in a way he never had before. The thought had simply never occurred to him that Mother Russia could thrive without the party’s blessing, that his dissatisfactions were circles that could not be squared.
By the time he reached home, his mind was consumed with blasphemous ideas.
Sidorova did not consider himself a killjoy, he knew there were important things in life beside bread and water. But he also knew the profit margins on trousers, sports shoes, jewellery, and considered it a sick joke that so much of the price went to the propagandists. In Asia the clothing was crafted by workers who toiled for pennies.
Banner after banner on the Lower Line bore a single message – advertisements for a perfume company. Giant bottles were painted on the sheets, repeated over and over, lest consumers forget their implicit message – CONSUME! – in the seconds walking from one to the next.
Despite Sidorova’s melancholy, he knew that, beyond doubt, what he saw around him was better than what had gone before. He had no doubts over the side in the struggle he had chosen, and, were he required to do so, he would do the same again without a moment’s doubt. But he had dreamed – more than that, believed – that the fall of communism would see power given to the people. That they would no longer be manipulated into actions for the benefit of the powerful.
Thinking back over his life, Sidorova realised what it was he missed about communism – the struggle against it.
The secret meetings. The walks through the streets of Moscow on winter days when the poor starved and his breath seemed to freeze in the air… He was warmed by the knowledge that he and his colleagues were struggling together for the common good.
But now… Who was left who would struggle with him against the modern propaganda for over-priced trousers?