Wednesday, November 07, 2012

Do not forget Russia

On a trip such as our Russian one, people become pretty important. Our first night on board we realised at dinner that we were surrounded by Australian voices. Not surprising: APT is an Aussie company. Later we discovered Kiwis, a Dutch/German couple, an Italian couple - and a Scottish couple, she from Millport and he from Glasgow and a former pupil of my uncle more years ago than he cared to recall. All this on a Russian ship in the north of Russia. Amazing. But the people in the first pic were also important. The musicians, in national dress, entertained us every evening, helped the Russian class to sing "Kalinka" and sang "Happy Birthday" to several

guests during the cruise, me included. It turned out that the soprano knew our friend Jurij, who in turn told me that she had toured with Voskresenije. In the same pic you can see the captain (just - on the left), the doctor (who rather alarmingly told one woman who was suffering from an allergy to avoid red foods), two senior officers and the chefs.

The pic on the right shows our guide in St Petersburg - a very interesting and articulate woman who would have engaged the most rebellious class and who made some interesting political and social observations. She was typical of the guides on this trip - a very professional lot.

On the left we are visiting the house of a couple in Svirstroy - a retired midwife (in the stripy jersey) and her retired engineer husband. She told us about life in this small riverside town - growing vegetables, storing them in the basement below the kitchen, clearing snow, making pickles - and I've never seen anyone more serene and apparently content with what seemed a difficult and fairly arduous existence. The lovely girl in the  jeans was one of the onboard interpreters - they were an impressive lot, these language students, and utterly charming.

The girl in 19th century dress on the right was also charming, as Mr B found as a result of serious research - she was one of three guides who showed us round the Governor's House in Yaroslavl, in the personae of the Governor's daughters, and when it came to walzing in the first-floor salon, she asked him to dance with her. Turned out she was a language student on a holiday job, and they chatted away quite the thing while Mr B expired gently with the exertion of doing and old-fashioned walz in a pair of Brasher walking shoes, fleece-line Rohan trousers and a fleece pullover. While open-air Yaroslavl was chilly and windy, the Governor's House was, like every other interior we visited, boiling. All that centrally provided hot water ...

The little girl in the pic below was the person we thought of as "our" on board guide. Julia is Kalmyk, a Buddhist of Mongolian origin,  from one of the primarily Muslim states to the east of the Caspian Sea, and was fluent in
English and French as well as piano playing. She told us that

so many people wouldn't believe that she was Russian, because she didn't look like a Russian, and that she always told them "but I have a Russian soul". Perhaps a Russian soul is what makes the Russians we met such a serious group of people. All of them seemed devoid of flippancy, they seemed dedicated to doing their jobs well and to making us happy, and they seemed immensely well educated. The guide in the picture taken in the Moscow metro (below), holding a blue "lollipop) was the daughter of two doctors, and had a degree from the Moscow State University. Her parents, she said, had given up a great deal to send her there, and she had loved it.

Because the Russian language and the Cyrillic alphabet are so dauntingly unfamiliar, it is easy to succumb to the temptation to stick with other tourists, to avoid even attempting to interact with the people. But when we did get into conversations with our Russian contacts, the two of us loved their seriousness, their culture, their clear-sighted comments. It was from them that we learned that most Russian couples will have only one child; that they all live in flats in the cities; that no-one can get a worthwhile job unless they live in a city; that Russian society is still in a sort of 1950s timewarp.

And when we left, when we said "goodbye" to the people we had met, they all, without exception, said the same thing: "Do not forget Russia."

I don't think I ever will.

1 comment:

  1. Another super post, Christine. I think Russians have a lot to be serious about, with a society that has gone from communism to rampant capitalism and back to growing central control in just 2 decades, and with so many social problems. On a lighter note, when I visited Prague, I found the interiors just as overheated, even in recently-built flats, as they still do communal central heating systems.