Back home now after a long and wonderfully inspirational six months in Europe, mostly in France but also in other places, I’m beginning to reflect on my experiences. One of the ones that stands out in my mind is the fulfilment of a long-held dream: to travel to Russia, to see a little of that extraordinary country, which I have been fascinated by since the age of about 11 or 12, when I first read what to my mind is easily Jules Verne’s best novel (though not well-known in anglophone countries), Michel Strogoff.
Set in Tsar Alexander II’s reign, it is a thrilling adventure story about young courier Michel Strogoff, who must journey across Russia to bring important news about a Tartar rebellion supported by a renegade Russian colonel named Ogareff, and who of runs into all kinds of dangers. It’s a wonderful story but what made it unforgettable to me was the picture it painted of Russia. After that, I read everything set in Russia that I could lay my hands on, and eventually in my teens graduated to Russian novels and plays. Though I never learned Russian—I was perhaps foolishly and certainly lazily put off by the barbed-wire look of Cyrillic—that literary immersion, and my father’s great interest in both Russian music and Russian icons, triggered a strong desire to see the country one day, for myself. And this year, whilst on our European odyssey, we decided that despite my continued failure to learn Russian (apart from ‘Hello’ ‘Goodbye’ ‘thank you’ and ‘I write novels!’,)and a determination to at least learn to decipher Cyrillic-script street signs–there was really no time like the present..
It was an unforgettable experience, emotionally very powerful, and one about which I will write in detail at some stage in the future, but what I wanted to raise in this short post is just how useful that long literary mind-travel in Russia was, before the actual travel. It proved to me, if it ever had to be proven, just what a difference it makes—how a thorough grounding in the literature of the country deepened and enriched my experience immeasurably, peopling the storied landscape of city and country not only with the very real people I could see before me, but also with a host of characters I had encountered in the books set there.
I could see Chekhov’s doomed families sitting at shabby tables in the long grass and frenzy of flowers of a beautiful, tender, so ephemeral Russian spring in the countryside; could spot Dostoevsky’s tormented souls slipping down that narrow alley in St. Petersburg, away from the baroque magnificence of the great boulevards; imagine Tolstoy’s generals agonising over sacrificing Moscow; saw the sadness of Andrei Makine’s survivors of the totalitarian era in the faces of old people; caught macabre echoes of Bulgakov’s surrealist drama in the constant reminders of the past, like the Lubyanka, and the House on the Embankment. In the faces of people in the street, faces whose copies you saw hanging too on the walls of the extraordinary Tretiakov gallery, I saw characters from a host of books that I had thrilled to and loved and been puzzled by in equal measure, from Chekhov to Bulgakov, Tolstoy to Makine, Pasternak to Dostoevsky, and many more.
It’s such an atmospheric, extraordinary country, with such a terrible, cruel and bloody history, and its literature portrays that, but also of course the lighter side—the Russian sense of humour, which combines a black cynicism with a deft play on words; the love people have for the countryside, for nature, for simple pursuits like fishing and walking and growing vegetables; the close family ties which are also constantly at breaking point, the love of conspiracy theories, the rich artistic, literary and musical sense (which is all still very much in evidence), born out of long, long winter evenings.
It was weird, because literature had prepared me for some things, and so some of it felt familiar, like I understood what I was seeing—and other things, not at all. Some things literature had not prepared me for at all and I felt these with the shock of the new: for instance, the lack of obvious surveillance (there were less police in the streets of Moscow and St. Petersburg than in Paris, for instance), the eye-popping way Russian girls, especially in Moscow, seem to dress (generally, men seemed pretty macho; women very feminine, particularly young women who bloom apparently as colourfully but ephemerally as Russian flowers—the older chic lady you saw so often in Paris was totally absent in Russian cities);the general ignoring of regulations in places like museums which in France would have had some guardian dragon tut-tutting fiercely; the extraordinary revelation that many Russians had not been scared of the US during the Cold War—but of Germany, possibly a legacy of World War 2 heightened by Soviet propaganda, the sense too of hurt Russian pride, of not understanding why their satellites couldn’t wait to get out from under, and the ‘chip on the shoulder’, the insecurity about Russia’s position in the world, which could be expressed both in conspiracy theories, and in boasts that ‘we’ have the biggest rivers, lakes, forests, the oldest this and that, the best such and such, yet coupled with a laconic impassivity at times. What struck me too was how ill-suited generally the Russian people appeared to be to the Communist ideology that had ruled them for so long, and yet, paradoxically, how some things from that time and mind-set did have echoes in traditional culture. All these things, and a lot more, I learned; but the knowledge I had before, coming out of that long literary immersion, only enriched those as well.