Monday, 13 February 2017

Meeting the Maestro, Moscow summer 1997

It was late July 1997. I had just got back to Moscow for 3 months in Kolyma, NE Siberia - the wind of the taiga and a few cranberries were still clinging to my hair. My accent had slipped into a strange provincial twang and I’d take on some slang that made my Muscovite friends go into paroxysms of laughter. I had grown plump from too much bread and moose meat and sitting around dark Siberian village kitchens, escaping mosquitoes.

In such a state I ventured into the refined cultural sanctuary of one of Moscow’s most experimental theatres. 

I had been directed here by a Russian playwright who I had met in Glasgow earlier that year. I served as his interpreter for a couple of days while he was in Glasgow, where I was at university. We paced the streets - I showed him the Art School, the parks, the Art Galleries, the concert halls. He told me about his teacher - a famous Moscow theatre Maestro. He asked me what I wanted to do - I didn’t have a clue what I wanted to do, so I said ‘theatre’. He said ‘if you are in Moscow go to the Maestro’s theatre and ask to see him. Tell him that I sent you and ask for a job.’

So there I was sitting on a high backed sofa in a waiting room full of secretaries. ‘Is he expecting you?’ one asked. ‘No’. ‘Well you are very lucky because he happens to be here. Maybe he will see you after his meeting.’ I heard raised voices coming from a door in the corner. Beyond the glass wall beside me I saw what I presumed were actors, walking past in deep conversation. Every now and then one would open the door, say something to one of the secretaries, usually with a nod, grimace or wink towards the closed door in the corner. 

The lady opposite me punctured her work with sighs - her getting up - her answering the phone - her saying something to one of the other ladies. The sigh would sometimes be followed by a peal of laughter. At this point I didn’t know that most people who worked backstage, were looking for a way out. 

After half an hour the door in the corner opened - a dark haired lady with dark lipstick swept through the office and out of the glass door, an aura of stale cigarette smoke clinging to her. She was followed by a tall man with long hair, a long beard and a stooping gait. Around his neck was silk scarf and he wore a peasant tunic, å la Tolstoy. He slowly approached me, came to a stop, and fixed me with hooded eyes. 

‘Has she come to see me?’ he asked the room, looking all the while at me. ‘Yes, she is a friend of one of yours.’ ‘One of mine…? Who sent you?’ ‘Um, Alexei… He said that if I was in Moscow I should come and see you. I’m looking for work’ ‘Alyosha! So, you want a job do you? Come into my kabinet, let’s talk.’

Heart beating, I followed him into his study. We sat on opposite sides of a small round table. ‘Why are you in Moscow?’ ‘I just got back from Siberia.’ ‘That is not an answer, why are you in Moscow?’ ‘I’m studying Russian at university. I want to work in theatre, I’m coming back in 2 months, perhaps you have work for me here.’ ‘What kind of work? What do you want to be?’ ‘Um, I um, want to be a… theatre director!’ I said looking at him hopefully.

The maestro leant forward and looked deep into my eyes. We sat in silence - was this a staring competition? Then he proclaimed: ‘ты очень легкомысленная девушка*. I thought for a minute - it was not a word I had had reason to translate often in Siberia - and after a pause exclaimed, ‘no, no I am not a frivolous-minded girl! I am very serious. Very.’ 

At this point there was no obvious way for the conversation to go. The maestro called towards the closed door: ‘Lena, Lenockha! Come here!’ A small elf like lady opened the door. She was one of the secretaries. The Maestro said to her: ‘Lena, this english girl wants to come and work here. Perhaps she could help you?’ Lena looked over at me, her eyes alight. 

Lena was in charge of international affairs at the theatre. Having tested my Russian she said that if I was interested I could come and work for her as an assistant. They wouldn’t be able to pay me much but if I wanted I could live in the communal flat above the theatre.

The maestro was the enfant terrible of the Moscow theatre scene at this time, and is again today - he has recently been invited to return to Moscow after a period of voluntary exile in France. He is originally from Rostov-on-Don, before coming to Moscow to study at GITIS where he met the theatre designer with whom he subsequently collaborated and who had designed the interior of this theatre. It was nothing like a normal theatre space. Firstly, there was lots of natural light. It was a double-height basement with shining parquet floors and white walls. There was classical detailing and partitions pierced with openings to watch performances. It was a cross between a Greek temple and the Great Hall of an English country house.

Before I went back to England, there was a dinner in the theatre. I was introduced as the maestro's new follower - my foreignness giving me extra gloss. Over dinner one of the actresses asked me about my plans. 'Oh, well, I'd like to work here for the year and then perhaps go and work in another theatre, to get a sense of how it all works,’ I said blithely. There was a stunned silence. Afterwards I learnt that this was a major faux pas. The very idea that I was considering life beyond the maestro or would be interested in other theatres was an insult to him. On learning this, I shook my head in dismay, doubting I would ever get the hang of the level of servitude that was expected. 
Nevertheless, one day in August, an offer of a job came juddering through the fax machine, on fine, shiny paper and signed by Lena, the Head of International Affairs at the theatre, underneath an elegant asymmetrical neoclassical wreath around which was emblazoned the name of the theatre. I was to be Assistant to the Head of International Affairs. The letter outlined that I would be provided with a room in the theatre. I sent it to my university as proof that I was working and that I didn’t need to study with the other students, which I was determined not to do. I wanted adventure, separate from the confines of any familiar institution. Little did I know I was walking into deep confinement at the theatre.

*'You are a very frivolous minded girl.'

Monday, 5 December 2016

blog for a new era

I live on a housing estate that is the result of optimism that followed one of the darkest times in human history - the Second World War. It was built in the idealism of post-war Britain, by architects Chamberlin, Powell and Bon (who went on to build the Barbican). It was, as I have said in previous posts, built to house blue collar workers serving the City of London, allowing the City to start generating income for the country again. It was radical and humane in terms of design - it was about the details - how to make council housing as attractive as possible for single parents, couples who had not yet had children, and families with one or two children.

Collage of Golden Lane estate by artist Liz Davis

It was landscaped into the city, in such a way to ensure that every view is striking. I enjoy its contrast and variety, never tiring of the vistas that open up as I walk through the estate, and of the colours, textures, shapes and varying levels. The flats are small but they feel capacious thanks to careful detailing and visual tricks - such as the floorboards on the top floor of the maisonette running the length of the floor, through both rooms, and ‘floating walls’ that have a recessed gap at the top. The buildings reflected an optimism- the planet was turning to face the sun - mankind, in some countries, was trying to find a better way for people to live, and it was an expression of care for those towards the bottom of the social ladder.
Collage of Golden Lane Estate by artist Liz Davis

Until the recent US election we lived in the post-war age - but now we are in a new historical period. The Russian word perelom comes to mind - a break or turning point.

Now if I say to someone: 'I live on a post-war housing estate', I might have to explain which war. 

Golden Lane Estate is the child of socialist experiments such as Narkomfin in Moscow - the layout of whose flats Le Corbusier studied carefully when in Moscow and who was in turn an influence on Chamberlin, Powell and Bon - for example in the ‘wimple’ that tops Great Arthur House.

‘The world', as a friend wrote on social media shortly after the US election 'is now run by a billionaire property developer.' This is the crushing truth. And as is well known - property development attracts psychopaths/sociopaths- those who like to take risks and who, especially these days, have a disregard for ordinary people in their striving to make money from luxury apartments - 'safety deposit boxes in the sky' as Simon Jenkins calls them. But not all property developers, and not in all times, as Golden Lane is a witness to, and the art it keeps inspiring. 

The estate is greatly loved by its inhabitants as was evident in the art and design for sale at our Christmas Fair held at the weekend where I enjoyed the stitch work of Tina Crawford of Tobyboo (below) and the beautiful collages of artist Liz Davis. Good social housing is not top of the agenda in the UK or America right now. What darkness will we have to go through before social projects of such care and high quality are embarked upon again? Monuments of the past, including Golden Lane, and the values they carry, can be beacons now. 

Great Arthur House stitched by Tina Crawford of Tobyboo

Collage of Golden Lane Estate by artist Liz Davis






Sunday, 30 October 2016

The new Moscow: clean n mean

All summer I saw photographs on the internet, as I’m sure you did - of people telling horror stories about ‘Moya Ulitsa’ / ‘My Street’ - a Moscow City project to improve the cityscape. Until last month, Moscow was at a standstill as streets were closed to allow reconstruction including pavement widening, new paving stones, lampposts, traffic lights and planters. The results are radical - dramatically altering the experience of being in Moscow. On the one hand it is an incredible achievement, allowing the architecture of the city to breathe again, and to be enjoyed by pedestrians – on the other, it reveals Moscow to be a primarily Stalinist-era city, a fact that had been hitherto softened by urban chaos. 

Tverskaya Street, looking towards Red Square

Within Moscow, opinions are divided, partly because the city lost the love of its citizens over the course of several months of hot and sticky traffic jams due to the street work. 

To a Londoner’s eye, it is incredible and a little frightening to witness the results of these centralised decisions.  Where is the chaotic, organic, ecology of the city? Where is the teeming street life – the expressions of commerce: adverts, neon, kiosks? How is it possible to simply make them disappear? A whopping 1.4% of the city’s total annual budget was used to pay for the work, evident in the high quality of stone used for paving. It is said that all the quarries of Russia were emptied by the work, causing delays. This kind of fact harks back to the time of Peter the Great, who exhausted ready supplies of stone in Russia while building St Petersburg.

Widened pavements on the Garden Ring, the American Embassy in the distance and the Shalyapin Museum in the foreground
A friend drove me from the airport and decided to show me the centre. I’d been away for two years - my eyes were on stalks. The pavements of Tverskaya Street had been widened - but more extraordinarily there was a set of arches at every main axis, that had been lifted straight from a Stalin-era book on architectural design. They were cheerfully painted like something from a 1940s fairground, framing whatever happened to be behind them - Pushkin, Tverskoi Boulevard, the entrance to Red Square, and most absurdly, Karl Marx. 

Karl Marx in the frame

Pushkin Square
Maroseika and Pokrovka were dotted with peculiar iron poles, curved into long ’S’s and topped with hanging baskets like wreaths that light up at night. Why? What were these for? Why clear the city of kiosks and widen the pavements, only to replace them with decorations? The Novy Arbat was crowded with benches 20 metres long, and there were swings too – on Triumfalnaya Square, designed for adults and children. In addition there were letters spelling out MOSCOW. These additions were added by the City government after the main street work was completed – a nostalgic throwback to Soviet and pre Soviet street decorations and an irresistible urge for Moscow to proclaim its own greatness.

The strange S's on Pokrovka

Moscow! Moscow! 
Most striking are the new vistas: Moscow’s main streets and main dominants were constructed in neo-classical style in the Stalin era. Until now, it was possible to balance that out in one’s mind with other, older streets, for example the area that escaped mostly unscathed around Ostozhenka and Prechistenka. This balance is now tipped towards the imposing grandiosity of the majority of the main streets, that are Stalin-era. For the first time, I left Moscow disliking this architectural period. The buildings were designed to impose, to intimidate; the ‘seven sisters’ were intended to make the average soviet citizen feel small: this was softened and leavened by the human chaos at street level. That has now been removed.  Much of the centre of Moscow now looks like an architects’ drawing: restrained and containing a vision of an ideal, orderly world. Town planning decisions of this kind can only be made in a centralised power structure like Russia’s. 

On the other hand, the buildings on the re-profiled streets look magnificent. The pavements are broader and it is more pleasant for pedestrians. I am aware that I was seeing it before the trees were introduced: now 30 year old trees are being planted all around the Garden Ring, bringing it in line with its name once more (it was widened under Stalin and the trees were cut down).  This will soften the formalising effects of Moya Ulitsa. 


Since I wrote this, trees have been planted - for example here on Tverskaya Street
A trip on the metro revealed that all the advertising had been removed. A well-coordinated graphic design campaign has led to an elegant reconfiguration of the Moscow metro map by Artemy Lebedev’s studio and other graphics including long lists of rules/Правила использования. ‘Навели порядок’ – ‘Order has been imposed’ – is what I kept thinking to myself. This is a mantra for Russia today, with its increased militarisation. There is a feeling that more aspects of people’s lives are being controlled and manipulated: in Moscow today this is embodied in the newly designed cityscape, and in the metros, cleared of adverts but full of rules. 

Ad-free metro

Bicycle lanes and widened pavements on Bolshaya Nikitskaya
‘Moya ulitsa’ has democratic roots and aspirations: it was conceived as a civic project in which ordinary citizens could take part by expressing their wishes for Moscow, their likes and dislikes. The emphasis has switched away from the car-user to the pedestrian, cyclist and scooter-user, now supplied with bicycle lanes on many central thoroughfares. One of the reasons that pavements have been widened is to reduce road space for cars in order to solve the city’s chronic traffic problems by discouraging people from driving. This is a radical decision that few cities dare to make, in thrall as they are to road users. 

There was a street-art biennale in the Manezh during my visit to Moscow that also reflected the current trend. The untrammelled spirit of illegal street art had been contained and sanitised by being removed from the street. The work, although much of it visually arresting, had lost its power out of context. 

work by Lena Shubentseva at the Moscow Street Art Biennale in the Manezh, Sept 2016
In short, while impressed by these changes to Moscow, I’m not so keen on the Moscow that it has revealed. Was I living in a fantasy before? I think not - it could be argued that this controlled cityscape is more of a fantasy city than ever but one of little joy, despite the gaudy arches and street swings. 

[ An original version of this appeared in Russian as a blog on the BBC Russia website here. ]

Monday, 3 October 2016

Narkomfin - the future of the house from the future

Narkomfin was one of the buildings that called out to me and enthused me to campaign for buildings in Moscow -  little did I know when I first beheld it that it is the true child of international modernism: it was created by Russians (Soviets), modelled on Le Corbusier's ideas with original interior colour schemes from Bauhaus. I was walking home from work at The Times office on Kutuzovsky Prospekt one autumn evening in 2003 when I came upon what I thought was a ruined fragment of a once large complex. There were a couple of skips and building cabins in front of the building and I assumed it was mid-demolition. Despite the large chunks of plaster that had fallen from the facade, I was transfixed by its proportions: my eye was carried along by the straight lines of ribbon windows - I fell in love. 

view of the communal block from the main block


What I was beholding was the first building to be constructed according to Le Corbusier’s five rules of architecture, by another architect. It was constructed between 1928 and 1930 as semi-communal housing for the workers of the Soviet Union’s first Commissariat of Finances. It was commissioned by the then Commissar of Finance, Nikolai Milyutin, a trained town planner with radical and experimental ideas. To realise his ideas he turned to leading Constructivist architect Moisei Ginzburg with the project, who worked with young architect Ignati Milinis and structural engineer Sergei Prokhorov. In line with Le Corbusier's five rules, the building stands on pilotis, has a free internal plan unconstrained by load-bearing walls, a free facade that does not necessarily reflect the internal functions or layout, ribbon windows stretching across the entire facade, and a flat roof terrace that provides a garden for the building’s inhabitants. Concrete bricks were made on site and traditional materials were used in experimental ways.

archival pictures of the building shortly after completion

the rear facade showing Le Corb's principles: first floor raised on pilotis, free plan facade, flat roof, ribbon windows, free internal plan


Narkomfin today

I wasn’t entirely wrong about witnessing an incomplete complex - it was originally to have had two more buildings, including a kindergarten and a further building to add to the communal block and laundry. 

However, the building fell out of favour before these plans could be implemented. In 1932 socialist realism was declared in all the arts including architecture: constructivism and other buildings of the avant garde period were subsumed into a rapidly stalinised city, not least by the gigantic residential 'seven sister' beside Narkomfin. Once new dominants in a new socialist city, the monuments of constructivism became all but invisible, and the ideas behind them forgotten. 




The reason that the facade of Narkomfin looks so appalling, it transpires due to fresh research, is that the bedding troughs on the facade, intended to hold plant pots, were filled in with earth and their drainage holes blocked up. This led, obviously, to damp being held in the facades - thus large chunks of render have fallen off the facade, giving the building an air of ruination that doesn't reflect its actual condition. This amplified negative perceptions of the building creating a spiral of neglect. In fact, repeated surveys have shown that it is structurally sound. 

In addition, within a generation of the building being completed, the ground floor, originally free standing pilotis, was filled in, to create more space.

Despite this, the original integrity of the building’s design shines through - thus its ability to hypnotise me on my way home from work that evening in 2003. At that time, it was not, as I imagined, being demolished, but was being used as a building site for the construction of the next door marble-clad, high-kitsch Luzhkov-era shopping centre, Novinsky Passage.

As The Moscow Times recently reported, it has just been taken on by a new group of owners, following several years ownership by Alexander Senatorov, a property developer and yogi. Senatorov bought the property in 2006 and slowly bought up the private flats. He introduced a new generation to the building of yogis and hipsters. The building began to live again. Parties were held on the roof, yoga was practiced everywhere. It could be argued that this was good for the building, as a new generation got to know it and positive associations replaced the old negative ones. However, this new burst of life was not accompanied by thoughtful conservation. On the contrary, high levels of ‘evro-remont’ that took place - ie wooden windows were replaced with plastic ones, albeit made to measure, original doors, windows and other details were simply thrown out, as were original building materials; the original radiators were stolen. In addition a purple cord carpet was laid in the corridors, transforming it into an interior of a dull office block to be found anywhere in the world. 

evidence of yogis

inappropriate carpeting. NB the black and white doors to the left, leading in turn, up or down into the apartments that are set over 2 levels

I met with the representative of the new group of owners , Liga Prava when I was in Moscow last week, Garegin Barsumyan. In conversation he agreed with me that restoring and retaining texture - faktura - is the most important thing and it is essential for it not to be (further) eroded. This was hopeful. I was concerned, however, that he said that they intend to replace all the wooden windows with plastic ones, as a temporary measure. There is nothing as infinite as the temporary, as they say, so I say no, this is not a rigorous approach nor is it best for the building. The rooms and apartments are small: if the wooden windows are done properly it will be possible to retain heat efficiently. 

evro remont: plastic flooring and skirting

evro remont bathroom

evro remont windows and light fitting: all this should be replaced during the restoration process

an apartment pre 'restoration'/ 'remont' photograph by Richard Pare

The project is to be a commercial one - flats - for sale. This is fantastic news and would remove the building from the danger of a single capricious owner, even if this leads to people making their own changes to their own flats. There can be a covenant in the deeds for each apartment, preventing people from changing essential elements such as windows and doors, or making changes to fittings, as there is in the Grade 2* Listed Barbican Estate in London, whose inhabitants are passionately proud of the integrity of each flat individually, and the ensemble.


looking out from the communal block. It is hoped that these glazing bars can be saved. 

the roof of the communal block: this block has been acquired from the City Government. The new owners plan to remove the top floor, which was a later addition, to reveal the original pure cube of the block. 

Happily, architect Alexei Ginzburg, grandson of the original architect Moisei Ginzburg, is back in the frame. He has been invited to oversee the restoration. I have never seen him so cheerful and hopeful about the future of Narkomfin in the 12 years I have known him. He is confident that wooden windows will be installed, and original details such as doors, door handles, flooring and light fixtures can be copied and made. The ground floor is going to be cleared away to allow the building to stand once again on pilotis. 

Another good piece of news is that the communal block, originally the refectory, has been acquired from the City Authorities by the new owners, something that had previously proved impossible. The top floor extension is to be removed revealing the original cube; the roof will be mended. The glazing bars (metal) appear to be in good condition so hopefully can simply be cleaned and repainted. In the spirit of its original use the block will contain a restaurant. However, there is a lot of work to be done: Liga Prava still has to buy 4 of the apartments that remain in private hands and the restoration project has to be carefully devised and implemented.
Penthouse and roof terrace pre 'remont'. Photograph by Yuri Palmin. 

post 'remont'

post 'remont'

Two essential elements will make this an outstanding restoration project: the restoration and, where needed, reconstruction of original elements throughout, and secondly the creation of museum-flat that is open to the public. The Isokon Building on Lawn Road in Hampstead, London have successfully provided public access by creating a gallery and shop in the garages. There is a permanent exhibition dedicated to the history of the building and its restoration, and a rotating design-related exhibition. 

Narkomfin needs something slightly different - a Type K apartment fully equipped as it would have been when the building was first completed. It will keep the wonder of the building alive and safeguard it for generations to come. 

This is the most hopeful moment in all the years of campaigning for this building, and eyes are being kept on it by The Constructivist Project, Docomomo Russia and the Avant Garde Centre

interior of communal black: curious corinthian capital: evidence of socialist realism in constructivist building, almost certainly added later 

Monday, 26 September 2016

New Year’s Day is Black: an Artist's Journey Through Memory - a graphic novel by Nicky Loutit

To Daunts for the launch of Nicky Loutit’s graphic novel “New Year’s Day is Black.” This is a profoundly moving memoir about Nicky’s childhood, interspersed with walks on ‘The Freshes’ in Norfolk that take place in the present day. 

Nicky was brought up amongst the bohemian post-war intellectual avant garde and inheritors of the Bloomsbury group - George Orwell, Cyril Connolly, Frances and Ralph Partridge and others feature in the book. The set was also bohemian in its way of conducting personal relationships: her mother married several times, and Nicky as a child coped with anger and abuse from a series of step fathers. This, and sexual abuse at the hands of Nicky’s own father, is laid out in the book.

Remembering tea at Ham Spray, home of Ralph and Frances Partridge. Nicky Loutit's bold and expressive way of illustrating the memories jostling and finding order in her mind. 
Graphic novels lend themselves to the confessional: the combination of words and images is potent and creates associations in the mind more swiftly, and deeply, than words alone. Although this was a childhood full of abandonment, Nicky was also exposed to art and ideas about artistic freedom that surely gave wings to her talent. She notes in the book: "I'd been in many other painters studios. I loved looking at paintings, and had gathered that to paint was approved of, and that my interest in it was one good thing about me." 

I’ve known Nicky since I was about 8 years old - playing with her three sons when they lived in the wing of Wiveton Hall and we rented the cottage in the summer holidays. They had just come back to England from the Rajneesh ashram in Poona, India, where Nicky was with two of her sons and her husband at that time. 

After her return to England, she married the writer Johnny Gathorne Hardy - they moved to a house in Binham and I have loved to visit them there ever since. As she says in the graphic novel, ‘My house is hand painted in colours that move me. Our home is a giant colouring in book.’

The kitchen is painted a soft green, with birds sketched in paint on it, and there are flowers in the sitting room, another shade of green, mixed by Nicky. 

There was always a feeling there that ideas and feelings could be explored. There is a giant (or so it seemed to me) naked self portrait by Tim Behrens with ginger pubes on one wall of the sitting room. That immediately made me feel that I could say whatever I wanted, indeed that confession and revealing vulnerabilities was welcomed. This was a welcome respite during long family holidays.

I remember one night staying in a room at their house in Binham - a whitewashed room with a large painting, perhaps by Nicky, above the bed. I had light-filled dreams and felt great happiness on awakening.

My painting by Nicky, opposite my bed, bought soon after I moved to Golden Lane 6 years ago.
I have a painting by Nicky opposite my bed here in London - it is the first thing I see when I sit up in the morning - it has words and images on it, though the words cannot fully be read, which I like. I look at the picture now and try and detect the three colours that Nicky says she discovers on a first trip to Paris as a young girl where she joined her mother who was divorcing her second husband, Nicky’s stepfather. “It was in Paris that I learnt about colour - and creating another world as I endlessly drew and coloured in with thick waxy crayons that never gave out full flooded glow. The tones of those colours still nauseate me - and no longer exist.” 

Nicky returns to talking about colours and drawing after her biological father sexually abuses her during a boat trip to France. Nicky paints herself escaping from the porthole of the boat’s cabin where it took place - the disassociation, as she detaches from the act.
In the painting opposite my bed I do not see the colours of those first wax crayons but I see the green of her kitchen today. 

There is great peace in the memoir, alongside the spiky black anger also present, and the sadness. Her peace is found in The Freshes, a beautiful place in Norfolk. It is a meeting point, where salt water and fresh water meet and somehow, for many of us who know it, it has a powerful hold. I once had a kind of visionary experience walking there with my father. It is a place of healing and perhaps access to another world, the world of angels that Nicky refers to, without sentimentality but with great feeling. 



The memoir faces abuse squarely in the face: abandonment, physical violence, emotional and sexual abuse. It is extremely powerful, and by dint of its own sincerity invokes courage in the reader. After reading it, I found myself writing about a difficult period in my past that until then I had not had the words for.  

Nicky may have felt powerless at the hands of abusers in her own childhood but in this book she makes her own rules: the story is not in boxes like in many graphic novels - there are crossings out, different drawing styles, and each of her 3 sons also have a contribution, immediately following a page on which they are all born.  There is a feeling of levelling out in the Norfolk flat landscapes and skies - no more being thrown downstairs by angry stepfathers, and when she has a fall at the end, it is as if she is falling back into herself. 

Nicky and her dog Neddy








Monday, 22 August 2016

Farewell, Siberia (for now)

X and I were getting on better than usual. This was because I was hard at work, dubbing the interviews he had shot for his film, and he could have no complaints about my gadding around the village. He would even bring me coffee and praise my work.

The sides of these boxes were cut out and stuck on the walls of peoples' houses.
I never tasted one, but I brought this one home
He was wooing a lady in the village, the schoolteacher, to be his ‘village wife’ - the idea being that she would welcome him on arrival from Denmark and when he returned from the taiga. She was a nice docile creature, I think too sensible to succumb. Also, everyone knew he had a fiancee back home. 

Roza tried to set me up with a nice boy at the village disco that happened once every couple of weeks. I wore my best outfit - black suede mini skirt, black lycra tights a black t-shirt and big bold red beads. I enjoyed several ‘white dances’ - ie with people I didn’t know, and then joined the smokers outside to puff away the mosquitos. I was offered some mosquito repellant that I gladly accepted, except it melted holes into my tights and I went home. 

The Village Council
One day towards the end of our stay, lots of people received advances on their wages: the shop was cleared out of vodka within two hours - five boxes of 16 bottles - 80 bottles poured down fewer throats -  there were 110 people living in the village, including women and children. 

Our host Kolya’s adopted son, Maxim, got wildly drunk, and despite his puny size, attacked X in the middle of the night for ‘insulting his father’. X had recently by-passed the unreliable Kolya when arranging the visit of a Dane to come and set up a saw mill in the village.

Maxim had a wild look in his eye, the alcohol giving him a superhuman strength and tenaciousness. He ripped off his top and strutted up and down outside the house at 4 in the morning, in the constant twilight of the summer northern night, not noticing the mosquitos that were devouring him. X was worried he was going to find a gun. Brandishing a pair of nail scissors - all X could find in my room to defend himself from Maxim - he sent me off to get Kolya, who defused the situation temporarily by pouring the filthiest swear words I had ever heard on to Maxim’s head and dragging him away. He kept drinking for a couple more days. 

Shortly after this we had a final visit to the Taiga with the chaotic Kolya and Akulina Vasilievna, village elder and carrier of the Yukagir myths, and her husband Grisha, a celebrated hunter. It was a huge privilege spending time with them. She told so many convoluted and incredibly stories that I didn't even try to write them down, which I now regret.   

In the Taiga with village elder Akulina Vasilievna
Akulina Vasilievna and her husband Grisha. A dignified couple she was tiny and always talking - he was normal size and silent. She was the carrier of the village myths and he was a skilled hunter.
Akulina Vasilievna in the Taiga
Some of Akulina Vasilievna's handiwork





Akulina Vasilievna kindly made me a sable hat and some salted fish to take home. I tucked the fish in the hat and as a result could never wear it as it smelt so badly. I had also been given by assorted villagers: a baby bear skin, a mama bear skin and a mammoth tooth that I gave to my father. 

In the last week or two, I'd got together with a village boy, Andrei. He wasn't one of the ones I'd had a 'white dance' with at the disco, and Roza described him as 'a bad lot'. He had actually been more interested in hearing about my life as a student in Glasgow than making out. We stayed up night after night smoking cigarettes and me telling stories about drinking in Nice n Sleazy and the annual Halloween fancy dress competition at the Art School. 

The Bad Dane, X and I left together. Andrei didn't come and say goodbye, which stung. On the 9-hour plane ride back to Moscow, X ripped into me, saying I’d sullied his reputation in the village by getting involved with a local, that he wouldn’t be taken seriously because of my behaviour and that I should be ashamed of myself. I was relieved when we parted ways in Moscow. 

Re-embraced by my kind Moscow friends, I lay back in the bath at Sivstsev Vrazhek (the bath plug improvised from a shot glass), in the studio apartment where I had enjoyed my first new year and fallen in love with Russia four years earlier. I looked up at the ceiling and saw where a little bit of newspaper was poking through the paintwork. It must have been insulation or a patch-up job. A kind of ecstasy flooded my body - a feeling of gratitude and relief. I thought to myself:  ‘This is truly home. Moscow - Russia - is a place where imperfections are not hidden, are considered beautiful - it is possible to be free here.’

Two months later I was back, working for the maestro terrible of Russian theatre, Anatoly Vasiliev. But that is another story… 


Coming second in an arm-wrestling competition in Zeryanka
Sunbathing with da girls.
Goodbye Nelemnoye...





Monday, 8 August 2016

Voyage to Siberia Part 6 - The Hunt - (do not read if squeamish)


'You can't come on the hunt,' said X on my return from Zeryanka where I had been buying supplies. 

'Why not?' I asked, 'is it men only?' 

X shifted in his seat - we were in the kitchen, cockroaches scuttled behind the skirting board.
'Well, yes it is,' he said. 

X wanted to go and be a man among men and because I was the interpreter, even though I helped him communicate, I also got in the way.

I went to ask one of the Spiridonovs, the best hunting family in the village. Yuri Spiridonov said seriously,  ‘you can help cook,’ and then gave me a wink when X wasn’t looking.

We set off towards evening, spirits were high. Our party was as follows: 3 generations of the Spiridonov family: grandfather Spiridonov, Yuri and his son Styopa; Vlad the Yakutian village doctor and Slava the Russian shopkeeper. 

We traveled in a retinue of 5 boats in case one of the engines broke down. As it was one or other of them had to be tinkered with every half hour. 

Within minutes of leaving came a sense of the vastness of the taiga. It was magnificent, transporting, sublime. 

artist's impression (mine) of the almost impossible to capture vastness of the Taiga. I will keep trying. 

A transformation took place. On leaving the village everyone seemed to grow by a foot, and a lightness of spirit came upon the party. Slava, with whom I was sharing at boat and who until then had seemed to me a perfectly ordinary, good natured fellow, suddenly appeared to be handsome and strong and ten years younger. I enjoyed watching Vlad, a handsome Yakutian with a strong underbite on his jaw. He moved like a clockwork toy, I wrote in my diary, neat, sure and efficient. 

We floated downstream to conserve petrol

Grandaddy Spiridonov by one of the tents that we pitched 'at night', even though it never got dark. We would fell saplings for tent poles. 


We had a system of waves and signals between the boats. Grandaddy Spiridonov floated by reading a thriller called KGB and gave me a thumbs up. 

Because I was there the men refrained from swearing, and instead did as much as possible to amuse me. This was infuriating to X, who couldn’t do male bonding with them as they kept picking me bouquets of wild flowers, giving me titbits to eat, and making good natured jokes about finding me a husband in the village. 

I remember climbing this tiny hill that they called a mountain. They were worried that as a girl I wouldn't have the energy. The reason for the climb was to survey the territory for winter hunting. 

Even X softened - he showed me how to load a gun and gave me a cartridge in case we were attacked by bears. I put it in a purse that I hung around my neck. 

X was passionate about hunting and in essence it was the reason for this trip to Siberia. He was making a film about the Yukagir tribe for his MA in visual anthropology and this was an essential part of their existence.

There was, for me, no ethical issue with hunting. It was the second half of the 1990s, the soviet union had recently collapsed, there was almost nothing to eat on the shelves of the village shop - what was there was prohibitively expensive and due to the location of the village in the far north, growing season was a mere few weeks a year.

The village subsisted on fish and moose meat, tea, bread and cigarettes. If you were a Yukagir or half Yukagir, who had always hunted, you had a license to kill one moose a year. Alternatively, you could buy a license. Otherwise, it was poaching. On this hunt we were poaching as the Spiridonovs, the only Yukagirs among us, had already used up their licenses and could not afford more. Due to food shortages in the village, all the moose nearby had been shot and we had to go further afield. 

Before we made our first kill we ate meat preserves from tins that were several years out of date, with bread from the village. Everything tasted delicious. We used mosquito repellant that was out of date too. There was no escaping them. We only washed our hands to eat, when dozens of mosquitoes would land on each hand and suck away. I quickly got used to drinking them down with my tea. 

The hunting happened from the boats. The Spiridonovs, with their eagle eyes, spotted moose on the banks and shot from the boats, tho they wobbled beneath them. They spotted a bear once too - but try as I might and to my great regret, I couldn’t see it. Bears were sacred - and out of superstition, or was it experience, talk of them was discouraged on the hunt as it was thought that if we spoke of them they would raid our camps. 


Once we had shot a moose the hard work began - it was dragged into the river to be skinned and cut up. Firstly the end of the antlers was cut off and eaten - for virility (I was included in this ritual) and then the nose would be cut off and stewed together with the liver and part of the small intestine. It was my job to clean the small intestine, in the river. It was soft and silky and full of grass and leaves. 

As this stew of delicacies bubbled away, the men skinned and butchered the carcass. The lungs and stomach floated away downstream, echoing the low mountains in the distance. 

Branches were cut from trees and laid on the shore, and the meat laid upon it, like a great bloody carpet-  fascinating and terrible to behold. 

It was too soon to go back to the village - we wanted to kill more, so we created a ‘permafrost refrigerator’ to preserve the meat for a few days. I watched as the men dug down approximately one metre to the permafrost, laid a bed of branches on the frozen earth, the moose meat upon that, a vivid red against the green, and covered it back over with the earth and grass. There it lay, camouflaged and scentless, safe from the bears who would certainly eat the meat if they found it. We peeled a strip of bark from one of the birch trees nearby, visible from the river, so that we knew where to gather the meat on our return journey. 

keeping the meat cold on the permafrost to allow the hunt to continue

marking where we had hidden the meat so we could retrieve it later.

Over two more days we killed more moose, our total being five, enough to feed the village for several weeks. Before returning, we divided the meat up into bags and floated back to the village, downstream, saving on petrol. 

We lay back in the boats and stared at the sky, sharing smokes and absorbing the sense of vastness in the taiga, before returning to the dull claustrophobia of the village and its grip of backbiting and gossip.


We timed our return for the dead of night. As it was light all the time, this was easy to manage. Arriving in the small hours when the village slumbered allowed us to place a sack of meat on every doorstep without being seen by the Mayor, who did not condone poaching and would have used the information to extort fines. 

The next day, all the faces in the village were cheerful, except that of the Mayor’s family, that had received nothing.