I almost completely forgot about the Russia exhibition at the Queen’s Gallery, but luckily managed to make it there on the very last day. The exhibition was actually divided into two sections, together encompassing history, photography, war and revolution.
Shadows of War: Roger Fenton’s Photographs of the Crimea, 1855 was the first part of the exhibition. Fenton was the first photographer to document a war for public consumption. He spent four months in the Crimea, from March 1855. His pictures capture the reality of war and the lives of soldiers in the field. There are some incredible shots, including pictures of the infamous “Valley of Death” (from the Tennyson poem, ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’) littered with cannonballs, as well as images of important figures from the war. One of my favourite pictures was of a soldier clearly suffering from shellshock, something which was not really known about or considered at the time.
The second part of the exhibition was Russia, Royalty & the Romanovs, concentrating on the reigns of the numerous monarchs who made up the Romanov dynasty. There were some fascinating paintings and artefacts, including the picture of Peter the Great, highlighting his seagoing achievements (which he partly developed during a visit to London). Some beautiful Faberge eggs were displayed, but probably the most poignant item was a small suit made for the young Tsarevich Alexei.
The Last Tsar: Blood and Revolution is a free exhibition at the Science Museum, looking at the life and death of the Russian royal family during the Russian Revolution. It explores their family life in the years running up to Tsar Nicholas II’s abdication, the family’s murder in Ekaterinburg in 1917, and the eventual identification of their remains using DNA technology.
The science used to identify the remains of the Romanov family is the main point of the exhibition, but there is plenty of filler leading up to that, much of which I already knew having read up on Russian history and visited the St Peter and Paul Fortress in St Petersburg where the family are now buried. However, there was a very interesting display showing how Queen Victoria passed on hemophilia to many of her children and grandchildren. The DNA section was also fascinating, showing how DNA from living royals including Prince Philip was used as a comparison to enable scientists to identify the remains.
In any case, it’s a free exhibition and well worth a visit.
My longstanding interest in Russia meant that the Revolution: Russian Art 1917-1932 exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts was right up my street. The exhibition covered the period between 1917 and 1932, when Russia was settling into life post-revolution and artists were first excited by the opportunities the new world presented, then dismayed at the restrictions imposed by Stalin.
During this first fifteen years, artists enjoyed considerable freedom, and revelled in the new possibilities that the new regime offered. However, in 1932 Stalin decreed that Socialist Realism was the only acceptable style for the Soviet Union, ending this burst of creativity.
The exhibition features work by many acclaimed artists, including Kandinsky, Malevich, Chagall and Rodchenko. Interestingly it also features film clips of life in Russia, from both films and documentaries about the Soviet regime.
One of the most powerful things about the exhibition had nothing at all to do with art. In the last room, there was a video booth showing photographs of people who had been arrested and sent to gulags by Stalin and his cronies. The faces staring out of the screen are still haunting me.
You know you’re getting old when you start celebrating the ten-year anniversary of things. Ten years since you sat your GCSEs. A decade since you took your A Levels. Ten years since you started uni, since you graduated. And, for me, ten years since I got on a plane for the first time in my life and went to Russia to teach English.
It was during my last year at university that I started to panic about what I was going to do next. I should point out that this was before the recession, when graduate jobs weren’t quite as thin on the ground as they are now. Even so, I didn’t know what I wanted to do: I just knew I didn’t want to join one of the big firms that hoover up graduates and train them in management. Ever since I was little, my plans for the future had only ever covered full-time education: what I would do afterwards, I hadn’t a clue. Several of my friends were going on to further study, but I knew I wouldn’t be able to afford that, and anyway, what would I study? I didn’t regret – I never have regretted – studying history, but it isn’t exactly a path to an obvious career. I was no further to making a choice than I had been at eighteen, sixteen, eleven.
What I did have, at the back of my mind, was a desire to travel, and an interest in Russia, mainly through reading Dostoyevsky and Chekhov. I can’t remember where I first got the idea of teaching English abroad, but before I knew it the idea was firmly fixed in my head. I signed up for a TEFL course in St Petersburg, and spent the rest of my final year, when I wasn’t studying or trying to enjoy my last few months as a student, researching Russia, EFL teaching, and anything else I could find that was relevant.
When I graduated, I spent the summer living with my parents and working two jobs – one in a factory (which wasn’t actually that bad) and one in a bar (which I hated – although I did learn to pull a pint, so my time there wasn’t completely wasted). The summer crept by slowly, but at the beginning of October I got on the train at Newcastle to travel down to London. My parents said goodbye at the Metro station and my brother took me to the railway station and lifted my heavy case onto the train.
In London I stayed overnight with a friend. There were a few of us there and we went out and got completely pissed. This probably wasn’t the best idea. I would certainly have missed the plane if my friend Louise hadn’t woken up, called a taxi, and got me, still drunk, out of the house. When I got to the airport the hangover was beginning to hit. I sat on the plane, about to fly for the first time in my life, and wondered what the hell I was doing.
I was picked up at the airport by a bloke carrying a card with my name on it. He drove me to the flat in which I was staying. My Russian landlady was lovely, but didn’t speak any English. I tried to communicate in my halting Russian, but I don’t know what I would have done without my flatmate, a Russian student at Exeter University who was on her year abroad. She introduced me, explained I was a vegetarian (in Russia, people told me, to survive the cold you need to eat lots of meat or drink lots of vodka. The former method was obviously closed to me; henceforth I’d rely on the latter), and explained the house rules to me. I had my own room, with a corner desk and several bookshelves lined with books in Russian I couldn’t understand.
The TEFL course took a month. The school was opposite the Hermitage at the top of Nevsky Prospect. There were only two other students on the course: the previous cohort, in the summer, had apparently been quite full but those of us who’d waited to save a little money before heading abroad were and few and far between. My fellow trainees were an American and an Irishman, though the American left halfway through when his grandfather sadly died.
Surprisingly I quite enjoyed learning to teach, and didn’t perform too badly in the assessments. It was fascinating to see how non-native speakers of English approached the language. One of my students asked me to explain the phrase “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn” from Gone With the Wind: it got me to think about the language in ways I’d always taken for granted.
After passing the course I taught a few classes at the school, and I had two solo pupils too, whose homes I had to travel to. They lived in flats on the outskirts of St Petersburg and I had to take the Metro. One of my pupils was a very young child of about five. She had long blonde hair and an angelic face and was possibly the most beautiful child I’d ever seen. On the other hand, I found it very hard to teach her, owing to my lack of experience with children of any kind. Frankly I didn’t have a clue what I was doing, and I think she could sense my lack of confidence.
My other solo pupil was a bit older, about twelve or thirteen. She was easier to get on with and to teach, but I was still a bit nervous around her. I’ve never been particularly confident with teenagers, even when I was one. Back at the school I covered a class of thirteen-year-olds for another teacher who was off sick, and it was one of the most uncomfortable experiences of my life. I found it baffling that they were actually doing what I told them to do. “Open your book at page 36. Fill in the missing words in exercise 1”. It was surreal. I kept expecting them to get up and walk out, or say no, why should we listen to you? But no, they followed the instructions I gave, with only the occasional whisper to suggest they saw how nervous I was. It was bizarre.
I definitely felt more comfortable around the adult students. Some of them were my age. A few were older, and one man was retired. I certainly can’t claim to have been the greatest teacher in the world, but I do think I was reasonably competent when it came to instructing these classes of adults.
When I wasn’t teaching, I was out exploring the city. It was beautiful, but dirty, with rickety old vehicles spilling out fumes. There was a grandeur about the city that had faded in places but was still visible here and there. Nowhere was this more apparent than in the Hermitage, or Winter Palace, a vast and beautiful store of art. With my Russian student card, I got in for free, and I visited frequently: it took me about five visits to see everything. Incredible as it was, I actually preferred the Russian Museum, with its collections of unusual and, to me, previously unknown works by artists such as Arkhip Kuindzhi and Ilya Repin.
My favourite pastime was to explore the city’s literary past. I visited the former flats of Anna Akhmatova and Alexander Pushkin, and spent an entire Saturday afternoon wandering the woods on the outskirts of the city, trying to find the spot where Russia’s national poet was shot in a duel (the search was fruitless). I visited Dostoyevsky’s house, and spent another afternoon searching for the locations used in his novel Crime and Punishment. Apart from the muddy cars dotted here and there around the square, nothing much had changed since the nineteenth century.
As time went on I ventured further afield, risking buses to go out to the palaces. In the middle of winter the fountains weren’t running at Peterhof, but it was almost worth it to practically have the place to myself. At Catherine’s Palace the snow lay thick on the ground and I could imagine myself in the nineteenth century. It was cold, but rather to my disappointment, not overwhelmingly so. I’d had visions of regaling my family and friends back home with tales of unthinkable cold, a frozen Neva, snow everywhere, but it didn’t even snow on Christmas Day.
I was supposed to stay in Russia a year; I ended up leaving after three months. Why? Mainly because of money. Once I’d finished my course and started teaching, the school couldn’t offer me enough hours to make ends meet. Most EFL teachers supplemented their income by taking on extra students privately, but I certainly didn’t have the confidence or the wherewithal to go about doing that.
I missed home. I don’t know if I was homesick exactly, and much as I missed my family and friends, on a day to day basis it was Britain as a place that I missed: the pubs, the coffee shops, even the supermarkets, I missed television: in Russia programmes are dubbed, not subtitled, though we did once go and see the new James Bond and cheer when the Houses of Parliament appeared on the screen. I often hung out at the British Council, which had a library of English-language books that helped to assuage my homesickness. I remained fascinated by Russian culture, and tried to learn as much about it as I could, not to mention the language itself, but at the same time I clung to everything British that I could find.
I spent Christmas in St Petersburg, the first – and so far only – time I’ve spent it away from home. My housemate and closest friend had gone back to the UK for Christmas, but some of her friends had kindly invited me to have dinner with them. I had to teach in the morning (in Russia Christmas is celebrated in early January, and 25 December is just a normal day) and then I met them at their flat. I had a lovely day, but less than a week later I was back in the UK, celebrating New Year with a friend in London before heading back home to see my family and try and figure out what on earth I wanted to do with the rest of my life.
In many ways, I was glad to be back. While I would still love to travel I think it’s highly unlikely that I would ever live abroad again. Sometimes I regret not sticking it out, and wonder if leaving early makes me a worse person: weaker, less resilient.
At the same time, I don’t for a minute regret my experiences. Early in the hours of one autumn morning, after an all-night clubbing session with Russian pop music and cheap shots of vodka, I walked down Nevsky Prospect in the cold, ears ringing, exhausted, still slightly drunk, and realised that I was in Russia, in St Petersburg, somewhere I’d only read about in Dostoyevsky and Gogol. I was there, and I’d got there by myself, I’d decided that I wanted to go, and I’d gone.
That thought still sustains me, sometimes.
I haven’t been back to Russia in the past decade, but every autumn when the nights start to draw in, I get a sudden urge to get out my Russian phrasebooks; and when the frost begins and I smell the unexpectedly nostalgic scent of petrol in the cold, I am taken right back to that autumn of 2006.
I popped into GRAD (Gallery for Russian Art and Design), located near Oxford Street, last night. The current exhibition, BOLT, is about Dmitri Shostakovich’s 1931 ballet The Bolt, and includes rarely seen designs, photographs and costumes. The exhibition is organised in collaboration with the St Petersburg State Museum of Theatre and Music.
The ballet is described as the last Constructivist ballet, and judging by the costumes and photographs on display it is unique among ballets I have seen. The story, written by Victor Smirnov, is one of industrial sabotage and the innovative choreography by Fedor Lopukhov includes such pieces as the “Dance of the Cyclists” – a bit different from Sleeping Beauty!
The Bolt was pulled after its first performance at the Leningrad Academic Theatre of Opera and Ballet, after a backlash from critics and a perception that it was a threat to the Soviet authorities. It was not seen again until the Bolshoi Ballet performed it 74 years later. After seeing this exhibition, I am curious to see the ballet for myself.
The exhibition consisted of sculpture and photography by Aslan Gaisumov and Tim Parchikov, as well as videos by Evgeny Granilshchikov, Mikhail Maksimov, Sasha Pirogova and Dimitri Venkov. There was an interesting variety of work on show, and I’m not sure it was really my thing (except for the burning of the newspapers), but it was a thought-provoking way to pass some time.
Shown as part of the City Visions series at the Barbican, Man with a Movie Camera is a 1929 experimental silent film with no story or dialogue, directed by Dziga Vertov and made in the then USSR. This showing was accompanied by Paul Robinson’s HarmonieBand, and preceded by a 3-minute showing of Hungerford: Symphony of a London Bridge, a pilot for a projected London Symphony film.
I went to see this because I am interested in Russia and Russian culture, and I really enjoyed it. The film is full of life and interest, filmed in different Russian towns and including lots of different people. Unusual angles and quirky happenings made it a fascinating watch.
Primrose: Early Colour Photography in Russia is an exhibition currently taking place at the Photographers’ Gallery just off Oxford Street. Being fascinated by Russia, I visited the Gallery on Thursday evening when it opens late. I was pleasantly surprised to see that entry is free – I am sure I had to pay last time I visited, so this was nice to see.
The exhibition looks at the development of colour photography in Russia from the 1860s to the 1970s. As well as the history of photography in Russia it is also concerned with the history of Russia in photography. This period was a time of turbulent change and the photographs really showcase this.
Arranged in chronological order, the exhibition begins with early hand-tinted images, moving to more developed photographs and eventually to photomontage and colour film. Societ authorities restricted the use of photography during the mid-20th century and it wasn’t until the 1970s, when inexpensive colour film was available to the general public via unofficial routes, that ordinary people could really exercise free choice over their photographs – even then they normally had to be shown in secret.
I was fascinated by the early tinted colour photographs, making me think of characters from Anna Karenina. They were not unlike our Victorians, though many, particularly children, were dressed in traditional Russian costume. At the turn of the century, the pictures started to remind me of Chekhov characters, as the clothes worn by the subjects of the images were very like those I have seen on stage. One standout image for me was the photograph of Tolstoy – he looks like a grumpy old man (which, in a very basic way, I suppose he was). Colour photographs – even those which have been hand-coloured – bring their subjects to life like black and white pictures can’t, and make their subjects seem much closer to us today.
Images from the following century made the Soviet era seem much more “real”. They were so vivid and clear – I loved looking not only at the people themselves, but at their surroundings, how they lived and what their spaces looked like.
This exhibition is on until the 19th of October – even if you’re not particularly interested in Russian history, I recommend a visit.
The Calvert 22 Gallery in Shoreditch is currently hosting an exhibition called Close and Far: Russian Photography Now. Curated by Kate Bush, it is running until the 17th of August, and is a must-see for anyone interested in Russian culture over the past century.
The exhibition is made up of two contrasting parts, with a common thread of the representation of Russian society via the medium of colour photography. One part involves the display of work by Sergei Prokudin-Gorsky, an early pioneer of colour photography. His most famous image is a 1908 picture of Leo Tolstoy. Nicholas II, the last Tsar, commissioned him to document the vast Russian Empire; he aimed to create an encyclopaedic record of the whole of Russia. Prokudin-Gorsky travelled all over the vast Empire, via boat, train, horse-drawn carriage and a specially-equipped Pullman railroad coach fitted with a darkroom. Between 1909 and 1915, when the First World War forced him to stop travelling and give up his Pullman coach, he visited places as diverse as St Petersburg and Moscow, Murmansk and Perm, Yekaterinburg, Uzbekistan, Azerbajan and Georgia. At that time, little freedom of movement was permitted within Russia, and he was only able to travel so widely with the express permission of the Tsar. With the Revolution, Prokudin-Gorsky left Russia, emigrating in 1919.
During the Soviet era, travel and photography were both severely restricted, and it is only comparatively recently that photographers have been able to enjoy more freedom. The second part of the exhibition displays work by modern photographers. Max Sher’s Russian Palimpsest is a methodical record of forty cities, while Olya Ivanova recorded individuals living in Kich Gorodok, a village in northern Russia, over a long period of time. I particularly liked Alexander Gronsky’s Pastoral, a series of photographs taken at the edge of the city as people sunbathed, swam, socialised and picnicked against a backdrop of tower blocks. He also worked on Reconstruction, pictures of amateur war re-enactors.
Video works were also included, such as Taus Makhacheva’s Gamsutl, a reference to historical war paintings, and Dimitri Venkov’s Mad Mimes. However it was the photography, both early and modern, that really captured my imagination.
Shishkin, who currently lives in Switzerland, has written several acclaimed novels including The Light and the Dark (which I have read and enjoyed) and Maidenhair. His lectures focused on Russian literature of the past centuries, as well as the modern political situation in Russia. I would have liked to see all four, but unfortunately I already had plans.
Of Living Noses and Dead Souls
Nikolai Gogol and his attempt to write “a new Bible”
“Gogol and his reception are Russian literature’s greatest misconception. Collectively, his works constitute the Russian Book of the Dead, and yet he’s been consigned to the humourists’ shelf.”
The 11 March lecture looked at Nikolai Gogol, one of the most famous and pivotal Russian writers who had a great deal of influence on the development of Russian literature (though, ironically, he was born in what is now Ukraine). I believe it was Dostoyevsky who said of Russian writers, “We all came out from under Gogol’s overcoat” (or something to that effect). The Overcoat (1842) is an absurd and surreal tale of a man whose social status and self-worth hinge upon the possession of a new overcoat; it is a deeply odd story with a tragic outcome. Shishkin, however, focused in his lecture on Gogol’s religious bent, in particular his bid to write “a new Bible” with his work Dead Souls (1842).
Shishkin began with a reference to the current war in Ukraine, Gogol’s birthplace; he argued, as he would argue again later, that culture is the only thing that can unite people and fight the brutality of war. He went on to talk about perceptions of Gogol’s work: short story The Nose (1835-36) was seen as “filthy, crude and trivial”, while Shostakovich – who would adapt the tale into an opera – viewed it as a horror story. The reading public took the author for a satirist, and the first volume of Dead Souls was seen as a satire, as was the play The Government Inspector (1836) which Shishkin argued was about fear. However, Gogol had a strong religious faith, thought God’s greatest gift was the Word, and believed that a ‘higher power’ was directing his writing. He later renounced his early work, believing it to be sacrilegious, and a reader of Dead Souls Volume 2 told him, “You want to write the second Bible”.
The first volume of Dead Souls is all we have; designed to loosely resemble Dante’s Divine Comedy, it was meant to be a trilogy, but the second part suffered setbacks and the third was never written at all. Gogol burned the second volume three times, in 1843, 1845 and finally in 1852, just before he died of a mystery illness. He thought his book was not progressing because he was unworthy of it, and seemed to have a fear of being buried alive: he wrote in his will that he should not be buried until decomposition became apparent.
Shishkin argued that literature before Gogol was a child, and that his work represents the awakening conscience of a nation. His interpretation of Gogol’s work is fascinating, and I should like to reread some of it with these ideas at the back of my mind.
“Why the devil was I born in Russia, with brains and talent!” A.Pushkin
“Черт догадал меня родиться в России с душою и с талантом! Весело, нечего сказать.” А.С. Пушкин
Literature and politics in contemporary Russia
On 25 March I attended the final lecture, in which Shishkin talked about literature and politics and contemporary Russia. I wasn’t sure if I would enjoy this, as I’m not the world’s biggest fan of contemporary politics, but I actually found it really interesting, particularly the comparisons he drew between literature and politics now and literature and politics of a century and two hundred years ago.
Shishkin began by remarking that a century ago, Russia was the centre of world literature, as hundreds flocked to Yasnaya Polyana, home of Leo Tolstoy, in spite of the fact that the writer of Anna Karenina and War and Peace “didn’t consider power to be worth a brass farthing”. Where, he asks, did Russia’s powerful literature come from?
At the time of Shakespeare there were no Russian writers of significance. Russia was surrounded by enemies, and subservience to the Tsar gave subjects a sense of higher purpose, apparently. Peter the Great, founder of St Petersburg, wanted to ‘cut a window to Europe’ but many have argued that he actually ended up weakening the Russian Empire.
Poets did not properly appear until the eighteenth century. Alexander Pushkin was unique in challenging the established hierarchy of power, helping to create an alternative power pyramid with the poet on top, the power of a free artistic spirit. It has been suggested that his muse was a “terrorist muse”, as one of his poems was passed around by the revolutionary group the Decembrists. Interestingly, though, the Tsar did not execute Pushkin – he realised that he needed him. This sentiment was echoed by the Soviets in the 20th century, who suppressed Christianity but could not give up Pushkin – they needed him to give them spiritual legitimacy.
Shishkin suggested that in Russia, the choice has always been between “bloody chaos and ruthless authority”. The bloodless revolution of 1917 could not last, and during the Soviet era, authority was certainly ruthless. Literature was preserved underground, but many writers still followed the tradition of gravitating towards power.
One of the most interesting parts of the talk came when Shishkin talked about his own memories of the end of the Soviet period. He recalled the failed coup of 1991 and the Chechen wars of 1994, and how after initial optimism – he worked in a school, hoping to play a part in changing Russia – a period of disillusionment began to creep in. The struggle for power and money led to the division of natural resources and the rise of hugely wealthy oligarchs. In Russia, said Shishkin, the government is like the mafia, and is on the path to becoming a police state. He told us of how, as a child, he spoke to his grandmother on the phone, who, confusing her grandson with her late husband, asked where they were taking him (her husband had been arrested).
Nowadays, poets can no longer align themselves with power. Unlike Tsar Nicholas, who was a keen reader of Pushkin, and Stalin, who enjoyed the work of (of all people) Bulgakov, Putin doesn’t read or seem to have any appreciation of literature. Shishkin suggested that if you are “neither a fighter or a scoundrel”, and do not wish to become one or the other, you must emigrate and escape from Russia. This is what Shishkin himself has done – he now lives in Switzerland. Russia, he suggested, is stuck in the past.
And yet the lecture ended on a relatively positive note. Dictatorships come and go, said Shishkin, but literature remains. I liked the sound of this – and I loved the passion for literature that came through in this lecture and the one before.