Return to Absurdistan
After spending four years writing four novels set in England, in Tudor and then increasingly distant medieval times, I’m now half-way through one set in the Russian Revolution.
For someone who read Russian at university, going through all the great works of literature of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and later spent seven years living and working in post-Communist Russia, that feels quite a lot like coming home.
I’ve been recalling long, long, snowy winters, and hot, hot summers, and enormous landscapes, and summer dachas, and sub-tropical seas with swaying palms, and evenings at glittering classical concerts, operas and ballets, and vast stucco palaces, and endless train rides, and snow-capped mountains ringing the horizon, as well as all the ephemera of Russia that even saying the word brings to mind: samovars and gherkins and icicles and the (imagined?) howling of wolves, somewhere far away in the woods.
Writing my book, and revisiting some of the classics of Russian literature, have also brought a flood of memories of my old Russian friends and acquaintances. I’d half forgotten, until I got going on this book, how extraordinarily, well, extreme, not just things, but also people, Russian can be. On the plus side, artists, actors, and musicians in Russia often seem more flamboyantly artistic than the kind you get elsewhere; friends and family more charmingly hospitable; country folk more innocently rustic (delightfully they call ladybirds “God’s little cow-lets,” and the bright yellow buttercups that grow in every field, “chicken blindness”). On the minus side, bureaucracy can be more creaking, or downright hostile, bloated capitalists greedier, politicians, sometimes, more eye-poppingly corrupt, and police, secret or otherwise, more threatening than you, as a Westerner, can ever quite get your head round.
You can see the extremes in the simplest human interchange. When you ask a Russian friend, with a cold, how s/he’s feeling, will anyone over there ever answer, with English-style self-deprecation, “oh, not too bad, can’t complain, mustn’t grumble?” Unlikely, I’d say. They’re much likelier to strike a melodramatic pose and intone, lugubriously, “Akkkhhh! I am DYING.”
On a more abstract level, Russian moral analysis centres on what Russians call the “damnable questions” for oneself – the how-should-one-live? how-to-be-good? kind. Russian political analysis is, correspondingly, based on equally damnable questions asked of others, and designed to show up the innate badness presumed to lurk in every political leader’s soul: “who is to blame?” and “who stands to gain?”
Friendships are intense. Suspicions of enemies, or unknown quantities, are also intense. Russians, more often than English speakers, divide people into “nashi” – “our lot” – vs “chuzhiye” – “the others.” The Others are always bad guys. It’s not just paranoia to think that, either. There’s every chance that a leader who isn’t on your side really will do you harm. Political concepts not much needed outside Russia include words for “limitless abuse of power” – bezpredel – and “simultaneous rule by two rival sets of authorities each wanting to rip out the other’s throat” – or dvoyevlastiye.
There are no half measures. As an outsider, you love it in Russia, or you hate it. Often both, several times a day. This sometimes feels a schizophrenic kind of existence. But one thing’s for sure. You’re never, ever bored.
It’s only by trying to keep these bipolarity of Russia in my head that I’ve been able to make any sense of the historical material I’ve been reading about Russia on the brink of revolution in 1917. Because everything about the way of life that I thought seemed extreme in my post-1991 time in post-Soviet Russia seems even more so pre-1917. A city intellectual elite so convinced that the end of the world was nigh that they spent their times writing mystical literature, packed with devils and kabbalistic esoterica, and table-tapping at seances. Political magazines whose covers all too often ran pictures of demonic toads and vampires – grinning and winking evilly – ravishing semi-pornographic buxom ladies, representing poor, abused, Mother Russia. An entrepreneurial elite of nouveaux-riches spending vast fortunes at the casino or Faberge or on the gipsy taverns and whorehouses, on one last, vast binge before the coming apocalypse. A capital swollen to six times its usual size with angry, hungry refugees and homeless people. A peasant mystic, Rasputin, in cahoots with the hysterical, humourless German Tsarina, effectively running the country while the Tsar was away at the front, failing to beat the German and Austrian armies of the First World War. Anti-Semites determined to blame the Jews for all everyone’s woes; most of the court and city elite ready to believe the Tsarina was secretly informing the Germans of Russia’s military plans, so Russia – and her own husband and haemophiliac son – would be defeated. Most of the rest of the country tutting over rumours that Rasputin was the Tsarina’s lover, and that the Tsarina was also the lesbian lover of her lady-in-waiting, Anna Vryubova, and that Rasputin was also sleeping with almost every woman (and man) in St Petersburg. The Imperial Family falling apart in a way that made our Queen’s annus horribilis with her relatively level-headed British relatives look like a nice quiet walk in the park. Rampant corruption and government inefficiency, everywhere. Everyone whispering, and plotting, and certain that their enemies were coming to get them. And no limits at all to what each interest group or social class believed all the other groups might be about to do to get them. And – given that extremeness we were talking about – every chance their darkest imaginings might actually be right.
I could go on, but I think that’s enough to show that the problem with writing this book has never been a shortage of exciting/scary/eye-popping material. It’s been more a question of simplifying it – calming it down for a reader with an Anglo-Saxon mindset, who’s unlikely to believe that six apparently impossible things can happen before breakfast, every day.
Still, how I’m enjoying remembering the way things were, both in the Russia I knew and the one my characters inhabit. And how I’m appreciating the name my Russian friends so often gave their country, “Absurdistan.”