Russia on my mind

Ever since I was a little girl I’ve wanted to visit Russia. My father was the culprit for planting the Russian seed in my brain (You can read about it on my sister Reyes’ blog). For those of you who don’t speak Spanish, I’ll sum it up: our father’s fascination with the Romanovs was quite something. Not only did we have many books documenting their fascinating lives, but he also hung some of their photographs on the walls of our house! They seemed like distant relatives: we knew them by their first names, dreamt with attending receptions at the Winter Palace, going on their yacht Standart or spending summers in Tsarskoe Selo with them. It’s no wonder that when I started painting again, the Moscow cityscape was one of my chosen themes:

My Russian books have accompanied me throughout my many moves. Although my collection is not vast by any means, it is very special to me: each book has been carefully chosen to fulfill my curiosity at the time and has a story to tell as to how it ended in my hands.

I bought Bertram D Wolfe’s Three who made a revolution at a second hand bookstore in Oxford years ago. Ever since that day, it has been my main reference book about the origins of the Soviet Union. Mr Wolfe met 2 of the 3 protagonists which, for me, made them more human and real.

When I was flat-hunting in London I remember I had about 30 minutes to kill before an appointment to see a flat in Stoke Newington. I went in to the Waterstones on Islington Green and asked the guy if he had a book on the cultural history of Russia. Within a minute Natasha’s Dance was in my hands and it has become one of my all-time favourite books. It gave me such joy, made me laugh and cry – yes, I cried when I finished reading it. I was overwhelmed. The Whisperers was a Christmas present from my family and I’m currently reading it. It’s interesting to note that it has not yet been published in Russia, and you can read about the reasons here.

Looking at it now, it feels that a wave of Russian culture invaded London during the years I lived there before moving to Toronto. The kick off was Jonathan Dimbleby’s Russia, a documentary done for the BBC which followed Mr Dimbleby as he travelled through Russia, from Murmansk to Vladivostok. Every week my flatmates and I would watch it together in awe. We learnt about the real Siberia, what it really is to travel on the Transiberian, what Russians actually eat, drink, how they celebrate. A few months after the series aired, I found out that Mr Dimbleby was going to be at the Royal Geographical Society talking about the book accompanying the series. I naturally went, bought the book and lined up like a giddy school girl waiting for him to sign it for me. And he did:

One of my most vivid memories from that day is actually the accent of the rest of attendees at the talk: it seemed straight out of the 1950s, incredibly posh and very sweet, like lemonade.

In 2008 the Royal Academy of Arts organised an exhibition called From Russia. It focussed on the collection of European paintings purchased by the Russian impresarios Shchukin and Morozov and how these paintings influenced Russian art. Matisse’s the Dance and Red Room were on display, as well as works by Picasso, van Gogh, Gauguin, Monet, Manet and an impressive list of etceteras. Goncharova (famous for her set designs for the Ballets Russes, which I saw at the V&A exhibit about Diaghilev just before I moved to Canada), Kandinsky, Rodchenko, Levitan are just a small selection of the Russian artists whose works were also featured. Needless to say, I left the exhibition floating…

Books are actually rather pricey in Canada, which makes me nostalgic for the 3 for 2 offers one can find in any bookstore in the UK. And it was through this offer that I ended up buying The Bloody White Baron. Baron Ungern von Sternberg fought with the Whites in the Russian civil war and was the last man to conquer a country (Mongolia) on horseback. He was also a lunatic and his biography is a fascinating account of this little known chapter of history. As to Montefiore’s Stalin, I bought it with a voucher given to me at work and it’s a book I have not read yet. I feel I have to be in the right frame of mind to do so…

These are my two most recent additions to the collection. I bought them at an antique market in Ottawa a few months ago and read Lolita straight away… and was captivated from the opening paragraph: “Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of my tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta.” Amazing, isn’t it? It took me some time to finish Lolita, I wanted to enjoy every word, every sentence, perfectly and so beautifully crafted. I’m usually not a fan of short stories, but with Nabokov it’s different, I enjoy his style more than the stories themselves.

Both Tolstoys were purchased in the 1990s in my home town in Spain after I’d watched Bernard Rose’s adaptation of Anna Karenina. It has the best waltz scene I have ever seen in a film. It’s noteworthy to add that the score was recorded in the St Petersburg Philarmonic Hall under the baton of Sir Georg Solti:

Although I already knew the story and Anna’s tragic end, the book never ceased to surprise me. It is so modern that even today the characters still seem contemporary, and have the same troubles that us 2011 folk do. I have only completed the “peace” part of War and Peace and it read just like a gossip column. In a way I didn’t want to continue reading as the characters I had grown to love have a terrible destiny ahead of them. If I don’t read more, then it’s as if their lives continue unharmed…

But why this sudden urge to talk about Russia you may ask? Well… I saw this fantastic illustration by Patrick Hruby and it all came back to me…

2 thoughts on “Russia on my mind

  1. Extra-ordinary 🙂
    Love your drawing….I was missing some Russian spice in your life…..glad to see it was there all the time.
    Happy Halloween!!!

  2. Oh yes! Russia is soooo interesting! Natasha’s Dance is the best book in the world ever, and Baron Urgen the meanest man ever! I promise I will return Gulag, it is just that I would like to finish it but need the right state of mind to do so… Besos

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