Russian Poet’s eye on Londongrad

Tatyana Shcherbina
4 October 2009

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.
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