Stories from abroad

Dec 6, 2010 by

Stories from abroad

Giant in a Teapot


I cannot sleep.  Despite Saint Petersburg’s sleep-enhancing aura, mist, greyness.  It feels as if the whole atmosphere was programmed to lull your attention, to bring about the everyday half-doze, to weaken your sight. Only the flashy, gay-coloured election posters manage to pierce through the mist.

And yet, I cannot sleep.  Accommodation insomnia, culture-shock, nothing of the kind. It is a feeling of surprise, of permanently rounded eyes and a painfully high position of the brows. A sense of urgency, verging on emergency, to express it all, to bring it to the public, to inform, to share the truth, and finally, to drive into action. And change. It feels as if I stood before some higher Tribunal, some Universal Court, as a witness, solicitor and barrister in one person. Testifying for and against Russia. For there is no ‘one Russia’, despite the name of the ruling party ‘Edinaya Rossiya’.

Sense of a mission, that’s what it is. I never thought I would feel it in myself. Covered in the academic safety-jacket, preserving a happy intellectual distance, living on my books and translations.  On fiction. Translating it back and forth. But not touching the reality, staying on paper, a safe literary ground. And yet, once you’re here, you have to step out. Of poetry, of fiction. It does not hold when you buy your poetry book from a bowed grandma on the street, for a ridiculous price, because as she shyly admits she would like yoghurt for supper. And so she sells off the family collections, beautiful with gold frames, on a dirty corner.

And so I testify what I have seen, heard and felt here.  As factual as possible, sometimes running away into literariness, one needs some preservation measures.

Space domesticated

Russia is big – a geographical commonplace, but an important one to understand the train’s role in this country. In Western Europe it is yet another means of transport, taking you from city A to city B. It is a possibility of movement, a link. In Russia with its eleven time zones across steppe distances the train has developed into a place in itself. A moving place, if one may allow a little paradox. Russians have a unique, natural skill of making a wagon into a home. It is an endearing capacity to tame the space around that I was a witness to during my journey south, from Saint Petersburg to Nizhnii Novgorod, which takes around sixteen hours.

* * *

One must say, a Russian sleeping wagon is tameable. Boiling water is constantly provided, as well as silvery brimmed glasses in a typically old-fashioned, Soviet style. Everyone has access to a table, over which tea can be savoured and conversations embarked upon. People are seated opposite each other, which enhances the contact with a travelling companion, a known one or, more often than not, a stranger. Once the train sets into motion, the taming of the wagon space begins. Most travellers have slippers that they now take out of their rucksacks and put on their feet. The floor of the wagon is covered with something in between a stretched out dishcloth and a rag, a kind of rough-and-ready carpet, which adds to the atmosphere of homeliness, somehow uncouth and provisional. People, on the other hand, have much less of this make-shift quality about them. Tables are gradually covered with packets, cellophane bags with different kind of snacks and sandwiches.

A cucumber and a sausage enjoy the greatest popularity among the train snacks endowing the journey with colour and taste. Once the table has been set out, some people already venture into the toilets to change into their train outfits. Normally it is a pyjama or a track suit for the sake of lying (and sitting) comfort. A horizontal position is definitely the preferred one. It is associated with leisure, which contributes to the make-shift snuggery that the wagon gradually turns into. Mattresses and bedding are thus distributed at a very early stage, to keep up with the already established dressing gown fashion of the wagon. Russians like their cosy comfort, with tea and book at hand, comfortable clothes on and a warm blanket to hide under. Even if it’s hot in the wagon, which is normally the case, the blanket is indispensable to cover oneself up. It is only the soul, Russian dusha, that is laid bare during the trip – the rest stays covered and warm. Around eleven the light in the wagon is turned off; just a dim light stays on, and people go to sleep. Or they look out of the window at the moon following us and the landscape escaping us. The bumpiness of the Russian railway has an effect of a rather violently moving cradle, but most of the travellers seem to sleep well. They sleep to the comforting silence before the storm.

In the early morning they wake up to the turmoil of bathing procedures, people bustling around for some morning tea or coffee, changing back into normal street-outfit. Not much space, but the space there is, is filled with friendly air and general warm-heartedness. We have become train-mates, after all.  We have conquered quite a bit of distance together. We will never see each other after we step out of this wagon; it is the space inside, provisionally furnished by our rucksacks and cucumbers, by glasses to drink from and glasses to put aside after reading, by pyjamas to change into in the evening and change from in the morning. The circle of evening, night and morning is completed with the arrival at the station. It is a shame some homes last shorter than others.

* * *

Russians are known for being open, trusting and talkative, especially with their tea at hand and friends ‘at ear’. But once in a train these characteristics attain an unimaginable level. It is not enough to share your biscuits with a person seated opposite to you in a wagon, you have to share your life, as well.

There is no such phenomenon as ‘small talk’ in Russia. Even a conversation about the weather is never small here. Just the opposite, it acquires just as profound, or at least intimate, a level as a confession. Rain in Russia is never mentioned for its own atmospheric sake – it normally leads to a review on the changing moods in the recent days, most probably attributed to the rapid changes in pressure, which in turn, on Friday evening, resulted in quite a serious migraine… A Russian with a rather withdrawn character would stop at that point. But a typical one, especially a woman, would proceed to voice the effects of the migraine on her internal state during the whole Friday evening. Neither is the sun included in an answer if it did not more or less directly, but nearly always traumatically, influence the speaker. ‘The sun was shining, we were planning to go to the our dacha with Valeri, Sasha, Anya (relatives are eagerly/ included in all stories), but then little Vladya, a three-year-old son of Anya, started coughing so badly, we had to go to the hospital…’

There is something fateful and deterministic in the gloomy turn Russian ‘small talk’ often takes. It is only here that I realize that ‘small talk’ is not determined by the subject of the conversation, but by its tone, mood and direction. In England the tone is generally optimistic, the attitude light, the perception of the world distanced, as if half-winking. Subtle irony, sometimes sarcasm, more or less refined humour prevail. The pace is normally brisk, the general movement of the conversation dynamic but not defined, because of the frequent skipping between the subjects. Associations govern talk, not a plan, and definitely not the need to tell a personal story. In England people ‘small talk’ to entertain themselves, sometimes to show [some] eloquence, other times just for a laugh.

In Russia the tone is generally pessimistic, the attitude heavy, the perception of the world –experienced closely and vividly. People here talk straight-forwardly, often complain or lay bare their everyday struggles. They have a tendency to get involved in long monologues, thus slowing down the conversation and making it much less of a dynamic exchange. It is hardly ever a chat in Russia, more often a mutual confession, an oral diary, a stream of words coming straight from the dusha.

A table

You cannot say a lot about Russia if you haven’t sat at a Russian table. It is more than a piece of furniture on which you put your plate. It is a piece of furniture on which you put your elbows when sipping yet another cup of tea. It is a piece of furniture across which you talk in the intervals between the sips. It is a piece of Russian everyday life, the so-called byt. The ‘human truth’ of Russia lies somewhere above the table, drifting together with the tea vapours from one interlocutor to another. It is a truth of an everyday story, of a common man, of a mundane tragedy that can only be played out in a Russian kitchen.

My truth about Russia will come from its people. Particular people, that I met here and I had a chance, and a privilege, to sit at one table and to drink tea with, to listen to and to be amazed at.

Chair 1 – Ludmila

My Russian host mother is fair-haired, slim, with a faint, but warmhearted smile. She doesn’t work for health reasons – in practice, because theoretically she is still employed, ‘stazh idet’. That’s the way people do it here, she says, so that they do not have gaps in their professional carrier. Hence, the ‘job diary’ is filled in, but in truth another person receives the double wage. Dissonance between documentation and reality is one of the characteristic features of Russia. It is not a new problem – [N.] Gogol portrayed it wonderfully and with due wit and satirical air in his novel ‘Dead Souls’. But despite the literary criticism, the problem persists. The kind of ‘official lie’, or lie made official, connects the two, on the first glance bipolar aspects of the society – bureaucracy and corruption.

Liuda’s current problem is connected to the selling of the flat, inherited from her father.  Officially her sister and herself are the only heirs. The inheritance process would be clear-cut and the situation unambiguous if they had not promised the lady who lived with their father to share the ownership with her. They gave their word, just after their father had died, somehow in a rush and without second thoughts. Spontaneity of Russian people, their outward emotionality, even in business matters , is a remarkable phenomenon. In no other culture I know, does the word ‘soul’ (‘dusha’) enjoy such frequent usage, both in literature and everyday life. Now, after the mourning period, second thoughts have come. But they gave their word. And the word, the question honour, is not to be broken by a Russian, at least not by Liuda and her sister. The problem is that the lady wants to buy the flat from them, but for a low price, despite the colossal inflation on real estate in the recent months. And so they meet up, gather at the very same table I mentioned before. Business is thus instantly left on the side – the ‘tea time’ is holy and has to be enjoyed. It includes sandwiches with red ikra, cheese, salmon and a chocolate cake for dessert  – the term ‘tea’ in Russian is much wider than anyone would think, it envelops the whole table, with all that is served on it. An empty table is a disgrace for a Russian – more than an empty purse. Hospitality is a higher value than business, at least in the case of the older generation. Thus, they eat, they drink, they talk about their children, their problems – no small talk as an introductory feature, we’re too far East for that. The snack maybe small (but always fatty!) – conversation may not. After the insight into one another’s souls, they say goodbye and the flat matter (in both meanings) is left aside till the next time.

Chair 2 – Natasha and Julia.

They are twins and both just as lost in the Russian society. By ‘lost’ I mean not adapted, staying as if on one side, from which they voice their harsh criticism against their country. They are intelligent, they have had a good education, they are teachers of English. They have had a chance to travel – Natasha has been in the US on a year’s scholarship programme. Julia has been to Germany several times. They have seen Western ways, which strengthened their conviction that Russia is run badly.

When I visited them two weeks ago they had just been robbed. Someone must have noticed that they rent room to foreigners and foreigners mean money, often kept in the room to avoid bank expenses – unwise in the view of Russian robbers, who have mastered most designs of the local flat locks. The atmosphere is thus rather gloomy. We talk of robberies and generally vandalism in Russia. Natasha’s husband, who is English, has recently been attacked on the street – at 11 pm, in the centre. A man came up to him, with a knife in his hand, demanding money. In the end nothing happened, but Rob does not want to leave his room tonight. No matter how much vodka we offer to him. He plays the guitar, English songs, the Beatles. It calms him down. Every nation has their ways of coming back to oneself. But can one be oneself here?

The main ‘problem’ of Natasha, Julia, Rob and many others ‘outsiders’ here is their sensitivity. That’s a luxury that Russian life, especially in business, but equally in the underground or on the street, does not let you have. You have to become hard, if you want to achieve something here. Natasha said her ex-boyfriendchanged tremendously when he got into business – he hardened, he learnt how to argue, his voice became harsher. The more his transformation progressed, the higher his salary became. It’s not about talents, education or professionalism. It’s about connections and strength. The special kind of strength – emotional immunity, ‘rockiness’, a rough manner of talking to people, shouting your way through. Power in its most primitive form.

All that happens in the streets between castles, museums, theatres of the highest rank. Where to go for culture if not St Petersburg? Most of what I have just described remains hidden to the tourists, amazed at the exuberance of Hermitage’s interiors, the collections of Russian museums and the performances in the Mariinski Theatre. It seems that in the country where crime is rife and new Russians gather their riches at the cost of less ‘effective’ people, there is culture to be found that appeals to the most sensitive.

Another visit to Natasha and Julia

Natasha meets me at the door as always full of wonder at my smile, still unbroken by Russian reality. It’s so dusty here, you better protect your teeth, she says jokingly. We go down a long corridor to the kitchen, the main square of any typically Russian household. It is spacious and it always has a calming effect on me. Brown upholstering, ceiling covered in gay, but aquarelle, mildly toned colors. Natasha and Julia painted it after it had soaked through during one of the usual water catastrophes in the building. A recurrent cacophonic sound from the water tubes serves as a last persistent remainder of the draining danger hanging ominously over the old Russian building.

Natasha is occupied with one of her ‘scraping pictures’, wherein she paints numerous layers of paint and later scrapes it into different shapes with a pointed pencil. The result is astounding and very original. She uses bright warm colors, deep oranges and yellows, reminding one of African landscapes – the opposite of what there is around us. A similar effect is achieved on the stage of the Mariinski theatre – the decor is often maintained in a fairy-tale atmosphere, a celebration for the eye of both child and adult and, at the same time, a rest from the everyday grayness of a Russian street. It seems as if one of the main functions of art in Russia is to aesthetically undermine Russian reality, or at least neutralize it.

Julia seems to find no solace in artful escape. She looks for none any more. She is seated in a deep, brown armchair, with her knees pulled up to her chin staring into a dirty sink and listening to the scraping concert in the water tubes. You have to force her to smile, she seems depressed, broken and disillusioned. She does not even complain any more, which is disconcerting. Natasha speaks a lot and thus lets her dissatisfaction go, but Julia keeps it more to herself.

Why haven’t they ‘properly’ settled down here? Why with their intelligence, talent and education have they not got a well-paid job? They have always wanted to transmit [some] ideals, to have to do with culture, not with business. Teaching gives them satisfaction, a feeling that they are conveying [some] principles, but it gives them no money. This is not the way to go in Russia, not if you want to be able to shop at the expensive boutiques on Nevsky Prospekt or to afford something more than the absolutely necessary.

Chair 3 – Masha

She is not a patriot, she told me today, not of today’s Russia. She feels much more bonded to the Soviet Era – the period of stability, courtesy on the streets, high culture on the stages. ‘Soviet’ is a bad word, nearly a swear word in the West; it is normally [being] used in the context of communism, lack of freedom, a centrally governed state. “All very well and true, but there was much more to the ‘Soviet state’ than politics. There was life, which even though governed centrally, seemed much freer than it is now. One was not afraid to go out on the street late at night – there was order, police, security.” she said. There was freedom of choice: to go out or not. Now there is another freedom of choice: ‘to go out and take a taxi or stay in?’. The taxi is an important new element – one of the advantages of the ‘free’ market economy.

Masha studied history. Now she specializes in art history and every second day she is in the State Hermitage Museum. She is proud to belong to a nation with such an amazing collection of art, theatres, culture. This is what she loves about Russia. But even this she associates primarily with the past – [the] today’s classical shows in the Mariinsky theatre are only a remnant, a pallid reflection of what it used to be. Generally, she says, people used to bring their children up differently in the Soviet Era. Ballet classes, drama lessons, history, books were all a part of education in the spirit of Enlightenment, of Catherine the Great and Voltaire. Now Western ways are establishing  themselves – young people will rather go to a pub than a theatre, unless they come from a family that carefully poured the love of culture into their heads. Otherwise they fall prey to ubiquitous ‘poshlost’ – the unique Russian word which is usually translated as ‘vulgarity’. In fact, it comprises the whole set of characteristics: lack of higher ideas and values, concentration on the material and earthly, which become apparent in people’s brusque manners, rudeness and kitschy style. How much of that can been seen on the streets of Petersburg has already been noticed by the great 19th century authors, especially Gogol and Dostoyevsky. It was one of the main subjects of their socially oriented works. Nowadays hardly anyone writes about it and it seems that hardly anyone notices it. Perhaps that is the point where the abnormal becomes normal.

Chair 4 – Lena

Lena is a friend of Masha, she has come today for a cup of tea and ‘postnye prianiki’ – ‘fasting cakes’, a phenomenon possible in Russia only. She is a tall girl with upright posture and anorexically slim. She has lost quite a lot of weight recently. I come in the middle of the conversation and only catch a few concluding words: ‘And then I knew I had forgotten something, but I had no idea what it was. Only later did I realize, I had forgotten to have lunch’. She is busy, ultra-busy if one may say so. To be a Russian and forget to have ‘tea-time’ is a symptom of grave malaise, or workaholism, which belongs to the category anyway. Lena has got an interesting job, but in the ‘season’ very time- and strength-consuming. She works in a ‘Student Consultancy Company’. That’s the official name. Boiling it down to everyday practice, she writes dissertations for students finishing their degree courses. She offers a whole range of subjects, on the Bachelor’s, Master’s and PhD level. Full service! The prices are set in a table, depending on the length and the degree aimed at, but they normally range around 13.000 roubles, out of which Lena gets around 50 percent, because the rest goes to the founders and the owners of the company – two 23-year-olds with no higher education, but with a sense for business.

At the moment Lena is working on a dissertation in ‘Managing Advertising’. A rather easy case; she has written a similar one recently, so just change some names and statistics and the dissertation is done – fresh and ready for the prize. But her client, a lady in her mid 20ties, is a hard case. She requires a good deal of instruction. The dissertation speech, made in Power Point, is furnished with signposts like: ‘now change the slide’ . The lady has no idea what she will be talking about. She has no idea, but she has a husband. What is more, a rich and caring husband, who works in the company the dissertation is about.  His wife has to have a degree, it makes a bad impression otherwise. And impressions count, in rubles.

Lena enjoys her job. It is interesting and allows her to develop. She has learnt so much in different domains; she has just finished a dissertation in psychology, which she found very enlightening. Lena was always brilliant at school, she enjoyed learning. Nonetheless, so far she has not defended her own dissertation; she is collecting money for it. Intelligence is never quite enough here – it has to be supported by a certain sum handed over to a certain professor. Only then can the intellect be truly appreciated and formally acknowledged with a diploma.

A Russian church

With our heads covered and hands folded we step into the grand interiors of the Kazansky Cathedral – a paragon of Roman monumentality, upheld by sixteen imposing columns forming a spectacular colonnade leading to the entrance. You do not have to be acutely sensitive to be left speechless at the first sight of it. Such simple, dignified grandeur is not a view of every day, even  a Russian every day. The spaciousness of the church’s interior is punctuated by individual people; we are early and the impermeable mass  has not gathered yet . In fact it is never really a mass here; much as Russians stick together outside, on the streets or in their kitchens, they remain strikingly singular in churches. Unless it is a feast-day?, there is normally one person standing in front of an icon. Orthodox Christianity is a prominently visual religion, which you realize admiring the copiousness of the church iconic imagery. What you may well fail to notice is the voice of the batyushka (priest) standing in the centre of the cathedral and facing the altar. He is constantly muttering some prayers, the meaning of which  slips away to the echoing acoustics of the church. It is clear that he addresses God, not the people.  He is a representative, pleading for the believers, scattered around the church, engrossed in their private conversations with the icons.

People cross themselves normally three times here, not once, like in a Catholic church. The first time I notice it I feel strangely startled. Three times seems too many, somehow too showy, too ceremonious. It fits disturbingly well with the general ritualistic makeup of Orthodox Christianity. As I become accustomed to it, it vexes me no longer. I realize that it is in tune with the enormous distance between God and a believer in the Orthodox Church. It is distance filled with respect, more than that, with reverence. Every prayer is first of all an act of worship just as every church is there to glorify God. In Russia this vehement glorification can both be seen in the impressive church architecture and in the round-the-clock ritual inside.

Even the scarf seems to me a part of this ostentatious character, but only in the first, ignorant moment. After a time I realize how deeply engrained in the national folk culture of a Russian village the scarf is. And again, just like with the threefold crossing, it is a sign of utmost respect. It is all the same surprising  that in the Catholic church showing respect is required from the men, who are not allowed into the churches with their heads covered.  Here it is the other way round – the women have to cover their heads – an example of how every culture has developed its own gestures of religious reverence.

The batyushka is the opposite of a Lutheran pastor; there is no passionate rhetoric in his speech, there is no appeal to the people. Instead, there is a rather  monotonous sound of the constant stream of prayer; the individual words fall together forming a rather indistinct line upheld on his deep baritone. It is like a muttered melody, composing a humming background to the meditative atmosphere in the church. The prayer pronounced by the priest has no rhetorical, but an appeasing effect. It induces in the believers gathered around the batyushka a state of  serene tranquillity, inner peace. As I look at individual faces I discern on them no strain to catch the fleeting words of the priest’s murmur.  No effort to seize meaning, rather to become a part of the common thoughtful placidity of the place. People look up towards the ornate altar, their intent gaze directed at the main icon of Mary, the Mother of God. It is the seat of most gold and jewels in the whole church, if not the whole of Russia. The icon is said to be miraculous, bringing the ill back to health. The sparkling riches luxuriantly framing the icon are largely presents from healed people. They are gifts of deep gratitude, which somehow makes the jewels sparkle even more, and with a different light – less material, yet more blinding, exciting a deep response from anyone who has taken position before the icon.  There is always a queue of believers waiting to come closer to the stirring image.

No other icon is in so high a spiritual demand as this one. Maybe because there are so many icons inside, a visual plenty that may feed anyone in need, at least on a regular day. The image in front of your eyes helps you concentrate your thoughts, makes them converge into a  clearer stream, flowing towards the gentle face of the saint, deprived of wrinkles or other realistic traits for the sake of benign, childlike beauty. It has a pacifying effect to look at their soft features, smooth foreheads, mild, but heedful eyes. It is this intent look that seems to appeal to the believers and attract their prayers. In front of most icons there are big silver candlesticks with thin yellow candles set in them in swarming quantities. On festive days the candlelight, normally faint, is much stronger, brightening up the murky air around. On every celebratory day there is more light and more faith; on a normal day – more haze and more uncertainty, reflecting the up and down path of every believer. But in a Russian church candles are constantly being lit up, either in gratitude or in need, or in memory for those who have passed away. A candle is important, it accompanies every prayer, illuminating both the believer and the icon. Apart from being a Christian symbol, the candlelight adds to the stage-effect of the scene. It endows each individual encounter with something mysterious, intimate, even transcendental. Quite apart from what is happening inside, which I do not know, the outside itself has a mystical quality. And not every church is host to such an atmosphere. It requires people, prayer, meditation. And probably a share of divinity, as well.

This is not to say that today’s Russia is a religious country. Those who go to church are predominantly older people. Few are left who still remember the times before the war. And few families have managed to show enough perseverance uphold it faith despite the official anarchy of the Soviet State. I was once walking past the Catholic Church of Saint Catherine on Nevsky Prospekt with my Oxford tutor, who had lived in Petersburg before moving to England. She remarked that this beautiful yellow building used to be a swimming-pool, where she would go for her physical education classes. It struck me. Not that I didn’t know the horrible Soviet history of the Church’s annihilation, but the swimming pool suddenly rose up in front of my eyes. I felt the odour of chlorine inside the church, I imagined Jesus hanging on the cross (which he does at the moment on the right side of the church) looking down onto the muscular swimmers. It is as a result of such images that you can often understand some of history’s significant, and often horrifying, moments.

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