1035 A country in transition: Russia, 1990-95
MEMOIR: A country in transition: Russia, 1990-1995
by Max Wyman
But Sasha was from Russia, where the sunsets are longer, the dawns less sudden and sentences are often left unfinished from doubt as how to best end them – from Virginia Woolf, Orlando (1928)
I’d been in love with Russia, off and on, since my teenage schooldays in England in the 1950s, when Russian ministers and their entourages—fierce, fleshy, jovial men who wore heavy overcoats and dark fedoras and drank too much—would visit London for important negotiations, and writers from the Daily Express would visit Moscow and complain about the absence of sink-plugs. I wanted to be with them, in this closed, mysterious, fascinating country, and it was at school that I began my lifelong course of combat with the dark, poetic Russian language. For a year Russian was my main subject at university. It was there that I fell for the rich and languorous melancholy of Pushkin and Lermontov. Going to the source remained my ultimate ambition.
So when I was invited to join the Royal Winnipeg Ballet on tour in Germany, Hungary, Ukraine and Russia in May of 1990 I didn’t hesitate. The company was looking for media coverage (my trip around the Orient with them a couple of years earlier had paid off well in terms of magazine and newspaper exposure), but I had ulterior motives. I was planning to write a biography of Oleg Vinogradov, the artistic director of the Kirov Ballet of Leningrad (as it was then), and the trip would give me a chance to do some on-the-spot research.
Vinogradov and I met at a press conference in Vancouver at the end of 1985. He was in town to publicize the Kirov Ballet’s first appearance in North America in 22 years, scheduled for Expo 86, the world fair that took place in the city the following summer. No one knew what to expect. Most ballet enthusiasts in North America knew the Kirov had been going through difficult times. Its reputation had collapsed following the defections of two of its star dancers, Natalia Makarova in 1970 and Mikhail Baryshnikov in 1974, its repertoire had stagnated and it had lost the support of the Soviet cultural bureaucracy. Vinogradov had been brought over from his post as ballet director of Leningrad’s Maly Theatre in 1977 to restore the company to its former greatness. He had cleaned out the elderly deadwood (not an easy task in a jobs-for-life environment), restocked the repertoire (even beginning to import ballets from the West) and rebuilt credibility and trust in the corridors of power. Now he was going to show off the new Kirov to the rest of the world.
At the press conference, Vinogradov looked, at first impression, like one more survivor of The System. A former dancer as well as a choreographer, he was a slim, small man, neat and contained. His skin was sallow; his eyes were set deep in dark hollows. But he came across with a dry charm. In response to a question about the difference between his company and the Bolshoi Ballet in Moscow, he jumped from his chair to demonstrate exactly how superior the Kirov style was to the dancing they did at the Bolshoi. The Kirov Ballet doesn’t, as Vinogradov put it, waving his arms and blowing kisses to show what he meant, play to the public, the way the Bolshoi does. It is more lyrical, more inside, stricter and more coordinated. In Moscow, he said, the arm can go anywhere, and he showed us how in a deliberately exaggerated manner, the arms floating about in a choreographic limbo. Then he showed how it was done in Leningrad, the arm in a controlled and beautiful flow, the eye always watching the arm, keeping it all together. He was being serious, but there was also something playful about him. After the press conference I tried out my Russian on him and we seemed to get on well. We were of an age; we shared interests.
The North American tour opened in Vancouver on May 14, 1986, less than three weeks after the Chernobyl nuclear plant disaster that helped push Gorbachev into his accelerated program of social and economic reform: perestroika, literally restructuring or reorganization, and glasnost, widely understood as openness. In the days leading up to opening night Vinogradov invited me to sit in on the rehearsals and technical preparations. In the theatre, in his natural element, he was a different person from the one we had seen at the press conference. He was demanding and imperious, terrorising his company, the local technical staff and most of the Expo personnel as he put a perfectionist’s touch on everything on the stage. It paid off. The opening performance of Swan Lake, given before the curious and anticipatory gaze of ballet fans from across the world, was both revelation and affirmation. “Perhaps this is the lesson the Kirov is teaching,” wrote Susan Mertens in The Vancouver Sun the following day. “We may have Baryshnikov, but they’ve got the mould.”
After four sold-out performances of Swan Lake, the company was scheduled to present a new ballet by Vinogradov himself, The Knight in the Tiger Skin. But at the dress rehearsal just hours before the opening the lighting was badly askew. The sumptuously layered scrims and backdrops weren’t working as they should. The orchestra was having trouble handling the score. The dancers hadn’t had enough time to prepare.
Vinogradov came to me at the back of the stalls. “Tell me honestly,” he said. “Should I put this on tonight? Will there be any public interest? Or should I do something else?” He was willing, he said, to substitute the mixed bill the company had brought for the U.S. engagements that were to follow.
I was startled. Programming doesn’t usually work that way in North America. Audiences buy tickets for shows they want to see (they also buy tickets for performers they want to see, but the Russian companies rarely let people know in advance who is dancing what) and interest in the new piece was high. Anyway, what was he doing asking the advice of a critic? It was flattering, of course, but in my experience artists and critics in North America kept each other at a (sometimes) respectful distance.
I reassured him as best I could. It was an experience the dance audience was thirsting for, a chance to see exactly where Vinogradov was taking Soviet modernism. If he could get the logistics together there was no reason why he shouldn’t show it to us. He decided to go ahead, and at both performances The Knight in the Tiger Skin won thunderous public ovations. He was so gratified and relieved that he let his closing-night encores run for 45 minutes.
At the public post-mortem after the premiere he used The Knight in the Tiger Skin as the cue for a philosophical outpouring about the relationship between art and society. He said he saw the ballet, in which two people sacrifice their love and lives to help restore another couple’s happiness, as an allegorical plea for nations to support each other. Was this something the Soviet authorities had scripted for him—or something from the heart? It sounded like a little of both. To survive the Soviet system for over a decade, as he had done, you probably needed to be that kind of pragmatic visionary. I was intrigued.
When the company returned to Vancouver the following year my wife Susan and I invited Vinogradov to lunch at our home in Lions Bay. He brought with him the tiny, blonde dancer Veronika Ivanova. She was 18, and had been a member of the company for only a year, but had already had her first shot at Giselle. Walking on the beach below our house, she scrambled onto a barnacled rock lapped by the incoming tide, found a balance and hit a perfect, creamy arabesque. It was one of the few times I saw her smile.
In the summer of 1989 the company opened a cross-Canada tour in Vancouver, and Vinogradov came to visit us again. His escort on this occasion was another young ballerina, Yulia Makhalina. They had met a year or so previously when she was 18 and still a student. Now she was his muse and his company prodigy. Like Veronika, she struck a balletic pose outside our house. Not to be outdone, the 52-year-old Vinogradov demonstrated a full-body horizontal balance on the beachside rocks.
At one point in the lunch, the talk turned to the need for better understanding in the West of the current situation at the Kirov and in Russia in general. He knew I had written a history of dance in Canada—the book was due out that fall—and I had told him about my biography of the Winnipeg ballerina Evelyn Hart, which was well into the research and early draft stage. Out of the blue he raised the possibility that I might write his biography as well, along with a history of the Kirov company. And I should do it while I could, he said. It was important to see Gorbachev’s reforms before they withered: “The pendulum is bound to swing back.” He was right, of course. But that was later. Meanwhile: yes, I said, I’ll write your biography—why not?
It’s always best to have work to do when you visit a new city or a new country. Being a tourist is too often an embarrassment; you look tentative, you don’t know where you’re going, you stick out. Being there to do a job lets you move with a different rhythm. You can slip yourself into the routine, you’re part of the scenery. The overlap between my coverage of the Royal Winnipeg Ballet tour in 1990 and my research for the Vinogradov biography made the trip particularly opportune.
Sometimes history came unexpectedly alive. When I visited the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow for interviews about Vinogradov’s connections with the company, I was invited by Sophia Golovkina, the director of the Bolshoi Theatre school, to watch the rehearsal for the end-of-year recital by the school’s best students. The atmosphere in the theatre was workaday. Draped white sheets protected the ornate gold decorations on the balconies. But the young graduates filled the historic stage with a three-hour extravaganza of the Bolshoi’s heritage of technical brilliance, flair and panache that Vinogradov had so scornfully dismissed—a heritage that had been spectacularly personified to the world by one of the greatest of all legends of Russian ballet, Galina Ulanova. As I was leaving I was astonished and delighted to encounter Ulanova herself. Like me, she had been casting an eye over the newcomers. She was 80 by then, her mind quick, her smile bright. She touched my hand; she hoped my work would go well. As for herself, yes, she was still doing some coaching, passing along the torch. Her presence seemed to symbolize the process that had just been taking place inside the auditorium, the continuation of the line.
It didn’t take long to realize that the freedom of which Gorbachev was so proud was a relative term. On the surface it seemed to apply. I moved freely about the cities we visited, and met people of all ranks and social levels, often in their homes. Outside a government office in Kiev I became caught up in one of the first public demonstrations to give on-the-street voice to the swelling movement toward Ukrainian nationalism and greater recognition of the Ukrainian language. Standing at first at the edge of the crowd, photographing the speakers and their blue and gold Ukrainian flags—only very recently allowed on public display—I was gradually pushed toward the front. Soon I was talking politics with the demonstration leaders, surrounded by a curious and smiling throng. Eventually we parted with much shaking of hands. The men with their night-sticks, and the plainclothes surveillance team that I’d earlier seen unload from a police van, looked on but did nothing. No one appeared to follow me to my hotel. My film came safely home with me. My notebooks remained intact. Clearly, things were changing.
And in Moscow, in a masterstroke of image-rebuilding, the KGB had begun to offer tours of the Lubyanka, its grim headquarters. I picked up a booklet called The KGB Must Abide by the Interests of the People in which the KGB chairman, Vladimir Kruchkov, declared that his ambition was to create “a worldwide image of the KGB which would be in line with the noble aims which I believe we pursue.” Yes, he said, the KGB did “conduct intelligence activities,” but he denied that the KGB employed secret informers (“we have assistants”) and claimed it was now okay to say anti-Soviet things without fear of prosecution. He sweetened the pot with some warm, human details about his family and his hobbies (he liked swimming, cross-country skiing and the theatre).
Well, yes. But then there was—even now, in the age of glasnost and perestroika—the matter of the bugging of hotel rooms. One member of the Royal Winnipeg Ballet group, tired of having a non-working TV in his hotel room, said loudly to the walls one morning: “Boy, I wish I had a TV that worked.” That evening he returned to find a technician repairing the malfunctioning set. Coincidence? Maybe. So that evening he asked for that rarity of rarities in Russia, soft toilet tissue. The following morning, a roll of it was in his bathroom. And in Leningrad, where the hotel tap water was so bad they didn’t even recommend it for showering, a Canadian phoning home told her boyfriend she wished she had some bottled water in her room so she could clean her teeth. The next day a case of it appeared beside her bed.
We quickly learned the principles on which hotel life depended. The principle, for instance, of the little sweetener. Nothing so coarse as a bribe. Merely a token of your appreciation of the improved likelihood of things being done—your laundry, for instance, or the booking, two days hence, of a telephone call home. Before I left Vancouver I had stocked up on cheap things to give away—credit-card calculators, bubble-gum, cosmetics sets, queen-size pantyhose, soap, Marlboros. A dancer in the company took with him fifty condoms to use for barter (they were said to be scarcer than sugar). I also carried a bundle of single U.S. dollar bills. They worked wonders. In Moscow I came back from breakfast one day to find my room already made up. Surprised and grateful (some members of the group didn’t get their rooms made up all week) I gave the ancient chambermaid a dollar. She was so overjoyed she gave me a big, gap-toothed kiss and hurried back into my room to remake the bed, this time with fresh sheets. In Leningrad I gave the floor-lady a dollar when I handed in my laundry and in return I got back double—my own laundry plus six shirts I’d never seen before.
In the streets, people with ancient weighing machines told your weight for a few kopecks. Babushkas in headscarves sold unroasted peanuts and leafy cabbages at makeshift stands. Old men, in from the country, proffered bunches of lilac or lily-of-the-valley. Petty theft was rampant, and you could always tell when it was going to rain—drivers stopped their cars and installed their windshield wipers. When they were through driving for the day they removed the wipers and their wing-mirrors and took them indoors for safe keeping.
Workers and their families stood in line for hours for their daily milk and sausage. If they heard about something suddenly becoming available they would rush out and get in line to buy it, because it almost certainly wouldn’t be there the following day. No one left home without a shopping bag. In Leningrad, where the ordinary citizen could expect to buy bananas for just two weeks each fall, people were giving blood in exchange for shopping privileges: one unit of blood earned you the right to line up for five or six hours to buy something really scarce, such as West German tights or Italian shoes. A watch shop I visited within sight of the Hermitage museum had so few timepieces for sale that a black marketeer had slipped inside the door and was offering watches from his forearm for hard currency.
For the privileged, there was a different reality. Diplomats, western journalists and favoured members of the party shopped at credit-card import stores stocked with overflowing displays of everything commonplace in the West—fresh fruit, vegetables, frozen pizza, imported from Finland and Switzerland. For Westerners, it was illegal to spent hard currency anywhere except at these official government shops. You were expected to provide proof of purchase for anything you took out of the country, and the long list of forbidden exports included items as diverse as chocolate, underwear, and spare umbrella parts.
The day after authorities announced food prices were to triple—part of Gorbachev’s push for a modified form of market economy—I sat with the brother of my Vancouver Russian coach in his dark, cluttered apartment overlooking Moscow University and watched Gorbachev make a live TV plea for calm. My friend, who had spent his life studying the history of the Soviet Union, listened intently for about 20 minutes, then shook his head sadly and turned off the set. “Just words,” he said. “The people need more than words. Many feel they have been patient long enough. After five years there is still nothing in the shops.”
It had been tempting, going into Russia, to see Gorbachev as a hero and his insistence on change as the harbinger of a new era. But what I was left with, after probing an inch or two beneath the shell of prejudice and misinformation that had accreted over the years, was an overwhelming feeling of despair and hopelessness. The dismantling of a system that ruled their every moment had left these people aimless and uncertain. They looked on the promised reforms with great scepticism. Few of them were happy. None of them had a good word for The Party. Even those thoughtful enough to understand that massive social change was not going to happen overnight had serious doubts about Gorbachev’s chances of success. “The psychology of the Russian people is ugly,” one of my new Russian friends told me. “They like to be similar. ‘I’m poor so you should be poor—if you’re rich I must kill you or burn your property.’ Maybe our grandchildren will live in a new society. But for 70 years, everything was destroyed. It will take at least a hundred years to repair it.”
Even in a country committed to the rights and values of the proletariat, I found an astonishing contempt for the workers and the lower classes among intellectuals and those with power and influence. At a party in Moscow I got into conversation with a cheery young auto mechanic. “I mend the metal on cars,” he told me. “I get 180 roubles a month, though I can get the same amount in a single day on the side.” He was a boisterous lad and after a few drinks he challenged me to eat a head of raw, pickled garlic. I did so and we toasted each other in a round of vodka. The people who had taken me to the party—nice, middle-class, hard-working Russians—were horrified. “He’s nothing,” said one of them, “He’s just a worker.”
At the same party, someone else began to pester me about setting up some kind of joint-venture computer import business, with me supplying the hardware and him selling it. The same friend who had bad-mouthed the car mechanic tore the man’s address out of my notebook and told me to ignore him. “He’s just a drunk,” he said. “We apologize.” Understandably, this incensed his plump, pretty wife. “He may be a drunk,” she said tearfully, “but he’s my man.” It was the sort of thing you might hear toward the end of any party anywhere—except that this was the new Russia, where, even so long after Orwell, some animals were still more equal than others.
Moscow, hard-nosed and stone-faced, was a fascination all its own. No one really knows how Moscow began, but the story people seem to like best is this. Sometime in 1147 (the Julian/Gregorian discrepancies make the date approximate) the Vladimir-Suzdal Prince Yuri Dolgoruky (his name means the Long-Armed: he was an adept tax-collector) was visiting the south-western borders of the segment of Kievan Rus that he controlled. Perhaps he was in an expansive mood. Perhaps the tax returns had been good. Perhaps he wanted to impress his courtiers, or put stars in the eyes of a local maiden. Whatever the reason, he decided to hold a feast at a small village located on top of a convenient nearby hill. It was probably summer. Below the hill a winding river flowed. Before him, as far as he could see, undulated a green and wooded land. The prospect pleased him. Here he decided he would build a fortress: a Kievan Prince’s realm could always use a little more fortification. The wooden stockade on Borovitsky Hill was completed within a decade; it was the kernel out of which Moscow grew.
If the spirit of Yuri Dolgoruky were to be climbing Borovitsky Hill from the south today, up past the festive turbans of St. Basil’s cathedral and into the vastness of Red Square (60,000 square metres of cobblestone, and couldn’t that battered, trampled, tank-tracked expanse tell stories?), he would find the wooden walls of his fortress replaced by high, red-brick ramparts, an impregnable triangular redoubt with steep, thick walls almost a mile in length, punctuated by 19 towers, four of which crown imposing entrances to the grounds inside.
The Kremlin! Yes, we know the word means castle or fortress, nothing more, and yes, many Russian cities have them. Yet this one, on the very site that legend says Dolgoruky chose for his fateful feast day, even now, with the Soviets long gone and new regimes established, doesn’t it still cause thrills and chills? Our Western conditioning allows nothing less. It is the black hole of Russian history: into it have been sucked, in numbers beyond counting, the tangled strands of incident and accident that connect it to all the anguish and atrocity, all the intellect and inspiration, that have stained and marked this country’s story.
Its squares and churches ring with history’s blare and shine. The strange electric immediacy of pomp and power, of tyranny and triumph, tingles the visitor’s skin. You barely know where to look, hardly dare to lift your eye to so much majestic savagery. Despots, rulers, artists, priests … the air is crowded with damned, departed souls, and not just the air. This was also the headquarters of the Russian church; the cathedrals within the grounds shelter the lead-shrouded remains of centuries of Muscovy’s rulers and archbishops. In those soaring ramparts are stored the ashes of Soviet heroes. In his own walk-in granite sarcophagus up against the wall lies the mummified Lenin, orange-peach his colouring, waxen his look, spotted his tie.
When I visited him in 1992, those charged with his preservation were checking his condition twice a week, and every 18 months or so he was being given a prolonged dip in a preservative bath of potassium, glycerine and alcohol. But despite everyone’s best efforts the body had been shrinking slowly. Nor was he as revered as once he was. The budget for the preservation of his remains had recently been cut by 80 per cent (the embalmers had quickly found new clients among the bereaved associates of murdered mafiosi, who wanted their nearest and dearest to look their best in their open funeral caskets). Boris Yeltsin and others were said to have put forward proposals (later squelched by Putin) to send Lenin off to earn his keep on a display trip around the world (The Beyond the Finland Station Tour, as it might be) prior to burial beside his dear old mum in St. Petersburg. The corpse of the father of Soviet Russia, co-opted to raise capitalist dollars to shore up the post-Soviet economic collapse. Who’d have predicted that for irony when they first brought him down?
But then, who’d have predicted so much that has happened in the Kremlin? Napoleon used icons from the Assumption Cathedral as firewood to steam off his boots in the dreadful winter of 1812. Not many yards away, in the Armoury, you can inspect the sleigh that brought Elizabeth here in 1741 from St. Petersburg for her coronation (800 horses drew it, in teams of 23: a cold coming they had of it, and who knows how many didn’t survive, animals and drivers both). Here behold her bejewelled coronation dress (a woman of conspicuous assumption, clearly: this was only one of 15,000 dresses that she owned). Cross the ancient square to the Annunciation Cathedral, a seductive agglomeration of small chambers encased in reassuringly thick walls of plaster and brick. Excommunicated Ivan the Terrible (whose sobriquet, in all linguistic accuracy, should be translated as Ivan the Awesome, but who is willing to defuse the force of history?) regularly took shelter and solace here after he had more than used up his quota of permissible wives, watching the services through the iron bars of his own private chapel.
I could have spent hours in the shadowy and comforting embrace of those thick walls, perhaps as welcoming and reassuring as any place of worship I’ve ever been in, or inspecting the pilfered icons and church silverware at the haphazard antiques market in Gorki Park. But St. Petersburg (or Leningrad, as it was still known) was where my hopes and heart lay. I fell in love with its austere and classical beauties from my first morning walking its streets, and the affair has never ended.
The best way to get a perspective on Peter’s city is to climb the 262 steps up the inside of the tower of St. Isaac’s cathedral, cross the roof to the colonnade that encircles the dome and peer out across the city’s heart. Sunshine freshens the gold of the domes and glosses the greens of the parks. We take quiet pleasure in the city’s interlocking congruence, a web of constant motion laid over the pinned grid of architecture. Tour buses that look like children’s building blocks, oblongs of rust-orange and bile-yellow, are scattered around the Rostral Columns on the tongue of land that splits the ocean-bound Neva. Pleasure-boats ride at their moorings along the Admiralty and Hermitage embankments. A hydrofoil churns brief white scribbles on the water as it heads to the Gulf of Finland.
In the Admiralty complex itself Catherine’s Peter rears on his eternal stone in the grassy patch at the river end of Decembrists’ Square. Patient crowds—patient it seems from here, at least—snake around the sides of the Hermitage, with its overgrown roof shrubberies dotted with the whites and mauves of wild lilac. The ponies plod off the pattern-work stones around the Alexander Column in Palace Square; swarms of people creep about the vast plain that surrounds the pink granite monolith and its black angel, 150 feet above the ground. And there is Nevsky Prospekt itself, thrown eastward over the curvy lacework of the canals, its surface seething with movement like a branch fallen across an anthill.
When Nevsky Prospekt was first cut through the marshy forest, it consisted of tree-trunks laid side by side (they called it corduroy: the same name was used for swamp-roads in the North American Wild West two centuries later). In its heyday, it rivalled Europe’s grandest boulevards— “at once the most elegant street and chief shopping area of St. Petersburg,” said Gautier. The elegant frontages, the spaciousness of the street’s design (scaled to accommodate humanity’s delusions of importance), the cathedral that the Soviets turned into a museum of atheism, the brick-red caryatids holding up the Beloselsky-Belozersky Palace, the rearing horses on the Anichkov bridge (one of which, so legend has it, has Napoleon’s face where its cock should be)— to many of Peter’s citizens, it is still the beloved and special heart of the city.
What we might miss from our elevated vantage point is the undercurrent of distress, despair, human unhappiness that trickles like sewer gas through these streets, puddling in the uneven squares, seeping out of the cracks between the ancient sidewalk slabs, poisoning souls. So we climb down the cathedral stairs and walk. That man, chewing a toothpick and lounging against the door of the pizza shop in the basement of that apartment house just off the Admiralty gardens: those scratches on the back of his hand are from a beating he administered last night to a kiosk-keeper reluctant to pay his weekly protection fee. The pale youth with the ragged scarf, nursing a brindled pup inside the breast of his long, shapeless, herringbone overcoat as he stands at the head of the Gostiny Dvor underpass on Nevsky Prospekt, calculates his chances of snatching a purse or a wallet from the smiling passers-by. The gypsy woman in her colourful rags and headscarf, surrounded by her urchins near the statue of Pushkin in Arts Square, stretches her hand, but her gesture of supplication is belied by her scornful eyes. Outside the Hermitage a shaven-headed lunatic in a grubby, sleeveless tee-shirt shouts hoarse warnings about Jewish duplicity through a hand-held megaphone. His mottled shoulders sprout coarse blond hair. This is a beautiful city with a bruised heart.
Across the tramlines from the ballet company hotel, the Moskva, lay the ancient Alexander Nevsky monastery. In its Tikhvin cemetery, much of the musical glory of Russia lies buried. The morning sun was always muted there, and not only by the high and close-set trees, the shrubbery, the dark, embracing walls. The place seemed veiled in a permanent, protective sorrow. Almost all the graves are of musicians, though you will also find Dostoyevsky here as well: he begged his wife not to bury him with his rival writers in the Volkovskoye graveyard across the alley, so ended up here with the musicians.
Who is here? Who is not? Many Russians, given half the chance, will wax rhapsodic about the way that the music of St. Petersburg’s “mighty handful,” the Famous Five (Balakirev, Cui, Borodin, Mussorgsky, Rimsky-Korsakov), reflects the essence of Russia’s nature, its spirit, its soul. Here they all are. With them too is Anton Rubinstein, the founder of St. Petersburg’s conservatory and the man who let the world know about their mightiness.
Here too is perhaps the mightiest of them all, Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky. Tchaikovsky has lain here against the wall, just a metre or two away from the bustle of the Nevsky plaza, since the last years of the reign of the repressive Alexander III. Not a true Peterburgian, perhaps—the nationalist Five were bitter about what they thought were his Westernisms, his musical eclecticism—but one of its most celebrated adopted sons. Was it an accident that he contracted cholera from that unguarded glass of water, or was it suicide? On the monument, one of the stone angels (of mercy? why not? if anyone deserved it, he did), its big, noble wings spread wide, lifts a great crucifix above his head: Flights of angels sing thee to thy sleep.
His is perhaps the most glorious of the graves here, but if you backtrack along the narrow paths through the shaded glades you find a more modest marker. No guided tours are likely to stop at this spot. There are no ornate carvings here, no flights of angels, no golden sheets of music: merely a restrained, classically-proportioned headstone with a plinth, set in grass, surmounted by a platform bearing a marble pillar on top of which is a small urn. Just the name:
Marius Ivanovich Petipa. Balletmaster. And his dates: 1818-1910.
What could be more elegantly modest? Marius Ivanovich Petipa, a Frenchman who never spoke much Russian, though he lived here for more than 60 years and became the father of “classical” (which is to say, Romantic, but let’s not get into that) ballet as the world knows it today: Sleeping Beauty, Swan Lake, La Bayadère, Don Quixote, Raymonda and the dozens of lesser-known things we rarely see, or only see fragments of. His presence here, not far from his friend and collaborator Tchaikovsky, completed for me the sense of gathered creative history in this small green graveyard.
Petipa was part of the reason I was here: to try to make contact with what people persist in calling the soul of Russia, that dark, elemental Russianness we know from these great musicians, from the great novelists and playwrights. Was it still alive? I thought I might finally have located it at the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg—not in the paintings and sculptures and artwork but in its director, Academician Boris Piotrovsky. He was 82 when we met in the spring of 1990, just a few months before his death from a cerebral haemorrhage, and had been director for a quarter of a century.
It was Piotrovsky who masterminded the preservation of the Hermitage treasures during the Second World War. He sent many of them into storage in Siberia. During the 900-day siege of the city he lived in the museum’s cellars, guarding the pieces that remained. Now, from his cluttered desk (a desk once used by Peter the Great, he was proud to mention) he kept a watchful eye on the collection’s 3.2 million artworks, and one magic night when the museum was closed he took me on a tour of the classically elegant buildings that sprawl along the banks of the Neva to show me his own favourite pieces.
The artworks in his care were irreplaceable—a record of humanity’s ever-renewing attempts to understand and celebrate itself through the creative act. Piotrovsky had protected them as if they had been his children. Through years of oppression, through the horrors of the siege, in a constant battle against bureaucratic knavery and corruption, his spirit had remained uncrushable. He had been given the privilege and responsibility of guarding humanity’s legacy. “To live here, surrounded by these objects, and to be able to get to know them so well … it has been a wonderful way to spend a life,” he said.
His words reminded me of the things Vinogradov had said about the healing powers of art, about the need for kindness … and about the temporary nature of the Gorbachev reforms.
Vinogradov himself was not in the city, but I was hoping to interview some of the players in his story—one of the most important being his wife, Yelena. The Winnipeg company was performing at the Maryinsky Theatre, home of the Kirov Ballet, where Yelena taught and coached, and I saw her about the theatre from time to time, a brown-skinned, dark-haired woman, alert and smart, a touch of wildness in the mouth and eyes, a quick smile.
She agreed readily enough to be interviewed, but each time we made an arrangement to sit down together something more pressing intervened. Maybe, I wondered, she didn’t want to talk to me without having Oleg present. Maybe she was shy—she spoke with a slight speech impediment, a legacy, I later discovered, of a bomb concussion suffered as a child during the siege of Leningrad. Maybe she really was that busy. It was difficult to know, but there wasn’t much I could do about it, and I gave my attention to the ballet company I had come to Russia to write about.
The Maryinsky Theatre was venerable territory. Stepping onto the steeply raked stage for the first time and looking out at the big, empty auditorium I felt enveloped in the ballet history created on the wooden floor on which I was standing. Petipa, Karsavina, Nijinsky, Pavlova, Nureyev, Baryshnikov, Makarova … What must it be like to perform here with all those memories around you? It occurred to me that there might be a way to find out.
The Royal Winnipeg Ballet was performing Rudi van Dantzig’s production of Romeo and Juliet, which includes a character called the White Monk, a non-dancing bit player who walks across the stage a couple of times and has a momentary contact with Juliet when she visits Friar Laurence at his cell. Well, I thought, I can do that. So I asked John Meehan, the company’s artistic director, if he’d let me do a walk-on as the White Monk. The character wears a big cowl, so no one would see my face. And just once would be enough, just so I could say I’d performed on the Maryinsky Theatre stage. Okay, said John. Just once, on the last night.
By the time the evening came I was in a froth of anticipation. But on my way to the dressing-room to put on my habit and cowl I was told Yelena was asking for me backstage. She had discovered that her evening was free. She was to leave town the next day and this was the only time she would have available. Her driver was waiting outside the theatre to take us to the Vinogradov dacha for dinner. Now.
I tried to explain my predicament, but it was no use. The White Monk’s final appearance is very close to the end of the ballet and by the time I had completed my part the evening would be gone. So I never did get to perform on the Maryinsky stage.
The Vinogradov dacha was an hour’s fast drive through open country in a Chevy sports wagon equipped with a radar detection beeper. En route we stopped and stood in the gathering dusk to inspect a roadside memorial for one of Yelena’s recent ancestors, Major-General Ibrahim Petrovitch Hannibal, a famous African slave who became a favourite of Peter the Great. For Yelena it was an important six-degrees-of-separation moment: Hannibal was the great-grandfather of the novelist Alexander Pushkin.
The dacha itself was a splendid example of the kind of privileged extravagance that so infuriated my Russian worker friends. It was a four-storey villa, mostly brick, with a pool and sauna in the basement, a dishwasher in the kitchen and a Mercedes in the driveway. Since the hour for dinner had passed, Yelena served “a little snack”: caviar with French wine. We talked long into the night about how she and Vinogradov had met and built their life together. It was a cornucopia of material for my proposed biography of her husband. I had no regrets about missing my moment on the hallowed boards.
In the fall of 1992, I returned to St. Petersburg for a month for interviews and research for my Vinogradov biography. This time, Susan came with me. It was a mild autumn: mists along the canals, deep russet tones to the sunsets over the Neva, soft grey light on the stones of Palace Square when it rained. Walking those boulevards, it was hard not to be moved by the strict and noble splendour of the city’s architecture, and by the way its style and scale affirmed the human spirit: the churches, the parks, the elegantly proportioned streets and squares, the aqua and lemon and cerulean washes on the buildings.
Vinogradov’s words had been prophetic. Gorbachev reforms were faltering. Again and again we were reminded of the skewed living standards between the so-called first world—the affluent West in particular—and the third world, to which Russia certainly belonged. The place I was using as my research headquarters, the Kirov (Maryinsky) Theatre, was a metaphor for the country. All the parts on public view were refurbished and gleaming. Its elegant classical frontage was the backdrop for many a traveller’s snapshot. But backstage the fingers of poverty reached into every cranny. Broken plumbing in the dressing-rooms went unrepaired, the toilets stank, the corridors were littered with rubbish. The cafeteria was so poorly stocked that dancers brought their own sugar for their tea or they went without.
We were living in a squat, concrete-and-tile hotel from the Soviet era, and being charged a pittance—the theatre rate, I was told—which the front desk demanded, in cash roubles, daily in advance. The hotel’s worn carpets, its barely functional bathrooms with their chipped sinks and mould-crusted shower-seals, its ill-illuminated dining room with its scowling, bow-tied guardians at the door, might not have appealed to the tourists who were beginning to trickle in but it was adequate for us: our room became our place of refuge.
Life in the city was precarious and unpredictable. Nothing had firmness. You floated on wisps of uncertainty—the unbearable lightness of being in St. Petersburg. The street names were new, but they were lined with broken-down vehicles abandoned for lack of spare parts, and traffic slowed virtually to a stop to negotiate the chaos of frost-boiled cobbles and potholes through which the tramcar lines threaded at every major intersection. The little discrepancies were still acute. A local call from a payphone, when you could find one that worked, cost two kopecks, less than a quarter of a cent. But it cost $11 a minute to phone a North American number. Vinogradov’s assistant Dmitri bought his gas from the place where he parked his car. It cost him 50 per cent above the going rate but the price bought him protection from the Mafia for his vehicle. At the fabled Literaturnaya Cafe on Nevsky Prospekt, one of many restaurants where frowning men waited to lock you in, you paid a small fortune to listen to chamber music as you ate beneath art deco pewter trees and birds. But a couple of streets away four of you could gorge on deep-friend pitas stuffed with meat, a vigorous Hungarian goulash and a bottle of champagne, all for $4. At our hotel, when I asked one day why there was no hot water, I was told it was because “the Americans have left.”
In newly democratic Russia a desperate new entrepreneurism was aflame. In Gostiny Dvor, the vast, decrepit 300-store shopping arcade on Nevsky Prospekt, I paid 70 roubles and 50 kopecks (at that time, about 50 cents) for a Russian board game called Dyelovie Lyudi (Business People). It was like Monopoly, only instead of property you traded in stocks, shares and bond certificates in business enterprises. There were Chance cards (“government suspends activity at your car repair cooperative” for instance) and a set of rules explaining terms like stock exchange and anti-trust legislation. “Don’t fall behind in life,” said the sales pitch on the box. “Realize the meaning of the economic transformation that is taking place.”
Joint ventures with Western interests were springing up overnight like the big, brown mushrooms you could buy on every corner that fall. Private markets offered produce of a quality and in a profusion far greater than in the state shops. And you didn’t need hard currency or privileged access to buy it. But the prices still pushed the products out of reach of the average Russian. “It’s like an out-of-control freight train loaded with consumer goods.” said a Russian writer friend. “No one can stop it. Eventually it will crash in a great confusion of TVs and stereos and cigarettes and fruit. And then there will be nothing again.”
Beggars were far more prominent than I remembered: practised urchins who pleaded for “dinner money,” their trouser legs designer-tattered and their feet smeared with dirt like Dickensian mudlarks; gypsy mothers with coughing babies in their arms; muttering crones crossing themselves continuously outside every house of worship; mute men with vacant eyes and missing limbs sprawled against walls in threadbare overcoats. By one estimate, 10,000 individuals were sleeping in the parks and under the bridges of St. Petersburg every night. On Nevsky Prospekt you could drop hundreds, even thousands of dollars on icons or antique porcelain while outside the shops the homeless defecated in the payphone booths.
The deflated currency came in wads, when you could get it. Often the banks ran out and you had to change your dollars on the street. This was no longer strictly illegal, but it was still dangerous. Profiteering was rampant in the new underground economy. A teenage boy could make as much in a day spent hawking postcards at the Peter and Paul fortress as his father could make in a factory in a month. You wanted a BMW? No problem. That’s 4.5 million roubles.
And with the money, of course, came the criminals. People were sometimes killed when they flashed their dollars at the side-street money-changers. At Petrodvorets, the serenely beautiful castle that Peter built on the Gulf of Finland, I watched the protection racketeers pull up in a shiny car, casually make their collection from the proprietors of the souvenir stands that lined the entrance laneway, and speed away without a backward glance.
On the busier streets, youths in groups of three or four would surround you with offers of lapel pins, t-shirts, army hats, trying to use the clamour and confusion to pick your pockets or unzip your purse. People were scared to go out alone. When I arranged to meet two female friends at the ballet one night, each made careful plans to be collected at the front door afterward rather than take a tram or walk to the Metro.
The country’s Jewish population was under special threat. In the first surge of nationalistic pride following the Gorbachev reforms, anti-Semitism had gone public. In 1992 the extremist group Pamyat (Memory) was warning the “dirty Jews” to leave the country or be eliminated. Jews were the only members of Russian society who could be sure of getting permission to go abroad and many were hurrying to get out while they could. But in a savagely ironic turn of events the economic collapse was making discontented Russians so envious of the Jews’ freedom to emigrate that they were lining up to change their religion so they cold get the documents to leave the country. “Many Russians ask me to make them Jews, not because they want to be Jews, but because they want to leave the country,” rabbi Boris Yanklevich Finkelstein told me when I visited him at the Grand Choral Synagogue in St. Petersburg. “Well, it obviously doesn’t work that way.”
There had been widespread delight at the appointment of an actor, Nicolai Gubenko, as the Minister of Culture, and his public pronouncements about openness to experiment in the arts. When I met his deputy minister, Andrey Zolotov, a music critic and screenwriter, at the Bolshoi Theatre, he told me: “The arts give us youth and energy. The arts help us comprehend our lives. I am absolutely convinced that the arts, given their expressive freedom, can save the world from becoming old … The arts are developing so strongly that politics are likely to be subordinated to what the arts can show us, in that originality will be valued over imitation.”
But in the bewildering new economy, artists were suddenly unsure of where they stood. Under the Soviet regime, artists had been comfortably supported but tightly controlled, both in terms of their subject matter and its display. Now they were free to create what they liked and compete for customers in the open market, but had to fend for themselves. Protest theatre was coming out of the shadows. I saw a play in a loft theatre in a rickety building in Leningrad that was unlikely to have been on public show before glasnost and perestroika. It talked boldly about the spiritual emptiness brought about by the elimination of traditional values and the substitution of threat and tyranny. But in a restaurant off Nevsky Prospekt I shared a meal with a man who had spent 12 years in the service of the Soviet arts but had now been moved to a job that had nothing to do with the arts at all. He was bewildered and demoralized. “I don’t understand them,” he said. “I have always believed that the arts should be given a clear direction by the state. Now everything is uncontrolled.”
One day we were invited to the home/studio of Alexander Ivanov, an artist so successful he could choose which of his surrealist paintings he was willing to sell and which he wanted to keep. He was 42, had shown his work often in Russia and abroad, and had taken advantage of the opening-up of international business lines to establish a steady trade with the West. Americans liked the Wyeth family influences they spotted in his Dali-like landscapes.
The five-room apartment he shared with his wife Tatyana and her mother in the central district of St. Petersburg was lavishly equipped with Western consumer goods and gadgetry, and the bookshelves bore English-language editions of works by Steinbeck, Henry Miller, Elias Canetti, J.M. Coetzee. The I Ching stood beside a copy of the Bible. Posters of Frank Zappa and the Beatles’ Back in the USSR decorated the walls of his studio. The paintings he kept for his portfolio lined the long hallway.
He and Tanya were sensible, warm-hearted people, and Susan and I stayed in touch with them for several years, commiserating when their much-longed-for car was stolen the day after they finally managed to buy it, and sharing their delight in their first-born, Pavel. A small realist oil by Sasha of a St. Petersburg alley hangs in our living-room, reminding us of the city when we first fell in love with it, and in my study is a tiny oil he did of a Russian country river scene.
We were moved by their mix of pragmatism and optimism, their belief that, despite everything, Russia had a future. They knew the Renaissance of St. Petersburg would not happen overnight. The knowledge made them philosophical; and that clear-eyed fortitude, that ability to ride life’s vicissitudes, may also be part of what we call the Russian soul.
But I remembered Vinogradov’s words. The pendulum always swings back.
The workload that month was hectic, with most days taken up by interviews and library research. In the evenings, since it was the opening of the Maryinsky season, Susan and I would stroll from the hotel along the banks of the canal to the theatre, where seats for that night’s opera or ballet were held for us, often in the front row of the tsar’s box (the best seats in the house: the serried geometries of the corps de ballet were designed to be seen at their best advantage from this perspective). I was issued with a document authorizing full cooperation: interviews, photos, documents, anything I needed. But much of my work was facilitated by Vinogradov’s personal assistant, Dmitri Ignatovsky. He was an anxious, generous man who knew the company from the inside out, political intrigues and all—and there were plenty of those, as there always had been.
It was Dmitri who told me about the Russian version of ticket scalping. The elderly residents of St. Petersburg were allowed to buy tickets to the Kirov for the rouble equivalent of less than one American dollar. They would then sell them on, for a few roubles profit, to a middleman who would turn them around to American tourists for $100 each. “If he sells ten tickets a day, he makes as much as a normal family makes in a year.” Dmitri rolled his eyes and shook his head. “Crazy money. Then he goes to the theatre bar and drinks cognac and eats caviar.”
Well, frankly, so did we. At intermission we’d dash from the tsar’s box up the sweeping stairs to the bar at the top of theatre, where they sold Mars bars and iced cookies and bread and sausage. The bar-lady got to know us. She’d have glasses of Russian champagne ready for us, along with little dishes of caviar on fingers of toasted bread: her 75-cent special. If it was a ballet night we’d go backstage to congratulate whoever had been performing. The night that Yulia Makhalina danced Swan Lake to open the season I was so entranced by her performance that I fell to my knees in front of her in her scruffy dressing-room, unlaced her pointe shoes and begged her to let me have them. She laughed and gave me the shoes and some of her flowers as well. The shoes still sit on a shelf in our bedroom in Lions Bay, along with a collection of footwear from a host of other ballerinas whose dancing has caught my fancy.
Dmitri confided to me once that his boss could “smell rich people” and get them to help him in moments of crisis. I witnessed a glowing example of that knack for on-the-spot economic diplomacy that same opening night, when Vinogradov invited us for intermission refreshments in his private salon, ornately gilded in the manner of Versailles, behind the director’s box beside the stage in the main auditorium. We were joined by the Greek shipping tycoon Stavros Niarchos and his entourage. They had just sailed in on the family yacht and were staying in St. Petersburg for a few days. We exchanged approving words about the performance as we sipped tea, nibbled pink-iced cupcakes, toyed with ice-cream laced with tiny, intensely-flavoured wild berries.
At some point the quality of the dancing came up and Vinogradov, ever the gracious host, invited Niarchos and his group to visit the Vaganova Choreographic Institute, the school that has been the primary source of dancer talent to the company for many generations. Susan and I thought we knew what lay behind the invitation. We had already spent time at the school, getting to know its artistic director, the courtly Igor Belsky. Ballet instruction had gone on for over 150 years in this building on Architect Rossi Street, the former Theatre Street, a street whose very symmetry (it is exactly as wide as its buildings are tall) frames the humane and noble harmonies that are striven for here. But the academy building was run down. There were chronic funding shortages, and its structure was shabby and unmaintained. The food in the student cafeteria was rudimentary. And at a staff meeting that cool fall morning, Vinogradov had warned the assembled teachers that it was going to get worse.
The Niarchos contingent stayed for about an hour, cramming into the creaky elevator, climbing the worn staircase from floor to floor, peeking into the girls’ beginners’ class—a high pink room, ivory linoleum, double barres around the mirrored walls, arched windows letting in the autumn light and the muffled noises of the street below as a pianist played the second act pas de deux adagio from Swan Lake and a teacher prepared green limbs for the demands that the dancing in their future would make. The children wore white cotton leotards, with white lace bands holding their hair back. Their floral wraps were vivid splashes of colour, hanging by the tall green door. The visitors were impressed, as no one could fail to be, by the quality of the work that went on in those classes, but horrified by the privations the students and their teachers endured. Discreetly, Niarchos made a donation of $25,000 to the school—to improve the students’ diet, he said.
Two days later, a Saturday morning, Vinogradov gave his traditional season overview to the Ballet Lovers’ Club of Leningrad at the Palace of Culture. The fans listened in silence as he gave them an unvarnished account of the economic tribulations. He recalled “the golden times” when the government gave the company everything it needed and ballet was a privileged art. But now, he said, the budget had been cut so badly they could barely maintain the existing repertoire. Both the company and the school were under threat. But he had good news. One of the richest men in the world—a man who had asked not to be named—had just donated $25,000 to the academy for food for the students. “That tells us a great deal,” he said, “about how the rest of the world respects what we do and is eager to help out in this crisis.” In the new economy, connections were sometimes the only way forward.
One morning we were taken out to the Vinogradov dacha for a lavish party in our honour. It lasted from noon until midnight, a non-stop Russian meal of dish after dish that (the maid from the local village told me) had taken three days to prepare. Guests included a couple of senior officials from the Washington, D.C., ballet academy that Vinogradov had recently established with a multi-million investment by Sun Myung Moon, the head of the Unification Church (the Moonies); along with Igor Belsky from the Vaganova Institute; the owner of the St. Petersburg Mercedes-Benz franchise; and an individual visiting from Paris who was introduced as Vladimir Reine.
Vinogradov drew me aside to explain that Reine was from one of the great families of Europe, part of the exiled Romanov diaspora. (Subsequent research showed this to be true; he was also the director of an executive limousine service in the French capital.) Over glasses of a rare vodka that Vinogradov had acquired for the occasion (but which he, always fastidiously meagre in his alcohol intake, took care not to sample) Reine told us of his work in Paris, giving care and assistance to an ailing Rudolf Nureyev. The legend, he confided, did not have long to live (he died three months later). I should stop off in Paris on my way back to Canada and he would arrange a deathbed interview. It would not be a problem …
No problem. It seemed to be the Russian way. For some people, at least. The collection of transportation vehicles in the dacha compound now included a motorbike (it was purchased during a company tour of the U.S. and made its way to Russia, I was told solemnly, as part of the stage set for Giselle) and a giant Red Army truck he had somehow acquired: we all posed for pictures at its wheel. The guests at the dacha that night were by no means unaware of the discrepancies between the life they were enjoying and the life of the ordinary Russian. When someone raised the spectre of a civil war he was loudly shouted down—vodka makes everyone boisterous—but he wouldn’t back off. “We must be prepared,” he murmured. “Anything could happen now.” It must have been like this, I thought, just before the revolution.
The next night Vinogradov invited Susan and me to his atelier, a flat in central Leningrad a few buildings away from the Hermitage. It was located off the street, through stone arches and up narrow stairs. It had an eerie, Dickensian (Dostoyevskian?) feel that was reinforced by a glimmering light that shone on an Aladdin’s cave of objects and treasures: dozens of icons (he had been collecting them from churches around the country for 30 years, he said), all kinds of dance and ballet memorabilia … including, astonishingly, on a magazine cover that lay on a desk, a photo of my son Trevor and his then girl-friend (now wife) Desiree, in a pose from a dance-work created by my ex-wife Anna. This was his private place, he said. Very few knew of its existence. It was somewhere he could escape to, somewhere to step aside, even if only for a short while, from the pressures of his other worlds—the world of the company, and the world of daily living in the new Russia. The sense of privilege and advantage suffused the dark apartment. So did the sense of Russian history.
I came home with a suitcase filled with priceless photos, letters, programs, memorabilia—much of the modern history of Russian ballet. But I wasn’t through with my research and when my friend Nini Baird, then the programming director for B.C.’s public broadcaster, Knowledge Network, invited me in 1993 to lead a group of Canadians to Russia as a fund-raiser—show them around, share what I’d learned: spend a few days in Moscow, then travel along the Volga and through the waterways to St. Petersburg—I had the perfect opportunity to fill the story out.
You haven’t seen Russia until you’ve seen the Volga, says an old Russian proverb. There’s an old Russian proverb for everything, of course, and like most of them this one carries a smidgen of truth. Chekhov took his Olga on the Volga for their honeymoon. More accurately, though, you haven’t seen Russia until you’ve seen it from the water. Today these river cruises are a staple of Western tourism, but in 1993 the idea was still a novelty. I thought we might get a dozen or so takers. In the event, our group numbered 30, curious to see the reality of life behind the headlines in Russia with the traveller’s cares removed. It was a popular trip; in subsequent years I led another on the same northern route, and a third from Moscow south down the Volga to Volgograd.
In the weeks before the group left Vancouver for the first trip, I’d been polishing up my Russian in private classes with a Russian friend, Raissa Kolesnikov, the wife of a former Moscow music coach who had settled in Vancouver in the early 1980s. Shortly before we left, Raissa asked if I would do her a favour. She had been raising funds to buy medical supplies that were urgently needed at a children’s organ-transplant hospital in Moscow. Would I mind delivering them?
I hesitated. Coups were in the air. I foresaw all kinds of complications with Moscow customs (“You are carrying 300 hypodermic needles, rubber gloves, sutures, medical catheters and several hundred feet of intravenous tubing, and you say you are on a cultural tour?”). Raissa brushed my hesitations aside. She was doing this work to honour the spirit of the priest who baptized her into the Russian orthodox faith, Father Alexander Men. He was assassinated by an axe-murderer in 1990, and subsequently regarded as a saint by many Russian believers. “I promise,” she said, “there will be no trouble.” She was right. We were tourists. The customs people at Sheremetyevo airport had no interest in the contents of the heavy, bungee-tied boxes we hauled off the creaking conveyor belt. And my Canadian fellow-travellers, as it turned out, were more than willing to interrupt their holiday for a moment of international goodwill.
Whichever direction the riverboats travel on the Volga they must first traverse the canal that links Moscow to the inland waterways. No fine memorials stand beside the Moscow-Volga canal to memorialize those who dug out that earth, bucket-load by barrowful, to allow Stalin to realize Peter’s dream of a water route from Moscow to Russia’s seas. Unused to labour, these men (and women too) were made to work until they stumbled and fell into the holes they dug: men who knew the arcane sciences; men who knew the bone structures of birds; men who could compare the thoughts of philosophers; men whose hands had been trained for nothing more taxing than Liszt or Scriabin (but how taxing that was!); men who wrote pretentious articles about politics for small-circulation newspapers and in the absence of anything more self-affirmative felt the more confident for it; men who blew pipe-smoke across cafe tables and talked disdainfully of the state (and were heard doing so); men who knew the delicacies of thoracic surgery; men who had slighted other men and were anonymously denounced as traitors to the great cause; men who believed in the great cause but were taken nonetheless, taken like all the others, in the dark of the night, that time when the heart and mind are at their least comprehending and resistant (some managing to grab a hat or a scarf, perhaps boots—it would depend on the decency of your captors—as they were hustled from their hallways), and carried away by train and truck and cattle-cart to Yosef Stalin’s gulag, not so much a place (though places existed and hellish holes they were) as a concept, a notion, a nightmare for a lost, fragmented people. This canal is one of the places those lost people were made to build.
What the passengers do notice, though, as the ship makes its stately progress across the waters, is the way the pace of life along the waterway differs from the pace of life in Moscow. The way of life as well. A large proportion of the Russian populace still lives far from the cities, and it is here in the small towns and villages that you are forced to reconsider everything you think you have learned and observed in the big cities. To give one small example: In the tiny village of Novo-Okatovo, a cluster of 30 or 40 wooden homes that you won’t find on many maps, I was invited to visit the home of a family who wanted to know what I thought about perestroika and Boris Yeltsin. I mouthed the usual Western platitudes— “wonderful … brave … hope it works”—but my hosts brushed them aside. “Bring back Brezhnev,” they said. “Under him we at least had decent food and clothing.” They missed the benign hand of the faraway ruler. It reminded me of the line from Fiddler on the Roof: “May God bless and keep the tsar … far away from us.”
By contrast with the cities, where fleece-the-tourist was already a popular folk sport, the villages were so far untouched by the heavy hand of organized tourism and the residents seemed genuinely pleased to welcome us.
A village montage:
Walking round the village of Irma, a group of us were invited into a local resident’s home. While the others crowded into the living room to listen to the lady of the house on her accordion, I wandered through the garden to check out an odd-looking structure at the side of the house. It was Sergei’s new sauna. He was just lighting the fire for the first time. He seemed delighted to see me.
“Come back in three hours,” he said. “Bring some friends. We’ll have an international sauna together.”
I took him at his word, and three hours later half a dozen of us turned up at the modest house. The sauna session—augmented by brisk flagellations with branches from the nearby birches—was followed by a feast around a bonfire: a couple of chickens we smoked to a rich, reddy brown in a makeshift smoker, accompanied by Russian champagne, vodka and Sergei’s wife Natasha (a music teacher, as it turned out) on the accordion. When it was our turn to reciprocate with “Canadian songs” we offered Alouette, The Red River Valley and Clementine.
Sergei and Natasha were members of the fast-disappearing Russian middle class. This was their summer home. They lived in an industrial town about 40 miles away, where Sergei worked in a steel factory. Maybe it was the sauna, maybe it was the vodka, but that meeting was the beginning of a particular friendship between Sergei and myself. We stayed in touch by mail and two years later, when Susan and I passed that way again on another of the river cruises, he had the sauna hot and waiting for us and a bucket of vodka ready to ease the strain. At ten in the morning. Some things about Russia never change.
One thing that puzzled me was the Russian attitude to doors. Public access to theatres, shops and hotels was always restricted to a single, narrow half-doorway, however wide and numerous the entrances on the building’s frontage might be. The situation reached the peak of absurdity as we left St. Petersburg at the end of that first group trip. The entrance hall at Pulkovo airport was a shouting, shoving zoo—a thousand people trying to get through one small doorway to customs and immigration, everyone in a panic at the thought that they would miss their flight. It seemed like a classic case of need-to-control: the assertion of power by someone who has it over someone who hasn’t. But a friend of mine, a student of Russian history, suggested it was more significant than that. The historic response of Russia in a time of domestic strife has always been to close the country’s doors and sort out the problems in private, he said. What we were experiencing was a manifestation of a collective group response to the economic chaos that was developing in the wake of Gorbachev’s reforms.
If that was indeed what it was, the self-protectionism had come too late. The legal and illegal West-to-East transfer of goods and ideas had become an unstoppable flood. The Russian doorway had been blown open so wide by perestroika and the freeing of the market economy that not even Russian military might could have forced it watertight again.
Complicating matters was the question of the Mafia, the Russian term for any form of organized crime. Always operating in the background, it had begun to flourish immediately the consumer goods market began to open up. By the time I returned to Russia with another group in 1994, to take a riverboat south down the Volga as far as Volgograd, and then by train to St. Petersburg, the Mafia was said to have 90 per cent of the country’s GNP and most of its politicians in its grip. And it was increasingly brazen about it. On Nevsky Prospekt in broad daylight we saw what we were told was a drug-related beating: a man was head-butted to the ground by a crew-cut thug flanked by two enforcers. His skull hit the sidewalk with a horrifying crunch. The random suddenness of the violence and the eyes-averted indifference of the passers-by made St. Petersburg suddenly feel like New York.
The Mafia’s fingers of influence were everywhere. A relative of Natasha decided to advertise his car for sale for $3,000. The day his ad appeared he was visited by Mafiosi who demanded half the sale price or his wife and children would suffer. He wasn’t worried. He simply called in his own Mafia protectors, who fined the other group $3,000 and gave him half. Protection meant protection. More insidious, perhaps, was the effect of the Mafia on children, who saw the immense riches these bandits were amassing and wanted to emulate them. Looking like a Mafioso—leather jacket, wide pants, battered face—was becoming a teen fashion, particularly in the provinces. I saw a newspaper report of a poll of schoolgirls between the age of 12 and 15 in which one of their jobs of choice was hard-currency prostitution.
Russia had always had corruption, but never on such a scale, and never with such violence attached. So it was easy enough to think depressing thoughts. Yet Moscow on that 1994 visit seemed, for the first time, like a city with a future. Change was visible everywhere. New construction, renovation … there was a fizzy, fast-track feel to the city. Some streets, with their freshly coloured frontages, looked as if they belonged to pastel St. Petersburg. And the sense of intimidation that the state had deliberately fostered seemed much reduced. When a friend discovered she had lost her carry-on bag containing all her medication between the airplane and the arrivals lounge, the Moscow customs and immigration officer—usually so dour, so intimidating—waved me back through the processing area to check around the cramped offices. With the buttons of their mud-green uniforms undone, his colleagues helped me look, just guys taking a break from an ordinary job.
Up on the broad, flat viewing platform that looked out over the city near Moscow University above the Lenin Hills, a young couple, just married, sat on the wall in the sunshine sipping champagne from paper cups. They were following tradition. Russian newlyweds usually visit a scenic spot or public memorial for their photos after the civil ceremony. She was 19, as pretty as a daffodil in her frothy white wedding dress. They walked across the broad sidewalk, pausing to wrap their arms tight around each other, and bought hot dogs from a street vendor. It was their al fresco wedding feast. She had ketchup on hers, he had a dark mustard. They held the paper packages vertically as they ate, well away from their clothing. I wished them a happy future together. She gave a delighted laugh. “I only plan to marry once,” she said. “Marriage is forever.”
I found myself idly wondering if Moscow, in its unique position as a bridge between Eastern and Western cultures—an image visibly reinforced by all the Asian architectural details the process of restoration was revealing—might prove to be the new European city of the 21st century. I was overreacting, of course. It was easy to be dazzled by the impression of change. The abundance of food and consumer goods in the shops and kiosks was a constant astonishment to anyone who remembered the barren shelves of even a year or two previously. But it was still the privileged, the grey marketeers and the people with second and third jobs who felt the benefit. Few ordinary Russians, the ones who struggled to survive from day to day on a pittance that shrank in direct proportion to the galloping inflation rate, could afford the high-priced goods.
And even those who could afford them were finding it hard to make the adjustment to the new plenty. “It will take time for us to get used to having a choice of clothes,” said our friend Natasha, who played the piano on the ship. Or, for that matter, an abundance of bananas. Not long before, they were rare, exotic fruit. People would line up for them for hours. Now they were available on every street corner. When they first became available Natasha bought three kilos and ate them all. “I wanted to eat the taste for bananas out of me,” she said. “So that I would never long for them again. Now I can’t touch them. I have become the poorer for that.”
Employment was still a major problem, particularly in centres like St. Petersburg, where disarmament and perestroika had put a huge dent in the military industries, the traditional backbone of the city’s economy. But the authorities hid the true effect of unemployment by giving people low-paying part-time jobs to keep the employment figures high. One man I talked to, a PhD research scientist, was paid the equivalent of what he would get on welfare. It counted as a job in the official statistics, but he said: “I could make more selling Snickers on the street.”
A welfare system of a kind did exist, but proving validity was a time-consuming process. Pensions were linked to earnings, so people with jobs worked their sick leaves and vacations to keep their pensions as high as possible. And there was not much in the way of a safety net for the emotionally disturbed or mentally handicapped. Asylum care was the best they could expect. The new order was on its way, but it was proving to be a difficult birth.
Back-handing was still part of the way life was lived. The Kirov Ballet was out of town, and the Maryinsky Theatre was closed for renovations, but Dmitri arranged for me to show a couple of friends around. Workmen were laying a new wooden floor on the big, raked stage. I remembered how moved I’d been the first time I stood on those boards, and I asked if I could have a fragment of the old stage, just a chip, as a personal memento of all those famous feet that danced on it. The workmen looked at each other uncertainly. “It is a delicate matter,” one of them said. “There is none left.” The original flooring had been spirited away by the theatre bosses and installed in their various private dachas.
More than a century previously, the political thinker Alexander Herzen, studying the social upheavals of the 1830s, said Russia would need seven generations of “non-whipped people”—that is, people without fear—to have any hope of reasserting itself as a nation. But all that followed were more decades of oppression, of one kind or another. And Natasha wondered whether Russia was meant to be perpetually punished. “Perhaps we have been chosen to show the way people shouldn’t organize their lives,” she said. “I fear that Russians will never learn from their history, so are always doomed to repeat it.” But how did you learn from history when the nation’s past was in the process of a wholesale rewrite? Yaroslavl University had cancelled its history exams the previous year because no one was certain any more what the truth was. In the midst of the conflicting expectations and injustices brought about by perestroika, perhaps learning from history was altogether too much to expect.
And yet …
One of the cleanest, neatest streets I saw in Russia was the street on which Lenin used to live in Ulyanovsk, his birthplace. The grass was cut (a rarity anywhere in Russia), the leaves were swept, the trees were trimmed. Lenin might have fallen from grace in Moscow but here he was still an object of reverence. The street and the comfortable, middle-class home in which he spent his teenage years were carefully preserved. In a small landing-room at the top of the stairs were his desk, his books, his bookshelf, his bed. On the wall was his map of the world he was to change so radically. In the adjoining room his elder brother Alexander had given him his first glimpse of Marx’s Das Kapital. This was the crucible in which his thinking had simmered.
Yet just two doors down the immaculate street was a store selling Western computers. At the souvenir stand in the vast Lenin memorial building in the centre of town you could buy scale models of U.S. Army personnel carriers. And the big Soviet military four-wheel drive factory on the outskirts of town was planning to switch within two years to the production of Mercedes-Benz vehicles under licence. The ironies were cruel.
The official downgrading of Lenin’s stature and significance in the rest of the country had left a vacuum of belief. Conditioned for centuries to having their lives and lifestyles dictated to them, Russians were flailing for spiritual leader-figures. With State atheism no longer enforced, the Orthodox church was back in business in a big way. Everywhere churches were in the process of restoration. In Sergei’s village of Irma we watched workers rebuilding the church roof and preparing to hoist the tarnished bells out of the undergrowth in which they had languished for so long. Evangelism and faith healing were flourishing. I was told of a man who could cure whatever ailed you if you put your hands on the TV set when he was speaking. There was also a growing movement to restore a monarchy. The Romanov tsars, whose wilful mismanagement of the country had provoked the whole mess in the first place, were suddenly popular again, and a new show at the Hermitage hallowed the artefacts of Nicholas and Alexandra the way Hollywood sanctified the detritus of its greatest stars.
From time to time as you sailed down the Volga, the river swelled to as much as 50 kilometres wide and land disappeared from sight entirely. It was like sailing the open sea. These were the reservoirs that Stalin created to irrigate the farmlands and generate hydro-electric power. Ghostly hamlets lay beneath these black and placid waters. Seven hundred villages and seven thousand hectares of arable land lie beneath the Rybinsk Reservoir alone. I imagined these villages stirred by the currents of the dark waters like seaweed. Muddy footpaths, where lovers once wandered and horses dragged, had softened, dissolved, were gone. Churches and cottages, smithies and bakeries, rotted in the water, the green and pink and purple house-paints flaking into the black ooze, the weathered gingerbread softening to a pulpy sponge. The fragments that were still visible—half a ruined building on a sandy spit, the tip of a church bell-tower poking above the choppy waters—only underlined the sadness and bewilderment of the lost members of those drowned shtetls, forced to live out their displaced lives in concrete blocks on the forlorn outskirts of the cities that line the banks of the widened river: Rybinsk, Saratov, Samara. Against the relentless faint thrum of the engines, the voices of the drowned villages beneath the ship wailed and sang.
Ekaterina was our guide in Samara: brittle hair, dark blonde, tied back with a crimson ribbon from a strained, stretched face; grey eyes deep-sunk in the darkness of exhaustion; lipstick on her front teeth. The faux leather handle of her purse was cracked and torn from her habit of twisting it absently into a tight spiral as she spoke. Her parents were among the displaced. Forty years ago they had been forced on foot from their village, pushing their belongings on carts before them, yet still they fretted for the old ways, for the cycle of the crops and the safety of the country seasons. They spent hours pacing the riverside walls of the city, staring out at the slow-moving Volga. “There was much trouble,” said Ekaterina. “Families fell apart from the pressure. People became drunkards, there were many suicides.” And for what? It was progress, of a certain kind, she wouldn’t deny it. Between Ivankovo and Volgograd more than half a dozen reservoirs cover more than 11,000 square kilometres; the power generated by their dams provided much of Russia’s electricity—at that time, 25 trillion kilowatt-hours a year and growing—and their waters ensured a constant irrigation in regions of the country where once there was only drought. But at what human price?
Like several of the cities we stopped at, Saratov had only been open to visitors (Russian or foreign) for a couple of years. Yuri Gagarin, the world’s first astronaut, was born and educated here, and his spacecraft returned to earth in the dusty flatlands just 30 kilometres away. It was the centre of the natural gas industry, and many of its major enterprises, formerly devoted to the production of tanks, aircraft and weaponry, were being converted to peaceful uses—electrical goods, glass, videotapes. On the surface it was as prosperous a town as any we had seen on the trip. The people looked well dressed and well fed. The GAP store sold shirts at North American prices. But Saratov was having the same troubles coming to terms with the new market economy as any other town in Russia. The crumbling old houses down the side streets wore poverty in the place of paint. Old men pawed through dumpsters. Gypsy children begged. When our local guide Louisa let slip that she couldn’t afford pantyhose, one of our group gave her a pair from her purse. Beyond the city centre stretched acres of leaky, component-built apartment blocks. Somewhere out there Louisa lived. She didn’t shop at the GAP.
Village life along the Volga:
Perhaps the closest we came to the mythic Russian idyll on this slow drift down the Volga was in the tiny settlement of Pleus, one of the loveliest and most serene spots on the river. Here was where the landscape painter Isaac Levitan did his best work (and his most strenuous romancing, mornings painting on the bluff, afternoons in bed with his newest mistress, evenings out with his palette and brushes to catch the river sunsets). His paintings reflect the softness of the linden and birch leaves that lined our climb up the steep, slippery cobbles to the top of the bluff. Curious children accompanied us, but they had none of the pushiness and grabbiness of the kids in the big cities. One of them gave his arm to a Canadian woman having trouble on the stones and wouldn’t accept a thank-you gift. In a building at the top, three women presented a program of musical romances—a soprano whose face registered the fine gradations of concern and loss that the songs describe; a slim, prim pianist who gave a secret little smile as she took her bow; a violinist with a passion that transcended the limitations of her cheap instrument. They accepted money shyly at the end and gave us signed postcards of Pleus.
That evening four of us dropped into a local bar-cafe. It was a Sunday night. A single string of red and green Christmas lights was flickering above a glass-fronted bottle cabinet. A cassette machine was playing Russian bar music. Two burly men barely broke the rhythm of their earnest conversation to sell us a bottle of cheap Russian champagne. As we sipped, a young couple out for a Sunday treat sat down at the next zinc. He was wearing a tie, a big beige overcoat, his best pants and shoes; she was wearing a smart jacket. Here in this little bar in this pretty town, with not much else open and nothing much else to do, they shared the classic Russian celebration: a bottle of champagne and a big bar of chocolate.
We arrived in Volgograd in time for the city’s celebration of the 450th anniversary of its founding. The broad, grass embankment beside the Volga was thronged with citizens in their most fashionable finery, a parade of smartness and elegance that could have put many Western cities to shame. Old men displayed chests of medals. Street photographers took Polaroids of scrubbed children against giant stuffed animals. Rock and pop bands and amateur dance troupes drew audiences to temporary stages under the trees. The covered marketplace was a jamboree of food and drink. On street corners children offered puppies and kittens for sale.
It certainly didn’t look like the Russia of starvation and shortages and spiritual exhaustion that I remembered from the previous visit. But looks, here as elsewhere, were deceiving. Just north of Volgograd was the site of 15 underground nuclear explosions that had been designed to create gas reservoirs. Not far south were six more. All but two of the caverns had collapsed. The river here, filled with heavy metal and toxic waste, was unswimmable, unfishable. The day was filled with sunshine, but there was a heavy haze the breeze could not disperse. At an orphanage in a leafy suburb of the city I saw kids who had been born with horrendous deformities—missing arms, hare lips, flippers for legs, a little girl born with paralyzed legs who hated to be carried so scooted around on her hands and bottom. Air pollution from the chemical factories was being blamed for the growth in the number of children with Down syndrome. Nuclear power pollution and heavy metals in the water supply were thought to be prime causes of bodily deformity. Maybe, one of the nurses suggested, it was also tied to fetal alcohol syndrome, passed down to the children by the teenage alcoholic mothers who were forced to give up their babies to state care. But no one knew for sure.
Natasha had been becoming more and more apprehensive as we headed down the river. Her grandfather was lost in action during the Second World War battle on Mamaev Hill here in Volgograd (Stalingrad, as it then was). The battle was the turning-point in Hitler’s attempt to invade Russia, and today Mamaev Hill is crowned by a statue of Mother Russia that dominates the city the way the Statue of Liberty dominates New York or Christ the Redeemer dominates Rio.
Natasha was the first member of her family to make the pilgrimage to the site. She was pale and quiet, clutching a bunch of chrysanthemums as she climbed up past the statuary and the still, reflecting ponds, past the vast walls where hidden amplifiers were playing the songs the Russian soldiers sang as they marched to the front, past the pool where a concrete mother cradled the shrouded head of her dead son, up to the broad, enclosed rotunda in which the flame of memory burned.
Goose-stepping soldiers guarded the massive, upraised hand that held the flame. Mosaic banners set high into the surrounding wall bore the names of the 72,000 men who died on this hill. And inside, as people wept—Russians and visitors, it didn’t matter, the moment affected us all—we heard quiet, consoling music. Tchaikovsky, someone wondered? Rimsky-Korsakov? Shostakovich? One of the Russian masters, surely. But no. Not Russian at all. Here, inside this memorial to so many killed at Hitler’s hand, the quiet, comforting music that was playing was German: Schumann’s Traumerei.
Natasha caught her breath in surprise, then blinked and smiled. “This is as it should be,” she said. “We have no problem with the German people now. Our problems were with Hitler and the Fascists. The German people are only people, just like us.”
I was looking, all through the trip, for some sense of hope, some sense of future, for this wracked and wretched country, and sometimes I thought I had found it and sometimes I thought I never would. Just a day after the climb up Mamaev Hill I had yet another abrupt reality check.
It happened on the train from Volgograd to St. Petersburg: 37 hours, 48 stops, two shared hole-in-the-floor toilets between ten compartments. We boarded at midnight and woke to a sunny morning splashed with showers. From the train window it looked like storybook countryside: geese in ponds and goats in vegetable gardens and boys running across open fields to school, the leaves turning, trees heavy with yellow apples, the faint scent through the window of stubble burning. On the platforms when we stepped off to stretch our legs we met women with baskets of bruised apples (and faces to match) and soft, split plums.
But the Russian woman from the next compartment who stood beside me at the window saw none of the romance. Those wooden village homes with their decorative gingerbread, how primitive, how inconvenient. That land, how blighted—odd-shaped bits of abandoned concrete, half-collapsed piles of bricks, rusting steel frames of unfinished and forgotten buildings, straggly heaps of grey rubble. “This is what Russia is,” she said. “Without hope. We don’t even have our dreams any more. We are too far down. There is nothing.”
Was she right?
Still looking for some kind of reassurance, I went back to visit Sasha at his apartment just off Nevsky Prospekt. He had not created many paintings recently. He and Tanya had been busy with the newest addition to their family, their first-born, Pavel. The child was five months old, and Tanya, with her open smile and her shock of blond hair, glowed with motherhood. Susan and I sat with them in the kitchen, drinking tea and eating creamy cakes. The table talk covered everything, as Russian table talk always does, but eventually we came round to the question of where Russia might be headed.
This was a time when Zhirinovsky was rattling the anti-Western sabres and trying to re-energize Russian nationalism. Sasha was clear-eyed about the ongoing economic and social chaos, but he had no time for extremists like Zhirinovsky, or for pessimism. He was convinced there were millions of Russians like him, going about their lives without fuss, refusing to become involved in politics, living lives as good as they could make them. Waiting for a future that Sasha and Tanya might not even see—a future to be forged by their son and by the millions of Russian children now being born. He had just bought the child his first snow-suit to protect him against the harsh St. Petersburg winter. “He is the generation that is going to lead this country into the next century,” said Sasha. “And if we teach him properly, if we fill him with good principles, if we show him how to be better than we were able to be, he will make things well.”
It was the voice of moderation and principle, the voice of an ordinary, intelligent, peace-loving, hopeful man. We wished him and his family godspeed and all happiness in everything they did and wished for.
A year later, Sasha died in a fire in his studio.
Max Wyman was born and educated in England and emigrated to Canada in 1967. He wrote arts criticism and commentary for The Vancouver Sun and The Province for four decades; his books on the arts include Dance Canada: An Illustrated History and The Defiant Imagination: Why Culture Matters. He served on the board of the Canada Council for the Arts and was President of the Canadian Commission for UNESCO. An Officer of the Order of Canada, he holds an honorary D. Litt. from SFU, and was among the founding cohort of GLS Shadbolt Community Scholars. The Max Wyman Award in Critical Writing, a $5,000 annual prize established by Yosef Wosk in 2017, is part of the Jack and Doris Shadbolt Foundation’s VIVA suite of awards. Editor’s note: for The Ormsby Review, Max Wyman has contributed “Letters from the Pandemic 7: Dear Roger and David.”
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