Russia: friend or frenemy? The Ukrainian crisis and Russia’s direct military involvement in the Syrian Civil War are generally reported with an anti-Russian bias. Britain’s phobia has its roots in the 19th century and fear of Russia’s rising power. Today, still, Russia asserting its national interests is presented as an act of blatant aggression. A Cold War mentality lives on. Yet Western militaristic aggression in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and Libya are portrayed as noble moral endeavours, bringing democracy to the unenlightened.
Colin Thubron opens Among the Russians (Picador 1995) with the words: “I had been afraid of Russia ever since I could remember. When I was a boy its mass dominated the map which covered the classroom wall; it was tinted a wan green, I recall, and was distorted by Mercator’s projection so that its tundras suffocated half the world.”
Thubron writes about the individuals he meets on his travels across the Soviet Union in the 1980s before the fall of the Berlin wall. Tailed by the KGB for much of his journey, Thubron is retained and interrogated on the Hungarian border as he leaves the country. His “closewritten diary” is nearly (but not) taken away by a weary immigration officer.
Revisiting the book, I wonder how much has fundamentally changed, post-Perestroika, since human nature is pretty much the same wherever, or whenever . . . “The self-accorded privileges of top party members were a rankling sore,” writes Thubron. Lucia in Leningrad looks depressed as she states: “Influence is more important than wealth.” Boris in Moscow says with a wry laugh, “Oh yes Orwell’s books have come true in our country. They’re listening to us now.”
Media reports rarely mention Britain’s cultural debt to the Russian bear. Just two examples: it was thanks to Sergei Diaghilev and his Ballets Russes that modern ballet came to London, in the shape of two former Diaghilev dancers, Marie Rambert (who founded the Ballet Club later known as Ballet Rambert) and Ninette de Valois (who started the Vic-Wells Ballet which later became The Royal Ballet Company).
As Wagner had done with opera and Diaghilev with ballet, Theodore Komisarjevsky dreamed of creating a universal model of theatre with drama. He brought Director’s Theatre to Britain; staging Chekhov in Barnes in the 1920s, and scandalising audiences at Stratford in the 1930s with his radical productions of Shakespeare. John Gielgud, Edith Evans, Charles Laughton, Alec Guinness and Peggy Ashcroft, all acknowledged their debt to him.
Masterpieces of Russian Stage Design 1880-1930 is an essential guide for anyone interested in the Ballets Russes and the period. A catalog raisonné of the Lobanov-Rostovsky collection of stage design, there are superb illustrations and biographies of the artists. Henry Berry writes on Amazon, “The breadth of the collection makes this art book a premier history, record, and visual reference for Russian stage and costume design from the latter 19th through the mid 20th centuries. These decades were roughly the last decades of the czarist monarchy through fairly advanced, early Stalinist Communism.” Fascinating and beautiful.
As a child, Slavic stories about the witch Baba Yaga who lived deep in the forest in a hut standing on chicken legs terrified me, yet had me gripped. Of all the tales in Alexander Pushkin’s The Golden Cockerel and Other Stories, The Tale of the Fisherman and the Golden Fish is the one I remember. I played with pretty Russian nesting dolls; my sticker collection was kept in a shiny wooden box with a colourful picture of the onion domes of St. Basil’s Cathedral on its lid; I liked to eat my mother’s thick home-made vegetable soup from a wooden bowl with matching spoon painted in the red-gold-on-black Khokhloma folk style.
Russians often came to my parents’ Paris flat. I have a shadowy memory of Felix Yusupov (involved in the assassination of mystical faith healer, Grigori Rasputin, favourite of Tsarina Alexandra Fyodorovna). He firmly believed in faith healers and made recommendations to my mother for her sciatica. I always looked forward to the visits of fashion photographer Eugene Rubin – gentle and courteous, immaculate and exuding Vetyver, with a twinkle in his eye and a story to tell.
A cursory look at the bookcase near my desk reveals a classic medley of Russian literature, some of which I have read, but mostly not – oh, for more time!
The Portable Chekhov edited by Avrahm Yarmolinsky (Viking, New York 1947);
Chekhov, Three Sisters and Other Plays translated by Constance Garnett (Chatto & Windus 1923);
Leo Tolstoy, Sevastopol and Other Stories (Methuen 1912) and War and Peace (OUP 1954) translated by Louise and Aylmer Maude;
Nikolai Gogol, Taras Bulba and Other Stories (J. M. Dent 1952) no translator credited;
Ivan Turgenev, Fathers and Sons translated by George Reavey (Hamish Hamilton 1950);
Alexander Herzen, memoirs in six volumes My Past and Thoughts translated by Constance Garnett (Chatto and Windus 1927);
Princess Stephanie Dolgorouky, Russia Before the Crash (Herbert Clarke 1926);
The Prose Tales of Alexander Pushkin translated by T. Keane (G Bell and Sons 1919);
Irakly Andronikov, The Last Days of Pushkin (Foreign Languages Publishing House, Moscow 1962);
Sergei Aksakof, Years of Childhood and A Russian Schoolboy translated by J. D. Duff (Edward Arnold 1916 & 1917 respectively);
Theodore Komisarjevsky, Myself and the Theatre (Heinemann 1929);
Jean Savant, Les Cosaques (éditions Balzac 1944);
The Diary of Vaslav Nijinsky (unexpurgated edition) edited by Joan Acocella, translated by Kyril FitzLyon (University of Illinois Press, 2006);
Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky (Quartet 1990);
Goncharov, Oblomov translated by David Magarshack (Penguin Classics 1954);
Aydin Osman Erkan’s biography of Osman Ferid Pasha, Turn My Head to the Caucasus (Citlembik Publications 2009);
Mikhail Bulgakov, The Master and Margarita translated by Mirra Ginsburg (Grove Press 1994);
Vladimir Nabokov, Lolita (Olympia Press PB April 1959);
Russian Short Stories from Pushkin to Buida edited by Robert Chandler (Penguin Classics 2006);
Michael Glenny & Norman Stone, The Other Russia: Experiences of Exile (Faber 1990);
Isaiah Berlin, Russian Thinkers (Penguin Classics 2008).
So far, so classic. What of post-Soviet Russia literature?
The Rossica Translation Prize is a good place to start, and a friend who often goes to Pushkin House gives me a list of relatively recent “important” books to mention in this piece that are, as yet, untranslated: Vladimov, The General and His Army; Makanin, Underground; Mikhail Butov, Svoboda (Freedom). Boris Akunin, writer of detective and historical fiction, has fared better: translated by Andrew Bromfield, he is well published and promoted. As is Andrey Kurkov, author of the wonderfully surreal Death and the Penguin and Penguin Lost (translated by George Bird). I have ordered The Big Green Tent by Ludmila Ulitskaya, translated by Bela Shayevich, published two months ago by Farrar, Straus and Giroux in New York.
While I wait for The Big Green Tent to arrive, I turn to one of Britain’s top travel writers, The Spectator‘s first rock critic and Prospect contributor: Duncan Fallowell. I revisit him enjoying One Hot Summer in Saint Petersburg, ostensibly to write a novel. “Here we are at the end of the 20th century in an arena of anachronisms, both of past and future, which render the place timeless.” Despite being published in 1995, this excellent book has a timeless quality since it is people and their lives that Fallowell writes about, rather than the system.
His first landlady, thirty-something Serafima, claims she is “part Tartar. Ghengis Khan!” It is 27 °C and Fallowell floats down Nevsky Prospect in the shimmering heat observing the dereliction of the city . . . boys selling souvenirs, hawkers, crones eating bread and salt . . . two men with briefcases suddenly have a fearsome punch up then resume walking as though nothing had happened . . . three Borzois waiting at a bus stop are calmer than their edgy master.
By means of impressionistic prose and conversations, the reader gets a real feel of what life is like. A friend of Serafima’s remarks, “There is a dissonance in our city between the grandeur of the buildings and the meanness of the life lived in them.” Fallowell’s fixer, Sonya, tells him that, “To understand Russia and the Russians, you must realise that our life is entirely absurd – and always was. Russia is people playing many parts and pieces of parts in a huge theatre.”
He meets Misha the Poet and the Sculptress . . . samples radioactive caviar from the Caspian Sea . . . visits Yegalin Palace on Yegalin Island and its Oval Ballroom where Pushkin danced . . . goes to a disco at the Astoria Hotel where thugs, Mafiosi, and a young “way-out crowd” dance and smoke dope . . . hooks up with wheeler-dealer Roger from South London and is asked by a fellow diner if he wants to buy a tank, or some guns . . . enjoys the sauna at Dostoyevsky Street Baths where he reflects about Russia and Russians: “The young people of Saint Petersburg are alive to change.”
He befriends a young, well-dressed sailor with a chipped front tooth. Dima hustles him for $300 allegedly to rescue his family from mafiosi demands, and Fallowell refuses. Their friendship is unaffected and they continue to meet. Dima appears and disappears like a djinn in an Asiatic fairytale. His fate is a tragic postscript.
Lydia the Psychiatrist, in a pine green tracksuit, remarks: “Peter the Great dragged Russia into the 18th century. Stalin dragged it into the 20th. Who will drag it into the 21st?” . . . For sixteen years, Putin was an officer in the KGB, rising to the rank of lieutenant colonel before he retired to enter politics in his native Saint Petersburg in 1991. He moved to Moscow in 1996 and joined President Boris Yeltsin’s administration. In 2000 he won the presidential election, amidst widespread accusations of vote-rigging, and has consolidated his iron grip on power ever since. It seems Putin is Stalin’s heir . . .
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