Letter from Russia to my Grand Daughter Portia

‘To carry fire in one hand and water in the other’.
В глаза льстит, а за глаза пакостит.

I am back from St Petersburg, although I needed some Valium to get me home – the experience of getting through their customs always feels like there is a risk of being despatched to Siberia: so many computer buttons pressed, sighs and turning of pages before comes that welcome thud of the stamp. Not a smile to be seen. At least I might then get to know Khodorkovsky, who was once the richest man in Russia. Nobody in the Kremlin minded as long as he was rich and corrupt, but once he wanted to start using his money to make humanitarian and democratic political changes, rather than to buy football teams, he was sentenced for life. Imagine, being incarcerated in a Siberian prison for life, without access to justice, although I think the European Court of Human Rights managed to insist that he has access to books. Khodorkovsky, a starkly handsome and wonderfully intelligent man who had an epiphany that he wanted to use his wealth to bring about democratic and political changes. Enter the hero who realised that there were also virtuous things to do with his wealth. He, alone, perhaps would have been charismatic and powerful enough to challenge Putin. Don’t ask me why, but he is one of the few human beings that I have never met, although I wish I had, who is under my skin, or inhabits my heart and some small element of his incarceration is also mine. I grieve for him. ‘What miracle do you see in a Siberian blizzard?’ A prophet of change sentenced to a freezing death.

Portia, I do not now have many good things to share with you about the St. Petersburg where I have returned to after four years absence, nor do I want to bore you with distant politics when I know that neither of us are naturally political animals. The city has changed. It is no longer vibrant with hope, intellectual energy, easy money, the children of oligarchs and affluent tourists. It has become a grave yard of hope and poverty. The rich Russians – for whom the empty Milan style fashion boutiques were stocked – have left for London, Paris, even Spain and Cyprus. The grand hotels are empty, the restaurants display grandiose menus but when you try to order there are few dishes available. Even the huge esplanade outside of The Hermitage was deserted. Where are the tourists? It seems by the conspicuous absence of luxury coaches that the tourist operators have lost confidence in a safe passage.

The Saint Petersburg Times, an English speaking publication reported that last week when Protesters  hired coaches and wanted to depart to Moscow law enforcement officers forbade all but one coach to leave. Something may be rotten in the state of Saint Petersburg…Propaganda surges. Students tell me that the wish of their elderly parents now is for their children to find a way to the US or Europe. Only the institute where I teach seems still to be flourishing under the indefatigable energies of its rector, Mikhail Reshetnikov.

The city’s fabled packs of stray dogs, like many of its citizens have grown despondent. And hungry. Not only do dogs travel by the metro but they have learned to imitate humans and to cross roads at the zebra crossings. When I first went to SPB maybe fifteen years ago, its civilised packs of stray dogs were honoured, even loved. Then, they were benign and still handsomely fed. In a city that has lived through a siege and famine that its elders still remember when they were forced to eat domestic animals and feral ones too, it afterwards became a source of respect and ritual that the stray packs were fed and watered. I am told, that now there are regular television advertisements warning the citizens that the dogs have become an environmental danger and a decision must soon be taken whether or not to cull. In Istanbul they found another way: stray dogs and cats are visibly tagged to indicate that they have been inoculated against rabies and are safe to approach. A city where neither citizen, nor tourist can any longer enjoy the intelligences of its famous and fabulous dog population is not a happy or safe city.

I found it odd that when I woke, rather later in the mornings than I am used to – as you know I am an early riser, often up with the pre-dawn bird twitter, still too early for song – not to speak to anybody. (In SPB I was teaching late and often did not get bed to bed before 1 AM. I was surprised to find I can still do late nights, I might even manage a club with you Portia, before my dotage … I became an instant commentator on the psychology of Francois Hollande and even got some perspective on the Euro crisis as I found myself watching world television into the early hours.) I was going to observe that if you are used to waking up next to your husband and a couple of energetic dogs, it is strange to wake up and for several hours have no reason to use your voice. I think that is one primary distinction between living in company and living alone. I observed that by mid morning when I was ready to order breakfast my voice seemed to have disappeared into my chest and came out hoarse and jarred, which left me wondering what it might be like to wake up and to have lost one’s voice forever.

Beside the breakfast menu there was a pillow menu. Although I was not about to complain about my goose down pillows, it still intrigued me except I needed the assistance of a pillow translator to understand it. There were pillows filled with ‘pinewood flakes’, ‘Igocell’ pillows, what kind of cells are they I wondered, and ‘natural buckwheat pillows, sea-cell active’. I might also request pillows filled with ‘unique cellulose fibre made of eucalyptus and natural buckwheat pods’. Almost nutritious enough to satisfy the dogs.

White Nights are approaching, which traditionally are the busiest time for the city’s tourism, and a time of jubilation for its inhabitants and while I was there darkness only fell at midnight when exuberant children were still cycling around the square. Coming on the shadows of the recent elections the collective mood, if not the light, remained sombre.

The view from my sixth floor windows across St.Isaac’s Square to the cathedral was the highlight – with the exception of the joys of renewing acquaintances with my friends at the Eastern European Institute – of my visit. When I was not teaching, or talking to old friends, everything important that happened to me happened out of the view from my window. It was a small miracle that I could still see the cathedral as so much of the city’s fabled eighteenth century skyline of architectural majesty has been obliterated by the corruption of cement. The glorious onion skinned domes of the Church of the Saviour on Spilled Blood where Tsar Alexander 111 was assassinated alongside the river Neva are now concealed by some corrupt anomaly of Titan, not Titian, commercial redevelopment and bribery.

But this cathedral is too large, too dominant to obliterate. Whole forests were decimated to provide 10,762 tarred pinewood piles which were driven into the marshy ground to a depth of six metres to provide long-term stability beneath the chosen site. This was allowed to settle for a few years before construction above ground eventually commenced in 1818. However, this was not for technical reasons, other than Russia was disrupted by the Napoleonic War. On top of the treated wood went a compacted layer of stone to a depth of seven meters and over the next three decades 300,000 tons of granite and marble were assembled to complete the exterior of the building up to its final height of three hundred and thirty three feet. Most of the external construction was complete by 1842, then another sixteen years were spent decorating the interior before the grand opening in 1858.

The hotel that I am staying in, The Astoria is regarded almost as a museum (cf my previous blog) and it was built in 1912. I do not know what was standing on its site previously but nothing could equal my bedroom view of St. Isaac’s Cathedral. To begin with I looked out of the window and thought if I was Proust what might I create out of this aperture of light and architectural mass, of May blossoms and perspective. I squeezed my eyes and tried to compress my sight into linguistic experiences but I felt uninspired and talentless. Clumsy too. Just like when I watched the mercurial fingers of that inspirational genie of SPB, Maurice Janssens conducting Thus Spake Zarathustra last week at The Barbican. I gather Janssens has not abandoned the city, where he has an irreplaceable library  of manuscripts and musical scores, and few of its artists ever do. Not willingly.

‘I do not know how it is elsewhere, but here, in this country, poetry is a healing, life-giving thing, and people have not lost the gift of being able to drink of its inner strength. People can be killed for poetry here— a sign of unparalleled respect— because they are still capable of living by it.’

Osip Mandelstam

I studied the sculpted facade of the Adoration of the Magi and wondered how its sculptor had come to terms with the fact that very few people would be privileged – as I now was – to look across at the work horizontally rather than craning their necks from below, skywards. I saw that the bas relief of the baby Jesus, reclining in the folds of Mary’s lap, was as large as an overgrown man and the Magi were giants. This portico is crowned with mighty bronze pediments weighing approximately eighty tons which were ornately sculptured by Ivan Vitali and Francois Lemaire.

Words failed and for a moment I thought what a pity a lorry ran over my Iphone, which fell off my lap as I got out of the car just before I left London because I could have saved myself the humiliation and have taken you a photograph. Then it struck me that my exercise in looking rather than recording meant that possibly this view would be imprinted on my brain to eternity. No wonder I always find holiday snap shots boring and quite distinct from historical pictures of people’s families, (people I care about that is) which I find addictive viewing. Sometimes, I suggest to my clients that they bring pictures from their family of origin to our sessions. Family of creation pictures tend to fall into the holiday snapshot category. I was still demoralised that – even though I know you don’t care for Proust, Portia – I was unable to produce anything even a little magical. Later on that night something happened.

I came back to my room rather earlier than on the other nights. The day and the light had been unlike the day and the light of any other day that ever existed, as all days must be. I do not know whether what then happened, happens whenever that sensation of light is replicated, or whether it has never happened before, or whether the reason when I asked my friends and colleagues if they had ever had a similar visual experience, which they had not, it was because I was privileged to be looking out from a private window with a view from the sixth floor of a building with an unique position and inaccessible perspective. Or whether it was only my vision.

I was looking out of the open window and debating whether if I slept with it open, having been such a spectacular day, the Petersburg mosquitoes would appear. Can somebody tell me where they were incubating on all the previous cold days, just waiting for one day of sun after the unseasonal May glooms to arrive in my bedroom. To begin with my eye was caught by a strange feature across the roof tops: despite it being eleven PM an exquisite white crane, a mechanical one, was still gliding relentlessly back and forth across the skyline. While the Mayor of Saint Petersburg has all sorts of new prohibitions on his production line, now sliding towards the Kremlin, health and safety is not one of them. Buildings must be built, and most of these look like the unhappiest new buildings on earth. Slave labour still exists in Saint Petersburg where man’s life is cheap as beast’s …

I have never felt the same towards the Hermitage despite its stunning collections since I learned that thousands of slaves dropped from its walls like mosquitoes when Catherine decreed it had to be finished within days and huge chemical ovens were brought in to dry out the damp plaster. Documentation records that Peter the Great built the city with slave labour and at a cost of 200,000 lives; no wonder cranes work on day and night. Life has always been dispensable in Russia and once more I am reminded that suffering rather than happiness produces genius.
(Was Picasso, who lived with powerful psychological and material opulence, and who died a living legend, an exception?)

Mother Russia seems to be progenitor of both dictator and genius mentality. My friend and interpreter pointed out that Oblomov is not only famous in Russia for not getting out of bed, just like your brother, but also for his sado-masochistic relationship with his servant Zarkov which is another facet of both the Russian psyche and its history. Or perhaps I have put that the wrong way round and it is Zarkov’s relation with his master that thrived on sado-masochism.

Oh, Portia I am sorry to have written so much and I hope you wont find it all boring but I still have not told you about the golden experience I had from my room with the privileged view. My eyes were distracted from the gliding cranes towards the fatigued pinks of a dying sun. And then something numinous happened, and don’t worry if you don’t know what the word means because it took me a long time to understand it. A ‘peak experience’ will do almost as well. Yes, I peaked as I looked across at St. Isaacs Cathedral – which is built out of a mixture of grey mottles of granite and darker marble stone, with Corinthian columns carved out of a neolithic red granite – although time’s scythe has blurred them into a muddied brown. The extravagant edifice of the south portico and those sombre grey tiles had transformed into rosary pink, which had nothing at all to do with lasers or human technology. I was looking at a Proustian cathedral of Tiepolo pink magic. I can only imagine, as I know nothing at all about geology that some invisible crystals minerals were embedded inside of each mottle grey marble slab, which might act as a magnet to draw in the refractions of this miracle of rosary pink and marbled light which was now streaking the horizon and caressing a dying day, or do I mean night. Even the drab and weather battered columns had bartered colour and were now stroked into hues of cardinal and burgundian wealth. An indomitable and mottled grey building had turned into vulnerable pink light.

Something happened on a specific day in May, (May 15th 2012) which had been preceded by the dying of the light, months of snow, new prohibitions and darkness. Today, the sun appeared for the first time and citizens spilled out of the darkness and walked bare limbed in the city until a midnight sunset crept beyond a steely jungle of new-mixed cement and a forbidding cathedral was transformed into that most symbolic and versatile of colours. Proust pink.

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