Published in Wanderlust, January 2000
“Wasn’t it awfully dangerous? What about the poverty?” Mention that you’ve been to Russia and no one asks about the gorgeous churches or extraordinary museums. Today it’s crime and hardship, ten years ago it would have been queues and communism. We see it as utterly different from our world, yet, as I wandered in a leafy Moscow park a few hours after arrival, I felt that this could have been a Sunday afternoon in Kensington Gardens. Well-dressed teenagers strolled hand in hand, kids whizzed by on skateboards, and parents played with their toddlers under the lilac trees. Later, when I rode on the Metro I was struck by the fact that it even smelt like our tube. The only difference was how quiet and well-behaved the passengers were; they all seemed to be reading books — respectable-looking hardbacks — and there was no shouting, no yobbish behaviour, and none of the human detritus of the London underground. And it felt safe, too. Having foolishly set out without a map showing station names in both the cyrillic and roman alphabet, I got hopelessly lost. None of the people I approached for help spoke English, but they all went out of their way to understand where I wanted to go and explain, with gestures, how to achieve it. Had I not been looking for the Russia to fit my preconceptions I probably would not even have noticed the old woman with a battered plastic suitcase on a trolley and a cat in a carrier bag on her lap. Her face was full of sadness as she stroked the cat and stared into the blackness beyond the window.
This is how it was throughout my 10-day stay in Russia. I was here to take a river cruise from Moscow to St Petersburg, and was constantly disturbed by the contrast between the opulence of the monuments of Tsarist Russia which we had come to see, and the dignity of the people who, after nearly a century of hope and despair, are more concerned with day-to-day survival. It is hard to think of a nation which has been worse served by its leaders over such a long period of time. There is no golden era for the ordinary Russians to look back on. Little chinks of optimism, perhaps, in their long, long history of massacres, famine and war; glimmers of light, but they were quickly suppressed by whoever was in power at the time.
Despite this being a cruise in every sense — good food, lazy hours in deck chairs in the sun, easy conversation and comfortable cabins — it was exhausting because there was so much to learn and so much learning to undo. We passengers on the Viking Pakhomov were exceptionally fortunate; our on-board lecturer was Dr Ludmilla Selezneva, who holds the UNESCO funded position of Chief of the Chair for the Culture of Peace and Democracy at the Russian State University for Humanities. “We try to find examples of successful negotiations in the past, and study the elements of compromise throughout history,” she explained. A historian and charismatic speaker who works only for Noble Caledonia, Ludmilla gave a daily lecture on different aspects of Russian history or culture. A large part of each lecture was taken up with questions: most of us had grown up in the Cold War and wanted to hear what it was like from the Russian side. Was the Cuban Missile Crisis as terrifying an experience for them as it was for us? Well, yes. The United States had missiles in Turkey pointing at Moscow, and a President who seemed willing to use them. How about 1968, when the Russians sent their tanks into Czechoslovakia? “Our newspapers told us our boys were saving the country from insurrection.” And what about Glasnost? “Exciting but terrible times. We had to rethink everything that we held to be sacred. There have been many suicides from those who were not able to make the adjustment.”
The best-attended lecture was provocatively entitled “How Many Borises does Russia Need?” Here Ludmilla took a broad sweep on history, from Boris Godunov to Boris Yeltsin. She described Yeltsin as a typical Boris: “Strong, wilful, big”. Russia’s next Boris could be Boris Birisovsky, a born-again capitalist and able economist. In Ludmilla’s view it was Gorbachev’s emphasis on foreign policy, on communism with a human face, but at the expense of the country’s economy, which led to his downfall. “We could have had economic reform within the Communist political structure, as in China. Instead we experienced this shock therapy. Fifty per cent of our industry simply collapsed.”
I had never expected to feel so at home in Russia. Russia could claim to have produced more internationally acclaimed authors, playwrights and composers than any other nation, not to mention their performing artists. But for nearly 80 years its politics have been so different from ours in western Europe that the Iron Curtain seemed more than mere metaphor. We knew nothing about Russians except that they were The Enemy. Yet talking to Ludmilla and the other staff on board was like talking to anyone I might meet in the normal course of life. Perhaps because there was no cultural distancing, certain images stick in my mind.
The most vivid memory comes from Uglich, an industrial town which was once famous for its watchmaking industry. Most of the factories have now closed down and there is no alternative employment. Tourist boats in the summer provide the only source of income for many people. A band played for us as we disembarked, earning the performers a few roubles before we ran the gauntlet of the vendors who had set up their tables on each side of the long walkway leading to the centre of town. All the usual souvenirs were for sale, as well as watches. I showed interest in buying a watch and was dismayed at the fight that ensued between two teenage girls who each felt she had a prior claim. I paid the asking price: US$6. Walking briskly along the path to catch up with the group I was only half-aware of the flower sellers. Each old lady was holding a bunch of flowers: mostly tulips or lilac, with some lilies-of-the-valley. Each was beckoning and smiling at the tourists. One elderly woman, however, stood quietly under the trees with downcast eyes. She was warmly wrapped against the chill May wind, and drooping from her hand was a tired bunch of buttercups. She must have known she was a pathetic figure, even in Uglich, but at least she was selling something. I’m sure she would have been too proud to beg. Perhaps the 10 roubles I paid for those buttercups bought her some bread and a little dignity.
The pathos of this woman was rare. Most Russians in tourist areas have learned exactly how to extract money from foreigners. The elderly have realised that the British and Americans care more about animals than people, so they pose for photos with their cats, or dogs dressed in frilly clothing. The young have, of course, taken to capitalism with enthusiasm. In Moscow I bought a set of Russian dolls. The large doll depicted President Clinton; inside were, in decreasing order, Monica Lewinsky, Paula Jones, Hillary Clinton, Chelsea Clinton and a saxophone. I asked the very effective young saleswoman what she did when she was not selling souvenirs. She was a medical student.
No wonder there was a revolution! Touring Moscow’s museums, I found the lavishness of the gifts that were showered upon the Russian royal family from all parts of the globe to be almost obscene. This was ornamentation for the sake of it; ostentatious, not beautiful. In the Kremlin Armoury there are thrones made of gold, rubies, diamonds and ivory; there is a horse “brass” decorated with 999 diamonds (a Muslim lucky number) and a carriage which outdoes our Coronation Coach in ornamentation. On a miniature scale are the extraordinary Fabergé eggs, presented to the Tsar each Easter. It’s extraordinary that all these treasures survived the communist years and even more surprising that Lenin himself commissioned art experts to tour the country rescuing works of religious or secular art.
On the evening of the third day the ship’s engines started throbbing and we slid quietly out of Moscow, the silhouettes of giant cranes giving way to ghostly silver birch trees, their branches black against the evening sky. In mid June it was light until nearly midnight, and I watched the scenery slipping by outside the porthole: trees, trees, and more trees. Our first stop the next day was Uglich. The main attraction was, as usual, a church but more famous for its bell than its icons. The church of St Demetrius-on-the-Blood was built to commemorate the murder of Ivan the Terrible’s son, Dmitrii, in 1591. The story goes that a servant witnessed the murder, perhaps ordered by Boris Godunov, and tolled the huge bell to raise the alarm. The servant and a thousand or so villagers were sent to Siberia. The chief culprit suffered the same fate, after having its tongue and ear cut off as a punishment. The bell languished in Siberia for 300 years before being brought back to Uglich in the 19th century to be fitted with a new ear (from which it is hung) and a new clapper or tongue.
“No, don’t tell me… let me guess. We’re going to see some icons!”. By the third day many of the passengers were churched-out. Each religious building we visited seemed more iconed, more golden, and more lavish than the one before. We were fitting in two or three at each stop, and because of the quality of our Russian guides (most were moonlighting university professors or teachers) we stood for hours listening to their stories, necks creaking as we gazed at ceilings or onion domes. Me, I loved it! Russian Orthodox churches are strongly reminiscent of the Greek Byzantine ones that I like so much: the same over-decoration and the same obscure saints meeting a variety of unpleasant deaths with beatific smiles. And the icons are more than just paintings — to the Orthodox they represent a window to God. There was always something to feast your eyes on, a new story to absorb, or the tear-jerkingly beautiful plainsong of monks to envelop you. And the religious devotion of ordinary Russians to humble you. When we traipsed round the collection of icons at Moscow’s Tretyakov Gallery, I came upon a family gazing at the most famous of all, “The Old Testament Trinity”, which depicts three angels bringing the news to Sarah and Abraham that she had conceived a child. The man was in tears, his little daughter holding his hand.
The shore visit that stands out is Kizhi Island, in Lake Onega, which lies only four degrees south of the Arctic Circle in the Republic of Karelia. The whole island is a Museum of Architecture, whose 18th- and 19th-century buildings have been transported here from all over the Republic. Timber is Karelia’s only natural resource, and these buildings are a monument to the architects’ creativity. After all the gilt and colour of churches elsewhere in Russia, the silvery-browns in Kizhi come as a gentle relief. It is blissfully peaceful, and one can wander at will, watching the day-to-day life of the farmers who still live here, discovering small churches, barns and windmills, and pottering through meadows full of flowers. The island is dominated by the Church of the Transfiguration, an extraordinary 18th century building with 22 onion domes of silvery aspen shingles. The architect, so they say, got his inspiration from dew drops. More likely he just liked making wooden cupolas and saw no reason to stop.
St Petersburg, our final destination, could hardly be a greater contrast to Kizhi. Here each building seems to be straining to outdo its neighbour in size, ornamentation and colour. It is, without question, one of the world’s most gorgeous cities and it was extraordinary to be there with so few fellow tourists. I strolled around on my own, gawping at the most famous landmarks, and heard no language but Russian. Nevsky Prospekt, with its elegant shops, could have been the Champs Elysee but for the absence of crowds. In the Hermitage it was possible to stand in front of a Rembrandt or a Cezanne with no other visitors to impede your view. What a museum this is! The statistics are mind-boggling: a thousand rooms, 19 kilometres of galleries, and three million exhibits. The trick is not to be overwhelmed but to focus your attentions on just a few of the rooms. What is so entrancing here is to see unfamiliar paintings by names such as Picasso, Monet, and Van Gogh and to find such treasures as the collection of small Rodin marbles: decidedly erotic sculptures of languorous lovers.
Russia is an assault on the senses and emotions. I want to return to explore at a gentler pace and to do justice to the Hermitage and some of the smaller museums. But for all the gorgeous palaces, the golden church domes, the Fabergé eggs, the icons and the Impressionists, it is the memory of the Russian people which endures. In particular the memory of that old woman in Uglich with her wilting bunch of buttercups.
© Hilary Bradt