Russians are not all mafiosi and die-hard communists. One visitor to the country is pleasantly surprisedby Robert Chandler / January 20, 1999 / Leave a comment
Russia is always overwhelming, is always too much for English people to take in. This is true whether we talk about history, geography or culture. It is difficult for someone brought up in England to grasp the scale of the killing carried out by Lenin and Stalin; it may be no less difficult for them to imagine the immensities of Russian space. And it is difficult to imagine an English Dostoevsky.
During a recent visit to Russia I had an almost physical sense that my mind simply did not have enough stretch to accommodate all that I saw. I was visiting Novgorod, a small town which, from the 12th to the 15th centuries, before the rise of Muscovy, was the most important city-state in Russia. I had just spent 20 minutes in a small motor-boat, going up the river Volkhov from Novgorod and then across Lake Ilmen to a small island called Lipna. Except for a few glittering churches, everything had been grey and empty. On the island stood all that was left of a 15th century monastery, the church of St Nicholas, destroyed during the second world war but largely rebuilt. Margarita, a woman who lived on the island, took me into the church, and up two ladders-until I came face to face with a 15th century Virgin and a female saint whose long neck, straight nose and elegant eyebrows made me think of Piero della Francesca.
How could such treasures be lying in the middle of this wilderness? If I was astonished, what would have been the feelings of a 14th century merchant, following the old trade-route from Scandinavia to Constantinople, travelling day after day along grey rivers. What would he have felt when he first glimpsed the shining cupolas of Novgorod’s churches and monasteries, and then the whites, golds and solid reds of the Novgorod Kremlin? It was equally difficult to imagine that this wilderness could have been a battleground during the war, that the depression next to the church was in fact a bomb crater. The Germans, I was told, had taken Novgorod, but had been unable to advance a mile beyond it. For two and a half years, there had been an impasse.
In Russia, beauty and horror seem to go together. After Novgorod I spent a week in St Petersburg. Peter the Great ordered the city to be built on marshland; tens of thousands of workers died during its construction. The city was repeatedly devastated by flood during the 19th century. And tens of millions of its inhabitants have died violently during this century: during the Revolution, during Stalin’s purges, and during the Nazis’ three-year blockade. Rilke’s famous words, that “beauty is nothing but the beginning of terror we can barely endure,” seems truer than ever in Petersburg.
Russia is too vast, its contradictions too extreme, for most of us to bear. It is easier to put on blinkers, to allow oneself to see only part of the truth, and end up either romanticising or demonising Russia. This is part of the reason why western, or at least English, interest in Russia rises and falls so unpredictably.
Today the tendency is to demonise Russia. Every newspaper carries horror stories: about mafiosi; poorly maintained nuclear armaments; plutonium dust swirling around the Siberian city of Chelyabinsk; the life expectation of Russian men (about 56 years); about pensioners fainting with hunger on the street; and about eight-storey buildings in the centre of Moscow suddenly collapsing. Most workers go unpaid for months on end. I have heard of workers in one provincial town being paid in tombstones. I have also read of tombstones being cemented into the ground because they are so often stolen; the inscriptions are sandblasted off and the tombstones are then resold. There is no reason, sadly, to believe that any of these stories are exaggerated.
Perhaps because of the scale of the destructive forces, it is difficult to believe that constructive forces still exist. And yet most people who have visited Russia, even during the last few months, sense some disjuncture between their personal perceptions and what they read in the media. Neither Novgorod, nor Petrozavodsk, the capital of Karelia, nor Moscow nor Petersburg feel like dysfunctional cities. All have tidy and clean centres, neat municipal flower beds; all feel strangely safe to walk about, even at night. The Moscow and Petersburg metros function with enviable efficiency. In museums or at historic sites I often came across groups of schoolchildren being shepherded around by earnest teachers. Most English teachers, I suspect, would give their eye-teeth to be working with such well-behaved children-except that teachers in Russia tend not to get paid.
People in buses and trams, street-traders, waiters in cafes, all seem friendly and honest, more so than in Soviet days. After my year in the Soviet Union in the mid-1970s, I found it hard to conceive that anything could ever change: even if the whole politburo were to be replaced by impeccable liberals, authoritarian thinking seemed too deeply engrained, especially at the lowest levels of society. The more powerless a petty official felt, the more he wielded what little power he had. But in the past ten years something has changed. The holders of power are as crazed and corrupt as ever, but waiters, shop assistants and bus conductors seem kinder and more helpful. I even achieved a small lifetime ambition: that of making a passport officer smile. I had said spasibo (thank you) as she gave me back my passport. My sister, who was behind me in the queue, asked me to repeat the Russian for thank you. I called out spasibo-and the passport officer almost smiled. My sister repeated spasibo as her passport was returned-and the officer finally did smile.
It is all too easy, however, for visitors to Russia to be deceived by appearances. And I am aware that I have not visited any of the most hellish parts of the country. I have no wish to expose myself to plutonium dust in Chelyabinsk, nor am I courageous enough to visit Vladivostok, the crime-ridden home of the Pacific fleet. My guess is that it is those cities whose identity was most closely bound up with Soviet power which have suffered most during the past ten years. The cities I visited, in contrast, may have grown poorer, but they all have an identity independent of the Soviet Union and even of Moscow. Novgorod and Petersburg are both former rivals of Moscow. And Petrozavodsk is the capital of Karelia, an area with strong cultural ties to Finland.
It may be that my own positive experiences are irrelevant in comparison with the spectre of hyperinflation and decaying nuclear warheads. Nevertheless, it is in no one’s interest to further the impression that there is nothing in today’s Russia except horror. And I am frightened by the increasing likelihood that both Russia and the west may start closing doors against one another; the west will not only (probably rightly) stop lending money to Russia, but also break off cultural and educational links. And so here are a few moments from two recent visits to Russia: first, in August, as a passenger, with my wife, sister and mother, on a cruise along the rivers and canals between Moscow and St Petersburg; then in September, with a colleague, when I attended a seminar in St Petersburg on Andrey Platonov, the great Soviet writer whom I am translating.
Moscow airport has a bad reputation. I have one leg and use crutches, and my wife suffers from MS and sometimes uses a wheelchair. We were anxious before our arrival. My wife’s anxiety did not diminish when her wheelchair was delivered from the plane by a huge thug in blue Wellingtons. In fact he proved to be extraordinarily attentive and, a few days after the initial devaluation of the rouble, refused the two-dollar tip I offered him, telling me I should not even be thanking him.
Our first stop after Moscow was the small Volga town of Uglich. It was packed with groups of tourists from three large boats. One at a time, each group was taken into an old church where male singers were giving recitals of Russian church music. The recital was deeply moving. How could these singers, in such unpromising conditions, sing with such engagement?
During our next stop, at the small town of Goritsy, I went off to visit the monastery of Ferapontovo. Its frescoes, painted by Dionysii, one of the greatest Russian icon-painters, are still intact, but tour groups are seldom taken there. The driver who took me to Ferapontovo had served for 15 years in the army, guarding the Finnish frontier. I asked him if he felt upset by the break-up of the country he had served. He said he did, but that perhaps it was better that Russia should stand on its own rather than be bled by the Central Asian republics. He then asked what I thought. He seemed entirely happy with my answer: that I was glad the Soviet Union had split up, but that I would like to see Russia powerful and well-governed. My guess is that most Russians are no more mafiosi or die-hard communists than they are committed reformers; like this taxi-driver, they feel regret for the past, accept the need for change, but wish it could be carried out more effectively and justly.
Our group was being shown round a wooden church on the island of Kizhi in Karelia. Someone asked a question about the average age of the congregation. Unexpectedly, a young priest answered in perfect English. What was remarkable was not the content of his answer-that half the congregation was under 25-but the authority with which he spoke. I have read that many Orthodox priests are uneducated and xenophobic. Was he the only exception? Churches in both Novgorod and Petersburg seemed full of people of all ages, the singing was superb, and most people contributed to the collection.
My colleague and I visited Anna Trifonova, a Novgorod art historian. For five years she and her colleagues have been working on restoring the frescoes of the Church of the Dormition at Volotovo Field, which had been razed to the ground during the war. The restorers have filled thousands of little drawers, each with fragments from a particular part of the church. About 250,000 of these fragments have been cleaned, 400,000 are yet to be cleaned, more are still being collected. Most of these fragments are one to two square millimetres in size. Every fresco in the church had been photographed before the Revolution, and the restorers are now beginning to lay out the fragments on top of photographs which have been enlarged to life-size. The scale of the task seems superhuman. But then it has often been said that Russians are better at superhuman tasks-like sending the first Sputnik into space-than at making a success of everyday life.
The restorers were not doing this work for money; for the last three years they have had to finance the project themselves. They are doing what they can to restore a country which has itself been shattered into fragments, first by communism and then by the collapse of communism. Like social workers I met, like the academics who are trying to establish reliable texts of works by Platonov and other previously censored writers, like a group of teachers who are editing new school textbooks on Soviet literature, like the thousands of Russians who have written memoirs of their experiences under Stalin, these restorers want to restore both themselves and their country.