Monday, 11 November 2013

I had never expected ... but ...

I had never expected to be on the late train to Izhevsk, but life had taken an unexpected turn. There I was, in a sleeping compartment of a long distance Russian train heading many hundreds of miles eastwards out of Moscow. Izhevsk was yet a mystery. Somewhere I had barely even heard of let alone been to. I had no idea how big the world was until I got on that train. They say the Russian tundra contains five times as many trees as the Amazon. I spent many, many hours looking at trees in awe of this fascinating land. The snow covered fir trees were without end. Stories of how many lives it had taken to build the great railway filled my head. The hard labour. The biting frost. The slow, purposeful, laboured, powerful, relentless progress of the train ploughing through this never ending landscape to a distant city nine hundred miles from Moscow which left me hypnotised, mesmerised by its grandness. I’d be nearing the land of Tchaikovsky and the Romanovs by the journey’s end. I was lying on my side, already in my night clothes though it was still early in the evening. I was accompanied by two other men. The remaining bunk left vacant. They were Russian, one from Izhevsk and the other, a businessman from Moscow.
“Menya zavut Richard.” “Ochen’ priyatno”.
“Sergey.” “Welcome to Russia.”
“Your Russian is very good.” “What brings you to a city like Izhevsk?”
“This is my first time to Russia. I’m here as an English language assistant.”
“Khorosho. And why Izhevsk?”
The conversation continued in a friendly but enquiring manner for some time and Sergey gave me his business card. If I needed any help while in Izhevsk I was to phone him and he would see what he could do for me. Izhevsk is the hometown of Kalashnikov. He was still very much alive in his nineties and the city had a museum dedicated to him and to Russian arms. The city twenty years ago was completely closed to all foreigners. If I’d have found myself in Izhevsk back then I would have been shot dead for the privilege. Instead of which Russians were falling over backwards to welcome me to their city. Very few Westerners made it to Izhevsk. The city is not on either of the two main Trans-Siberian lines and yet I’d be travelling all evening, all night, all morning, all afternoon and wouldn’t reach the university until nightfall the following day. It wasn’t a city you ever visited unless you were specifically going there. This was even out of range of international backpackers on their lifetime adventures. This was seriously remote, yet still – unbelievably – in Europe. We were still two hundred miles west of the Ural Mountains which mark the passing of Europe into Asia. European Russia is bigger than India. My Muscovite friend Yelena had given me an English copy of the Russian classic The Master And Margherita. She told me that the university would be impressed if I had read it. Written during Communist times the book had been critical of the regime. It was a love story with a warped reality and full of murder. The characters had been drugged so it was impossible to tell hallucination from reality. Yelena had taken me to see the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour in Moscow. It had been completely rebuilt in its original pre-revolution design both internally and externally. She told me that this was happening all over Russia. Don’t go to St. Basil’s she told me. It’s for the tourists. Moscow has churches which are just as beautiful but which do not charge a fortune. After listening to a Russian storyteller we each threw a coin over our heads for good luck, which the storyteller quickly collected. She had given a good story, so we each threw what to the old woman would have been a valuable coin. We went into the Moscow underground. The golden artwork shined with turquoises, deep blues and greens. They had been made during Communist times to show to Western visitors. We took the elevator when we reached our stop and a drunken homeless man fell backwards just in front of us. We pulled him up and a young woman suddenly appeared to help him. It was minus thirty outside. He like many others wouldn’t make it through the winter. Even the poor dressed smart. Russians are a proud people. I wanted to love Russia. I was in shock. Never had I seen such wealth. Never had I seen such poverty. I finished my book and turned off the light. I had enough of a gap in the curtain to watch the trees. The bed was comfortable. Second class felt like first class to me. I asked what first class consisted of and I was told champagne and caviare. As I fell asleep the violinist entered the concert hall. The symphony orchestra were playing the first movement of Tchaikovsky’s violin concerto. I was completely taken in by the beautiful tragedy of the piece. He surely must have had a tortured soul to write such a piece. The audience gave a standing evasion as the train suddenly jolted and I jumped in my bed. It was early morning and the provodnitsas – the train’s servants were making breakfast.
“Priyatna appetita!”
Russian tea with pancakes was my breakfast. I must have been half way to Izhevsk by now. It was warm inside the carriage inside the train. We had been travelling non stop for twelve hours. It would be another thirteen until we reached Izhevsk. I lifted my Teach Yourself Russian book and turned to chapter thirteen. Yelena, much younger than myself, had shown me the Arbat, the old Arabic trading corner in Moscow. In a coffee house we had spoken in Gaelic. We were joined by an American and another Russian girl. All four of us spoke in Gaelic – in the Arbat. It was surreal. Yelena spoke six or seven languages and I spoke a similar number. The presence of this beautiful Highland tongue in the capital of the former Soviet Union seemed unreal. They were all part of a Russian story telling revivalist group. Many stories centred on Baba Yaga, Russia’s equivalent of the wicked witch of the west. She dwelled in a forest and often ate little children. All Russians knew about Baba Yaga. She is as famous as Little Red Riding Hood or Hansel and Gretel. Her eyes were deep, her nose long and covered in warts. She looked frail, with a headscarf covering her greasy white hair. She was crooked and her skin was like leather. The train continued its journey. I packed my things ready to get out once we reached the city. The arrangement was that a taxi with a student would pick me up and show me to my room. As we approached Izhevsk the light began to fade into dusk.
“Nye daleko ot-tuda” – the man said – not far from here.
I followed him out of the train with my luggage and I was met by a young, smartly dressed Russian student who spoke near perfect English. She offered to take my bag and said that I must be tired after the long train journey. I said that it was heavy, so she opened the boot and I put it in myself. The city was well litten. The tramway and trolleybuses screeched their way through the snow. Power cables towered over the streets. People dressed in stereotypical traditional Russian winter clothes interspersed with those in ski outfits walked the busy streets. We took the lift up our building and I was shown to my room. I had a shower and made myself a coffee. I was over two thousand miles from home. I got to know the tutors and students very well. They took a liking to me and the feeling was mutual. It wasn’t Paris or Venice, but it had its own beauty. The students loved it when we all had days off to show me around their city. You either love Russia or you hate it. There’s no middle ground. My pneumonia forced me to leave early. Russia is pulling me back. I’ve fallen in love with this heroic, tragic land. The endless snow covered in the red blood of its people. The mountains and forests and rivers which contain more precious materials than Africa. Two hundred ethnicities and dozens of languages. Russia is immeasurable, timeless and unforgiving. She is beautiful, elegant and proud. Many armies have tried to suppress her but have failed. She will endure all that is thrown at her. Her winter is glorious and her summer vibrant. I had dreamed of my train journey long before I arrived and now it’ll be with me forever. Russia is how I imagined her to be and so much more. She awaits me like a truelove. I am yet to see her awakened from her winter slumber. I will look into her youthful eyes of spring. She will be radiant and full of sunshine.