Among Russians
[The writer Colin Thubron, who spoke Russian,
travelled widely in the European regions of
Soviet Russia in the early 1980s.
In Moscow, he interviews Nikolai, a professor of languages.]

§   §   §

"The trouble with us Russians is that we're hopelessly religious. Of course Communism's a religion. It's never existed, in any country, as anything else. It has its own dogma, its own prophets, and even --- ugh! --- its own embalmed saint. What else is the Lenin mausoleum? It's pure paganism, or a throwback to the relic-worship of the early Christians."

The analogies between Christianity and Communism, he said, were almost unending. Above all Communism shared with medieval faith its conscience-seated power and completeness. It resolved the troubling greyness of the world into a puritan black and white. Its heaven was the future forged by man on earth. Its God was the Party, whose service defined morality. But doubt one verse of its scripture, and the whole structure flew into fragments; faith demands submission. Communism precluded any fundamental speculation; its faithful walked in a blinding eternity of gospel.

§   §   §

[Afterwards, Thubron went to visit
the Lenin Mausoleum himself.]
The queue for Lenin's mausoleum stretches seveal thousands long out of parkland gardens along the Kremlin walls, and shuffles across the grey loneliness of Red Square. In itself, it resembles any ordinary Russian queue, neither more nor less reverential than those for bread or beer. It is drab, dogged, muttering. All along its line it is watched by police and uniformed KGB with a lingering scrutiny. But as it turns to face the tomb, a low ziggurat in red marble, it falls silent. People remove their hats, smooth their hair. The aura of sanctity is suddenly intense and oppressive. This is the Holy Sepulchre of atheism. The youth in front of me was told to take his hands out of his pockets. The woman behind was ordered to stop talking.

Behind the bronze doors, flanked by two guardsmen, sombre passages enclosed us. We descended steps down walls of black and grey feldspar which sent out faint blue lights from their stone. We were never allowed to stop moving, and can have been in the crypt for less than a minute. Light fell indirectly from high above, where the decorated walls showed jagged and violently red. My eyes strained in the gloom. I was moving below the head of a glass sarcophagus framed in gilded banners, then up a half flight of steps circling around it. Four guards stood immobile below.

Lenin lay there bigger than I had imagined, the hair fairer, sandy and almost gone from his head. He was bathed in a brilliant white light. Against his dark suit the face and hands shone vivid and isolated. The skin glowed with a glassy, wax-like sheen, unmodulated, textureless. I understood why some Russians suspect this is not Lenin's body at all, but an effigy.

Almost before I had entered this presence, I was being moved out of it. I could only stare. The cult of Lenin seems to have stepped into some deep atavistic breach left open by a Christianity in retreat. It appeals to the same spirit in which people wept in panic and trampled women and children to death at the funerals of tsars and of Stalin himself. It is part of the hunt for God. The megalithic gloom of the mausoleum reeks of it: a plea for immortality. And it is echoed, in a quieter way, by the hundreds of thousands of chapel-like rooms, filled with dusty photographs, which are dedicated to Lenin in the factories and apartment blocks all over the country.

Yet this mausoleum had not the profound, almost organic sanctity of a true religious shrine. It was steeped in the anxiety of its own propaganda.

§   §   §

[Later on he meets Lyudmila,
who lived on the 10th floor of a high-rise flat-block
with her bland-faced mother and her nine-year old son,
the result of a broken affair with a foreign diplomat.]
She had given birth to her illegitimate son in the early seventies, long before the Soviet government discouraged abortion in order to bolster the population. She had been confronted by the KGB and for a long time, I think, had lived through a private hell. Now, in the evenings, I would find her sitting on a wobbly chair with her legs tucked under her; sometimes she would close her eyes in mid-talk, as if she were weary or in perpetual meditation.

Lyudmila talked of her past life as if it were someone else's. Even of mutual friends she spoke only with a remote and separated affection. "I was unhappy for years after the boy's birth. I wanted to die." Her eyes shut, as if testing the idea, opened again. "I didn't find the world worth inhabiting at all. It was just a haze of people hunting for money, position, things. And I thought, what's the point? They were like children playing games." She uttered this indictment in tones of faraway wonder, like somebody gazing at the universe down the diminishing end of a telescope. "Sometimes I'm grateful to have been born in Russia," she said. "If I'd lived in a better society I'd have believed myself free. I would never have discovered the reality inside me. But instead I was born into this hell, and was forced to discover my own peace. Perhaps, in the end, we're lucky here...."

...For her the 'real' world had dimmed to an asylum of the lost. It had become unbearable and she had rejected it, had rearranged it in the tranquil Buddhist patterns of wholeness and incorruption. She looked on its striving, she said, with increasing alienation and faint surprise. All that was irrelevant.

"You see, all the time life --- reality --- is not in these battles and struggles at all." She picked up an apple which her cat was patting across the floor. "It's everywhere else. In the trees around us, in the earth. Truth is in this apple, for instance. The apple is purely itself. And we're surrounded by such things, but we don't see them."

It was all perfectly familiar, the neo-Buddhist litany. What was extraordinary was to find it here in Moscow, in the heartland of pragmatism. The cult of meditation was new in Russia, she said, but it was quietly growing. "They say there is only one right way. But right and wrong are meaningless --- figments of mind. What is lies above morality. Look at this cat" --- she cradled the oblivious creature between her thighs, then held it up to me. "Do you see why I like it? This cat is itself. It's uncontaminated by human beings. And birds too. In spite of revolutions and politics, the birds sing."

In retrospect, she amazed me. Her mysticism, in its denial of the material world, was the purest negation of Communism I ever met. It was also, of course, her way of coping with her brutalized past. She believed herself liberated by it; I felt that it had killed her.

It was, however, false or true, the ultimate protest.

§   §   §

[Driving from Moscow to Leningrad,
at a camp-site Thubron meets Sasha,
a schoolteacher.]
Sasha simply wanted to talk, to pour out his anger with the world around him and the poverty of his place in it. Things in his country were becoming worse all the time, he said. For seven or eight years now the economy had been sliding back. He spoke in embittered bursts. There were towns only a day's journey from Moscow where you couldn't buy a scrap of meat, fish, or fruit. Salaries had been almost static for eight years, but prices had soared. The present leadershiip were just nonentities, he could barely remember their names.

Sasha was one of those, increasing now, who looked back with nostalgia to the reign of Stalin. "Khrushchev was wrong to denounce him. Stalin was a strong man, a great man. And who was Khrushchev? Just a buffoon." Sasha was almost too young to remember Stalin's time: either its low standard of living or its terror. He simply cherished the idea of power in his rulers, because their strength would be his strength. His was the old Russian yearning for a tsar or a god, for somebody to impose discipline on the nation's ancient anarchy and indolence. It was perfectly familiar. When Stalin died a whole section of the populace was seized almost by panic, like children left undefended; and a contemporary English traveller wrote of Ivan the Terrible that "no prince in Christendom is more feared of his own than he is, nor yet better loved."

I said bluntly that Stalin was a monster.

"But we need him," Sasha insisted. "We need that strength and order."

§   §   §

[Later on the road,
Thubron stops for a few days in Novgorod, which
in Medieval times had been a great mercantile center.]
Novgorod, like half these northwestern towns, grew up as a trading-post between the Baltic and the Black Sea, and was ruled by the haughty democratic spirit of its Veche, an assembly of leading citizens whose parliament, guarded by an octagonal tower, still stands on the river bank. A practical, earthy spirit pervaded the town almost from its beginnings. "Lord Novgorod the Great", as its citizens named it, was the only republic in Russia. "if the prince is bad --- into the mud with him" they said. The churches which sprinkle its riverbanks were built not by lords, but by trade guilds. At its height the population stood at four hundred thousand.

The earliest surviving letters of its citizens, jotted down on birchbark in the fourteenth century, are typically pragmatic. "Order to Gregory: I've sent you a bucket of sturgeon." "Greetings to Father and Mother: When you've sold the house, you can go to Smolensk or Kiev. Bread is cheap there. ..." And in the vaulted chambers of the Palace of Facets, glowering with murals, the proud republic of Novgorod met its end. Absorbed by the risen power of Moscow in 1478, its independent spirit was chained at last by Ivan the Terrible, who slaughtered sixty thousand of its citizens, and invited the leading citizens and clergy to a banquet in the palace, where they were massacred in mid-orgy. By the seventeenth century the population numbered barely two thousand, rustling like ghosts in the shell of a half-forgotten city.

§   §   §

[In Novgorod, he encounters the friendly,
voluble, English-speaking Vadim.]
"You're the Englishman?" Vadim spoke fluent English. He was an engineer from a sordid-looking factory nearby, whose guarded gates were plastered with slogans for harder work. He had heard that an Englishman had arrived in Novgorod, and he was anxious for books.

"I can't get English novels here, and our own are hopelessly dull." He settled himself in my car and plucked two bottles of vodka from his pockets. "Here let's get drunk. Got a cup?" We swilled alternately from a plastic mug balanced on the hand-brake between us. "It's coarse stuff," he said. "I don't like the taste, I like the oblivion."

So we started to drink. Vodka --- that colourless innocence! It's the curse and liberation of Russia, a self-obliterating escape from tedium and emptiness, from interminable winter nights, and the still longer, darker nights of the soul. It is drunk in furious, catatonic debauches with the full intention of rendering its drinkers virtually insensible. Bottles are always tipped dry, glasses are drained at a gulp. Drunkenness accounts for over half the motor accidents and almost all the murders in the country. It has accelerated infant mortality and drastically reduced the life expectancy of men, whom it lures from their work and leaves crumpled in the doorways of every city in the land. As early as the ninth century, it is said, when the Russians were choosing which religion to embrace, they repudiated teetotal Islam with horror. "Drinking is the joy of Russia," declared their prince, 'we just cannot do without it." And travellers since the sixteenth century were astonished at how the Muscovites seized on alcohol as on some suicidal sport, how state banquets ended with the whole imperial court collapsed under the table, and how people dropped dead of drink in the streets.

§   §   §

[A couple of days later,
Thubron and Vadim meet for dinner
at a medieval Church
converted into a restaurant.]
Two hours later the mead and the wine were finished, and the brandy gurgling musically in and out of our glasses. Vadim's cheeks were lit by a sunset flush, but his eyes stayed lost. He began to complain about the system. These jeremiads were familiar to me by now. They rang with a deathly boredom and disillusion. No rebellion, no vision. Their cry of hopelessness fell into a world as stifled and changeless as the Soviet earth. It seemed to me that half the nation's energies were draining away in bitterness or drink, or were never awakened at all.

"Talk of bureaucracy!" --- Vadim laced the thought with an instant slug of brandy --- "Have you seen our Palace of the Soviets in the main square? Looks like a mountain and houses thousands of administrators, where five would do. We've got ten bosses to every one worker."

I mumbled something about change.

"Change! How can anything change? Even in elections to the local soviet, which doesn't mean much anyway, there's no real choice. The two or three candidates are already selected. In theory you can complain about them, but you'd have to go up to a little curtained booth, and everybody would see you go. And of course the KGB would be there."

The sense of a jungly and unconquerable bureaucracy reaches down to humble levels. An Asiatic stress on the prestige of position has pervaded Russia for centuries. Behind a million desks and shop counters the faces of ensconced bumbledom look up at you --- or do not --- and clear little spaces of authority around themselves by momentarily refusing service.

Perhaps the mania for supervisiion is the reverse image of a natural anarchy. I remembered what Nikolai had said in Moscow: that without constraints, the system would fly apart.

§   §   §

[Thubron made this journey through European Russia
in the summer and fall of 1980,
"towards the end of the grayest era in Soviet history."
A few years later,
under the administration of Mikhail Gorbachev,
the constraints of the Soviet system were loosened,
and it duly flew apart.]
--- Excerpts from Among the Russians
by Colin Thubron
© 1984, Harper Collins
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