Books: Flying Visits: Postcard from Russia | clivejames.com
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Postcard from Russia

The most exciting way of getting into Russia is to cross Germany in a sealed train and arrive at the Finland Station in St Petersburg to be greeted by a cheering revolutionary mob who promptly rename the city after you. This approach being no longer possible, the next best method is to book a Sovereign package tour through British Airways, thereby ensuring that there will be none of that humdrum business about stepping on and off aircraft at the appointed time. It was an exciting few days our tiny band had of it, waiting to see which flight we would be rebooked on, if any. Finally it was Aeroflot that assumed the burden of taking us to our week of adventure behind the Iron Curtain.

Kicked by the 92,000 horses of its four Kuznetsov KN-8-4 turbofans, our half-empty Ilyushin 11-62 scrambled out of Heathrow like a MiG-21. The cabin smelled of kerosene and was colder than a three-star freezer but not to worry, because in less time than it took to recover from the meal provided (packaged in London, it was to be our last contact with the West) we were on Soviet soil at Sheremetsevo airport, Moscow. Valentina, our Intourist guide, had come to meet us. There were a dozen of us and only one of her, but she was the duck and we were the ducklings. Wherever she cruised, we paddled energetically in her wake.

Arriving at the Metropole Hotel late in the evening, we paddled straight into the past. The Metropole is bang in the centre of the city and, like every other good looking building in the Soviet Union, dates from before the Revolution. By Western standards it's a flea trap, but at least it's an atmospheric flea trap, retaining all its original cherubs, chandeliers and stained glass. To the Muscovites the place is simply Dreamsville. We found the ballroom full of them, all dancing frantically to 'Heart of my Heart', played by a six piece combo in which the clarinet had been heavily influenced by Benny Goodman. Bouncing off each other like dodgems, the dancing couples each consisted of (a) a brutally barbered man doing the steering and (b) a strapping wench providing the power. All dolled up in their Saturday night best, the girls were culture shock incarnate. Their clothes were straight from Oxfam and their coiffures seemed to have been created by a blacklisted Hollywood hairstylist who had taken to drink and gone blind.

At this point I shall give up any attempt at chronological presentation and take refuge in the 'blur of impressions' technique, leading off with the blurred impression that women's hairstyles play a large part in the Soviet economy. There is a hairstyle parlour in every block and a hairstyle under the helmet of every lady construction worker. It might not be much of a hairstyle, but it's a brave try, and helps distract attention from the clothes, which are amazing.

It's not just a matter of few women being able to afford to dress well: there is nothing good to buy even if they save up the money. The trouser suits in the window of GUM, the big Moscow department store beside Red Square, don't just cost more than £100 at the official exchange rate, they look like Hell. At the more ambitious shops on Kuznetsky Bridge, the once famous fashion street behind the Bolshoi, the clothes are twice as expensive again but no less hideous. There is a special poignancy about Kuznetsky Bridge, because in Pushkin's time it was much satirised by the literary men as the place where the fine young ladies who broke their hearts went to buy French fripperies. The shops are as they were, but there is nothing in them.

In the official logic of Soviet life, essentials come cheap and luxuries come dear. But the facts say that luxuries hardly come at all. The queues you see everywhere are mainly for things that aren't yet in stock but soon might be. A pair of women's tights costs £9 plus and has to be imported from East Germany, which for the Soviet Union counts as Babylon.

But the German tights got through. The German tanks didn't. There are huge memorials outside Moscow and Leningrad to mark the places where the Wehrmacht, at last outmatched by the combination of the Red Army and a white winter, was stopped cold, frozen in its tracks. For any visiting liberal, the central fact of Soviet history very properly remains the war waged by the Soviet Government against the liberty, and in millions of cases the lives, of its own people. But for Russians the central fact is the war waged against Nazi Germany. The 10 million slain by Stalin are at best a subject of rumour, since the flow of information which started during the Thaw has by now frozen up again. But the 20 million lost in the Second World War are a vivid memory. If, as seems likely, steps have been taken to ensure that nobody else will ever be able to assume the unchallenged power wielded by Stalin, it could have less to do with his purges than with his blunders. By weakening the officer corps at a crucial stage and refusing to heed advice, he very nearly lost his people the war.

On this subject if on no other, a modicum of sincere feeling infuses the official propaganda. Certainly the regime is lying when it blames the war, rather than its own rigidity, for the continued bleakness of Soviet life. But both powerful and powerless are of one mind in their determination never to be invaded again. On the Tomb of the Unknown Warrior outside the Kremlin wall the inscription reads: 'Your name is unknown but your death is immortal.' Touchingly, it is in the familiar form, as if addressed to a son. Old ladies leave flowers and cry.
The same old ladies queue for Lenin's tomb, but that's another issue. Even older ladies linger outside the few re¬maining active churches. It's a matter of faith, the Leninist faith having the merit that its propagation receives a whop¬ping slice of the State budget, while Christianity is left to die of neglect. Since a visit to Lenin's waxwork was not on our schedule, I contented myself with paddling away from Valentina and taking a hinge at the Lenin Museum, just at the entrance to Red Square. This I can recommend, even though all the inscriptions are in Russian. Brilliantly laid out, the place is bung full of Leninalia — including his black Rolls Royce — and helps give you an idea of what happens when a man is worshipped as a God. Hagiolatry turns to halitosis.

There are two main advantages in learning a few words of Russian before you make the trip. The first advantage is that the Russians, like the Italians (and unlike the French), respond warmly to the merest attempt at saying some little thing in their language. When, after consulting my pocket dictionary, I told the floor superintendent that the light bulb in my bathroom was burned out (actually I said, 'The bath illumination have been destroyed,' but let that pass), she and her assistant burst into applause, whereupon a team of ladies in blue overalls sprinted down the corridor and fixed the thing in nothing flat.

The second advantage is that you will not be so easily fooled by the suggestion that the Soviet Union is Arcadia made actual. What has been made actual in the Soviet Union is boredom. Having discovered that boring the people works better than killing them, the State has gone on being boring for so long that it has ended up by boring even itself. It is true that the people do not litter the streets or write graffiti on the walls. They don't need to: the Government does it for them. There are posters and banners absolutely everywhere. Chesterton said that Times Square in New York would look like paradise to anyone who couldn't read. The Russian alphabet looks very decorative to anyone who can't under¬stand it. But if you can puzzle out what all those gigantic inscriptions are saying, you gradually realise that every major building in Moscow and Leningrad is engaged full time in boring the public witless.

It was reasonably jolly to discover that the huge words on top of the power station in Moscow were a famous quota¬tion from Lenin: COMMUNISM IS SOVIET POWER PLUS THE ELECTRIFICATION OF THE ENTIRE COUNTRY. But the slogan on top of the Metropole was less digestible: RAISE HIGH THE BANNER OF PROLETARIAN INTERNATIONALISM! Nine out of every ten slogans finish with an exclamation mark. Since the Soviet Union is currently in the throes of assimilating the directives handed down by the XXVth Party Congress, the same general invitation is repeated every few yards: LET US FULFIL THE DECISIONS OF THE XXVth PARTY CONGRESS! The decisions filled the whole front page of Pravda. There were hundreds of them. Without exception they finished with an exclamation mark.

While we were there, Lenin's 107th birthday fell due. The paper Soviet Russia, mouthpiece of the Central Committee, carried the full text of a heroically tedious speech made to the Praesidium by ideologist M.B. Zumyanin, marking the occasion. Marking it flat. Under a half page photo of the Praesidium, sitting beneath the inevitable portrait of Lenin, the caption informs us that we are looking at 'a triumphant meeting of the Praesidium, dedicated to the 107th anni¬versary of the birthday of V.I. Lenin'. There follows the headline: LENINISM REVOLUTIONARY BANNER OF OUR EPOCH. A sub heading informs us that we are about to read a speech given 'in a triumphant meeting in Moscow, dedicated to the 107th anniversary of the birthday of V.I. Lenin'. This introduces the speech proper, running from page one to page three in small print. It begins: 'Comrades! One hundred and seven years after the birthday of Viadimir Ilyich Lenin. . .'You get the drift. Actually this was the speech the Chinese delegate walked out of, but surely not because of its veiled criticisms of China. He just saw his chance and split.

The cult of Brezhnev is low temperature compared with what used to be turned on for Stalin. Brezhnev's thoughts are everywhere, but the letters are seldom more than six feet high. In Pravda there are always scores of references to his latest speech, in which he always declares himself to be against Imperialism and for Peace. His name is invariably given as General Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party Comrade Brezhnev. But there aren't many shrines to him that can't be easily dismantled: Brezhnev could be made to vanish from the landscape as completely as Khrushchev, who is not even buried with all the other Party heroes in the Kremlin wall. (He's over in the Nunnery, in a part of the graveyard we couldn't visit.) Stalin is still in the wall, but he'll never get back into Lenin's tomb, where he lay for the short period of his immortality. Lenin is the only deity allowed at the moment.

And one's enough. Any building he isn't on, he's in. There is a hulking bust of him inside Moscow's Leningrad Station, and when you get off the train at the other end you find an equally hulking bust inside Leningrad's Moscow Station. But from the outside the stations look exactly the same as they did when Anna Karenina fell under her train. On the whole the Soviet Union has done a good job of preserving the pre revolutionary artistic heritage. Since there is hardly any such thing as a post-revolutionary artistic heritage you might say that it was the least they could do, but considering the aristocratic and/or bourgeois provenance of what they inherited, they have been remarkably tolerant in looking after it. (For anything untoward produced after 1917, I need hardly point out, there is no tolerance available at all.)

The Tsars' summer palaces outside Leningrad were severely damaged by the occupying Wehrmacht but they have been painstakingly reassembled. The Russian rococo is the most human of all grand styles, never getting out of scale with the people inside it. It went on exuding the formative intelligence of Peter the Great long after the Russian royal family had declined into mediocrity. The supreme example, in Leningrad itself, is, of course, the Winter Palace, now merely the largest of the several buildings which form the Hermitage.

The paintings in the Hermitage would alone constitute sufficient reason for visiting the USSR. Nina, our Intourist guide in Leningrad, knew a lot about painting, but she was allowed to conduct only one official tour of the Hermitage. You need three or four visits to get to grips with the place, so I recommend paddling off. The Imperial collections drip with masterpieces — Leonardos, Giorgiones, Rembrandts, a Michelangelo statue, etc. — but more remarkable still are the rooms full of French paintings bought at the turn of this century more or less straight off the easel. A wall of Bonnards, a room full of Cézannes, another room full of Rose, Blue and early Cubist Picassos — it's unbelievable. (The equivalent rooms in Moscow's Pushkin Museum are unbelievable too.) Such purchasing was only one aspect of the rich, bourgeois culture which otherwise gave rise to Diaghilev, and which the Revolution cut down in full flower.

There is a room entirely devoted to a staggering collection of Gauguins. Looking down from a window of this room into the square below — the square to which the people once came asking for bread and got bullets in reply — I could see the flagstones being torn up to make way for a mosaic hailing the sixtieth anniversary of the Revolution, which will be celebrated next November (i.e., October, old style) and will be a very big deal. There are no prizes for guessing whose face will feature in the mosaic. As we now know, the artistic euphoria of the decade after the Revolution was a false dawn. Night descended in 1917 and the sun has never really re arisen. Only in music — and barely even in that, when you compare the fruitfulness of the nineteenth century — has creativity been allowed to continue. In a way this is lucky for us, because there can't be much doubt that Russian culture would have overwhelmed the world. It took the Revolution to stop it.

Our package tour included a good seat in Moscow's Congress Palace (the very place from which the Chinese delegate sloped out a few days later) for the Siberian Folk Dance Ensemble. It was a big kick to be sitting in the Kremlin surrounded by Mongolian generals covered with decorations, but the folk dancing itself was tedium epitomised. The packed house of 5,000 people all pretended to be having a marvelous time but there was no avoiding the conclusion that here was culture less ethnic than embalmed — the whole deal was as stiff as Lenin's corpse.

In Leningrad we went to the circus, which was a better bet, but once again I advise paddling away and asking your hotel's Service Bureau to book you into as many operas and ballets as you have spare nights to fill. Stick to the old stuff if you want to be entertained and try something modern if you want to see how far Russian art has gone down the tubes. At the Kirov there was a modem ballet called Till Eulenspiegel. The music was composed not by Richard Strauss but by People's Artist E.A. Glebova. It was loudly inane. The lib¬retto and choreography were both by Honoured Artistic Worker V.N. Elizarev. They were pretentious and trite respectively. The subject was the triumph of Freedom and Love over Fascism. The décor and costumes seemed to have been provided by GUM. The dancing was a muffled echo of Martha Graham. Flexing his powerful bottom, Freedom did arabesques while Love used him as a divan and Fascism writhed menacingly in the background. The total effect was of a Western avant garde production circa 1957, but really it was all even older hat than that.

Just around the corner from our hotel (the Evropaeska — all the same cherubs as the Metropole) the Maly Theatre gave Prokofiev's Romeo and Juliet, with new choreography by O.M. Vinogradov. This was more like it, the music being hard not to respond to, but even here the dancing was largely a waste of energy. Perhaps I was prejudiced, seated as I was behind a lady whose upswept hairstyle — which gradually came apart as the evening wore on — suggested that she had surfaced abruptly underneath a heron's nest. But from what I could see through the cloud of wisps and strands, Romeo and Juliet danced like Rodnina and Zaitsev minus the skates. Bundles of athleticism but little emotional tact. It is all very well to argue that opera and ballet deal with emotions rather than ideas, but if ideas are not allowed to exist then there is nothing left with which to think about emotions.

Valentina and Nina both love their country but would like to visit the West. God knows what they will think of it — I can see how it is bound to shock them. Packing for home, however, I was glad enough to be going back. A blur of impressions should always end with 'a personal note', so let me say that I had thought the equality which supposedly prevails in the Soviet Union would appeal to my leveling Australian spirit. In a way it does, but the price is too high. For anyone who values the free play of the mind, inequality will always be obscene. But to extirpate both inequality and mind is to kill the tree along with the mistletoe.

For all its monolithic sense of purpose, the Soviet Union seems hopelessly barren when compared with the West, which has more to be said for it than we commonly allow. For example, it has the continuous excitement provided by British Airways, who sent word to Moscow that they couldn't get an aircraft any closer to us than Copenhagen. Could we meet them there? For a while it looked as if we might have to walk, but finally we got a lift in a Pan Am Boeing 707 shuttling through from Tokyo. The further West we flew the better I felt. I felt better about my own activities: in a land which allows no mocking voices, no other kind of voice sounds convincing either. I felt better about poor troubled Britain. I felt warm towards Sovereign Tours. I even felt fond of British Airways — which was bloody generous of me, because when we got to Copenhagen it turned out that they had gone to Amsterdam.

— May 15, 1977
 

Postscript, 2007 : If you were born too late to spend a few days in the old Soviet Union, you will find it almost impossible to imagine what the texture of everyday life seemed like within its borders, mainly because of the absolute difference in consumer goods that then prevailed between the East and the West. I suppose the simplest way of evoking the discrepancy would be to say that whereas our stuff gradually turned to junk with age, the Soviet Union manufactured junk. Left-wing commentary on international politics pretty well depended on not noticing things like that, so most of the commentators who spoke accurately about the small change of life under the Warsaw Pact hailed from the right. P.J. O'Rourke was the first to say that the Soviet building industry was engaged in putting up ruins. Others might have noticed, but he actually said it. I was never — let me insist — a rightist commentator myself, but the small change of life was what I had dedicated myself to dealing in, so I tried to bring home the facts. My first reward for this piece was to be attacked over two full columns of the Soviet's Literaturnaya Gazeta. Thus I got a taste of what it must once have been like to be a Russian writer picked on in public by Zhdanov. A taste was enough. I wish I could say that the end was already in sight while I was there. But the security apparatus was plainly functioning with full efficiency and I saw no reason why the whole sad business shouldn't go on indefinitely. Later on , after the Berlin Wall came down and the whole system bled to death through the puncture, a lot of people were prescient in retrospect, but I tried not to be one of them. One thing I did guess, however: if the grotesque and infinitely obscene shebang ever collapsed, the outcome would not automatically be a functioning democracy, any more that the outcome of a vanished fever is automatically a renewed strength.