Reac­quain­tance with Rus­sia

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Ju­dith Arm­strong

The small co­hort of Aus­tralians who lived in Moscow dur­ing the Soviet regime con­sti­tutes a lit­tle co­terie in this coun­try. Mainly former stu­dents who were on ex­change at Moscow State Univer­sity (tourists don’t make the cut), few ‘‘mem­bers’’ keep up with or even know each other, yet all trea­sure the mys­te­ri­ous bond cre­ated by that ex­pe­ri­ence of liv­ing in a capsule, un­able to ac­cess West­ern me­dia of any kind, at a time when com­put­ers ef­fec­tively did not ex­ist.

We kept in touch with fam­ily and friends by blue air­let­ters sent and re­ceived via the Aus­tralian em­bassy, to which we made weekly pil­grim­ages, tak­ing a bus from the wed­ding-cake univer­sity on Lenin Hills, get­ting off at Red Square, walk­ing through icy streets to 13 Kropotkin­sky Pereulok, a mini-Can­berra in the heart of Moscow. Hav­ing flashed our pro­pusk (pass) and stated our pur­pose to a bored guard, we were per­mit­ted to en­ter a back of­fice, col­lect our haul and de­posit our out­ward-bound aero­grams.

As we left we would pass the ac­tual em­bassy, a ‘‘strik­ingly beau­ti­ful art nou­veau man­sion, with a three-storey high re­cep­tion hall dom­i­nated by a white mar­ble fire­place flanked by eight-feet-high cary­atids’’. I take Tony Kevin’s word for that, as we never got through the front door. But that didn’t mat­ter. It was the mail-run that counted — our only means of con­tact with the out­side world.

For Kevin, on a two-year diplo­matic post­ing, this mai­son de luxe was the of­fice. Housed in a sep­a­rate diplo­matic com­pound, he was pro­vided with an of­fi­cial car, though no driver. The ab­sence of maps (un­avail­able for se­cu­rity rea­sons) cre­ated quite a prob­lem. De­spite this, and al­though Kevin had learned some Rus­sian at the Aus­tralian Na­tional Univer­sity, not once dur­ing that time did he use the stun­ning Moscow metro.

But even if he had, few Soviet cit­i­zens would have risked ca­sual con­ver­sa­tion with a clearly West­ern stranger. Rather than so­cial­is­ing with lo­cals, em­bassy com­mu­ni­ties had to be con­tent with ‘‘choirs, drama clubs, read­ing and craft groups, mother-and-baby cir­cles’’. This rather de­press­ing pic­ture makes it all the more sur­pris­ing that nearly 50 years later Kevin was des­per­ate to get back to Moscow, still ask­ing him­self why he loved ‘‘this strange, lovely, wounded land’’, why its cul­ture, mu­sic, art, and lit­er­a­ture meant so much to him. Willy-nilly, he had be­come part of the co­terie.

He re­turned in last year in win­ter, the most ap­pro­pri­ate sea­son. The re­sult­ing book, Re­turn to Moscow, is ar­ranged like a fat sand­wich: three chap­ters re­call that first stay; the next nine de­tail the sec­ond, os­cil­lat­ing be­tween trav­el­ogue and ru­mi­na­tion on pre and postSoviet cul­ture and pol­i­tics; the fi­nal two chap­ters an­a­lyse and chal­lenge present West­ern at­ti­tudes to Rus­sia.

He spends a few days spent reac­quaint­ing him­self with a changed but recog­nis­able Moscow, fi­nally treat­ing him­self to the gor­geous metro. Over­land train trips take him to places of touristy re­pute that are given added sig­nif­i­cance by his well-re­searched con­tex­tu­al­is­ing.

To take just one ex­am­ple, a visit to Boris Paster­nak’s dacha at Pere­delkino al­lows him to en­list Dr Zhivago as ‘‘a key to bet­ter EastWest un­der­stand­ing’’, in it­self the rai­son d’etre of his book. He runs through the CIA’s savvy pro­mo­tion of a manuscript that was banned in its home town, and re­minds us that David Lean’s 1965 film version was not seen in Rus­sia un­til 1994: Nikita Khrushchev, though do­ing much to un­ravel the gu­lag, was still com­mit­ted to an au­thor­i­tar­ian one-party Soviet com­mu­nist sys­tem.

When Swe­den awarded Paster­nak the No­bel prize, he was obliged to refuse it. Yet the gov­ern­ment gave him a dacha and a stipend, and let him live and work in peace. For the poet Yevgeny Yev­tushenko, quoted by Kevin, the les­son in this is that thoughts ‘‘in­haled’’ by Paster­nak’s clan­des­tine read­ers ‘‘be­came in­creas­ingly part of the air of Rus­sia as the coun­try pre­pared it­self for change’’.

Kevin is keen to draw out not just the changes wrought by late com­mu­nism and its ul­ti­mate fall, but the un­ex­pected yet in­evitable ways in which they oc­curred. An­drei Sakharov had been ar­rested and ex­iled to Gorky (now Nizhny Nov­gorod) for writ­ing on top­ics such as in­tel­lec­tual free­dom and peace­ful co-ex­is­tence, but Mikhail Gor­bachev freed him and Boris Yeltsin nom­i­nated him as Per­son of the Cen­tury for Time magazine.

Kevin’s own book also changed. Start­ing from an ex­plo­ration in nos­tal­gia, it be­comes ‘‘a per­sonal ap­peal against cur­rent locked-in hos­tile West­ern mis­read­ings of con­tem­po­rary Rus­sian re­al­ity, and against the in­sen­sate West­ern drive to a new Cold War with Rus­sia’’. The stig­ma­ti­sa­tion of Rus­sia as ‘‘a kind of Mor­dor’’, cor­rupt and de­struc­tion-bent, is for him a wil­ful car­i­ca­ture per­pe­trated by a me­dia that ‘‘can no longer be re­lied on for truth and ob­jec­tiv­ity where Rus­sia is con­cerned’’.

We read­ers, faced with an in­ter­net prof­fer­ing ev­ery imag­in­able opin­ion, frame our views from the sources we pre­fer; most of us go for anti-Putin tirades whose mes­sage hardly dif­fers from Ron­ald Rea­gan’s ‘‘evil em­pire’’ talk.

Nat­u­rally, counter-ar­gu­ments to Kevin’s cru­sade also abound. His ur­gent bid for a more bal­anced and nu­anced un­der­stand­ing of, for ex­am­ple, Rus­sia’s de­fen­sive-ag­gres­sive re­ac­tion to NATO’s en­cir­cling threat could — and no doubt should — be un­done in a sec­ond sim­ply by snatch­ing the te­le­scope from his my­opic eye.

But wouldn’t the per­son who did that be wear­ing rose-coloured glasses im­ported from Amer­ica? To read this gen­tle and in­sight­ful book with clear eyes is a nec­es­sary and de­sir­able ex­er­cise in open-mind­ed­ness. I rec­om­mend try­ing it.

taught Rus­sian lit­er­a­ture and cul­ture at the Univer­sity of Melbourne. Her books in­clude War and Peace and Sonya.

Boris Paster­nak’s writ­ing be­came part of the ‘air of Rus­sia’ as the na­tion pre­pared for change

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