And my story begins in Russia…
I’ve just got back to London after a month in Russia. The picture above is the front of Finlandskiy Station, St. Petersburg, where in October 1917 Vladimir Lenin rolled in to begin the Revolution that rocked the world.
For the first three weeks I lived just off the famous Nevskiy Prospekt, St. Petersburg, where I studied Russian for 4 hours every morning. The language school I went to is called Extra Class. There I was lucky enough to be taught by the school’s director Stanislav Chernyshov, who taught me far more than simply Russian grammar — it really was a masterclass in language teaching and an immersion in the Russian culture he loves so much. After three weeks of sometimes painful cerebral rewiring, I was delighted, and not a little surprised, to be given this shiny diploma.
Like I say, I was in school all morning, but the afternoons were my own – and since I was there for work, work is what I did (well, most of the time…). My second objective — after the language learning — was to conduct interviews with local researchers, locate libraries and archives, hunt down early Soviet classical translations, and generally soak up what I could of the prevailing attitudes towards my major research questions.
One of the most useful things I did in week two of my stay was given to me as homework by Stanislav. It was to write an introduction in Russian to Brave New Classics, explaining why I was in Russia and what I wanted to find out. The early stages of a new research project are haunted by these questions: What exactly is it that I want to know? What is my hypothesis? And what the hell are my research questions? The limited vocabulary and syntax I had at my disposal forced me to cut to the chase:
“I am in Russia because I study the relationship between communism and ancient culture. I am interested in the influence of early Soviet cultural practice (and policy) on British culture. Over the next few years I will write a book on this theme and, of course, my story begins in Russia.” This was enough to get the conversation started, at least.
Through chatting with people in St. Petersburg about my research, my ideas were continuously developing. The reading I’d done before arriving in Russia — largely in preparation for the World Literature conference at KCL — started to settle into its geographical as well as its historical context. As time went by it seemed more and more likely that early Soviet cultural practice had been an important influence on the Western Leftist intellectuals who occupied central positions in British culture at the time. The channels of influence may have long been obscured, and it is obvious that certain democratising streams of tradition were already in place, but the exportation of the almost feverish theorisation and explicitly ideologically driven commitment to spreading literacy and making the best of culture available to the people, must have been contagious, especially when divorced from the reality of life in the USSR. It is no great stretch to the idea that this Soviet export intensified if not directly fed into democratising cultural practice abroad, among the Leftist communities united as they were for a time under their abhorrence of the fascist threat. I was excited to find mention of some of the British classicists I’m going to be focussing on in Russian state archives.
As I was to be told in different ways over the month, this idea – however intriguing historically – is (on a personal level) not a bit appealing to most Russian scholars. To put it bluntly, the default position of most liberal scholars is to state that nothing of cultural value came from communism. Anything good that was produced during the era, tends to be attributed to those artists and scholars who were brought up and educated in pre-revolutionary Russian society.
In the field of classics this can be supported by the fact that much of the most inspiring work was done by classicists who, in the 1920s and 1930s, were considered “enemies of the state”. Many spent long years in labour camps for crimes unknown, and some were simply shot. In the gulag — as I was poignantly reminded in the newly relaunched History of the Gulag Museum, Moscow — people often witnessed and suffered the most hideous atrocities, and were essentially spirited away to the back-breaking and mind-numbing routines of labour camps. There was a joke Professor Gavrilov of theBibliotheca Classica Petropolitana (BICL) translated to me, a joke that was once told by his former teacher Aristid Dovatur. It went something like this:
Prisoner (P) to New Arrival (NA), about to begin a 10 year sentence
P: “So, what did you do?”
P: “No, that cannot be. For nothing you only get 7 years.”
Prof. Alexander Gavrilov is the Founding Director of the fantastic BICL. He was generous enough not only to regale me with anecdotes of his fascinating teachers (Dovatur and Barovsky), but also to help me formulate the questions I wanted to ask of the material I intend to look at for BNC. He spoke to me of the effect it had on him and his contemporaries to encounter these exotic and learned men, like Dovatur, who had been released from the gulag. They appear to have been for Gavrilov’s generation intoxicating relics of an old world, and a distinctly European old world:
An uncomfortable truth — and one that both Professor Gavrilov and Professor Braginskaya (Moscow) spoke to me about — lies in the fact that the terrible new pressures, under which Soviet writers and thinkers had to work, drove some of the most talented artists and poets away from their original calling and towards state-sanctioned and therefore relatively safe cultural occupations, such as translation. Instead of risking to write original poetry, for example, the poet Mikhail Kuzmin produced the most beautiful translation of Apuleius, from which Professor Nina Braginskaya reads here. The restrictive and often down right dangerous situation for artists and academics therefore resulted in some undeniably positive by-products, one of which was the flourishing of translation into Russian of the best of world literature, including some of the Greek and Roman classics in the 1920s and 1930s. Another might be the wonderful graphic design, illustration and monumental artwork of the period, but that’s another story.
Professor Gavrilov, Dr Olga Budaragina (St. Petersburg) and the rest of the BICL team patiently answered my questions, forgave my expansive ignorance and plied me with a herbal concoction described as “Siberian doping”. I think it was a joke, although I did get full marks in my homework that night… After both of my visits I went back to my apartment brimming with stories from another world and staggering under a tower of books generously given to me by Prof. Gavrilov.
When my three weeks were up I hopped on the Red Arrow for Moscow. But for that you’ll have to wait for the next post!