‘A RED SUN SETS IN THE WEST’
During the three consecutive summers of 1990, ’91 and ’92 in company with students and fellow teachers from Frensham Heights School, I visited Russia at a time of extraordinary change. Although our visits were relatively brief – each one only lasted 14 days – we caught fleeting but intense glimpses of the bloodless revoltuion that was under way at that time. In 1990, the Moscow streets teemed with bikes, buses, trucks, jaunty blue Cossack motorcycles with sidecars and resolutely Soviet automobiles, these ranging from wheezing Zaporozhets to top-of-the-range Ladas and Volgas. Everything on wheels spoke of the Soviet experience – outmoded design values, built-in expendability and, under the bonnet, an engine fatally compromised. And then in 1992, just three years on, we saw driving triumphantly through the same streets that universal automotive symbol of arriviste power, the Mercedes. Flanked by BMWs, Audis and a diminishing hierarchy of other European makes and models, they administered the final consumerist coup de grace to the great Marxist dream…
EXTRACTS FROM A JOURNAL
As darkness falls, the bus shudders to a halt outside a seedy-looking apartment block. Children and teenagers lounge around the entrance. As we tug our bags from the bus they stir languidly and surround us, watching with the implacable fixed focus of native souls everywhere in contemplation of the arrival of the first importunate Westerners.
The lobby of the building is dark, dank and decayed. Naked bulbs shed grimy pools of light that seem to evaporate within a meter of their source. Several huge old women sit on benches against the peeling walls talking quietly. In contrast, they ignore us completely. We load the luggage into two tiny lifts. The English speaker of our two hosts Igor clambers over baggage into one and Russian-only Yuri into the other and we watch them ascend as if in some slow, hallucinatory dream towards the 9th floor. The rest of us trudge up the stairs, pausing to catch breath by shattered windows and gap-toothed banisters.
Rooms are selected, each one as desolate as the other. Tubular steel beds with bare, grey mattresses comprise the only furnishing. Again, the unshaded lightbulbs only serve to emphasise the powdery gloom. As I look around an association nags at the edge of recognition. Of course – Orwell’s Victory Buildings in ‘1984’. I can imagine Winston Smith walking these desolate corridors, barely conscious any more of the pervasive odour of damp plaster, crumbling cement and exhausted plumbing.
An inspection of the shower room and the adjoining toilets consolidates my gathering sense of alienation and despair. The shower room is untiled with stark, once-limewashed walls. Only three tottering basins and a single pipe running up one wall, its terminal length bent over into an inverted ‘U’ indicate the room’s purpose. Each basin is supported only by its down-pipe; only one of them is served by a tap with a handle. I twist the tap. Moments pass and then from somewhere deep inside the rotten heart of the building, a heartbroken sigh flutters. The tap lurches once and discharges a single oxidised tear. Feeling that despair must have touched bottom, I peer into one of the four toilet stalls. Momentarily, all is concealed in shadow. And then, as my eyes adjust, I back away, appalled. The absence of water hasn’t deterred what seems like several generations of residents from using the bowls in the conventional manner and the evidence of each visit remains unflushed…
When we arrived in the Urals city of Sverdlovsk – before the Russian Revolution and after Glasnost named then renamed Ekatarinburg – the Frensham Heights students took up residence in the homes of the Russian students who, later in the year, would be housed in the school during their visit to us. I had my own room in Igor’s flat in the centre of the city. Every night was a late night, sitting on the narrow balcony smoking cigars and making our way through the Scotch whisky that was the bounty brought over from the Free World. Along the jagged skyline of apartment buildings, the sun that never quite set left a white-edged glow that silhouetted the flat roofs and their raised nests of television aerials.
On one of the many fascinating trips out into the city and beyond we passed a huge field, overlooked at one end by three apartment blocks, each one bearing a huge stylised propaganda panel. Stark symbols of an empire locked firmly into its revolutionary past, each panel covered 9 floors and concealed 18 windows. But if that enforced tribute to 73 years of the Soviet Union wasn’t remarkable enough on its own, moving patiently across the width of the field was a gang of mowers, each one swinging in rhythmic precision a scythe. No tractors or combine harvesters were anywhere to be seen. All that served the mowers was a single wagon with a horse between its shafts…
The juxtaposition of mighty social and political transformation and the endurance of a process hundreds of years old in the implementation struck me forcibly. I saw many remarkable things during that first fortnight in and around Sverdlovsk, but the resonance of those agricultural workers in their smocks and caps overlooked by Vladimir Ilyich Lenin stayed with me most persistently as we took train back to Moscow. When got home I wrote the following poem.
GRASSCUTTERS IN SVERDLOVSK, 1990
Across that single wide flat road, potholed
all the way to Moscow, we were told,
grasscutters move like dreamers through a gauze
of dust. An old man stoops and slowly draws
the dry stalks into shocks. Then next, a child
hefts with a pitchfork twice his size the piled
grass onto a cart. Between the shafts
a cartoon horse shimmies its tail through drafts
of summer flies. Behind, at the other side
of waste ground, lifted on a crooked tide
of flats and billboards, Uncle Lenin gazes
po-faced from the recent past, appraises
the shifting grass, the painted sky behind
and a red sun sinking fast. Wall-eyed, he’s blind
to the eternal – this, the steady, slow
caress of a young man’s scythe, the scavenger crow
dogging the mowers as the new wind twists and turns
the poppies’ scarlet faces. Lenin burns
brief in the sunset. Then the shadows blur
that too familiar gaze and now confer
upon the flats the anonymity
of dusk. Rocked home in a crosstown tram, we,
the gilded pilgrims from the rotten West,
witnessed the ancient world – a horse at rest,
the stacking of the sheaves through dust, the drift
of a mower’s scythe, the steady lap and lift
of sleep, of awakening. A harvest, it seems:
a gathering in of those early summer dreams.
From ANCIENT LIGHTS.
2. The Trans-Siberian Railway
Guided by Igor and Yuri through the formless, milling crowd that fills every corner of Yaroslavl Station, we struggle onto the train. Having assumed that the domestic facilities of the Trans-Siberian Railway would reflect our experiences so far, we are dreading 26 hours of privation on wheels. Relief is overwhelming as we settle into roomy compartments with comfortable bunks that disappear seamlessly into the wall. The small, brave party that goes to check out the toilets returns with the news that they function with Western efficiency and that the basins produce colourless water, some of it hot.
Slowly, very slowly, the train pulls away from the low platform. Friends and family of those travelling drop casually from carriage footplates and walk its length. A gathering sense of the thousand-mile journey ahead of us intensifies during the long farewell and by the time the train picks up speed and the scattered apartment blocks and intervening scrubland fall away, the long dream begins.
Within the hour, bunk selected and bags stowed, I stand by the corridor window opposite our compartment door, motionless and transfixed. The track is lined by an unbroken parade of trees: a scattering of chestnut, oak, beech and larch, but mainly silver birch – the beriosa. The chanting of the wheels, the priming of the vacuum brakes, the rhythmic swaying of the train and the stroboscopic flicker of the birches merge into a hypnotic narrative. Time passes imperceptibly, its passage blurred by speed, distance and a sense of unimaginable space. At some point after hours, with an orange sun sliding down behind the shifting screen of trees, I am conscious of others similarly positioned, motionless and transfixed, at windows the length of the corridor. Together we seem to be sharing barely comprehending witness to something momentous.
After a late bedtime, sleep is deep but fitful. I am simultaneously exhausted and wired and a couple of hours of dreamless slumber curled with face to the wall, relaxing into the pulse of wheels on rails, cease abruptly as the train judders to a halt. I glance at my watch – 4.17 a.m. – and peer through the quarterlight above the cabin window. ‘Belazino’, I translate laboriously from a dimly-lit sign. A bell tolling; men’s voices shouting down by the trackside; a sudden tannoy, a woman’s clipped metallic tones. “Sixteen minutes”, Igor tells us as he runs along the corridor and stiffly we clamber down the precipitous steel steps. Along the length of the train passengers are disembarking, stretching and gathering in groups. Old ladies in bright headscarves and long aprons sit in rows along the platform holding up paper cones containing blackberries. A young girl in the dark blue uniform of the state railway moves along between the ground-level platform and the track. With a long-handled hammer, she strikes each wheel and, crouching down, listens to the ring, testing for cracks. Above us the fading night is clear and still starlit. Each brazen human noise, no sooner made, is swallowed instantly into the vast silence.
I rise at 6.00, refreshed against all reason since Igor, Yuri and I managed to tuck away three bottles of Georgian champagne into the small hours. I take up my post by the corridor window and gaze out onto open country. Now the land spills away from the trackside and is open all the way to the horizon in folds and furrows of short turf. Huge fissures run through this strange heathland like the scars of some primeval earthquake. Tiny villages surrounded by open fields patch the landscape – twin rows of square, single-storey log and plank houses with heavily embossed sash windows in pastel blues and greens, either side of a single unmade street. Occasional tractors and lorries share track space with the horse-drawn carts that seem to be the main mode of transport. Men in flat caps and women in headscarves glide through the fields with scythes and sickles. Once again, time unravels and only the dipping of the sun towards dusk tells of its passing…
At Belazino Station we disembark in silence
under the great arch of night. First
whispers leave breath hanging, shining
like bright smoke. The old moon
leans through thin cloud. A silver wind
blows the stars about like spray.
The tide of the trees floods the half-dark,
sucks at the line’s edge. Motionless,
we diminish, here at the junction between
two hemispheres. Behind us bloodless territories
of turned soil and domestic waters
and beyond the taiga, the first forest
to come tumbling out of the young dreaming
of the world. And now the thin edge
of an eastern wind brings tears of resin,
a scent of green disorder, a cataract
of leaves and berries far ahead. Darkness
crowds us back onto the train. Rocked
but sleepless, we stand by night-
curtained windows, watching the dim images
of ourselves watching the flying trees.