Wednesday, October 29, 2008

To Russia with love

On Thursday 9 October, my cousin Mara and I catch the 4.20pm Latvian Express train from Riga to Moscow. We’ve got a four berth sleeper all to ourselves for the entire journey and it feels like a real adventure – the rattling of the train, a meal in the dining car, staring out the window as day fades to night, watching for signs of Russia in the landscape and architecture after we cross the border, and talking our way into the darkness of the Russian countryside…

The last time Mara was in Moscow was about 20 years ago and she’s very excited about seeing how the city has altered in that time. She tells me that during the Soviet era, you could get better quality things in Moscow and so people went there specifically to go shopping. Mara also studied there for a while, and she was the member of a folk dancing group that performed in Moscow as well as many other cities in the Soviet Union. When she was about eighteen, the group was selected to tour a number of cities outside the Soviet Union. There was great excitement about this opportunity, but Mara was not allowed to go. Her visa application was rejected by the government and she cried for days from the disappointment. I ask her why she was not granted a visa. ‘Well, no-one ever told you why decisions were made,’ she says, ‘but probably because my records showed that I have family who live in the West’. My heart gives a little jump. It has never occurred to me that my parents’ decision to leave Latvia for a better life elsewhere would have impacted on the life of relatives who stayed behind. So even though Mara was born in the 1950s, she could not escape our family history. Mara also explains that while she could study almost anything she wanted, certain types of work, especially that associated with the government, would also not have been possible for her. She continued to dance and also taught dancing, but eventually studied English at University and became a high school teacher. (I find this an interesting paradox - Mara was allowed to learn and to teach English - the signature language of the West - but she could never be given permission to use her skills outside the Soviet Union.)

The train stops at the Russian border for well over half an hour as everyone’s passports and bags are inspected (it’s quite a complex little bureaucratic system - see the picture of me holding my customs declaration). I want to take a photograph of the border control area from the carriage window but Mara tells me I’ll get arrested and that will be the end of our adventure. I particularly want a photo of those big circular hats the Russian military wear, but of course, I will get plenty of opportunity once we get to Moscow. The train starts again and we get into our pyjamas and under the covers in our sleeping berths. Back in the mid 90s, I was on a train very much like this one with my partner Gerard when we travelled from St Petersburg to Riga. We had a first class cabin, so there were only two sleeping berths, and the only real other difference was that we had a television perched above the cabin door. It was almost completely unwatchable for us because the programs were voiced over in Russian, German or Latvian, but you could still hear the original language underneath, plus there were subtitles, sometimes in two languages. It was like trying to decipher a secret code.

On this trip I don’t sleep too well. The bed is narrow and hard and I can’t get comfortable. I get up around 3am, go to the toilet and then peer through the window as we speed through the Russian countryside. We stop for about 20 minutes at a big station that is lined with seemingly endless rows of oil tankers. The station lights bathe everything in a yellowish-green glow and I feel like I’m in a very strange dream. I do eventually manage to get a little sleep, but it’s very fitful.

When we arrive at the Moscow-Riga Express station, we are met by Andrey Tchoukine, a Russian artist I met at the Cite Internationale des Arts in 2002. Although we have been in regular email contact over the last six years, it feels quite odd to be meeting him now, here, in Russia. I am also worried that I may not recognise him, but there he is, waiting for us just a little way down the platform. He’s neatly dressed in a camel coat and dark trousers and he’s carrying five yellowish-pink long stemmed roses that he presents to me when we greet each other. We take some photos of this special moment and then Andrey guides us to our hotel via the amazing Moscow Metro system. I feel waves of dizziness come over me - a mixture of excitement and lack of sleep - as we push through the crowds. I’ve never seen so many people underground at once in my life and, of course, I’m awestruck by the grandeur of some of the stations we pass through. Mara asks me what I think of the people we see. Do they seem different from the general population in Riga? I say no, everyone looks extremely familiar.

After we settle into the Budapest Hotel (it’s very comfortable, very close to Red Square and quite reasonably priced), Andrey takes us to an Indian-come-Asian-come-Russian style restaurant where we eat a late breakfast of soup, vegetable piroshki and cottage cheese patties. Then we begin our tour of Moscow through Andrey’s eyes. The first stop is the Kremlin. I had no idea it would be quite so beautiful and quite so breathtaking. I gasp at all the golden domed churches. They are stunning from the outside and like jewel boxes on the inside. The interiors feel much more Eastern than European to me – there is no seating, and while the spaces are grand, they soar upwards rather than width ways – and they also feel a bit confined. There is not an inch of wall space that is not adorned with frescoes or icons that glitter with gold, and in amongst everything there are the tombs of saints and tsars, decorated with elaborate carvings and protected behind glass and bronze display cases. I am completely overwhelmed and find it almost impossible to take in any detail. My eye keeps moving from one image to another, unable to settle on anything. Andrey points out favourite icons and particular shades of blue paint. We move from one chapel to another, and after we have seen everything that can be seen in the Kremlin, and I’ve taken plenty of photographs, we make our way to the Metro again to catch a train to the Tretyakov Museum. It is a beautiful building and has an extraordinary collection of Russian art, particularly Russian realism from the second half of the 19th century. Andrey shows us his favourite artists. He too, is a painter, and follows the realist tradition. When I met him in Paris back in 2002, he was spending much of his residency copying the masters in the Louvre and other galleries. We enjoy being saturated with art, but by the end of the day, Mara and I are completely exhausted.

The Tretyakov Museum

Our second day in Russia takes us into the countryside, to the village where Andrey lives, which is about 100 kms south west of Moscow. We have arranged to meet him at a particular Metro station and all I can say is, thank goodness Mara with her perfect Russian is with me, because without her, I would never have been able to unravel the mystery of the Metro system. While we don’t exactly get lost, Mara has to ask for directions many times until we finally get on the right line and make our way out into the suburbs. It is a bit stressful, but the experience takes us through a series of fantastic stations decorated with stunning chandeliers and Soviet sculptures.

When we reach the designated station, we can’t quite remember where Andrey told us to wait for him. We decide to take an exit and go outside, but this is a mistake. Andrey phones me and tells us to go back down underground. When he finds us, he admonishes me. ‘Why did you do it, Brigita?’ he says. He takes us through a different exit where a friend is waiting for us in a car and drives us all the way to Andrey’s village, which takes about an hour. Mara and I sit in the back. The sky is grey and it begins to rain. We zoom along a huge highway - the rain gets heavier and the Soviet housing blocks in the distance eventually give way to forest. I truly feel I am on the other side of the world.

We are dropped off outside Andrey’s home and briefly shake hands with our driver, who quickly disappears, I think back in the direction of Moscow. Andrey has clearly gone to a lot of trouble with the logistics of our visit and Mara and I feel both humbled and honoured. We are shown into the house, which is brick and two storey and is divided into two separate apartments – Andrey and his parents live in one half, and another family live in the other. The garden, which is overgrown and still has some remnants of summer flowers and fruits, is also divided. We take off our shoes and meet Andrey’s aunt and mother, who give us slippers and show us into the living room. There is a wall unit, a couch, a piano, a round table, a giant desk and the walls are covered with paintings and other art works, mostly copies of the masters by Andrey himself. A copy of a Rembrandt portrait of his naked wife hangs on the wall above the couch. We present our gifts and then Mara and I sit while Andrey busies himself in the kitchen, making us tea.

We have a full itinerary. After morning tea, we go up to Andrey’s studio, which seems to take up the whole top half of the house. The walls of the stairwell are lined with Andrey’s paintings, pre-empting what we are about to see in the studio itself, which is dominated by a huge painting that runs all along one wall. It shows what I assume to be members of Andrey’s family or his friends out in the garden busy with various housekeeping tasks. All the other walls are covered in smaller paintings. There is an easel in one corner, a lounge suite, a television, a desk with a computer and three other doorways through which Andrey produces more and more paintings until one side of the room is completely stacked with his work - landscapes, interiors, portraits and many paintings of flowers that are so vivid and realistic that the petals seem to be falling from the canvas. I take photos of Andrey with his work and then he puts on a dvd of Tarkovsky films for us to watch while he goes downstairs to cook our dinner.

A little later, Andrey’s brother arrives to drive us to the estate of Russian realist painter, Vasily Polenov (1844-1927), whose home is near the Oka river and is now a museum. The trip takes about half an hour. Inside the car, the black vinyl seats are torn and peeling, and there are no door or window handles. With the exception of a small slit of an opening on the front passenger side, the windows are closed tight, and the smell of petrol gradually and increasingly pervades the cabin. I feel a little sick and headachy, and for a brief moment, as I look out the window and consider where we are, hurtling through the remote Russian countryside in a rather dilapidated car with two men we barely know, and dense forest on either side of the road, I feel a moment of David Lynchish terror descend upon me. But the moment passes and we arrive at the Polenov Estate, are released from the car, and get to breathe fresh air again. Andrey’s brother arranges to meet us in about an hour.

The estate is beautiful, and I sense within Andrey a longing for the type of intellectual life that was lived here – painting in the spacious studio; travelling overseas to gain inspiration for new work; holding soirees with other artists, poets, writers and musicians…

We tour the house, wearing those big felt museum slippers over our shoes, and then explore the grounds, going right down to the River Oka. We also visit some artist studios set up in small cabins on the estate. One of them is a friend of Andrey’s - he’s very friendly and takes a picture of me painting the little canvas he has just started. Then our chauffeur arrives to take us back to the house. I ask Andrey what his brother does and he tells me he is an entrepreneur – but the exact nature of his entrepreneurship is not revealed.

Brigita attempts realism

Back at the house, we help set the table in the living room and have dinner with Andrey’s parents. His mother was a science teacher at high school and his father was the head of a Kolhotz. His father is very talkative and has a long conversation with Mara. (How I wish I could speak Russian!) When he finds out we are Latvian, the discussion becomes a little political. Mara turns to me and tells me that he just said that the Latvians don’t think much of the Russians! But she handles the situation well and manages to keep the tone friendly. It would have been so good, says Andrey’s father, if we had all remained as one Soviet nation - then we could have entered this capitalist era together, rather than separately. Mara responds diplomatically and I try to imagine what this trip would have been like without her - she not only acts as a go-between for me, but also has a wonderful ability to engage people in conversation. Had I been on my own, there would no doubt have been many periods of long silence. While Andrey does speak a little English, it is fairly broken and limited.

Dinner starts with borsch, followed by fried salmon steaks accompanied by potatoes and salads of seaweed, carrot and cabbage. For dessert there is Andrey’s own apple strudel and then, as we sip tea from delicate Russian china, we are treated to a small piano recital. Andrey plays Mozart, Bach and Chopin – and then it’s time to say goodbye. Andrey’s mother gives us each a big hug, and as we make our way to the railway station, we watch Andrey’s father herd their two cows into the stables for the night. It has been a long day but an extraordinary one. I feel overwhelmed by the sincerity of Andrey and his family and level of hospitality that has been shown to us.

On our third and final day, Mara and I are on our own. We sleep in a bit, have a long breakfast, and then make our way to Red Square. Interestingly, Andrey didn’t show us Red Square, even though we walked right past it on our way to the Kremlin, so today I’m going to get my fix of Soviet tourist attractions. My major objective is to see Lenin in his mausoleum.

The Square itself is only about 500 metres from the hotel, so we don’t have to walk far. Near the entrance we participate in a good luck ritual, throwing a coin over the left shoulder and making a wish. Once the coin hits the ground, it’s collected by a team of old ladies who are the managers of this lucrative little business. Just beyond is Red Square and I’m very excited. It’s fantastic, of course, but at the same time I had imagined it to be much bigger! One side is dominated by the austere black and red granite of the Lenin Mausoleum and directly opposite is GUM, a magnificent department store that Mara remembers with great fondness from the Soviet era. At either end are churches and museums. It’s a dull and drizzly day but the square is crowded with tourists and the Russians put on a great show for them. People dressed as Lenin, Stalin and tsars wander about and offer to pose in tourist photographs.

We walk in the direction of the Mausoleum and realise that to get to see Lenin, we have to leave the square and join a long queue that runs along a gate near the Kremlin. We only have a bit over an hour before they close the Mausoleum for the day and I’m a bit anxious that we may miss out. We wait for about half an hour and then we're in. Security is tight. While it is free to view Lenin, we have to pay to leave our cameras and mobile phones in a cloakroom, then we join another queue where we are scanned and have our bags checked. It’s raining a little more heavily now and we walk fairly quickly past the monuments to various Soviet leaders, each adorned with a red plastic carnation. Mara reads out particular names and I can see that she is engaging with a history that has specific significance for her. Then we approach the entrance to the tomb itself. The whole experience is dominated by the aesthetics of black granite, dim, dramatic lighting, and the strategic positioning of Russian militia. Right in the centre of the entrance, is a Russian soldier standing to perfect attention. As we approach, he automatically and very precisely raises one finger vertically to his lips, making a silent ‘shhh’ gesture. Then he points to our left, again with perfect precision, the arm straight and level, the finger a very clear direction. We make out way down the stairs. At every corner, a Russian soldier points us further into the depths of the mausoleum – there is no possibility of straying from the path, or of lingering on the black granite steps. We descend two levels and then we are there, within the tomb itself. It is nowhere near as big as I had imagined. Lenin is to our right, illuminated within his glass box. The casket itself is quite large and the top and corners are draped with swathes of sculpted bronze cloth. Lenin looks quite small and frail in comparison - and also extremely fake. His little face and hands seem to be made of papier mache painted with flat acrylic paints and covered with a layer of face powder. His beard and moustache are very spiky and his body seems almost hollow. If he is a fake, it’s a very bad one. I imagine that if you were making a fake Lenin, you would be able to create something far more realistic and convincing, and so my guess is that he probably is the real thing. We have to maintain a forward momentum with the rest of the viewers and are not able to linger. Before we know it, we have emerged back into the grey drizzle of red square where we take our time looking at the other memorials.

The rain really starts to bucket down and we take shelter in the fantastic GUM store. It has to be one of the most beautiful department stores I have ever seen! There is a huge delicatessen that displays its fruit, vegetables and other products as if in an art exhibition. Mara asks me to take photos of the fruit drink dispensers, which are big inverted glass cones and bring back fond memories of her childhood. We stop at a café that overlooks the central fountain and eat pancakes and drink coffee. We both feel like we’re in heaven.

Mara in GUM

That afternoon we go to the shopping district of Arabat to buy souveniers and then, by the time we get back to the hotel, it’s time to tackle the Metro again and catch the train back to Riga.

The journey back is less restful because we have border checks in the early hours of the morning rather than late evening. We also have to stop at Vilikie Luki (which means big onions) a station about half way between Riga and Moscow, where my great grandfather on my mother’s father’s side of the family died. I had wanted to spend a few hours there, but it was very difficult to find a suitable time for arrival and departure. On this route, it pulls into the station at about 3am in the morning and I was not too keen to get out and find somewhere to stay at that hour in a remote part of Russia when I don’t speak the language – Mara was also not happy to participate in this part of my adventure. There was a possibility of catching a train at night, arriving at 6am and then catching the 3am train back to Riga, but this also didn’t appeal for obvious reasons. The other problem was that I don’t have any information about where my great grandfather is buried or what part of Vilikie Luki he lived in, so in the end, I decided it would be enough to take photos of the station – at least then I could say I had been there.

Mara and I sleep in our clothes to make it easier when we get to Vilikie Luki. I set my phone alarm for 2.30 but I don’t get much sleep – I guess I’m nervous about missing the stop. But everything is fine - I’m already up when we reach the station, I put my jeans and shoes on, wake Mara, and we go out into the odd yellow-green light of the Russian railways. Velikie Luki is a surprisingly big and grand station, the building probably dating from the early 1900s. I take photos, Mara takes photos of me, and our carriage steward takes a photo of us as well. When she hands back the camera, I tell her that my great-grandfather died here, but it comes out a little loud and Mara says it was like an announcement across the whole station! We climb back into our carriage and I take a video of us leaving. From what I can see of the town, it’s quite big. I wish there had been some way of seeing the place in the daylight...

As I related in a previous posting, my great grandfather, Marcis, joined the communists when he was in his thirties, leaving his wife and a family of six children to take up the cause. I wonder what he was thinking when he decided to make this very dramatic change in his life – what it was like to leave those he loved for something that he must have felt was even stronger than that love. But perhaps he had been one of the Latvian Riflemen, who were taken under the control of Lenin during WWI. I guess I will never know.

But what I do know is that in June 1941, my grandfather Alberts was sent news that his father was dying. He travelled by train to Velikie Luki but arrived a day too late – his father had already died. The doctor who looked after Marcis told my grandfather that his father’s dying words were that he had made a mistake in join the revolutionaries. I wonder what my grandfather thought of his father? And what it was like to be the eldest of six children abandoned by their father for political reasons? I also wonder how much contact there was between Marcis and his children. I am assuming that letters must have been written on some sort of regular basis because otherwise it would have been very difficult to track Alberts. I also wonder about Marcis’s son Edvards, who was killed by the Latvian Aizsargi or Homeguard for suspected involvement with the communist party - perhaps there was some contact and influence there too.

The doctor who looked after Marcis in his last hours warns my grandfather that he should leave Vilikie Luki immediately as he will not be able to get back into Latvia if he is found in Russia. I am presuming then, that he does not stay for his father’s funeral, but I may be wrong. I am also assuming that the warning is in some way linked to the massive deportations that occur Riga on 14 June, 1941, when thousands of Latvian citizens are herded into trucks and cattle trains and sent to Siberia.

My grandfather gets back to Riga safely. The family lived in Sarkandaugava at the time, a rather industrial suburb of Riga that hugs the banks of the Daugava river. (Sarkandaugava means Red Daugava.) My grandfather had apparently gone fishing in his boat on his return from Russia. It is very early – perhaps 6 in the morning? – and my mother is sent to fetch her father and ask him to go to work immediately. He works in a big chemical factory where they make acetone from birch trees (coincidentally, my grandfather’s surname, Berzins, means little birch tree). There is some sort of crisis at the factory and he is needed urgently. On her way to the river, my mother is shocked to see her girlfriend, Aldona Ikmanis, whose father was a policeman, being loaded onto a big truck with her whole family. Her girlfriend is crying and my mother, who would have just turned 14, has no understanding of what is going on. She tells me that this is the one time she remembers feeling really terrified. Of course, no-one knew what was going on at the time – the deportations happened without warning and mostly during the night, so it would have been very difficult to make sense of what had occurred until well after the fact. (As an aside, I notice that in all the bookstores there are now numerous publications about the deportations, so there has been a great rewriting of history that was not possible during the Soviet era.)

It seems remarkable to me that my grandfather’s return from Russia coincides with the deportations of 14 June. I wonder why he decides to go fishing and whether he had any idea about what was going on when he got back to Riga. Presumably not – presumably he simply wanted a moment of quiet and solace in his boat on the river to contemplate the death of his father. It would be interesting to confirm the date of my great grandfather’s death, which would help pinpoint what happened in terms of historical context, but that would probably mean going back to Vilikie Luki, actually staying there and visiting the archives office. It would probably also demand learning some Russian – or convincing my cousin Mara to come with me.

1 comment:

Vivienne said...

Hi Brigita
This is the third time I've tried to post this..hope this gets up..also hope you dont get all three!

I'm thoroughly enjoying your travel stories and the pics are great.
Did I ever ask you if you are related to Baiba Berzins?

All the best

Viv