and my story begins in Russia… #2
On the ‘Red Arrow’ — a famous Soviet-period overnight train between St Petersburg and Moscow — I shared a cabin with a kindly man named Igor. His English vocabulary extended to the words ‘dog’ and ‘bed’, which got us only so far. The crowning moment of our communication came when he showed me a photo on his phone of an ‘Angliski dog’, which appeared to be some kind of spaniel. Since he had little patience for my schoolboy Russian we spent a quiet time together. Igor turned out, however, to be an expert in erecting the stowed-away bunks we were to sleep on, and no less adept at hanging trousers on the special trouser hangers. As kilometers of Russian forest sped across the dark window between our bunks, Igor and I were lulled asleep by the gentle chuckle of the rails and dreamt of what might lie in store for us in the capital.
When we pulled into Moscow we smoked on the platform then went our separate ways. I don’t know where Igor was heading, but I took the metro North to Tsvetnoy Bulvar and eventually hauled my heavy bag to the Airbnb room I’d booked for the week.
Three days I spent in the slightly intimidating and enormously confusing Biblioteka Lenina, or Russian State Library. On my first visit I signed up to become a reader, acclimatised myself to the no-frills canteen in the basement, and scoured the electronic catalogue for early Soviet translations of the classics. The following two days I consulted those books in various rooms, becoming increasingly familiar with and increasingly fond of this strange public library, with its gloomy canteen and the Soviet time-warp that is its special collections wing.
One afternoon, as a break from the library, I took a long walk around the All-Russian Exhibition Centre. It’s basically an enormous park with fountains, museums, pavilions, massive bronze statues, a fairground, candy-floss, and a hammer and sickle proudly emblazoned on every surface. But, for me, it was the music (and the gold) that really set it apart. There are lampposts with blaring speakers all over the place, pumping out stirring patriotic music mixed with lesser-known-but-still-somehow-familiar power ballads of yesteryear… I took a few photos and a little audio:
While in Moscow I was determined to meet up with fellow researchers and with the help of Vladimir Fayer — who was unfortunately out of the city when I visited — I managed to do just this. I was lucky enough to meet with classicist and historian Nina Braginskaya (Russian State University for the Humanities) and comparatist and literary scholar Elena Zemskova (Higher School of Economics).
One of the many things I learned from Elena Zemskova was that the majority of reception studies in Russia tend to focus on the Russian reception of western culture. My study was therefore particularly intriguing for her because BNC looks not only at the Russian and British receptions of the ancient Greek and Roman classics, but also at the reception of Soviet classicism in Anglophone literature. She told me that the idea that there might have been a beneficial influence on British culture from the early Soviet Union was at once exciting and troubling. She was, on the one hand, pleased that there might be a positive legacy from Russia’s communist past, but on the other (more personal) hand — having grown up in the oppressive atmosphere of the later Soviet Union — she found it quite difficult to imagine that this was the case.
My discussion with Elena crystallized one difficulty that I will have to deal with carefully in this project, that is that the portrayal of the legacy of communism in a positive light is anathema to many (and for good reason). Elena, however, also reassured me that although she had never before come across anyone peddling such ideas, she was still willing to concede that I might actually be onto something. She even asked me to come back and give a paper in Moscow when I will have gathered more evidence.
The following day I visited Professor Braginskaya, who not only specialises in the history of Russian classical translation but is a classical translator herself. We spoke a good deal about translation in general terms and then more specifically about how the early Soviet period had produced some miraculous and enduring gems of classical translation. She was even kind enough to demonstrate the beauty of the poet Mikhail Kuzmin’s translation of Apuleius (1930) by reading a short extract from it.
The early stages of a research project like this are exciting and daunting in more or less equal measure. Gambolling around in conceptual pastures new is unmixed joy — it is nothing short of a privilege, for example, to be taught a new language, and to be free to explore new ideas from new times. But the staggering numbers of books yet to be read, the oceans of knowledge yet to be soaked in, and the mounting pressure of becoming an expert in a field not yet one’s own, can all gang up and trouble the mind. Luckily (I suppose) this feeling is not unfamiliar. It was like that too with the PhD (right up until the end) and then again in the first post-doc with the at-first paralysingly wide scope of the Classics and Class project.
As a Latinist I, of course, know full well that Rome was not built in a day, and — as a human who has lived a little — I also know that it is important to take things slowly, otherwise pleasures like the acquisition of knowledge can become a chore. But it is not always easy to remember such things when you’re scurrying to complete essays from former projects at the same time as preparing papers for the present one, and then, of course, there’s the small matter of having a life beyond work… This said, I’m uneasy about adopting the role of the ‘put-upon’ academic. All around I see colleagues struggling under scarcely manageable teaching loads, for whom research time would be ambrosia, and numerous bright and talented contemporaries sweating over application after application with zero job security. I at least have a few years safe haven and time to read and write — for which, I ought to say, I’m extremely grateful to the Leverhulme Trust and Open University. Yes, as a former sandwich-maker for the vending machines in the South West Electricity Board headquarters in Sowton, I know on which side my bread is buttered…
>>Coming up on BNC: a new podcast series called ‘Conversations on Communism’ co-produced by Dr Elinor Taylor (Westminster). Over the next few months we have scheduled conversations with Colin Chambers (Kingston), author of The Story of Unity Theatre (1989), Robert Lister (KCL), on the communist Professor of Ancient History Frank Walbank (1909-2008) and Richard Seaford (Exeter) and Ben Harker (Manchester) who are going to discuss another communist Professor of Classics, George D. Thomson (1903-1987).