When I gave talks at literary conventions in the 1990’s, interested people would ask me what was happening in Russian literature and whether it was in as terrible a state as the economy. It used to give me great pleasure to reply that, on the contrary, Russian literature was flourishing to an enviable degree.
Moscow's knocked me out: all I want to do is sleep (I find I need 3 days to adapt to local conditions when I come back from anywhere). The news is far from brilliant. It stretches out like a chain along a village road which just gets muddier and muddier. Clay, shit - it all looks the same. It sticks to you in layers and it's no use trying to shake it off or snarling.
Well, OK, what do we have? Khutsiev, the Rector of the Moscow Film Institute, has been sacked - but that's no surprise; from now on the Rectors of Moscow and St Petersburg Universities will be appointed by the President - ditto. Elections, choice -these are not for Russians. What they are used to is shaking things off, snarling at people and getting more and more stuck. Even the air is sticky and when it finally settles on my balcony it's black.
I've just come back from London, where I hadn't been for 5 years, though before that I went every year for 4 years running. This time I was asked the same old question: ‘Did you see Boris?' Boris? Which Boris? Berezovsky, of course. I've never seen him. No one asked me if I'd seen Abramovich. For some London is Proputinsk, a town that has been bought up from top to bottom. For others it's Antiputinsk, which is quietly stagnating.
Sasha and I are in a red double-decker bus, talking Russian. Suddenly the man sitting in front of us turns round and silently proffers 2 Russian newspapers published in London. In one of them I read a review of a book called "Londongrad" by 2 British authors. They write about Russian oligarchs with sarcasm and revulsion, saying they behave as though they've bought up the whole world and everything in it. Perhaps the book's about more than oligarchs, but if so the review doesn't say so. But the small ads in these two newspapers speak volumes: there's a bed to let in a room that is already occupied, or a room in a flat, offers to fix up jobs for cleaners or dustmen, but the pay is so poor that it makes the 300,000 Russians in London sound like poor folk from a Dickens novel.
London is cheaper than Moscow, though. Food, fruit and veg, restaurants, shoes and clothes. When Russians arrive they go rushing round the shops, as they used to in the old days, buying up clothes and shoes for a year or two ahead. They stagger away with as much as they can carry, buying an extra suitcase on the way. While one social group would call this consumer prostitution, the other would just call it shopping.
In the 90s the difference between Moscow and London was huge. Then the "petrotyphoon" happened in Russia and made it seem as though we were twins - the same elegant selection of expensive boutiques, stars on tour, houses with towers that almost looked like castles and more Bentleys in Moscow than in London.
As for the famous lawns, Russians understood that it wasn't a question of them having to grow for 300 years, but that looking after even small squares and courtyards properly was impossible, so how the endless parks and gardens in London were kept mown was completely beyond most of us. In Soviet times there were notices everywhere «No walking on the grass», but this made no difference at all: any place that wasn't asphalted over was soon reduced to wasteland or became overgrown with weeds and was awash with runny mud during the rainy season.
In London it rains all the time, but the grass is green and so thick that it swallows up the dew, even though people lie on it, play football and have picnics. When Russians have picnics the result is a multi-layered pile of rubbish, where the debris seems to resolve back into the earth all on its own. Look at it like this: in Russia things happen of their own accord in one way - in England in a different way.
When I was in London I met up with the former British Ambassador to Russia, Sir Roderic Lyne. We had made friends when he was working in Moscow. We met in London on the last day of his contract with TNK-BP. This marked the end of his connection with Russia. Although he speaks excellent Russian and knows and loves the country he considers that there's just nothing more he can do there. Now that the pillar of Russian society has resurrected itself as that «vertical of power», one might say that the heap of dirt has reached a critical point where the awfulness has become all-enveloping. This goes for all things Russian - not just investments and tourism, but even literature (almost nothing being published any more).
Professor Valentina Polukhina has written several books about Joseph Brodsky and set up a fund for Russian poets in London. She complains that invitations from universities have dried up - no one wants to hear about Russian literature any more. Publishers can't sell Russian books, though they could before. This started before the economic crisis, which has simply reinforced the trend, ensuring that anything considered non-essential is cut. Things Russian appear to be among the non-essentials. Except, perhaps, for theatre: Chekhov still reigns supreme and a few modern playwrights (usually translated by Sasha Dugdale). Valentina's husband, Daniel Weissbort, has lived in England since he was a young man. He is one of the best poet-translators, but he is still doing translations for himself, rather than for publication. At the moment he's translating Henry Sapgir and Igor Kholin; before that it was Inna Lisnyanskaya. He's translated a lot.
I saw Daniel and Valentina several times: once they invited me to the Athenaeum Club.
In England they keep a strict division between 3 areas of life: work, home life and «social life», which happens in pubs and clubs. Pubs, as their name suggests, are public places. But each one has its regulars, so it's not a casual matter which one you go to. I went with Zinovy Zinik to his pub, where there were hugs and kisses all round, but we had to leave, as there was no room. «So what?» say I «We'll go to another. There are lots of pubs and cafes round here.» «It's not the same», said Zinovy crossly. It was as if I'd been invited to his house and suggested that it would be just as good to go and see the neighbours instead. So we went to his house.
He said all the same things: modern Russian literature doesn't seem to be written for anyone in particular, because there is no class of Russian society left that reads any more. I mean class in the everyday, rather than the Marxist, sense. Zinovy writes more and more in English now, though two books of his essays have been published in Russia.
I argued that there are classes in Russia. Some people read about glamorous celebrity lifestyles, usually in brightly-coloured shiny publications full of English words and expressions which seem to suggest that there's nothing to choose between Moscow and London. Others prefer reading matter of a more nationalistic kind, with elements of criminality, Orthodox religion or other rubbish, in which life is nightmarish and hopeless. Here the underlying message is «That's Russia - take it or leave it». The rest of the world can just take a running jump. The first group are optimists, the second pessimists.
You hear nothing from the others - they are the rustling in the garden. «Why is there only one book which makes sense of what is going on in Russia?» asks Zinik. He means Vladimir Sorokin's «The Day of the Oprichnik». It isn't the only one, of course, but to Zinovy in his Londongrad the others are no more than the rustling in the garden. From that English garden you just can't hear our discourse any more, any more than you can hear our problems and what's going on in our society.
Every pub has its own atmosphere and you can see the different types of people in them at a glance. I always drink a pint of cider, as I don't like beer. In the clubs there are no outsiders, so they're completely homogeneous. The Athenaeum is a big old building and everyone is respectable. Wearing a white shirt, jacket and tie is de rigueur. Daniel's a member, but Valentina is not, so she can't go into the rooms with «Members only» on the door. Women weren't allowed into the club before. But Margaret Thatcher came when she was Prime Minister and they couldn't really ask her to leave. Since then women have been allowed to become members too. Britain has emerged from the Roman Empire, outgrown it, as it were. So for them what the gods can do, cattle can too. Russia is still trying to catch up, insisting on the opposite, Quod licet Jovi, non licet bovi. But as long as we stick by the maxim «one country - one leader», our intellectual horizon is hugely constrained. It offers only one point of view - for or against.
I was taken to the Athenaeum because Brodsky had been there and Seamus Heaney is a member - poets are part of the scene. I put on a black dress and Sasha specially bought a white shirt. However, when we went to another club with Mark Grigoryan we dressed normally, like everyone else. Jeans, teeshirt and jacket. It's a club for journalists who work in the trouble spots of the world - hence its name, Frontline Club. One of the Athenaeum's valuable relics is an old button from the uniform jacket of the club, whereas at the Frontline it's a mobile telephone shattered by a bullet. It was at the Frontline Club that Alexander Litvinenko held his last press-conference, when he announced that he knew who had killed Anna Politkovskaya. This is the place in London where Russia is discussed often, with acute interest, like Iraq and Afghanistan. Their relics are spattered with dirt now hallowed, as journalists from all over the place have paid for it with their lives in a variety of dirty wars. The mobile telephone and the dirty wallet with bullet holes have saved lives. Mark himself suffered an attempt on his life and still has the grenade splinters in his body to show for it. He left Yerevan and now works for the BBC, making brief sorties to trouble spots. Once, he too was a student of literature, but the front suddenly seemed more appealing than life behind the lines. London is a haven for them all. Now that figurehead of Russian politics - Chief Sanitary Inspector Onishchenko - has banned schoolchildren from travelling there, to prevent them from becoming too accustomed to London at a tender age. After all, it doesn't take much to get used to the good things in life.
Since I was here before Norman Foster's appetising glass gherkin has gone up and Renzo Piano's bright orange buildings are nearing completion in the historic centre. They fit so well into classical London that one can only feel they should somehow have been there before. English literature too has moved on from the looking glass into real life: Alice in Wonderland, Tolkien and even (when we've finished focusing on literature) Potter.If ten years ago Russia was in any way better than it is today, it was the feeling that everything was possible: people went to London to study, came back and mowed their «Hyde Park» lawns. But that was folly, the futile strivings of love which subsequently led to complete exhaustion. The path from Russian rags to English riches was being laid it would seem, in the opposite direction - to Londongrad.
In this book Susan Richards does something that foreigners in Russia hardly ever do: she looks for the effects of the latest political upheavals not in the capitals but in the provinces. She also sets out to explore uncharted waters in two other directions, following not just the fortunes of the state, but the fates of individuals and going to the roots of the Russian fascination with the irrational. Her book is so well written and so imbued with a deep and intimate understanding of Russian culture that it reads almost like a novel, but it also carefully documents how ordinary people's lives are affected by shifts in politics.
Richards' friends from the city of Saratov, on the Volga, and the nearby town of Marx start off in 1992 with a belief in liberal democracy and in a new beginning for Russia that would change the lives of its people for the better. As she presents snapshots of their condition over the following 16 years the author is unflinchingly honest - even for the most persistent of them, the changes for the better, when they do come, come at a tremendous price and not with the support of the state, but rather despite the obstacles the state puts in their way. In 2008 the future looks bleak, and not just because of the world financial crisis. The question of why the country as a whole has yet again failed to transform itself, why the state is unwilling to shake off the legacy of its imperialist and oppressive past, which has been detrimental primarily for its own people, cannot be answered within a single book. The answer would probably require more detailed analysis of Russian politics in the last twenty years than the brief italicized summaries of events which preface the chapters in "Lost and Found in Russia", but this is not the task Susan Richards sets herself. Her way is to observe the hidden areas of Russian life and analyse what she sees as a friend and as a westerner.
Unfortunately, official Russian propaganda has done a lot in recent years to assure its citizens that for a westerner to be a friend is impossible in principle - "the West is against us". Even more worrying is the fact that the Western press more often than not dismisses attempts by Western authors to see what's wrong with Russia as "anti-Russian". In real life, of course, the popular assumption that an absence of democracy is only bad from a Western point of view, while Russians actually do not mind it at all, is much more anti-Russian than the shudder experienced by real friends of Russia at any fresh blow that the Russian state deals its citizens. Susan Richards shows as well as anybody that one can sympathise with ordinary Russians and feel that they deserve a better lot, and yet be critical of the policies of its decision-makers. Moreover, her sympathy is not blind - visiting her friends regularly for more than a decade and a half she tries to make sense of their lives.
The price you pay
The book chronicles the fates of Anna, a brave and talented journalist who fights fraud and corruption; Misha, a budding manufacturer and later a farmer; Natasha, who tries to find her place in the world by moving across the vast country... These three have something in common - the memory of a suicide of a close relative. In fact all the people in the book have some tragedy in their past, which casts its shadow on their present and makes the hardships and pressures of everyday life even harder to bear. And it is hard. The persecution of journalists scares Anna for some time into writing bland articles; overall corruption makes Misha waste energy on unnecessary legal battles; Natasha struggles with her alcoholism. Eventually Misha's efforts to become a businessman pay off and he becomes seriously rich, but his health suffers and he turns to drink. Anna's articles sparkle again, but her existence becomes more and more hand to mouth, and Natasha and her husband resume publishing an independent free newspaper, "The Messenger", while living in the Crimea, a potential hot spot since Russia would like to wrest it from Ukraine. Susan Richards is dismayed at her friends' defeats and proud of their achievements... And it is being so close to them that enables her to see much more than foreigners usually would.
Behind the façade
Unlike many she is not duped, for example, by the outward prosperity of Putin's years. This is how she describes Saratov in 2004:
Although Russia's economy was growing steadily, Saratov had regressed to another century. Old wooden buildings were leaning at tipsy angles along the piss-reeking streets. Headscarved women sat begging, intoning interminable prayers. Homeless men with matted hair, faces burnished by alcohol, rummaged through overflowing rubbish bins. Yet every now and then an immaculately modern girl would emerge from one of the topsy-turvy houses and pick her way to work down the ruined road.
And this is 2008:
We were sitting in a traffic jam. These days there were traffic jams all day long in Saratov's city centre; 4x4s and gleaming jeeps like ours sat nose to nose as far as the eye could see. There was plenty of time to register the new dress shops, the Irish pub, the shopping malls, restaurants and the rash of stylish little cafes. Time enough to register that, with a few, dazzling, exceptions, these frontages had been attached to buildings that looked more derelict than ever.<...>The roads had improved. Clearly, this had been necessary to expedite the escape of the jeep-owners from the sight of the limbless war vets, lurching drunks, and piles of rubbish, bedraggled high-rise blocks, overloaded trams and hollow-eyed grannies begging beneath hoardings advertising holidays in Australia costing only $4.000.
This idea of a "frontage" and what's behind it has a much broader meaning in Russia than just the devastation behind the glitter of the buildings' facades. It is not exactly a "Potemkin village", as it would be untrue to say that the prosperity was all false and only erected to impress. Nevertheless this "frontage" is only a thin layer over the distorted and unreformed mass of the past. This becomes even more apparent when Susan Richards sets off on a journey to explore the minds of the people around her. In the heads of Russian citizens seemingly moving from their recent Soviet past to the new life that began with perestroika, she discovers to her surprise medieval or even pagan beliefs and prejudiceshardly affected by decades of Soviet "militant atheism". The relentless Soviet system merely drove them inwards and people preserved them inside themselves, as hidden fragments of individualism beyond the control of the state. The new freedoms, chaos and uncertainty of the beginning of the 90s made these concealed and half-frozen convictions thaw and flourish - and they found plenty of fertile soil:
The Moscow metro was plastered with bright advertisements for the Bhagavadgita; smiling American missionaries were plying their trade in the street like hookers; in the bookshops, the long forbidden works of Gurdjieff and Madame Blavatsky were walking off the shelves; the Moonies and Scientology were thriving. Among the home-grown cults, there were six prophets in Moscow that summer who claimed to be the second coming. Vissarion was one of them.
Irrationality as freedom
One of the author's friends, the artistic Vera, goes to join the Vissarion cult in Siberia. Later, Anna, the brave journalist fighting corruption, finds refuge in the Orthodox Church. But the mysterious world of myths and strange creeds extends much further than that. In 1992, in Zarafshan, near Tashkent, Susan Richards meets a Russian engineer, a former communist, who tells her about his encounters with UFOs. After this she misses no opportunity to explore the "collective unconscious" and travels widely in search of it. She spends several days in Burny, a remote Siberian village near the river Tunguska, with Old Believers, who broke with the official Orthodox Church after the schism in the 17th century, listens to a talk about Cosmism and time-energy by a Novosibirsk professor, visits Vera among the followers of Vissarion in the Sayan Mountains and even goes to Mordovia to see a local healer, the hilarious Nina Stepanovna, who however punishes her with a "curse", presumably for being too nosy. Not once does Susan Richards allow herself to mock the people she meets - she is obviously resolved to get as close to their beliefs as possible. In an attempt to become less rational and western she keeps a record of her dreams and once even hears cedars singing. And yet naturally she is unable to make a leap of faith - once she returns home the fascination of the mystery vanishes. She has however to admit that it is very much alive for quite a few people in Russia.
Why? The explanation that springs immediately to my mind, as someone who lived in Russia for two thirds of my life, is the desire to escape. To escape the brutality of life, the determinism of Soviet ideology, the confusion of the post-Soviet years and more importantly, the helplessness of the individual being trodden down by the state. A society which has no room for protest or individual initiative has to turn to its imagination. And of course this helplessness and confusion drives people to trust healers, hypnotists, "extrasensors", and to fear extraterrestrials. Far from dismissing it as backwardness, Susan Richards tries to find the rational reasons for behaviour that is often irrational.
More than once on my journey I had felt as if my sanity were under assault. Now gazing into the night I felt clear. At the moment, things were inside-out and back-to-front in Russia. But the craziness was not to be found in the obvious places. The people seeing those visions in Zarafshan were not the really crazy ones. Nor were the Old Believers, even if they did bury their televisions in the frozen earth. <...> The true insanity had been there in that awesome experiment which Russia and its colonies had undergone, that imperial mission to collectivise the human soul; to own and control everything, from the natural world to every last word printed in the empire.
Today this was the country doing cold turkey, drying out from that experiment, from an addiction to control, to secrets, secrets, secrets. Things might seem to be all over the place, but people were recovering. Before the country could start to develop the first vestiges of a civil society, or institutions which respected the concept of the individual, much more time was going to pass and many more of these toxic secrets were going to have to be drained out of the poisoned body of the state.
The recovery of the people then lies in their ability to make personal choices, no matter how bizarre these choices may seem. Not much else is available. Turning to religious sects or to the Occult is tolerated, while joining a social or a political movement is bound to bring serious trouble, as these are likely to be either manipulated or suppressed, as they have always been throughout Russia's history. Still, these are personal choices, and they ultimately mean freedom.
However, the chapter which ends with the above words is describing 1997-1998. Ten years later it's much more difficult to talk about a recovery. It seems that the number of toxic secrets - like unresolved murder mysteries - has increased dramatically and the ability of people to make individual choices, at least where their judgements are concerned, has become seriously damaged by tighter controls over the press and ubiquitous state propaganda. Coming to Saratov after the Russo-Georgian war of August 2008, Susan Richards admits that for the first time in all those years she was apprehensive of her reception there. And some of her friends did indeed turn out to have swallowed the official line on the war.
Moreover, towards the end of the book it seems that the official line has rubbed off on the italicized summaries of Russian politics that begin each chapter. In the chapter on 2005-2007 it says: The president had not merely restored order; he had restored Russia's self-respect. Whose words are those? On the next page we hear it said, "a shade defiantly", by another friend of Susan's, who has turned pro-Putin. But is this double "restoration" a fact? Or in the chapter on 2008: For all the Cold War rhetoric, there was no ideological divide any more. Can the Susan Richards who writes in her last pages about the "aborted hopes for a new Russia, one which would at last come to prize its own people, rather than hoisting itself up on their bones" really believe that the divide between the Western liberal democracies and the Russian state on the value of a human life is not ideological?
Or are these "conventional wisdoms", as the author calls them when acknowledging that she and her friends have bowed to the accepted notion that their hope for Russia at the end of communism was naïve? Another one is the conviction, apparently sincerely shared by Susan Richards, that NATO should not expand right up to Russia's borders. In the general anti-American climate of the day many well-meaning people forget that the initiative to join NATO has always come from smaller countries, desperate for the protection of the West. The fear of annoying Russia's rulers might only lead to sacrificing these countries to them.
Susan Richards is not afraid to think aloud and express contradictory views that reflect the feeling of the moment. On page 244 she writes "At the start of my travels Anna and I both hoped naively that the fall of communism would change something in Russia. In retrospect, of course, liberal democracy never stood a chance." But fifty pages later, at the very end, she muses: "Surely what was wrong [with this hope'] was just that it was not stubborn enough. Hope is sacred, the fine point of the fulcrum of change". And yet, the reason liberal democracy has not taken root in Russia is not the lack of hope, but the fact that those who held power and called themselves democrats did not in fact bother about the people, and an oppressive order survived under the guise of democracy.That is, however, the subject of another book. This one ends with the author leaving Saratov intensely worried about her friends, whose prospects are fairly grim. Apart from anything else it is a book about friendship - about its misunderstandings and tensions, about its compassion and love. This is how the deep heartland of the subtitle becomes the land of the heart.
Oleg Yankovsky burst on to the Soviet cinema scene in the late 1960s. He was still a young provincial actor, living on the Volga and working in the theatre in Saratov. He was given the rare break that a provincial actor can only dream of when he happened to meet the famous director from Moscow, Vladimir Basov. The theatre was on tour in Lvov in Western Ukraine. Basov was preparing to make a new film about spies, "Shield and Sword". He was at an ordinary restaurant with his colleagues and was attracted by Yankovsky's "Aryan looks". Oleg was given the opportunity to play the role of a German officer who loses faith in the ideas of the Third Reich. When the film was released in 1968, the 24-year-old Yankovsky woke up to find that he was famous. Mosfilm directors rushed to employ him. He had made his mark in the film industry, but he was noticed by the theatre world too. He had many offers, but chose the famous Lenkom Theatre and its director Mark Zakharov
Yankovsky had joined one of the best theatres in the country. Soon Moscow audiences were not just going to the Lenkom, but to see Oleg Yankovsky, whatever the play. This thin, tall handsome man with light hair and mysterious slanty eyes captured women's hearts. Yankovsky was capable of wonderful silences on film, which is a rare skill, but he also spoke beautifully. His phrases from films and plays have become quotes. Just take: "A serious face is not a sign of intelligence, gentlemen. All the stupid things in the world have been done with this expression. Smile, gentlemen, smile!" These words were spoken by his famous character Baron Munchhausen in the film "The Very Same Munchhausen".
Yankovsky is perhaps for Russian culture what Marcello Mastroianni was for Italian culture. Both of them played the hero of their time - a restless intellectual in conflict with himself and his surroundings. Despite the 20-year age difference, the creative and biographical parallels are clear. Both studied and trained with great masters. In the 1970s, Yankovsky acted in the company of the Moscow theatre guru Mark Zakharov, while Mastroianni began his career in the 1950s in a theatre that was headed by the great Luchino Visconti. Yankovsky played Gorchakov, the tormented writer in Andrei Tarkovsky's film "Nostalgia". Mastroianni's character, the writer Giovanni, has almost exactly the same feelings in Michelangelo Antonioni's "Night": the dark night of the creative soul, the sunset of feelings and the twilight of habits. In the film by the cult director of the 1980s Roman Balayan "Flights in Dream and Reality", Yankovsky plays a restless 40-year-old intellectual Sergei Makarov, who is reviewing his life. Wife, lover, work, friends....nothing gives him satisfaction. Mastroianni's character, director Guido Anselmi, in Fellini's film "8 1/2" is the same. Guido is at a creative dead-end and is looking for sources of inspiration, but his wife and lover only hinder his concentration.
What about Yankovsky in Mark Zakharov's TV film "The Very Same Munchhausen"? He's a charming inventor who believes all his stories, which means that these stories have the habit of coming true from time to time. You can't help recalling the society reporter Marcello in Fellini's "La dolce vita", who tells tales and scandalous stories from the life of the so-called "restaurant society". Marcello is just as smart and ironic as Yankovsky's Munchhausen.
Yankovsky and Mastroianni are among the few actors who could work in all genres: comedy, drama, tragedy. Mastroianni is convincing in the role of an ordinary Italian - a farmer, a worker or a taxi driver. Yankovsky is just as convincing as an ordinary Russian: a mechanic, bandit or soldier. Both artists could act subtly and convey emotions using a meagre palette.
Oleg and Marcello were far from meeting Hollywood standards, but they enchanted millions of women with their charm and spontaneity.
Perhaps the only area in which Yankovsky surpassed his Italian colleague was his portrayal of Russian leaders on the Lenkom stage and on film. He played Tsar Nicholas II (the film "The Killer of the Tsar"), Peter the Great (the play "Balakirev the Jester") and Lenin (the play "Revolutionary Etude"). In this play he wore no make-up, an unprecedented experiment in the Soviet period, when the "idol" Lenin was always depicted with a beard and polished bald pate.
Hence the special attitude to Yankovsky, who played thinking people full of contradictions, something the Russian intelligentsia has always loved, rather than self-satisfied boors or role-model heroes on stage.
Yankovsky's work with Andrei Tarkovsky is a special page in his creative biography. The filming of the famous "Nostalgia" in Italy and Moscow is the stuff of legends. According to one version of the story, Tarkovsky invited Oleg to the shoot, but didn't schedule him for filming or even make contact with him for a long time. Yankovsky became very anxious hanging around for weeks in a small Italian town with nothing to do. This was Tarkovsky's way of helping Oleg find the frame of mind he needed to play the main character, the writer Gorchakov. "This was the nostalgia in the hearts of Gorchakov and Tarkovsky. Yearning for a good conscience, for a miracle, for faith," critics wrote later, when they had seen the great film-maker's last masterpiece. Tarkovsky knew Yankovsky well: in 1974 he had played the director's father, the poet Arseny Tarkovsky, in the autobiographical film "The Mirror". The duo could have continued working together, had their collaboration not been cut short by Tarkovsky's early death.
Oleg Yankovsky had a very fortunate acting career and could still surprise his fans at 65. Early in 2009 there were rumours in the press that he was ill. Many people were upset to hear this, but no one thought that the end was so close. He was in excellent form, and in the year before his death he appeared in two major projects. In director Sergei Solovyov's film "Anna Karenina" Yankovsky played Anna's husband Alexei Karenin, and in Pavel Lungin's film about Ivan the Terrible, "The Tsar", he played Metropolitan Filipp. These were excellent works, which were released only quite recently, after his death. People were openly in tears at the screenings. Colleagues and friends were as upset as if they had just lost a close relative. This was all genuine and unfeigned.
The doctors weren't able to save Yankovsky, as he was discovered to have cancer of the pancreas at an advanced stage. He went to Germany for expensive treatment with the German oncologist professor Martin Schuler, a specialist in therapeutic methods of cancer treatment, but even that didn't help. Shortly before his death, Oleg returned to Russia. He wanted to take his leave of the audience and went on stage in spite of terrible pain. Audience affection for Oleg Yankovsky was at its peak in his last performance. It was in Gogol's "The Marriage" and the retired sailor Zhevakin - comical, ridiculous, with big bushy eyebrows - came on to the stage to applause. This was on 18 February 2009. Oleg Yankovsky said goodbye to audiences for good that day, and on 20 May the Russian media reported the sad news of his death.
Surprisingly enough, the press and journalists covered Yankovsky's personal life very tactfully, and especially his last days. Of course, his family and his favourite theatre were his bulwark, but not only them. His reputation of a person with principles and excellent taste in choosing roles contributed to his image. Oleg never gave any cause for gossip, never played politics, and tried to avoid dubious contacts with the government. In other words, he never sold his face, as did some of his more calculating colleagues in the hope of getting some payback from contacts with the ruling elite. Yankovsky never cosied up to people in power so as to be in the eye of the public, the press or influential officials. He got everything from his audiences, who went to his performances and always gave the actor a standing ovation when he came out to take his bow.
The last time Oleg was applauded was on the day of his funeral, when his coffin was carried along Malaya Dmitrovka street, past the Lenkom theatre. Moscow had not seen a funeral like this since the funeral of poet and musician Vladimir Vysotsky, who died almost 30 years ago. Entire offices took time off work to say goodbye to Oleg. Elderly people began "lining up for Yankovsky" at 5 a.m. On this day, ordinary people did not hide their tears, and neither did famous artists and public figures, for whom the name of Yankovsky meant only one thing - a great Russian artist. This is in the Russian tradition: if you fall in love with your idol, this love will remain with you all your life.
As fate would have it, Oleg Yankovsky learned that he had become a people's artist of the USSR some days before the collapse of the Soviet Union. His name was the last on this list of awards. Oleg used to point out ironically that the first person to receive this Soviet title was Konstantin Stanislavsky, the great theatre director and teacher, and the last was himself. He would make fun of himself by saying "Look who they started with and who they ended with!"
Over the years I had sent letters and messages to Novosibirsk, but there had been no response. They had vanished without trace. I found them through Anna. She had received an email from Igor out of the blue, with some information he thought would interest her. ‘And did it?' ‘Huh!'
The couple were somewhere in Crimea now, on the Black Sea. I had invited myself to stay with them. The departure hall of Moscow airport was full of Russians who seemed to consider it normal to be going abroad with the family on holiday. They were leafing through glossy Russian magazines entitled Limousine and Property Today and their children were wearing brand new tracksuits and listening to I-pods. But these beneficiaries of Moscow's boomtime were not rich. They worked as bookkeepers, chauffeurs and chefs. Crimea was cheap and did not really count as ‘abroad'. Indeed, it had been part of Russia until 1954, when Khrushchev, in a quixotic gesture, bequeathed it to Ukraine, his native land. Until the Soviet Union broke up that had not made much difference to Russia. But now it was a phantom limb: it felt like part of Russia, though it was not.
On the flight I tried to imagine what had become of Natasha and Igor. Would they have joined the thrusting new economy of my fellow passengers? When we last met in Siberia, the couple had come through many an ordeal and equipped themselves with business skills. I tried to imagine them living a prosperous, middle-class life by the sea, but this seemed unlikely. The forces shaping their lives were stormy and unpredictable, and this move suggested that Natasha was still running away from her past, from the mother who haunted her dreams.
Natasha was there to meet me at Simferopol airport. Her snub-nosed Slav face under that thick mop of curls was burnished by sun, and her eyes were sparkling. She was jumping up and down with excitement. By her side was a smartly dressed younger man who walked with a bad limp. Hmm, so she had finally left Igor. ‘Oh no, it's not what you think!' she said quickly: ‘Meet our dearest friend and colleague - Volodya, hero of the Afghan War.'
As Volodya drove south out of Simferopol, Natasha told me his story. A much-decorated young colonel, he had been brought here straight off the battlefield in Afghanistan, almost dead from his wounds. By the time his convalescence was over, Crimea had become home. The community of retired Russian servicemen was large, for Russia's navy was still based here. After the Soviet Union fell apart, the government struck a deal with Ukraine that until 2017 they would go on renting the facilities of the naval base.
The low rolling hills over which we were driving were so dense with colour that we might have been in a landscape by Derain, or the young Kandinsky: purple fields of lavender, vastly overgrown, gave way to golden slopes of wheat, ripe for harvesting, then to ropes of green vines stretching out of sight. The usual litter of rusting frames and posts, half-built concrete sheds and fencing could not mar the improbable beauty of the place.
Once, said Volodya, the wine was good and the trade in lavender oil lucrative. But the collective farms that had kept the Soviet naval bases supplied had fallen apart. The soil was so rich it produced three harvests a year. The food kept growing, but there was little market for it now. By the roadside men and women were selling tomatoes, raspberries, cherries and strawberries, and vegetables, ridiculously cheap.
Natasha was talking about the politics of Sevastopol and some project that she and Igor were doing with Volodya. As she talked, something fell into place: the same instinct for trouble which led the couple to move across Russia into the eye of a political storm in Marx was surely at work again in their move down here. For Crimea, fought over for centuries, was today locked in a battle invisible to the outside world. It had become Ukraine's Hong Kong: Russia's empire might have fallen, but the Russians were still here, and their navy too.
Such was the political impasse between Ukraine and Russia that no one was in charge. ‘We live in the present, a present that's stuck in the past. You can't get anything done - not even buy a train ticket, let alone get a phone line or a passport. Not unless you know someone, or have money to bribe them. There are Afghan war heroes who've been waiting twelve years for a phone line! It was really hard when we came here - we couldn't find work at all. And if we hadn't met Volodya we'd never have managed.'
When the sea came in sight Volodya turned down a track and threaded his way between plots of land lush with flowers and fruit trees. In each, a little house had been cobbled together out of scavenged bits and pieces. The car pulled up in front of a couple of concrete huts with tin roofs, standing in a maze of weeds. Behind the fence, two dogs leaped around, barking in delight. Igor was standing, as upright in his bearing as ever, beaming at us. He was tanned and handsome. The moustaches which still curved down on either side of his mouth were still black and elegantly trimmed. But his hair was white now, and his front teeth were gone.
We sat and drank fruit juice in the shade of a terrace improvised out of army camouflage. After Volodya left, I looked inside the hut. It was simply furnished. To my surprise there was hardly a book to be seen. On Igor's immaculately tidy desk there was a computer, and even an Internet connection. Thanks to Volodya, Igor said with a grin, they were producing a newspaper again - and they called it The Messenger, like the last one. This time they were distributing it free.
‘As you can see, they've gone, the possessions. It seems we had to lose everything. One more time. We had to learn how to live all over again. The dogs taught us to get up at dawn and go to bed when it got dark. At one point we even had to sell our books - even the English ones. Just to stay alive. We lived on buckwheat porridge for a month. It's funny - food was always something I'd taken for granted. Then we understood how little you need to live on. And how good it made us feel. So light and free!' Natasha's words spurted out like uncorked champagne.
‘If we'd stayed on in Novosibirsk we'd never have learned these things. Life was too easy. Yes, we were earning good money. We were living in this nice flat. We had everything a person could want. But there was nothing to do - nothing but drink kefir and listen to the air conditioning. Besides, it wasn't really honest, the money we were making there. Do you remember? Igor thought up this brilliant wheeze for advertising the houses the company was building. We set up this competition for children to draw My Dream House. We used the winners in our ad campaign. The paintings were wonderful. But it wasn't honest - it looked as if the company was really going to build those dream houses. Which couldn't have been further from the truth!
I was sleeping in a hut across the yard from theirs. As I went to bed I noticed an unopened crate of vodka bottles stashed under a table in the corner of the room. So Natasha was still drinking. How come she was looking so happy, so healthy, then? How come they were publishing The Messenger, but giving it away. How were they earning any money? Nothing quite added up.
However, I had cleared up an old mystery. Over supper I asked Igor and Natasha about those rumours running round Novosibirsk when I last visited them. Rumours of a leak at the plutonium factory near their flat. Were they right? Yes, it was a bad leak, they said. Natasha, who was marinated in alcohol, was unaffected. But Igor, who did not drink, suffered badly. His teeth fell out soon after my visit.
After I turned the light off the sound of digging started up, quite close by, in the next door garden. Now and then a torch flashed. On and on the digging went. What could they be doing, I wondered as I drifted off to sleep?
„Lost and Found in Russia" at openDemocracy Russia.
Other excerpts from Susan Richards's book can be found at:
Building Heaven or Hell
This second excerpt from Susan Richards' book Lost and Found in Russia follows the same characters, Natasha and Igor, to Siberia four years later, in 1997. What is it in Natasha's past that haunts her, pursuing her across Russia? A very odd clue emerges.
A visit to Marx
The first of three excerpts from a new book by openDemocracy Russia editor Susan Richards. Lost and Found in Russia tells the story of post-communist years through the lives of a group of idealistic young people in the heartland.
New book by openDemocracy Russia editor Susan Richards
‘A brilliant, poignant evocation of a society in transition.' Robert Service
‘Sheds a uniquely intimate light behind the facade of the new Russia.'Colin Thubron
‘A uniquely personal chronicle, and a testament to friendship.' Victoria Glendinning
‘Tells us more about the lethal tides of recent Russian history than years of newspaper reports.' Philip Marsden
The new year in Russia
Russia's new economy
Russian rights at the crossroads
Beyond the gastarbeiter: post-Soviet migration
Madeleine Reeves (Manchester University, UK) presents the other side of post-Soviet migration.
Russia's year of elections
Women, tradition and power in the North Caucasus
Privatizatsiya, twenty years on
Russian economy: trying to please people doesn’t help, Dmitry Travin
Privatisation, but no private property, Andrei Zaostrovtsev
Is corruption in Russia's DNA?, Pyotr Filippov
Russia’s crony capitalism: the swing of the pendulum, Vladimir Gelman
Russian reforms, twenty years on. Introduction to the series, Dmitry Travin
Russian economy: trying to please people doesn’t help, Dmitry Travin
Privatisation, but no private property, Andrei Zaostrovtsev
Is corruption in Russia's DNA?, Pyotr Filippov
Russia’s crony capitalism: the swing of the pendulum, Vladimir Gelman
Russian reforms, twenty years on. Introduction to the series, Dmitry Travin