Archive | June, 2015

Encounters with Russia.

23 Jun

I’ve just spent 2 months in Russia, visiting the homes of the very rich and the very poor, listening to monks deliver long religious discourses, eavesdropping on political and philosophical discussions in taverns, getting caught in the middle of violent family disputes, eavesdropping on passionate love affairs, witnessing a murder and attending the subsequent trial. It’s been a long, intensive, traumatic experience. Luckily, I am now back in the calm and familiarity of my English home and the book I’ve been immersed in: ” The Brothers Karamazov” is now resting safely back on the shelf. Reading its  985 closely typed pages was a mammoth enterprise and, at times, an all consuming experience. Fyodor Dostoyevsky didn’t belief in writing little ditties. His novels were invariably on a grand scale, sprawling epics giving a rich slice of life at all levels of 19th century Russian society. He’s very much like a Russian version of Charles Dickens, painting a rich, detailed picture of the human experience. Like Dickens too, Dostoyevsky’s works were published in instalments in newspapers or periodicals. That’s probably why they contain such gripping suspense. He wanted to make sure that his readers would  purchase the next episode. Some wag in a review I read, noted that he got paid by the word, thus explaining why his novels were so long.

The sheer length of “The Brothers Karamazov” explains why I waited until I’d retired before I was brave enough to tackle it. When I was at work I wouldn’t have had the time to read it regularly enough to follow the multiple threads it contained. As a 20 year old student I had attempted to read the same author’s “Crime and Punishment.” I gave up just over halfway through the crime. This time it wasn’t the length that daunted me but the frightening, sinister quality of Dostoyevsky’s prose. It got to the point where I was too scared to turn over the page! I abandoned the book and didn’t think about reading anything by him again until a thrilling, chance encounter in the early noughties. In November, 2006, I was lucky enough to go on a city break to St Petersburg, Russia’s former capital city. Opposite our hotel to the south of the city centre , stood an ancient looking Orthodox church surrounded by an atmospheric graveyard. It was in fact the Alexander Nevsky Monastery and cemetery from the mid eighteenth century. It had been snowing so everything looked pristine white and beautiful. My wife, Chris, and I decided to brave the biting cold and go to explore it. The church was mysterious but fascinating with people bowing to and kissing glistening icons and a bearded monk baptising a crying baby. But it was in the cemetery that the real surprise and thrill came. We wandered past a row of Bolshevik head- stones tucked away to one side. They were topped by red stars and red hammer and sickle motifs. Presumably they were not allowed to rest in the main part of the cemetery because they had been atheists. It was surprising that they were there at all though, as if at the last minute they had decided to hedge their bets. Then we stepped into the heart of the graveyard. It was surrounded by avenues of bare black trees festooned with bunchesof blood-red berries. It looked stark and beautiful in its blanket of snow. What enfolded was a parade of Russian, 19th century celebrities.

First came Pyotr Tchaikovsky’s headstone, quickly followed by two other famous composers: Rimsky-Korsakov and Borodin. Tchaikonsky’s handsome bust was accompanied by two thoughtful angels, one studying a music manuscript. Flecks of snow gathered in her wing feathers and in the folds of her gown. On to her lap someone had placed a bunch of lovely, white narcissi. Borodin’s tomb featured a dazzling art-nouveau mosiac of a page of his music, black notation, a glowing golden background and green and red decoration. We were just marvelling at our surprise find when there it was, the grave of Fyodor Dostoyevsky, the celebrated novelist. We stood and stared, forgetting the freezing cold. It was a tall, handsome tomb surrounded by a low, wrought iron fence. At its centre was a head and shoulders bust of the great man , sporting a full, flowing beard and a dodgy looking comb- over. Above and below him in gold, Cyrillic script were his name and biographical details, I presumed. Strewn in the snow was a scattering of red carnations. We had just stumbled across the last resting places of 4 of Russia’s most famous sons. For a while, until the cold started to gnaw the tips of my fingers, I stood there mesmerised. I think it was at that moment that I decided to return to Dostoyevsky’s novels at some point, as well as listening  to more Russian classical music. Time to dust down those old vinyls and revisit the classics on the book-shelves.

At first though I ignored Dostoyevsky. Maybe I was still too scared. I had had nightmares for months after putting down “Crime and Punishment.” To me it was the literary equivalent of Hitchcock’s “Psycho”, a film I always have to pluck up courage to watch. Instead I took down Tolstoy’s “Anna Karenina”, another epic work. It’s sheer length had made it previously too daunting to tackle. My only previous connection with it had been through the old Hollywood film starring Ingrid Bergman. ( made in the 1930’s I think.) Most people remember the last scene when the ” heroine” jumps in front of a thundering train. But watching the film seems a lazy way of tackling one of the great works of world literature. The inner world of the book and of the characters cannot adequately be revealed in a moving picture. I’ve always thought this and that’s why I made a point of reading all the novels of Jane Austin instead of just being satisfied with the pretty costume dramas on TV or at the cinema. The same goes for the works of Dickens. One cannot capture the sheer power of his writing by singing along to the catchy tunes of “Oliver” or viewing any of the innumerable TV adaptations of his works. Applying the same logic to Tolstoy, I decided to pick up the book, even though it was so big. I don’t know what all the fuss was about– my translation of Anna Karenin ( mysteriously missing the final “a”) was a mere 853 pages of close text and they flew by in no time. From the first sentence Tolstoy’s wonderfully lucid writing had me in its spell. A book only seems long if it’s boring. It’s dead easy to read a genuine masterpiece. Don’t worry, I’m not going to deliver a critical analysis of the novel in this blog. It probably wouldn’t be very good anyway. I’ll just suffice to quote part of the back cover of my Penguin classic ( translated by Rosemary Edmonds) :” Acclaimed by many as the world’s greatest novel, Anna Karenin provides a vest panorama of contemporary life in Russia and humanity in general. In it Tolstoy uses his intense imaginative insight to create some of the most memorable characters in literature.” Like Dostoyevsky, Leo Tolstoy is a supreme master of the psychological novel, delving into the motivations of his characters and their many conflicting facets, with subtle, compelling skill. Yes, I got drawn straight into it,was gripped and fascinated throughout and felt sad and bereft when it finally finished.  Like all very good books, completing it was like losing a close friend. Anna Karenin jumped straight to the top of my all time favourite  novels chart, pushing George Eliot’s marvellous “Middlemarch” down to number 2. Without leaving my armchair I had returned to St Petersburg and Russia. My earlier trip had inspired and enhanced my reading of the great novel. I was now on a roll. I now picked up “War and Peace”, another Tolstoy classic and another truly epic read. Many critics regard this as the greatest book ever written.

I thought “War and Peace” was great. It too has vivid characters and their psychological and emotional worlds are expertly detailed. The epic battle scenes are fascinating too but I think Tolstoy overdid the theorising about history and the fate of humanity. Sometimes he laid it on with a trowel as they say and his frequent philosophising slowed the momentum of the main story. So I didn’t put it at the top of my personal literary hit parade, ( sorry Leo), but it easily secured a spot in the top 20. The book has wonderful characterisation, and  such convincing dialogue that you feel as if you are actually in the room with the speakers. Most of all, it too immersed me in the Russian world, albeit one of over 2 centuries ago. It’s a world that is familiar but strange at the same time. Russia is the largest country in the continent of Europe, yet the majority of its land is in Asia. It’s a paradox. I entered that same intriguing world in my Dostoyevsky readings. To make it all the more mysterious and compelling, it’s a world that has now passed into history following the traumatic revolutions of 1917.

For much of my life I wasn’t allowed to visit Russia. It wasn’t even called Russia. The communists renamed it : The Soviet Union. When I was growing up in the 1950’s and 60’s, the Soviets were the enemies. They were the ones we might have a catastrophic nuclear war with. It was very scary especially during the incredibly tense Cuban missile crisis of the early 1960’s. Russia still is scary. Their recent annexation of the Crimea and invasion of eastern Ukraine are not exactly peaceful or welcome developments. Also the Russian treatment of the Chetchens and other Causasun peoples has been consistently shocking and largely ignored by the west. Putin loved Bush and Blair’s “War on Terror” as it gave him the convenient opportunity to harshly suppress and oppress his minority peoples with western approval. All he had to do was label them “terrorists.” It’s not surprising that in their desperation, some of his opponents have turned to terrorism. It was a self-fulfilling prophecy. Violence sadly breeds violence. And all this has come on top of the many horrific events of Russia’s tragic 20th century — a disastrous First World War, violent revolutions, bloody civil war, communist dictatorship under Lenin and especially Stalin plus others, reigns of terror, political repression, enforced collectivisation and subsequent famine, forced relocation of whole populations, the lethal work camps of the Gulags, the Nazi invasion and the horrors of the Second World War… The list of terrors and tragedies is seemingly endless. It makes Tolstoy’s or Dostoyevsky’s Tsarist Russia seem like a walk in the park.( which it wasn’t of course.) The fact that many Russian novels are so big, long and heavy, merely reflects that nation’s long and heavy history.

Even in our brief visit to St Petersburg in November, 2006, we could feel the heavy weight of Russian history bearing down on our shoulders. St Petersburg, 17 years since the fall of the Soviet Union, looked superficially prosperous. The roads were crammed with cars, big, glossy shop windows displayed a wide range of luxury goods, and many of its grand historical churches and palaces had been beautifully restored. However, even a brief look at the people, their facial expressions and their body language, was enough to show that all was not well. Most people avoided eye contact and did not even look up. They trudged through the streets or on and off the Metro with bowed heads and slumped shoulders. Most, if you could see them, wore miserable expressions. There were no smiles, and no courtesies in these street encounters. People did not make way as we approached. They just walked straight  at us and it was us who had to give way. It’s easy for tourists from a rich country with a comfortable life style to conclude that Russian people are just plain rude. It’s not as simple as that though. As soon as I tried to imagine myself in their shoes, I understood their behaviour a lot better. With all that tragedy and tyranny in their lives, why should they be carefree and happy? The younger ones whom we met in shops and restaurants were more friendly and spoke enough English to break down the language barrier a little. However the younger generation is not weighed down by so many terrible memories. They had not had to survive the horrific Nazi siege of Leningrad in the 1940s for instance or the gross deprivation of human rights experienced under the Soviet regimes. They had not lost loved ones in the wars in Chechnya or Afghanistan.      Many older people tragically lost their life savings in the post Communist Yeltsin regime when inflation ran riot and the state’s prized resources were sold off to opportunist businessmen who became obscenely rich overnight. There was a power vacuum and an economic free for all which saw the rise of the notorious Russian mafia. Apparently, when state run industries such as oil, gas and minerals were broken up and privatised, every citizen was given a handful of shares. However these were gobbled up by the oligarchs, who bribed many gullible people with the price of a bottle of vodka and so the few became super rich and the many became desperately poor. A travel companion of mine told me she had lodged in the St Petersburg apartment of an older couple in their late 60’s. They had lost all their savings in the Yeltsin era and were forced to go out to work full time and rent their spare room to western tourists. This was  in the mid 90’s. My friend told me the area where she stayed was dimly lit and shabby, with litter and broken glass . She didn’t feel safe and was always in well before dark. She said it was an interesting but very uncomfortable experience. Meanwhile, mega rich Russian oligarchs such as Roman Abramovich, buy up properties in central London, the south of France or Cyprus, swan around in luxury yachts and private planes and buy football clubs such as Chelsea FC to use as their private playthings. At the last count, Abramovich was worth a cool US$9.1 billion. A few years ago someone commented to me : “I wonder how many people are slaving away in Siberian mines to pay Frank Lampard’s wages!” At the time, Lampard was one of Chelsea’s highest earners at £150,000 a week!

So it was not surprising that we encountered gloomy faces and defeatist body language. Many Russians have had their hopes and spirits crushed by circumstances. Life is one big, bitter struggle. That was my impression anyway. The lack of smiling, welcoming faces was disconcerting but it certainly lent a powerful atmosphere to the place and a definite edge to our visit. Yes, we saw wonderful churches and cathedrals, ornate palaces, spectacular squares, picturesque canals, world class art and a wonderful ballet performance. We saw the Winter palace in winter and queued for the Hermitage museum in a raw, freezing -7degrees centigrade, to be eventually rewarded with a dazzling array of masterpieces. St Petersburg is a world class tourist destination. Yet my most abiding memory is of the depressed ordinary people shuffling through the wintry streets. It was not a  totally comfortable experience but that made it all the more fascinating. On our last day there we got mugged in an underpass as if to underline the air of discomfort that hung in the air. A large group of Asiatic- looking men in military uniforms, bumped into us and jostled us for about 30 seconds. It was like being in the middle of a rugby scrum. When we were spat out at the end I found that my wallet was missing and they had tried to cut the straps of Chris’s rucksack. Luckily we were not hurt, albeit more than a bit shaken, and they only got away with the equivalent of £35 and my Tesco’s card. I hope they found it useful!  Oh, and we also got taken as hostages in the colourfully named Restaurant Rasputin where we ate with friends after the ballet. They would not accept payment by card, demanding cash only. They refused to let us leave until one of us walked back to the hotel cash machine to get the money. A couple of “heavies” suddenly appeared to back up the previously friendly waitress. ( They weren’t really that heavy– I’m only joking.) Still it wasn’t exactly a pleasant experience.

So, I’ve had a rich, interesting interaction with Russia and the Russians over the years. Not all of it has been easy. But it’s a vast, strange and intriguing country and in my reading, music listening, ballet watching and armchair travels, I continue to be fascinated by it.  I’m determined to visit it again and see places beyond St Petersburg which is beautiful but not exactly typical. I have another Tolstoy lined up — “Resurrection!”, plan to explore the piano concertos of Rachmanoff and revisit the plays of Chekov.( The Cherry Orchard is a particular favourite of mIne.) I may even pluck up courage and face up to my old nemesis: “Crime and Punishment.”

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