August 31, 2006
Flights from Cologne by German Wings arrive in the domestic, not the international Petersburg airport – hence the plain, no-nonsense quality of the locale and procedures. A blonde passport officer grimly scrutinizes my visa, and is the unresponsive recipient of my first timid spoken word on Russian soil, “spasibo”. The drive to the October Hotel in Insurrection Square on the Nevsky Prospect takes two hours, due to exceptionally adverse traffic conditions. The first part is plain sailing, especially when we coast along the astonishingly vast Moscow Prospekt, with its striking Stalinist buildings, parks, monuments. But in the center progress is measured in inches amid congestion recalling Manila and Bangkok. Russians use their wits to bypass the worst jams, turning back, exploring alternative routes, creating a complicated interweaving of vehicles negotiating passage in every direction. No sign of road rage. The buildings and cars seem covered in dust. Tiny shining churches that look like dinky toy Kremlins pop up here and there. The Russian people throng the pavements – variety, energy.
Thanks to Linguaphone and to dabblings dating back to the days of The Penguin Book of Russian Verse, I find words on signposts and shop-fronts leaping into life and can try out my rudiments on a real life Russian: the driver, Aleksandr (Sasha), youngish 45, navy-blue suit and green pullover. He bears the stress stoically, and after a maddening crawl in Marata St, where I decipher furniture shop signs, he embarks on a wide detour to approach the hotel from the opposite direction.A sign at a bus stop seems to mock us: “If everything went as fast as your internet, you would be at your destination by now.” I look up the word for ‘nightmare’ and discover it is borrowed from French, koshmar.
Aleksandr’s favorite politician is Brezhnev, whose funeral he attended in the Red Square. Putin is young, efficient, and – he agrees – stern, as a former KGB official; better in any case than Yeltsin. He dislikes Moscow: it lacks the beauty of his native Petersburg (he says Leningrad) and its traffic is still worse. Commenting on the lorries full of soldiers, he points out that a sheet on one covers Russian reactive artillery. Russians do two years military service (three for the navy); he spent his 50 km from Moscow. “Was it pleasant or unpleasant (nepriyatne)?” “Fifty, fifty.” Like Pushkin, he prefers autumn, deplores the “instability” of spring, and says the weather is horrible from November to mid-April.
The hotel is lodged in two blocks on opposite sides of the square, with the elaborate Metropoliten station between and the immensity of Moscow Station filling another flank. No question of broken Russian at the reception desk, crisp English prevails; I had almost thrown away my immigration card, with who knows what consequences? The room is dim but spacious. The television has sixteen channels, all in Russian, so no distractions from CNN and BBC World Service. The fare includes a woman lecturing on the Bible, open on a desk before her; a survey of upcoming musical events; an interview with a psychotherapist; “the people’s court” with a very argumentative defendant (her stand is labelled otvechik); the judge (sudya) scolds her and awards 30,000 rubles to the plaintiff (istets). Russian is a warmer background noise than German or Japanese; only French compares. Recognizable words, such as razgorvornii, vi znaete, Ivan Groznii, float up now and then.
The famous Nevsky Prospekt recalls the Avenue de l’Opera and seems as broad as the Champs Elysees. It seems to go on for ever -- the Neva is down there somewhere. The broad pavements are the stage for a bustle of citizens, not a “lonely crowd” but as much at home with themselves and as individually expressive as Turinese on their evening passeggiata (though without the noble glamor); there are demonstrative couples, and friends arm in arm. Three girls ride horses along the pavement. At intersections people display a quirky symbiosis with oncoming traffic. There are many cinemas, with monumental entrances – they go on well into the morning, in happy contrast to Tokyo where the last shows are at 7 p.m. – but everything is dubbed. The buildings are splendidly illuminated after dark. A downpour makes me notice that the handsome buildings are corseted with vertical drainpipes bringing rain from the roofs to the ground. One building was the residence of the critic Belinski. I stroll Neva-wards as far as the first canal – nothing yet to suggest that Petersburg deserves its title, “Venice of the North.”
In a spacious but empty restaurant, I practice baby Russian on the cheery “offiziant”, about 40, who prefers to be called Olga. She teaches me the words for knife and fork (vilka i nozh). Hors-d’oeuvre of salmon and olives, rich mushroom soup – ochen vknusnii! – and an all too resistible pièce de résistance composed of chicken and beef tongue (“Izvinite, ya ne ochen golodnii”). She pronounces capuccina – so unaccented o becomes a even for foreign words. I compose silly utterances from my dictionary, as one must if one wants to get going in a new idiom: “Ah, had I come here forty years earlier, how much better it had been!” If one can have the late revelation of an unsuspected mode of life, like Strether in The Ambassadors, Russia would surely provide it. It remains to be seen whether it can cast a spell to compare with that of Paris in 1967, Rome in 1972, Japan in 1983. If it did, I really would regret that I heeded the dissuasions of that elegant Russian gent in the Irish pub in Moscow Airport twelve years ago, who made even a three-day stopover seem too dangerous and expensive.
Did that meal cost $60? Obnubilated by two small vodkas, pepper- and citron-flavored respectively, a glass of white wine and an unnamed Russian digestif, I failed to collect my change from 2500 roubles or $75.
I penetrate a dance club on a dark street near the hotel. The two fellows acting as supervisors outside suggest that I will not enjoy it as it is a noisy place for young people. I sip a gin and tonic, a Strether thirty years older than the five devushki dancing on the floor and the six youths chatting quietly at the counter in this large, unadorned room. If exposed midriffs, much in vogue here, are the charm-point of the former, that of the latter is perhaps down-to-earth good-naturedness. One of the supervisors, Alex, thin face with small beard, has a brief exchange with me, saying that Irish are “independent people.”
I was wrong: by daylight the view from Apichkov Bridge on the Fontanka canal is really Venetian in its magnificence, a modern, more solid Venice, as are those on the Griboedov and Moika canals further down the Prospekt.
A glimpse at the menu of the Grand Hotel Europe corrects another mistake of yesterday evening: the prices are in Euros, not rubles. Sunny, golden-haired Vladovad, the waiter, confirms this. I find that the guidebook lauds his hotel as the best in Petersburg and he smilingly comments: “Five stars!” It appears that two mysterious initials on menus signify “conventional units,” code for Euros (to give the prices in a foreign currency would be illegal). So that thimbleful of pepper-flavored vodka cost not $3 but 10 Euros!
Kazan Cathedral is modeled on St. Peter’s Basilica, no less. A marriage is beginning, and looks at first as if it will be desultory; the chief of the three ecclesiastics involved (all in glossy chasubles of green or blue and gold), seems to deliver the line “I now pronounce you man and wife” (if that indeed is what he was saying) very curtly. But as the young couple move to the central area under a huge electric-light chandelier, with the people following, it becomes solemn and touching. The priest sings thrice “glory and praise to God forever”; large crowns, which they first kiss, are put on the heads of groom and bride, and are held in place from behind by friends, as in the marriage of Levin and Kitty in Anna Karenina (the Garbo film). They are given cups from which they drink. I ask someone “chto piyut?” (“what are they drinking?”) and get the reply, “kagor (?), vino.” The couple devoutly kiss an El Greco-ish painting of Christ to the right of the main altar and an icon of the BVM to the left. Their friends come with flowers and kisses; they are photographed holding icons and flowers; the bride poses between young mothers holding their babes; later the party drinks champagne in the park outside. Does the Russian Church combine in perfect harmony beauty and piety, liturgical solemnity and everyday human warmth, the praise of God and the joy of life (not the “pride of life,” the alazoneia St John nags about)? I manage to compose the sentence “could you sell me the text of the evening liturgy?” with such success as to receive an eloquent reply, not a word of which I can grasp; embarrassment all round.
Next stop is the Nabokov museum, 47 Bolshaya Morskova (Greater Marine) St., formerly Herzen St. (Herzen, who was awoken by the Decembrists and awoke the socialists, lived on this street, but has fallen from favor now). I notice a “Buddha Bar” – to be explored at a later time. Tatyana, whom Dermot Keogh suggested I look up, is not there, but tall, blond Daniel, 23, puts on a film in English, a 1962 interview with the writer. Listening to Nabokov in the house where he was reared brings him into human perspective. It is not the country manor of Ada, destroyed in World War II, but is evoked in Speak, Memory. I often felt Nabokov to be too pleased with himself (he would not be the only one), but that is a poor excuse for missing out on a worthy author. I was also turned off by the role of butterfly-hunting in his career.
But now I begin to think that Nabokov is the ideal novelist to explain St Petersburg – polyglot, multicultural, and above all multi-layered. “All the Russia I need is with me – literature, language and my own Russian childhood.” “The grotesque shadow of a police state will not be dispelled in my lifetime” (his dates are 1899-1977). “We are surrounded by ghostly objects… [that camera] is a mystery to me as it would be to Lord Byron.” In the case of butterflies, he got beyond the ghostliness by a microscopic descent to ultimate detail. The little-known novel, Transparent Things, conveys this sense of the bottomlessness of what one perceives.
“The more you love a memory, the stronger, the stranger it gets.” His trauma was to be cut off from use of “the infinitely rich and docile Russian tongue” and forced to write in second-rate English. America gave him fame, while Russian devotees were forced to type and photocopy his works in clandestine samizdat, of which the museum shows a selection. After the movie I look through the rooms of a privileged childhood. A German in the guestbook recounts that Lolita changed his life, and that he went on to read it in English, and now in Russian. I discover that the Russian Lolita is Nabokov’s own self-translation, quite different from the original (as is the Russian version of Speak, Memory, titled Drugie Berega, “the other shore”).
Finally Tatyana arrives, vivacious, intelligent, communicative in perfect English – no excuse to trot out my baby Russian here. Soon I am drinking coffee and eating a melon with this circle of thoroughly charming people, who combine pleasure and friendship with learning, as universities – plagued by exams and classroom schedules and less than enthusiastic students – rarely do. There is an amusing faked photo of Nabokov embracing James Joyce; Bloomsday is celebrated in this museum, with playlets about Bloom, etc. Blonde Irina is the artistic expert, she shares “Isabel” cheese brought back from Finland; they make a point of bringing back characteristic products from the places they travel to. Tatyana talks about Chekhov (how the feminist outcome of “The Betrothed” would also have tacit socialist and revolutionary associations) and about the palimpsest nature of Nabokov’s writing, often compared with the matrioshka, the doll containing other dolls. I wonder if Russia itself will turn out to be one vast matrioshka. She deplores the traffic situation, due to the retention of the traffic-lights system from the car-less seventies. She agrees that the doctrinaire linguistic egalitarianism of the linguists cannot be right; not all languages are equally difficult – Russia with its huge vocabulary and diabolically omnipresent inflections is evidently more difficult than Romanian, and languages, like people, have different gifts.
Daniel speaks up on his research. His degree in Cultural Studies allows him to teach a little, though apparently that discipline has fallen from favor here. He studies the figure of the Fool in medieval Russia. There is the Yurodivii told of in church biographies called zhitiye, of which the plaintive lunatic in Boris Godunov is an example; then, the “Ivan durak,” of folktales, deriving from pre-Christian lore; finally there are jesters imitated from Western Europe – so Prince Myshkin has a rich background. Daniel’s father has invented a genre called “rhythm art blues,” but he himself is not so interested in music.
Dmitry (Sokolenko) shows me his microscope photographs of details from Nabokov’s butterflies, the basis of a successful exhibition with the title “Nabokov’s Code” (ouch!). The magnified images look exactly like modern paintings – and reveal that nature was Nabokov’s instructor, so that his leptidopterist career was not a distraction from his art. To study him one needs not only perfect command of English and Russian but also of microbiology. I praise Dmitry as a rare example of the intersection of the “two cultures” and he points out that Nabokov was another. He offers to lend me one of his cameras for the week, and I decline, but later regret it as I register the difficulty of buying a disposable camera here.
After gazing at the huge St Isaac’s I return to the Kazan Cathedral for vespers at the side altar. The liturgical book leaves me in the lurch amid endless gospodi pomiliu; there is a long queue to kiss the icon of the BVM at the main altar. Even physically, it is difficult to keep up with the piety of the Russian people: hours of standing, vigorous bowing and crossing oneself. Outside, mothers are begging with their children, and sending them on begging errands. After the wedding I was chased by an apparent three-year-old, this time it is a six-year-old. Adorable kids, but the situation – displeasing, deplorable.
The free newspaper, The St Petersburg Times, tells me that, though the Mariinsky season begins only on the 11th, there are three different performances of Swan Lake in town tonight: the Yuri Petukhov Theater of Classical Ballet, the St Petersburg Romantic Ballet, and the St Petersburg Theater of Classical Ballet. Also “The Swallow,” a play by Alexei Tolstoi, and “Unattainable” by Somerset Maugham.
Along a canal as silent and dreamlike as any in Venice I come to Idiot, a cavernous vegetarian restaurant that has a lived in, well-worn feel to it. Many books in Russian lie around. Marinated mushroom, stuffed tomato, and omelet – I do not try the Idiotburger –, Russian Standart vodka is supplemented with free servings of Flagship vodka and the house’s cranberry-flavored vodka. The waitress tells me one can rent an apartment for $400 a month. I say I would love to do so. “You have fallen in love with St Petersburg and would live here forever?” “That I cannot do, but I regret I did not come to this wonderful city forty years ago. Of course, all I know of Russia is the Nevsky Prospekt.” “Yes, it is magic.” Stretherish, I wonder if I barked up the wrong tree for decades, while the grail was here, hidden in plain view like the purloined letter. The language is both the barrier and the chief attraction. If to study Japanese is to espouse otherness, studying Russian feels like coming home. Peter I’s “window on Europe” is now a mirror in which Europe can view its past grandeur.
Then back along the other canal (Gribodoev), which recalls Venice only by its deadness. I penetrate ghostly courtyards. As I come out toward the Kazan Cathedral again I turn back, cross an odd bridge adorned with gryphons in front of a university, and find Lomonosov St to be a hotspot where Russian youth are wild without loss of dignity.
Grigori [G.], a flower-seller, 21, who would be described as “lanky,” takes me in tow and I play along with his agenda, which includes learning English phrases that he writes down in a large notebook. As we traverse the Apraxin Dvor, a subproletarian tract not mentioned in guidebooks (behind the huge Gostinii Dvor shopping complex), where one can haggle about the prices of cheap items in 500 shops or stalls, I learn the words of everyday life, such as noski, socks, and chulki, stockings (or what grandmothers hide money in, as he explains). I buy a “Rolex” watch for three dollars. I teach G. the uses of “the,” “it’s,” “there’s” and he shows pedagogical skill in getting me to pronounce correctly that elusive vowel between i and u. His favorite movie is “Alexander,” seen 11 times. He surprisingly tosses out a Pushkin quote (first line of Gremin’s aria in Tchaikovsky’s Onegin). We have a beer in the Hay Market, the haunt of Raskolnikov, where I reflect that farmers must have been the oil sheiks of a day when horses guzzled hay as cars now guzzle gas. We hop about on the Metro – which is 1950-ish (platforms and central aisles sometimes glamorously illuminated by chandeliers and electric lamps in brackets), and which functions sensibly on “jetons” that give access to the whole network for one fifteenth of the present cost of a trip on the tube from Russell Square to King’s Cross.
We ask at a cinema if they have English movies and before I know it I am being invited to an English-speaking church tomorrow, by a couple celebrating their 28th wedding anniversary and their son, Andrei, 25 (looks younger), while G. confabulates with two of his buddies, Yuri, a pavement-sweeper, and Igor, a berry-picker. Andrei, a born-again Baptist, as his parents are, communicates with candor and ardor his distress at the tensions between Russian Orthodoxy and Protestantism, which stand in his way of finding an outlet for his apostolic and pastoral energies (he works with children). “Why, why is it so?” I suggest that the icon-centered and the Bible-centered styles must be impossible to reconcile; perhaps Anglicanism offers a bridge between them; churches are very conservative institutions, resistant to change. “Do you mean that as a criticism of the closedness of Russian Orthodoxy?” “No, just as an observation; don’t bang your head against church walls: go directly to people, as I see you are well able to do.” I learn he did military service for only one year, as a clarinetist in the military orchestra.
That evening my guide for Monday’s trip, K., 38, drives me to the Neva and I gasp at the immensity of the river, here at its widest point, and of the Winter Palace. K. loves the city and his job as a freelance driver, but he must often have too much of it. From a working-class background in Ukraine, he has a deep and disabused grasp of his country, which could puncture the fantasies of besotted tourists. He thinks the awesome vista was classier in the Soviet time, because there were no commercial boat trips, and he disapproves of the fountain created in the water for the G-8 summit. We see the “bronze horseman” of Pushkinian fame; the St. Isaac Cathedral seems to form a mere backdrop for the imposing Tsar; K. points out that even the name of the cathedral point to Peter’s glory, since he was born on the feast of St. Isaac.
“Your favorite country after Russia?” “Russia is not my favorite country; perhaps India is.” “Your favorite politician?” The answer to that comes later, when we are seated in an excellent restaurant, where we are joined by Constantin, butler to an Italian general, and his companion Dmitri. K. holds forth on the decency of Mikhail Sergeevich (Gorbachov), who is not a bloodsucker like other politicians. Pasha, a voluble anglophile, holds forth on encounters with nobility, including a private audience with John Paul II, and deftly translates our conversation for Ivan, a tall military cadet whose square soldiers and long arms on the table compose a rectangular structure that is more architecture than anatomy. “Dmitri, skolko vam let?” “21.” “And your hobbies?” “Sport.” Later we go to the Angleterre Hotel to greet a veteran of World War II, an MBE, and to “touch history” as Constantin puts it, but he has gone to bed. Three buddies of Constantin show up and they joke about George W. Bush etc., while nash molodoi voennii geroi looms over the group, its silent cynosure.
Next morning I face the uncertain pleasures of a vast museum. The Hermitage, rivaled in size only by the Louvre and the Vatican Museum, excels them in the beauty and individuality of each of its rooms, well suited to the exhibits in each case; each would make a manageable museum on its own. I visit the Roman statues first, fresh and cool after two millennia; the descriptions on the cards in each room show wide reading in the Classics and a great love of their world. Next a bright gallery with a line of Canova works. Then the paintings – but already the place is a pandemonium of guides tending their flocks in every tongue, and to escape the press is not easy. I see the Rembrandt slashed by a maniac in 1985. I find myself alone in one small room looking at a subtle, dignified self-portrait and a striking Pietа of Paolo Veronese: in the latter the beloved disciple, whose tunic gets the full Veronese treatment, clasps Christ’s pierced hand as if faithfully accompanying him on the descensus ad inferos, while the Mother embraces them from behind as her two sons. Another descent from the Cross, by Jan Gossaert, has a sinuous, dizzyingly descending design, the body of Christ itself being stretched in serpentine twists. Another Flemish painter has a “rest on the Flight into Egypt” in which a plump and harried mevrouw has a fat baby plopped on her lap. One room is a complete copy of the Raphael Loggia from the Vatican, the work of a battalion of artists sent there by Catherine the Great. The vast throne room, where I seize a welcome seat, is almost as vast as it looks in the Sokurov film, Russian Ark.
I ask one of the staff to show me where the café is, and he, the charming Arkady [A.], 18, first year student at the Academy of Arts, is soon chatting of Dostoevski and, unexpectedly, Brideshead Revisited, which he read in Russian. I agree it is a beautiful novel, but fault its theology. He says he is on his way to a Lutheran church and I, guilty at having turned down Andrei’s invitation to the Baptist one, offer to join him. “As a Lutheran you will be happy to hear that I lately saw the Reformer’s little room in the Wartburg, his cloister in Erfurt, and the church in Leipzig for which Bach wrote the Cantatas.” “Actually, I have been to Germany several times this year, visiting my girlfriend in Frankfurt.”
The church was used as a natural history museum in the Soviet time, and the restoration is in the plainest style; the service is in Russian but entirely Western in form and hymnody; the community are mostly of Finnish descent as A. also is. I meet his father who has had a difficult life since the Perestroika years, and hear of his sister who lives in Osaka with her second Japanese husband and two kids. He says: “You know ‘skeleton in the closet’? I think Japanese are all like that. You cannot express yourself freely, as you are.” “Yes, the Japanese for that is hisonde iru, and it might be more interesting if they really had skeletons to hide.” We visit the German and Swedish Lutheran churches as well, the one a gymnasium, the other a swimming pool in the Soviet time. The one is used in an unrestored state, the other still has the feel of a swimming pool. A. tells me that 70% of the Petersburg churches were destroyed and I marvel that Russia has changed so much. He says the scars remain, but that people prefer to forget about those decades, though there is a minor cult that wants to glamorize and soften the image of Stalin and even erect monuments to him. Of course there are grandmothers whose refrain is, “things were so much better in the Soviet time.” “Your favorite politician?” “Putin. He has done great things for this town and he is applying legality and fairness to all, including himself.”
A. moves with élan, vdrug, as in Dostoevski. I think of the scene that struck me when reading The Idiot as a teenager, the sudden élan of sympathy between Myshkin and Kolya Ivolgin after the Prince's nightmare traversal of Petersburg backstreets and low dives in the drunken general's wake. In this perpetuum mobile A. greets acquaintances, fellow students, golden girls, to right and left; we are in the chapel where a memorial service was held for Pushkin after his death; we are sitting in the courtyard of the house where he died; we are in a cheap student café; we are asking prices of boat trips on a bridge; we are in a B & B inspecting the rooms that he recommends for my next Russian trip; we look into the café where Pushkin dined with his second in the fateful duel and where the stone threshold he trod on is preserved under glass as a relic. “Do you really love Pushkin?” “Well, in school we were commanded to, and that ruins him for many. But recently I read Eugene Onegin and it is really great. My mother had the same reaction.” In profile his blond ringlets streaming back in the wind make him look like Hermes. He asks a very shy youngfellow in neat naval costume to take our photograph; the boy, sent here no doubt from some distant province, seems astonished to be addressed in Russian, and silently complies. “You must never do military service, it would not suit you,” I tell A.; his mother feels the same; he hopes to avoid it by studying up to M. A. level. He takes me to a bookshop hidden in a courtyard; it has 19th century German treatises on topics like Urologie and old French paperbacks (Loti, Romain Rolland); I buy Rilke’s poems for him, and recite the exalted jubilance of:
Frühe Geglückte, ihr Verwöhnten der Schöpfung,
Höhenzüge, morgenrötliche Grate
aller Erschaffung, – Pollen der blühenden Gottheit,
Gelenke des Lichtes, Gänge, Treppen, Throne...
I return to the Pushkin cafe, which has a life-sized figure of the poet seated at a ground-floor table, and listen to a live cello and piano performance of “lollipops,” feelingly played for an unapplauding audience. Then, back in Nabokov’s birthplace, I look at an exhibition of Ella Byshevsky’s paintings inspired by Bible and Talmud and sit in on a discussion among some twenty students of Jewish literature, led by Professor Ilya Dvorkin of Hebrew University, Jerusalem, wiry, witty, bearded, with tikka. Simon Parizhsky, local professor of Hebrew literature, tells me that there are some two hundred students of the subject. Amos Oz is coming next week. I wonder if every discussion in Petersburg is as animated and joyful as tonight’s one (which turned on the theme of “Athens and Jerusalem,” I understand). Kira, a linguist, tells me that students are as apathetic here as anywhere else but that good students educate themselves by moving through such study circles, and that the Jewish one is particularly attractive. I ask her if there is a subjunctive in Russian and receive a detailed answer which is cut short by her mother, anxious to be gone.
Finally I check out the Buddha Cafe and find that it is lavishly adorned: one big Buddha in one room, six small ones in another, dancing Siva devotees in the others. Simon from Nairobi persuades me to dine (trout and white wine) and lauds the city where he has been studying engineering for four years. He is pleased that one can find here the unspoiled 18th and 19th century past. (Something similar could be said of Buenos Aires, I reflect.) As to the Russian language, he says he picked it up in three months as it imposed itself in daily use.
As I enter the subway train, a wretch, non-Russian I think, pushes against me, trying to pick my pocket. I shudder to think of the complications if wallet or passport had been snatched.
Monday, a day with the Romanovs at Catherine II’s Palace and in the more modest and domestic one of her son, Paul I. She had his weak-minded dad assassinated, and could not stand the son, who reminded her of the father, though she adored her grandsons Alexander and Constantine, dreaming they would be great emperors on the model of their ancient namesakes. In between we lunch at a place where Putin celebrated his birthday party – forgoing the very expensive Putin birthday menu, I have rabbit stew. K., though an edgy conversationalist, provides a constant flow of informative commentary and a bag of delicious apples, such as one can no longer find today. He is steeped in reading about the ancient Greeks and Romans. At the victory memorial, as we left the city, he made sophisticated comments on Shostakovich, correcting my reference to the gigantesque development in the first movement of the Leningrad Symphony as “Einmarsch der deutschen Truppen”: “It was not solely or even primarily the Germans that Shostakovich was aiming at. Hitler had no intention of taking Leningrad, but Stalin had no desire to lift the blockade. Leningraders during those years were shot by Russians themselves. Shostakovich was always a sharp critic of fascism, something his American politically correct critics do no justice too.” I wonder if this could be true of the Second Symphony, in which the chorus stops singing in order to shout its admiration for Lenin, but K. holds that even at that tender age Shostakovich had no truck with fascist grandiosity. However, at lunch he lauds the “realism” of Mel Gibson’s Passion movie and says Pasolini could never touch the common people. Those pagan times were demon-possessed he opines, and reminds me of a Russian Orthodox devotion to the twelve sufferings of Christ. This gives a glimpse of deep, tangled, ancient Russian Orthodox roots. I suppose ancient and modern blend in similar fashion in Tolstoi and Dostoevski.
More Russian-English lessons with G. – I correct his list of phrases for chatting up foreigners (bizarre computer translations); elementary English expressions are as much news to him as Russian ones are to me; we dine at Kentucky Fried Chicken; we take the Fontanka and Neva boat trip under grey skies; our guide sits like an oracle gazing at the right bank and reciting impeccably her account of each building as it passes; when we clap at the end her features suddenly melt into a smile.
In the brazenly modernized Haymarket, A. shows me where the church stood before which Raskolnikov bowed in each of the four directions asking forgiveness of the people. A small chapel has recently been erected near the site; there is also an international peace monument, undistinguished, for the third centenary of the city, 2003. Down a street to the right we examine three buildings that were brothels in Dostoevski times – Sonya worked in one of them. We stand on a bridge on the Gribodoev Canal, which was a public sewer at that time. A. evokes the stifling heat, the smells, the hay, and their effect on Raskolnikov’s brain. He points out that the area – the vertical street and the two horizontal ones, along with the canal as a saucer beneath them – has the shape of a Greek Cross, part of the religious symbolism of the novel. I tell him of my first encounter with these streets half a century ago, in a Dell Comics cartoon version of Crime and Punishment, and how unforgettably shocking the axe murder had been.
On the right as we go up, steps going down to an old door recall the dive where Raskolnikov had his first conversation with Marmeladov; A. indicates that the street has a line of such holes in the wall, all drinking spots back then. I photograph the dismal steps, to the amusement of a passing woman. The “poor folk” moving about on the streets have nothing in common with those on the Nevsky; the world of Dostoevski is not extinct. I tell A. that the group of five elderly men and women, drinking and joking, could make the fortune of a photographer – a ghostly epiphany of a submerged population. Intrepidly, he asks permission for me to photograph them and gets the answer: “for $300!” Dostoevski’s house, on the right at the corner of the first horizontal street (Kasnacheskaya ul.), the one in which he wrote the novel, is unexpectedly solid and modern-looking, as, more surprisingly, is Raskolnikov’s, on the left at the corner of the second horizontal street (Grazhdanskaya ul.); both have plaques.
Someone exits the Raskolnikov house and A. seizes the door before it closes. We mount the dark staircase to Raskolnikov’s room at the very top; he points to the eleven steps mentioned in the novel. Our luck does not go so far as to permit entry into the room itself, which A. has seen, and which is indeed tiny, like a wardrobe, exactly as described in the novel. From the window Raskolnikov had a view of St. Isaac’s, and on leaving the house of the murders he would have seen another church, St Nicholas’s (left functioning in the Soviet time). The churches rise up throughout the novel as a judgment on his sin against the sacredness of human life. It seems that the neighborhood itself wrote the novel for Dostoevski.
The Marmeladovs’ house, a corner building on the quay, is again solid-looking; it can be identified from its flattened corner. Soon we are at the door of the stairs leading to the murdered moneylender’s room (the “granny” is what A. calls her). He types rapidly on the buttons of the door to find the code – I warn him that all the squinting windows of the dark courtyard must be fixed on him but he says no one will mind. The door opens, three young people emerge, and close it behind them. A. asks for the code which they promptly tell him. The sinister stairs seems not to have changed since back then; we identify the murder room and guess the room in which Raskolnikov hid on his way down the stairs. We enter the house of Lermontov, which is lived in, through in a state of dire and I imagine dangerous disrepair, the staircase crumbling almost in Poesque liquefaction. Its plaque has been removed.
A. negotiates a taxi to the restaurant K. took me to. The taximan growls when a foreigner enters the car with him, races through the streets at criminal speed, and manages to more than double the price on the pretext that foreigners are rich. The restaurant also is dearer than the last time. My “lamb fillet” is uneatable, but A. is well pleased with his delicious “appetizing lamb”; we both take the “burning dessert.” As A. tells of his ideals, how he thought of being a priest, how War and Peace showed him the nobility of marital responsibilities and family relationships, how he feels that the divine will guides all encounters, his blue eyes flash and his face shows a host of expressions to delight Renaissance painters. He has studied in the Hermitage since age 12 and is their youngest guide. He tells the tricks of the trade: never to say “I don’t know” and if one does not know the answer, to give a reply on some neighboring topic. One visitor asked if a Manet painting came from the painter’s time in Morocco – “Undoubtedly,” was his prompt reply, though completely unaware of any such Moroccan connection; later consultation confirmed he was correct. His mobile phone rings often; well brought up, he apologizes charmingly every time. We contemplate the Bronze Horseman and he recites the Pushkin lines; his worried mother phones; he heads home by subway from Gostoini Dvor.
Ein jeder Engel ist schrecklich. Purity and innocence cast their judgment on the world, summoning us to change our lives. One trembles for the dangers that beset them – physical ones (a gang once tried to steal his mobile phone and fled when he shrieked), moral ones (“the contagion of the world’s slow stain”), even the divine traps laid for heedless generosity. But he is mature, practical, energetic, already proposing ideas about a student interchange in which I could lecture on Buddhist-Christian themes: only a fifth of the audience will understand, but the rest will be happy to hear English spoken.
Touristic duty takes me to the Engineers’ Palace or Michael-Fortress, which Paul I built in a vain bid for security, where he was assassinated, and which then became the military engineering school where Dostoevski spent some unhappy years. The octagonal courtyard, with at its center a glum-looking Paul I on a throne, holding orb and scepter loosely in tired hands, provides the spooky atmosphere I expect from reading Leskov’s amusing and atmospheric story of ghostly terrors among the students there in 1860. Annoyingly, for 300 rubles I can see only the exhibition and not the imperial bedroom or the chapel (reserved for group excursions). I later hear that the bedroom was in any case altered in order to dispel its sinister “magnetic field.” There is a temporary exhibition, “Forgotten Russia,” photos of projected or destroyed monuments. The permanent display of portraits, etc., is poor fare, but the rooms designed by Brenna have class. St Petersburg is largely an Italian creation; Rastrelli, Brenna, and Rossi found here the space for a last great expression of their country’s architectural genius.
I move to the Museum of Russian Art at the nearby Michael-Palace. Here, for another 300 rubles, are portraits of a much higher order – faces from the eighteenth century, surprisingly modern, and Ilya Repin’s eloquent pictures of Nicholas II and his state council – individual portraits done with impressionistic panache and a huge canvas of the assembled group with a very nervous looking Nicholas. I don’t understand how the same painter can paint a scene of popular jubilation at the revolution of 1905. The trawl through the vast collection with the instructive audio guide is also a plunge into Russian history and character.
I sell 50,000 yen and am shocked to receive only 10,000 rubles – this place is even more expensive than I imagined. G. resurfaces, persistent – like someone from a Russian novel. He complains that he can make no headway with an English book written for children: it is Kipling’s Just-So Stories, which has the words dace, plaice, mackareel, pickareel, twirly-whirly slippery eel, all on the first page, with two misprints. I should have recommended Harry Potter. I whisk him off to the Dostoevski museum near the yellow, white and gold St Vladimir’s. He listens to a Russian audio guide and I to an English one, which neatly summarizes The Idiot: “It is about the idea of saving the world by beauty, but demonstrates that beauty itself needs to be saved.” Disappointingly, the novelist’s rooms, where he died, are closed for restoration (remont), a circumstance that causes a shrill altercation on the landing between two of the women in charge. Saying proschai to G., rather definitively, I head to the Russian Academy of Sciences to meet Dimitri Tokarev, 36, author of the only book on Samuel Beckett in Russian. I am sad to remember so little of our previous encounters at the Beckett conference in Cerisy in 2005; let’s hope this diary stops up such leaks of memory. In perfect French he talks of Daniel Harms (1905-1942), an avant-garde writer who feigned insanity to avoid conscription and died of hunger in an asylum during the blockade; of the sinister Zhdanov, who assured his superiors that Leningraders had no need of food; of the authorities who had caviar flown in while the people starved; of Putin, perhaps a necessary evil to put order back in Russian life; of the community apartments that threw together people of every walk of life and are now disappearing. He spends two days a week at this research center – a room with desks for about twelve people – while working on his Habilitation thesis on Harms (or Kharms, a pen-name supposedly combining “harms” and “charms”).
Remembering that it is a free day at the Hermitage I catch two hours of Dutch paintings, with audio guide; the two throne rooms and the other halls are indeed ravishing. I sit again in the touristy Pushkin cafe, and then go back to K.’s favorite restaurant where I am joined by the pious teetotaler Andrei, who has good news: he has found a job working with orphaned or neglected children and has found the first two days very rewarding. K. joins us, with Boris, Vanya, and Katya. Andrei chats of Gogol diagonally with K. in Russian while the animated Boris, 25, speaks with enthusiasm of Herzen and Ghermann Ghess (Hesse) diagonally with me in English. Katya opines that H. Murakami is no great shakes as literature; I concur, and say that deplorably he is the most famous Japanese writer today. She likes Akutagawa and the quiet Vanya lauds Mishima and Kawabata. He is doing research on “historical consciousness” among various Russian populations. He knows and loves the Nabokov museum. I reflect what a joy it would be to teach such students as these, while they urge me warmly to come and teach in Russia. Later most of us drive off to a cocktail party on the canal bank near the gryphon bridge; proceedings are winding down, but as we linger a string of others greet us – Dima, Filip, Julia. If young people today are generally open, friendly, interesting, this is exceptionally so of young Petersburgers, who seem quite simply the nicest people in the world.
I make my way to the Peter and Paul Fortress, where Dostoevski was imprisoned before his mock execution, and grunt “odin bilet poshaluista” so convincingly that I get in for the Russian prices of 60 rubles rather than the usual 300 rubles. The place is a barracks with battlements on the Neva; its church enshrines the remains of the Romanovs; the material on display in the other buildings is of limited interest. Having boycotted taxis until they get their act together and learn to charge regular fares in a civilized way, I trudge over the huge Trotsky Bridge to the Summer Gardens – the first public park in Russia, another deed of Peter I – and walk up the central avenue between statues; there used to be fountains but these have long disappeared. The Church of the Sacred Blood is striking close up, though I forgo the visit of the interior (300 rubles). There are wedding parties all along the canals, which look quite Venetian in the lovely sunlight. I look in at the Nabokov museum, saying goodbye to the busy Tatyana, wreathed in mild smiles, and visit the interior of St Isaac’s: it is stupendous, recalling I know not what massive churches in Rome or Paris; it is a nineteenth century building, the fourth church to stand on this spot, the work of a Frenchman; construction took forty years, mainly because of financial snags. In the low vaults of the vast Red Lion pub, snugly decorated with old posters, I meet a Waterford businessman who speaks enthusiastically of his thirteen years in Russia. The only problems he has had are with abusive policemen; when they give him trouble he quickly phones his Russian wife, who has political connections. He finds the Russians similar to the Irish in their spontaneity, conviviality, etc.
A. is waiting for me at the column before the Hermitage and we stroll back to the same restaurant (my fourth time there). I ask him whether the glowing evening light on the banks of the Neva is not unusually beautiful and he inclines to say it is. K. and Boris show up; A. soon heads off home; Boris sees him as innocent and vulnerable, K., more cannily, notes “sterner stuff” beneath the charm. Boris’s jests and K.’s mordant comments bring the delightful week to a delightful end. We drive up the Prospekt in Boris’s car, to an accompaniment of Russian rock – more musical than the western kind. (K.’s car music is a flamboyant quasi-classical composer, Jeff Mills.) Soon I am on the train that played so great a role in Madame Karenin’s misadventures; dim broodings on life and death as it rockets through the night lack the pen of Tolstoi to give them shape.
Moscow, which I am not predisposed to love, is a symphony of vast spaces. The Ukraina hotel is huge, its breakfast room a double banquet-hall in which guests wander in search of coffee, butter, eggs, fork, knife, honey at different ends, bumping into one another like the denizens of Beckett’s The Lost Ones. An Australian woman shares her joy at discovering Russia. The television has channels in Arabic and Chinese; I become absorbed in a BBC program in which Bishop Tutu gently guides conversations between perpetrators and victims in the Northern Ireland troubles. A sentimental British policeman shakes hands with the man who shot him, a totally unreconstructed IRA man, proud to have spent 21 years as a “political prisoner.” Forgiveness borders here on betrayal of the victims of terrorism. Whereas a British soldier makes a heartfelt plea for forgiveness for killing the wrong man in a bona fide mistake, the IRA fellow offers only the usual Gerry Adams-style weasel words about the sad necessity of armed struggle and how of course one feels sorry for all its victims. Bishop Tutu, wise old mother-hen, eyes twinkling mischievously, tries to slip in an edifying gloss to the effect that we all now recognize that violence is not the right path.
From the hotel shuttle bus I observe a mile-long crowd of devotees waiting to kiss a relic: the left palm of the Magdalene which helped Alexander III in his war on terror. The Red Square, where tourists and wedding parties flock, is cobble-stoned, not as militaristic as I expected, and not very beautiful. The quaint St Basil’s with its assorted onion- and turban-shaped cupolas is a confusing warren of dark chapels and passages inside. I have coffee at the top of the awesome GUM shopping arcade, three huge conjoined basilicas each with three floors of shops and lines of Venetian bridges slung across at the second and third floor levels. I think of Soviet gigantism; but the construction was completed in 1894. I descend into the Metro and find one of the more elaborate stations, Komsomolskaya, where Stalin lavished baroque splendors on the proletariat. The trains are noisy, extremely fast, and very confusing. The movement of people has none of the Gemütlichkeit of the Nevsky Prospekt. Each is an autonomous projectile, and the choreography of their movements demands speed and alertness from the stroller. The tough and vibrant crowd makes no concession to the tourist.
I meet Niall Keogh, Dermot’s son, whose beard makes him look Russian, at a central rendezvous-point, the lifeless 1995 equestrian statue of Marshal Zhukov. We visit the Metro station devoted to the Revolution – a gallery of heroic statues. In the spacious apartment of Brian, who is sad that two years at the embassy end this week (though Moscow is viewed as a “hardship posting”), I meet a bespectacled historian from the State University, Constantine, who recites and translates an absurdist poem of Daniel Harms – amusing and musical. At an Azerbaijan restaurant, Shesh Besh, chubby costumed waiters offer lamb soup and spicy omelet – a glimpse of unknown regions. Brian tells of the Russian bureaucrat’s transcendental disengagement from the people and laments that money from oil and gas is a substitute for proper development of food industries and tourism. It is a country of vast creative possibilities, which go largely untapped. Niall guides me back to Kiev station and the monstrous hotel, which looms before us like Kafka’s Castle.
Are Russians like Irish in this also, that they are deft at clipping one another’s wings? The Moscow News confirms this suspicion with these quotes from an article on mathematician Perelman who has solved the Poincaré Conjecture: “In Russia, no good deed ever goes unpunished”; “We must learn to forgive a talented person his talent.” Another Russian genius has composed an internationally acclaimed piano concerto at the age of thirteen.
A long Sunday afternoon with Niall, Brian, Theresa of the embassy and a charming couple from the Singapore embassy, Borg and Fiona, Catholic and Anglicized. Niall is his father’s son as he holds forth on byways of Irish history. We sail on the infinite sea of diplomatic gossip. I learn that life expectancy for men is 58, for women 73, hence the abundance of babushkas, that 1500 conscripts commit suicide each year, that 30-40,000 die in traffic accidents, and many more from drink-related causes.
At seven I buy a ticket from a knot of touts outside the (new) Bolshoi; my seller admires U2 and Bono; 1300 rubles seems reasonable though he tells me the seat is bad. In fact it has no view whatever, so with two Australian women (one of whom speaks of la Sutherland’s pure voice, which she often heard), I slip down a row. The theater is quite small. The usher beckons us noisily – not to return to our proper places but to come to better ones. We are no sooner installed than the rightful owners of the new seats show up – the music has already begun – the usher yanks us out and confides us to the care of her colleague at another door, during Pinkerton’s Dovunque al mondo. Right through the first act there is intolerable whispering. The staging seems a disaster: a minimalist sand garden, people who look like Egyptians with the bare shoulders of sumo players, Pinkerton and Sharpless in Turkish smocks, Butterfly’s attendants wearing hats like shoeboxes, all characters and gestures stonily static. Only the soprano, in white dress, moves with stately grace.
At the interval I recoil when asked for 560 rubles for a single glass of white wine. I chat with a good-natured Japanese who is here for a day and a half and very happy his wife is not with him as the expense has stunned him. The usher relocates us for the second act and my neighbor is a classical English lass who is doing a two-week acting course at the theater associated with Chekhov and Stanislavski. It is her first opera – I babble about the lovely La Scala production of 1987. Chocho-san wears black for Act II. Un bel di silences the whisperers somewhat, and with the scene of Pinkerton’s letter – which immobile Sharpless holds away from him in outstretched arm – the piece springs into compelling emotional life. The production of the bambino, played by a ten-year-old boy, is intense drama; he stays on the stage right up to the retirement of Butterfly exhausted by her vigil; the two ladies fall into a trance at the humming chorus while the boy does a sort of dance around the stage, a chrysalis searching for his future as an American butterfly. The trio of Pinkerton’s remorse is wrenching, as are the terrific sustained drumrolls preparing Butterfly’s final resolve. She dies non-naturalistically, pointing backward to the boy, the future. The foreign wife, always a statuesque presence, fits perfectly into this performance in which all the secondary figures are reduced to flattened poses, making it very much a one-woman show. Accolades rain on the soprano. The English lass is impressed; the Japanese man tells me he slept through some of it, recognized the Japanese tunes knit into the score, and regrets he had no chance to read the story beforehand. I forget to return the opera-glasses.
Wandering the streets of Moscow at night I find it hard to believe that the population is something like 15 million, including the unregistered. Since all converges on the Red Square, it feels smaller than London or Paris. I pass through the security check at the hotel, as earlier at the theater – hardly superfluous given the gruesome theater hostage crisis of 2002.
Amid the mad morning press at the Ukraina, I chat briefly with a distinguished German-English businessman, Adrian – a sympathie interrompue, as I am whisked off by the car sent by Niall. The driver tells me that the hotel was one of the Seven Sisters built by Stalin, one of which is in Poland. Niall’s apartment is spacious and a place where work has been done – his life of Cornelius Cremin (Mercier Press, Cork) and Liz’s studies of Russian literature. I am enveloped by chanting at Matins in the local church, try to visit the big Lenin library, stroll around the Alexander Garden, visit a bookshop, have soup in a café, and generally feel the impossibility of getting a handle on this city.
The Kremlin tour is a surprise – nothing grim or forbidding about this HQ of an “evil empire.” It is a sunny village inside. Our guide wonders why the Church of the Assumption is so well preserved – walls aglow with frescos, great seats for patriarch, tsar and tsarina, a lovely thousand-year-old Greek double icon of St George and the Theotokos – and says that it cannot have been respect for art on Stalin's part, so must have been divine protection. She scotches the legend that the massive canon was used to fire the False Demetrius back to Poland; tests show it was never used at all, any more than the monstrous “tsar's bell” could ever be rung -- inefficacious gigantism. I expect the Armory to be a dull display of halberds and the like, but no – it is an amazing collection of beautiful treasures to each of which a historic tale attaches: coronation dress of Catherine II, caftans of Peter I, crowns upon crowns, lavish carriages presented by French, German, English rulers. a turquoise-studded throne presented by the Shah to Boris Godunov, emerald studded Gospel books, a vast dinner service from Napoleon to Alexander I when they were still on diplomatic terms, and hundreds of other fabulous objects. Our guide extols the perfection of Pushkin’s language and the beauty of his wife as we look at their wedding crowns.
At the small hall of the Conservatory a violin recital: Prokofiev's dense harmonies and hectic rhythms take on new meaning on Russian soil, though I’d like to find their real-life equivalents; the Kreutzer Sonata, a hollow piece despite Tolstoi's morbid ravings, is the last offering; the audience claps, eager for lollipop encores, but the severe performers refuse to stoop to the tricks of the matinee idol. With Niall and Liz, who talks interestingly of Dostoevski, and another charming couple – this time from the British embassy – we dine in another Azerbaijan restaurant. There is a lively expat circle here, but to meet the Russians is like trying to catch cannonballs on a battlefield, in sharp contrast to affable Petersburg. The day ends with a look at a subtitled tape of The Idiot, which is wooden and talky.
At the Pushkin art gallery plaster casts abound, Schliemann's Troy finds are on display but offer little to the eye, and the only explanations are cards in Russian. There is a big exhibition of Rembrandt and friends. Eventually, Roman, systems engineer, shows me where the audio-guide desk is hidden, agreeing with me that museums are made far more visitable by these devices, and I prolong my stay among Italian masters contentedly. Later, outside the Bolshoi, a tout “looks me up and down” with operatic plainness and offers a bad seat for three thousand rubles; my monthly Visa credit has expired so I cannot pay the extortionate price; later I see him and his buddies shuffle with every appearance of crestfallenness, stuck with their tickets. Thus do dainty balletomanes rub shoulders with the street. I explain about having forgotten to return the opera glasses on Monday, but the poised young man at the door replies musically: “Ya ne ponimayu vas”; yet he understands well enough, for soon I am ushered into the foyer (the ballet already in progress) and am asked by one of three women: “What was your deposit?” “Five hundred rubles.” This turns out to be the magic word, and the banknote is handed to me by the beaming ladies. “Do svidanya” sings after me from the doorman. The Bolshoi staff are courteous. I storm sourly through the streets, dine at Pizza Hut, find my way back to the Keoghs at 24 B-street. I confidently turn the key in their lock, but a wild man in a rage leaps out and pours curses on my head, following my progress down six floors and watching as I exit the apartment; for there are two entrances numbered 24, exact doubles.
Next day I go to the other museum in the Pushkin complex, armed from the start with audio guide. The French painters are well displayed in this tidy, functional museum – far better than in the attics of the Quai d’Orsay – and the audio guide shows me how much there is to be known and enjoyed even in these best-known of painters. Later I traipse to Dostoevski's birthplace. I search for it within the hospital grounds – he was reared in a house of suffering – and end up at the back of the hospital, crumbling walls of pre-Victorian misery, untended weedy grounds. Fear of the dogs keeps me from photographing, but their owner – a sad-looking subdued man in his forties – gently shows the way. A woman guides me though the museum with sighing phrases: “Mikhail and Fyodor sleep here ... here their desks ... this room they eat ... that is their parents ... sister of father and her husband ... looked after boys when mother died ... books are real ones ... more books here, from museum in St Petersburg ... his pen...” The pen, the fount from which flowed The Brothers Karamazov, is a scratchy quill such as Irish schoolboys might buy for tuppence fifty years ago. Some lads outside, in this quiet quarter, might be the young Karamazovs at play. I discover a banya nearby, est. 1852. Dostoevski might have bathed there. I enter, see dim rooms with tea articles lying around. A man asks my business and I ask if one can try the bath. The price, 800 rubles, ten times that of the homely Japanese sento, dissuades any further exploration. I recall the story of the 1920’s, Banya, in the Penguin collection of Soviet short stories, and what a nightmarish mess the baths were back then.
How could I have thought this city seemed thinly populated? The speed of the movement of the subways crowds is thrice that of gentle Japan.
More discussion with my diplomat friends, including now a Swedish couple and their 13 year old son. I learn that the Russian population is sinking at the rate of 800,000 a year.
On the train to Kiev what fitful sleep is available is brutally cut off by the passport check at 4.30 am. My carriage mate is another sad, heavy, prematurely aged Russian; the language gulf is sufficient excuse for not attempting conversation.
Kiev turns out to be a modern Central European city, without the romance of Petersburg or the fierceness of Moscow. The people are serene, confident. I see no evidence of the wave of poverty reported to have descended on them or the 30,000 homeless children. I recover from the night in a MacDonalds, stroll along two of the principal streets, relish the relief of being in a cheap city – free from the abusive fleecing of Russia. Romeo and Juliet, the ballet, is stupendously staged and my front seat costs only $20. All look their parts, notably the tender protagonists, and it seems as if the life of the Russian street has poured onto the stage, sublimated into Verona; during the entr’acte the ballet continues in foyer, as girls fleet up and down the stairs. But Kiev is not Russian; it seems determined to shake off all memory of its former sisterland; even the TV has channels in every tongue but Russian. Ukrainian looks like Russian, but on closer inspection has letters not used in Russian and has dropped some of the Russian ones.
Next morning at breakfast a smart Osaka businessman, here to help with energy infrastructure and ecological aspects, teaches me a lot about Ukrainian politics, corruption, Russian bullying with oil prices to deter them from throwing in their lot with the EU. I see the holiest site in Ukraine, underground corridors with monks’ mummified corpses in glass cases, which the faithful kiss with great devotion. Nearby the fearful titanium statue of the “mother of the nation” rises babylonically over a dark museum devoted to the Great Patriotic War – all explanations in Ukrainian. The last room is flooded with photos of the deceased, only a tiny selection from the 27,000,000. There is another museum nearby for victims of other Soviet engagements, from Spain and China in the thirties to Angola and Nicaragua in the seventies. I did not find the word “Afghanistan” but that seemed to be the topic of the tree of photographs near the entrance. I look at the hundreds of twenty year olds who died around 1982; from one classic Russian countenance proud young eyes look out, in accusation.
A Shostakovich concert, part of an international festival for young virtuosi, proceeds with due vigor, though the conductor has to stare down some barbarous members of the audience who insist on cheering “bravo, bravo” after the first movement of the cello concerto. I consider the Irish pub as a social way to bring this sojourn to an end, though hardly likely now to make any profound contact with the people of Kiev. Russia will remain for me St Petersburg, my port of first or only call when (or must I say “if”?) I return.
At the pub I meet an interesting Frenchman, 35, who tells of his disastrous affair with a Russian woman who loved him in her fashion – her breathless diary raved about his financial kindness. The foreigner is a combination of an ATM machine and sexual hygienic exercises, he sadly concludes. On the nightmarish 28 hour train journey to Bucharest I am saved from starvation by two kind Ukrainians who share their foodstuffs: Ilena and Mikhail, she a Chernobyl baby who speaks perfect French, which she has taught since age 20, he an economist also Francophone, both to spend a year in Sophia on a scholarship of 100 Euro a month. I pass the time with Martin Walser’s novel about an unhappy woman in Dusseldorf, Das Lebenslauf der Liebe. Her cv is taken up to Dec 31 1999: now 68 years old she has found some content in her tense second marriage with 29 year old Khalil – sufficiently downbeat to match the tedium of the journey and the desolation of the Romanian countryside with its ruins. [Meeting the novelist after his talk in the Humboldt University, Berlin, in 2012, I tell him how his Dusseldorf Bovary saved my life; “Es tut mir Leid,” he replies.]
I am robbed by the taxi driver at Bucharest and plagued by the Visa card company, who have put a security lock on my credit card – eventually an expensive phone call solves the problem. I meet Hubert Durt and in his dim Proustian hotel room hear the tale of his astonishing summer travels – eight kilometers walking about Petra, “the rose-red city, half as old as time,” in intense heat, mounting to the pinnacle of the site. He and his wife Michio, indefatigable in their interest in art and the realia of religion and culture, have taken in the scenery and churches of Transylvania, undeterred by a cruel bus journey.
Outside the drab opera house, which despite the sound of an orchestra rehearsing inside, gives no notice of any performances, I meet a most interesting man, Liviu Petrina, a Christian Democrat politician, who studied on a diplomatic exchange in Japan for three years in the 1960s, and is vice-president of the Christian Civic Forum and founder member of the European Association of Japanologists. He knew the dreaded Ceausescu and says that personally he was a mild gentleman but was a rigid dogmatist, believing that Stalinism would last for ever. He tells me that the Latin word for cheese comes from Dacian, as a letter of Pliny reveals, and that the word rabda, endurance, is a Dacian one – I suppose it is dear to Romanians, considering their rather grim history.
The history of religions conference will consume the rest of my stay here, so there will be little time for tourism, though I would like to look at the dictator's mammoth palace, the biggest building in the world after the Pentagon. [I circled it later in the rain, quite enough. The conference was graced by bright young scholars, some of whom went over the traumas of Romanian history in the last century, and by President Traiano Balescu who spoke from the heart about the need of interreligious dialogue and diplomacy – an inspiring leader for the country as it slips into the EU just before the shutters come down. Much talk of the Pope’s arrogant remark at Regensburg – sad that the joys of religious pluralism, which his predecessor sometimes reveled in, are overcast by so many headaches.]
My thanks to Neil Cornwell, author of Daniil Kharms and the Poetics of the Absurd and The Absurd in Literature (Manchester UP, 2006), for correcting some of my Russian mistakes.