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…