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The Russian Manchester: How Ivanovo Is Finding Its Way in Post-Soviet Russia

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People of Manchester, rejoice! No longer is Venice the only enviable comparison for a city – Manchester is, too.

In case you didn’t know, there are several “Manchesters” already existing. The historic English town was minutely described by Friedrich Engels, who had had the pleasure of studying the place while sharing a desk at the Cheetham School with Karl Marx. The rise in popularity of Marx and Engels’ works, as well as of the working class movement, led to many other European towns trying on Mancunian clothes for size. Usually being industrial, especially having cotton mills, and boasting a high percentage of working class people meant that a town might be described as another Manchester. Such were Lodz in Poland, Lille in France, Chemnitz in Germany, and Tampere in Finland.

In Russia, it was Ivanovo, or Ivanovo-Voznesensk, as it was called between 1871 and 1932. The town in the Volga region, not far from the millennium-old Yaroslavl, acquired a host of nicknames, affectionate and not, that would put many a city to shame. “The red Manchester”, “the Russian Manchester”, “the city of brides”, “the third proletarian capital”, “the city of red weavers”, “the textile capital”, as well as a few pejoratives, is just a selection of those descriptors that nonetheless gives a fine idea as to what “manchesterisation” means: red (reminding of brick, Revolution and Socialism), industrial and textile, and capital-worthy, although provincial.

At the dawn of the Soviet era, during the first Russian revolutions, Ivanovo was building on its historic experience of producing political advisors. It was from here that the Prince Pozharsky went to Moscow during the Mutiny Time in the first half of the 17th century when the Poles had quite literally seized power over Russia. It was here, as well, that the first Sovet (the Russian for “counsel” and “council”) had been formed in the beginning of the 20th century. Ivanovo’s reputation as a Sovet-ski town was sealed, but little used.

This monument commemorating the revolutionary ladies of Ivanovo greets you upon arrival to the railway stationIn Soviet times it came to be known as a city of brides, thanks to a film song. Intended as a gentle joke, that also pointed a finger at the real state of things: the number of cotton mills and calico factories was as high as the previous number of churches, and it was mostly women who worked there. At-home dads were a reality in Ivanovo before the same fate befell Western men. During the Revolution years, Ivanovo ladies had led the crowds; in Soviet times, they led the textile production. In both cases monuments to heroines were erected, although the statue to the Hero of Labour Valentina Golubeva was eventually removed because of the notoriety produced by Nikolai Obukhovich’s film, Our Mother Is a Hero (1979).

Following the demise of the USSR, Ivanovo, like nearly all Russian cities and towns, declined under economic stress and the overwhelming crisis of expectations. Much as the economy may have improved, the overwhelm remains. As with Manchester, the 19th century had been the springboard for Ivanovo’s economic growth, and throughout most of the 20th century its status as a proletarian capital was a comfortable cultural cushion. Unfortunately, unlike Manchester, Ivanovo failed to produce any zany music style or otherwise establish itself firmly as a fashionable threat to either Moscow or St. Petersburg. The famous Textile Academy is an alma mater for many designers, but most of them are determined to work in one of the two “real” capitals. The noughties turned out to be the time of having to come to terms with whatever was lost and of trying to find, exactly what to do next.

A house in the so-called workers' district. Some of the houses are over 80 years oldSome of these questions were raised recently at a conference dedicated to the town’s 140th anniversary. There is a funny ambiguity here: it is Ivanovo-Voznesensk, not Ivanovo, that is turning 140. Ivanovo itself is over 400 years old, but nobody appears to either celebrate this date, or to want to rename the city. The tendency towards nostalgia has been revealed, though. For historians, philosophers, geographers, and philologists this is not so much nostalgia for Stalin’s iron arm, but for the sense of security, including that of Ivanovo’s historical heritage. Over the past quarter of a century a lot of historic buildings and sights either vanished, were majorly remade, or entered a state of severe decline.

For someone who lived in the English Manchester, like I did for seven years, the story of Ivanovo is neither surprising nor unique. In fact, there are areas in Manchester that are also in a state of decline. The Ancoats Building Preservation Trust has worked hard and partnered with many UK organisations to renovate two of the historic mills and to actually give the district its second chance. Meanwhile, you need only leave Manchester city centre to find yourself face to face with the sites the British media usually keep private: derelict houses, ghost lanes where the windows and doors of all houses have been covered with iron or wooden boards, poverty, drug and alcohol abuse, and pretty much everything else you may expect to find at the backstage of an industrial and commercial megalopolis.

One of Ivanovo's factories looks like any normal historic sight...In this sense, Ivanovo, with its derelict factory standing a stones-throw away from a few museums, is hardly different. The decline is deftly hidden behind the imposing red-and-white brick walls, and is a curious, if terrifying, marriage of a quasi-war site and a place of an unknown epidemic. The epidemic had swept aside all the equipment and people; the invisible troops destroyed the building on the inside. A few sites you may come across in Manchester, Sheffield, and elsewhere in the UK are not quite dissimilar. They all cause a state of shock, followed by astonishment: how can this exist in a place that is otherwise advanced and cultured?

One of the streets in Sheffield, U.K.And yet, in Manchester and elsewhere, sites like this usually make a very fleeting impression. Perhaps this is how the efforts of the city developers pay off: you feel that something will be done sooner rather than later, and the mill will come back to life as flats, or offices. Where does the difference lie then? Is it the notorious East-West divide that harks back to Orientalist concepts and threatens to place Russia in the wrong cultural context? Or is it just an indication that Russia has yet to catch on to the development of media and advertising that successfully construct images that are not necessarily true to life?

The feeling of unworthiness certainly impedes the development of many Russian cities. Yekaterinburg, the real industrial capital sitting on the border between the European and Asian parts of Russia, is struggling to overcome its image as a bedsit of factorial monstrosity and pollution, also created by exiles. The quest for an alternative “image” is likely to be a sword of Damocles for many cities that historically relied on a single craft or industry to support their economy and justify their existence. And in this case some of them will inevitably feel that they do not have what it takes to become glamorous, if polluted. No wonder Ivanovo still feels more comfortable with its “revolutionary” branding. Little else seems to fit yet.

Hopefully, studying the examples of British and European Manchesters will help put the things into perspective. There was the time when Manchester was overshadowed by Salford; they have long swapped places. What the Russian Manchester really needs is a handful of resourceful, determined people who will be able to see the city’s potential in the political and cultural context of the new Russia, people who will rebrand the city and direct it towards new growth.

Manchester's Beetham Tower certainly possesses a strong symbolic powerThe only two things that currently seem to be in short supply in Russia are faith and enthusiasm. Or perhaps, they are just being diverted to a somewhat outdated, or irrelevant, cause. It is important to restore the churches and explore our religious faith, of course, but this is unlikely to improve the economy, attract the necessary foreign capital, or solve cultural problems. Ivanovo, along with most of Russia, needs to invest in its own potential, which goes well beyond religious beliefs. It has to find the audacity to be excited about its extra-capital status, to position itself vis-a-vis not only Moscow or St. Petersburg, but pretty much any other place on Earth. If there is anything the Russian Manchester can learn from its British elder sister, it is exactly this kind of bravura. But if a handful of places in Europe have already gone “Mense”, why cannot Russia?

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About Julie Delvaux

A Moscow-based journalist, author, and translator. Fluent in Russian, English, and French, in love with Surrealism.
  • http://monopolya.blogspot.com Antown

    I would like to thank the author for a good knowledge of the history of Russia. I live in Russia but in the city of Ivanovo, never was. Do not think that Ivan’s been compared to Manchester. In our country many people call the city of Ivanovo brides. There really are more women than men. The textile industry there has long been in decline.