Monday, 25 April 2016

New Year 1992-3, Stary Arbat, Moscow

(a continuation from earlier blog posts)

Leaving Lex’s parents apartment, we walked a little way up the deserted Arbat, recently pedestrianised, and then ducked under an arch that ran under a building and led into a courtyard. It was snowy and the street lamps threw a dusty yellow glow on to the snow. I followed Lex to a corner in the asymmetrical courtyard and we were buzzed in. The juddering lift lurched to a halt at the fourth floor and at our ring the door opened on to a flat chattering with voices, full of smoke, and the twirl of dull-coloured skirts and a smell of sweat that didn’t smell English. The door opened straight on to a corridor that ran down the centre of the flat, with the rooms opening off it. The walls of the corridor were lined books, and it felt like a party flat - there was one big room and the other rooms were small - Nikolai Vsevoldovich’s study, the kitchen, and the youngest son, Tikhon’s bedroom. These were the Kotrelevs - a Moscow intelligentsia family. Nikolai Vsevoldovich was an esteemed translator of the Russian nationalist philosopher Vladimir Solovyev. His wife was a petite swarthy woman called Tatyana and nicknamed Chuda - miracle - her expression was provocative and wry - this was clearly a family that had been brought up on teasing. She taught art zaochno - by correspondence - the apartment was full of painted boards and canvases sent to her from all over the former USSR, of the interior of peasant huts, still lives, flowers, a cross between outsider art and Russian academia. There were four children, which seemed a normal amount to me, being from a family of four, but it was clearly not the norm, somehow this family was different, upholding something traditional in a society where the family unit had been put under serious strain. There were two girls and two boys.

By the time we had arrive at about half past midnight, on the first day of 1993, the zastol’e had broken up and people were moving hither and thither in the flat. Chuda ushered us into the kitchen, which was full of smokers, and offered us a pirog baked in a rectangular tray with thin flat pastry and a fine layer of cheese. To her amazement, I turned down the great delicacy of the jellied beef. Chuda was dashing around twittering like a bird and Lex was laughing into his moustache. She sat us down at the tiny kitchen table and with a great sigh pressed play on the clunky buttons of the answer machine. The tape whirred and a deep bass voice, with very correct pronunciation said ‘Mamochka my dear, Happy New Year. We have marked it here in Askhabad. I am still in prison but they are letting me out in a week. They have cut my sentence. It is not bad in the prison, we made a pirog. What else… Next week we will resume band practice and the band says it is missing me I think that is why they are letting me out. My tuba playing is coming on very well. Kiss everyone from me and I kiss you. Poka’ This was, Chuda’s eldest son, the apple of her eye, and Lex’s great friend. He had a fine voice. He was on army service and had been posted in Turkmenistan near Ashkhabad. He had been put in army gaol for carrying a pistol when he went into Ashkhabad in mufti. Chuda relished the story of her good little boy being so bad. Lex translated the story into Lex language which I had mastered by this time.

Moments later I was cornered by an enormous young man, Vanya Simyonov, who was all beard and booming voice. He asked me how to translate the Old Russian liturgy into old english. I looked at him in puzzlement, feeling like a terrible ambassador for England and a disappointing visitor. I couldn’t tell him anything at all about old english except say ‘Chaucer’ with a Russian accent. I felt stupid about that for twenty years until he and his family came to stay and I introduced him to a Russian priest in a village in norfolk with whom we had tea - an exculpation. 

By this time, Lex was making murmured goodbyes and bundling me into my coat. New Year’s night is short and there were many friends to see - onwards!

Two blocks up the Arbat we turned into Starokonyeshenny Pereulok and then right under an arch into another courtyard. Past two rubbish containers we arrived at a door. Lex pushed against the door - it opened into total darkness. We walked up seven flights, each flight curving steeply back on itself. At the top we came face to face with a cage. This was the first time I had come up against the Russian phenomenon of inhabiting spaces that were not intended for habitation - the fag ends of buildings - the storage areas. A shadowy figure appeared behind the cage and shoved his hand towards us filled with a bunch of jangling keys. In a sing song voice he talked Lex through unlocking the caged door. The door behind that, glowing with light, led straight into an enormous space - a studio masterskaya - the place where the master works. 

Yuri Vashchenko was the father of Lex’s great friend Ira - he was an artist who lived part of the year in America - and this was his masterskaya. With exaggerated chivalry, Yuri divested me of my coat and hat and hung them up. It was the attic: the space was divided into two - one half was a large room with a ceiling that sloped from the centre towards a window that looked over zinc roofs. Large canvases leant against the wall that divided the room from the other half of the attic, where, I later saw when I peeked in, was a large brass bed and a small skylight under which was placed a chair - oh toska! And then, tucked away in an awkward corner, was the most important spot of all - a makeshift kitchen made up of a miniature fridge, single hotplate and a couple of shelves, and the table - round and low - the walls hung with carpets and an oval mirror - a long low velvet upholstered day bed, and the steps up into the main room made extra seats. By all accounts this was the least prepossessing part of the room - no window and a low ceiling - but what need for windows when you have each other to look at, and a low hung light over the table! The window, letting in the prosaic thing known as light, had a practical purpose, to help Yuri create work.

Yuri’s wife Sveta was sitting by the single hot plate, and turned to us with a smile, rising and with her arms outstretched pressed Lex’s shoulders and kissed him on the forehead. She gave me three vehement kisses hello. She was playful and radiant. It felt like a mixture of the beginning of a great adventure, and of coming home. They had not yet eaten. 

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