Sunday, 27 August 2017

SELECTIVE MEMORY in Moscow.

I returned from a trip to Moscow last week buoyed up, but disturbed. Moscow itself is quite disturbed - it’s August after all. The streets are all churned up - everywhere fountains are being dug, pavements laid, trees planted and flowerbeds sunk. It is one of the biggest overhauls of a capital city in history. While lots of the city looks wonderful, to a large extent, as I wrote in a previous blog, it has lost its many layers, variety and texture that made it more human. ‘Castrated’ is how one friend described it on my recent visit. 

The ubiquitous green and white stripes as repairs continue
Tverskaya St - lots of Moscow is looking magnificent


You could use the same word for the Russian cultural scene: theatre director Kiril Serebryannikov has just been put under house arrest apparently for the embezzlement of funds that many say he was clearly using for a theatrical production. It is another matter that not everyone likes his theatre. The arrest and sentence are a continuation of the deep prudish moral defensiveness that triggered the court case against Careful, Religion! the exhibition at the Sakharov Centre in 2003 that was instigated and driven apparently by hardline devout Russian Orthodox fanatics. Today, many of their ideas are mainstream and this prudery and dogma seems to be active in all spheres. It manifests itself in a curating of both the present – Russia’s projected image: strong, military, clean-lined, undefeatable, and also of the past: a selective approach to memory and history.  The past is not there to be freely explored. In the meantime, architectural heritage and monuments are being requisitioned to serve a particular narrative of victory and strength. 


On my visit, after a year away, I saw old friends and new. Through conversations I noticed that everyone is remembering, or forgetting, in their own way, myself included. 

I visit a friend, the daughter of a former Soviet deputy minister. When she talks about Moscow - all the street names are the Soviet ones - waves of communist associations come to me as she talks about Herzen Street, Gorky Street, and so on. She pounces on me when I tell her about planned events in London for the autumn and the commemorating of the centenary of the 1917 revolution. I tell her about a planned pavilion dedicated to the poets who were persecuted and placed under internal exile in the Soviet Union. To which she says that I have positioned myself with the equivalent of Soviet dissidents and that everyone is taking up their old positions, under different names. ‘So predictable Klemusya,’ she says, ‘ to concentrate on the negative.’ 

I see a friend who I used to campaign for buildings with, and he says something similar. He says he is being a devil’s advocate, but that it could be seen as a cliché to commemorate repressed poets as part of the marking of the centenary, and playing into old roles. I challenge this, but realise that my attempts at having a non-political position is naive - it doesn't seem to be acceptable in today's climate in Moscow, especially if you are engaged in any way with public life. Which is perhaps why people are retreating. Such as this same friend, who says he no longer campaigns for buildings –that after August 2014 (the annexation of Crimea), it seems hollow to campaign for some old barn or other. And, he says, when politicians don’t want to talk about difficult things, they now talk about architectural heritage and wheel people like him out. He says he doesn’t want to be used in this way anymore, and so he has taken a step back. I get it. I would do the same.

Architectural campaigning has indeed been politicised in Russia. I am aghast and horrified to see beautifully designed posters featuring architectural monuments I campaigned for for many years, mostly against the state! I read these words:
‘Moscow - the city, where history is created.’ Next to a photograph of the Shabolovka radio tower that the state was trying to ‘dismantle’ and erect elsewhere for several years. Now it is on a poster in the metro with the following written over it: An Engineering Project Known by the Whole World. Yes, but only thanks to an impressive campaign run by the Avant Garde Centre and the Constructivist Project, in which they shamed the Russian state into leaving it be.


On another poster is the Melnikov House, seized, by force, by the Moscow Architectural Museum in the same month that the Crimea was annexed. It was a cultural annexation that split the architectural community of Moscow, half of which no longer has anything to do with the Architecture Museum, home to the main architectural archive and memory of the country. It was created in the 1930s by architect Alexei Shchusev with the aim of being a repository of discarded architectural detail and of archives from architects and restorers. In other words, a collective memory – now cut off from half of its own community.

The narrative of the Melnikov house has now been taken over by the state and it has its own story about how it came to be in its ownership. That is the shift we are observing – the selective surgical treatment of the truth.

The safest historical territory is the second world war and everything military: the war, because the Soviet Union was the victor (along with the other allies) and the military because it reflects the defensive and bullish mood of the country. The main thing – don’t let any uncomfortable feelings in – crush them, and talk about victory – victory in any field – war or architecture.

The new St Vladimir next to the Kremlin - taller than the Kremlin towers.

Not everyone is of this point of view: on my last night I ran into two friends who had recently come back from the annual gathering at the mass grave in Solovki. One remarked ‘it wasn’t a big gathering. You’re there and you’re thinking ‘this is so important, so huge, so dark, this needs to be remembered.’ But its very hugeness is overwhelming and stops you coming back. You’re caught in a kind of vicious circle.” So how to remember? How to train oneself to remember without pain or to bear the pain? Is it less painful to not remember? 

And I am working with an artist who is openly nostalgic for the Soviet Union, or perhaps it would be more accurate to say  - he is nostalgic for his childhood that happened to take place in the Soviet Union. I bring him Yorkshire Tea from Britain, because it is the closest thing he has found to the very strong Assam tea that was sold in soviet times. For him the textures, sounds and smells of his childhood are important and a lot of his art is about creating something from these memories. This seems to me an important counterbalance to the prevailing tendency towards selective memory, which is determinedly  biased against anything that may appear inadequate, poor or uncomfortable. He is not trying to recreate anything, and is clearly moved by an inner freedom that is beyond politics. 



Sunday, 23 April 2017

Moving out from the Maestro: stepping into Moscow life.

When I returned from the UK after Christmas, I moved out of the theatre into a Stalinist era arch in Sokolniki. 

It was a 2-bedroom flat with gold-threaded red 1950s wallpaper and a bathroom with a window; it was full of light, and it was all mine - I was euphoric. I enjoyed the walk from the metro: past a Holiday Inn that was in construction for about 10 years, reflecting the judderings of the young economy. Then past a hatch in the wall where you could trade in empty beer bottles, outside which there was always a row of drunks, and finally past an elaborate pen for carrier pigeons. I could see 'my' arch ahead of me as I approached it from far off. I would admire it and work out which my windows were. 

There was a doorbell that you turned and it made a tinny sound - the landlady said that her father had made it - he was an engineer and had helped build the Moscow Metro. There was a hall, two bedrooms and a small kitchen that had undergone 'evro-remont'. There, the wallpaper was pale and waxy, in contrast to the matt, boldly coloured wallpaper everywhere else. 

Despite the evro-remont, the fridge had special needs; the first thing the landlady did was show me how to mend it if it broke: I was to lie it on its side and then the other side, so the refrigerator fluid could flow through it. Or I could call her husband. I generally chose this option and he would come around with a friend and perform the fridge ritual over a beer.  

I was much happier in my new flat, despite continuing anti-social hours at the theatre. When the Maestro was away, I had people over. If there were a lot of us we would sit on the floor and eat off the parquet. Often friends from the theatre would come over. We would spend hours dissecting the character of the Maestro over bottles of wine and vodka, and then obediently go back to work in the morning. 

Nevertheless, the distance provided some respite from the goldfish bowl of the theatre. I had developed a crush on the lighting engineer. It was mutual. He was a fair bit older than me; I didn’t realise at the time that I had a crush on him, only afterwards, when he was killed in an accident. Both of our loved ones were far away and we were turning to each other for company. One night we both stayed at a friend of his’s flat in VDNKh, opposite the entrance to the park. I think it was a set up as we shared a room. I went to sleep innocently in my separate bed. 

The artistic director of the theatre was far more direct. I hadn’t realised that an invitation to his studio in Baumanskaya was an invitation to go to bed with him. He was old, grizzled, overweight, and roguish. He had bought a pomegranate ‘a fruit of passion’ he said, looking at me meaningfully. Then he produced an antique double-bladed knife with serrations like gentle waves. He said that it was especially sharp because if one blade was blunt the other was sharp. It was made in Sheffield and had a handle of bent silver. It was a beautiful object, and he kept it in his hand as he pursued me around the studio. I felt awkward as we didn’t have much to talk about, and sex was clearly all he was interested in. He had a last go in the lift when we were all wrapped up in our winter clothes and I think I let him kiss me a bit as I knew the lift journey would only last a few seconds. 

Despite the great notoriety of the Maestro and elevated reputation of the theatre, they weren’t putting on any plays. The theatre was a fortress hard to conquer: fashionable Moscow girls would come every day for weeks on end trying to get an audience - and never get one. I would wonder how I got an audience so easily. It had seemed to be sheer fluke, or was it because I was foreign? He modelled himself on Jerry Grotowski and his theatre laboratory in Poland. What interested the Maestro was the process, rather than the outcome. This meant that his plays were often in rehearsal for several years and sometimes never made it to the stage. I understood this in principle, but to me, the actors seemed unhappy - particularly those who hadn’t been on a stage in several years. They drifted around the corridors of the theatre like spectres. Were they trapped here by invisible economic ties, or was it a free choice? Had the Maestro had enough of them but didn't have the guts to tell them? It depressed me.

The manager of the theatre was a tortured businessman called Boris Lvovich who wore a cheap suit and carried a cheap briefcase. The Maestro, I thought, loved pretending not to understand when Boris Lvovich urged him to put on a play. ‘They are going to pull all funding if you don’t,’ he would say, ‘we have no money coming in. Don’t you understand, theatres have to put on plays.’ The Maestro would study his hands and arch his eyebrows and sigh and say, ‘Boris Lvovich do not torture me.’

Boris Lvovich would sit next door, where the administration was, and be clucked over by the large ladies who did the book-keeping. One day a play did open - Mozart and Salieri. I watched it several times. The great thing was that the actors emphasised prepositions rather than important words. It was a way to try and reanimate Pushkin - to get people to listen to him anew. The production, and actors, looked beautiful and had great presence, but it did not move me.

A lot of my working days were taken up with gossip with the other secretaries about the theatre - who was having an affair with who, and how to leave. The actors didn’t want to leave, but everyone else did. It was partly the wages, and partly the atmosphere. Lena, the elfin lady thanks to whom I’d been employed, and who’d been at the theatre for 7 years, arranged to leave 3 months after I arrived when she felt fairly confident that I could do the job. 

I wasn’t good at my job - it was liaising with theatres in Norway about a tour. I cannot recall doing very much and I was too exhausted and too in awe of the Maestro to show any initiative.

It was 1998, Moscow was awash with guns and money, and on the edge of economic collapse that would determine the political direction for years to come. I was oblivious to this - but when I went to the banya with western friends, most of whom were journalists - I could recite long excerpts of Plato’s dialogues in Russian, tell them what the Maestro had had for lunch, which chair he preferred sitting on currently, and various other titbits of gossip from across the theatre world. 

Life in Moscow was brutal. One of the best and most handsome actors was killed by blow to the temple in a chance fight just outside the theatre. It was a terrible tragedy. Then the martial arts teacher, an extremely handsome and graceful man who used to come and chat to us in his beautiful white clothes, was killed in a car crash. Loss after loss. 

In June, my boyfriend came to stay. I developed a huge boil, from exhaustion and bad eating habits, and lay in bed eating iron filings that he bought in the downstairs chemist, to try and cure it, while he bravely went sight-seeing alone. I resented the Maestro for my ill health.

I decided to leave 2 months early. Boris Lvovich was furious, but I was too tired to care. The night before I left my friend Yan took me for a walk to explore my neighbourhood for the first time. We walked behind the Stalinist arch where I lived and saw that it was less elegant than the front - a mass of balconies, hung with washing and TV aerials. Nearby he showed me the street Matrosskaya Tishina: the Sailor’s Silence. This was a notorious street - home to Butyrka prison, a TB hospital and a mental asylum. 

Yan took me by the elbow as I sobbed ‘I’m never coming to Russia again - it’s all fake! The arch is fake, the theatre is fake!’ Yan steered me to the post office to pay my outstanding phone bills to my boyfriend in the UK. Then he drove me to the airport. A month later came the crash: Russia defaulted on its foreign debt and the rouble plummeted. 

The other secretary was married shortly after I left in the summer, to someone in a rival theatre, and went to work there. I heard that Boris Lvovich went to live in a monastery - the stress of managing a theatre that never put on plays was too much for him. Apparently he lived there for 2 years during which time he mostly fished. This was, however, after he had cleverly secured financing for a brand new theatre to be built for the Maestro, on Sretenka Street, despite the collapse of the economy.

A few years later, I went to see a production at the new theatre. I wandered into the director’s office, curious to get a glimpse of the Maestro. He was pacing around reading something. He looked at me with no recognition in his eyes. 






Sunday, 16 April 2017

Communal living in a Moscow theatre. 1997.

Working for the Maestro. Part II.

On my return to Moscow in September 1997, to commence work in the theatre, I was given a room in a communal flat on the first floor of the building. I was sharing with some of the actors, who were some of the best stage actors in the country, as well as stage hands. It was an early 20th century art nouveau building, with spacious, light-filled apartments. For purposes of housing they had been divided up into kommunalki. Each person or family unit had one large room, and they were large: mine, which faced the street with a triple bay window, was probably 60 square metres. There was a bed in it, and a dressing table and some other furniture. It was impossible to make it cosy, whatever configuration I attempted, so I gave up, and lived in a jumble of furniture. The large window was the best thing about the room - In the mornings would lie in bed and watch the winter light glowing through it, feeling ghastly and wondering if I could muster the energy to get up. I used the gap between the panes of the double glazed windows as a fridge: everything froze - milk, apples, cheese.

Next to me was the shower - a terrifying room - half of its tiles smashed and a shower head that refused to remain fixed to the wall. Having a shower was like a Buster Keaton routine, so I gave up after a while and washed at the bathhouse or at friends’ houses. 

There was a telephone in the kitchen, an old fashioned red bakelite one - a line to the outside world. I remember a horrible conversation I had on it. One of the other secretaries was determined to drown a litter of kittens it and called me to get Dutch courage. She was upstairs with them in another flat that belonged to the theatre, leaning over a toilet with the kittens, small white ginger and mewing. I was utterly horrified, as, I think, was she. I showed much more determination in stopping the drowning than I was showing in my work coordinating international tours.

The corridor of the apartment was wide and parqueted, tho long since unpolished. I often came in late at night, and occasionally was unable to open the front door (handling Russian locks is a specific skill). On those occasions I would have to ring the doorbell and wake somebody up. Once one of the actresses came to the door in her nightgown. She opened the door and I walked in - I turned round to see her doing a grotesque impression of me clumping up the corridor in my heavy winter boots. I was mortified. She was normally so sweet natured. She made up for it by giving me a cactus for christmas and letting me use the phone in her lovely light-filled room, to take calls from my boyfriend in England. 

Unlike us secretaries, the Maestro ate well, meals prepared by a chef that I would go and fetch for him from a kitchen on the 2nd floor. These were rice, or brown noodles, with pickles, tofu, vegetables and seaweed. The rule for us, was that we had to be in the theatre while the Maestro was. He would arrive at about midday and leave at about midnight, and those were our hours. Occasionally I would escape for an hour to a stolovaya (buffet) on the Novy Arbat - this was 1998 - there weren’t many places to eat. 

On the third floor there was a photographer’s studio. The photographer took a shine to me and took a series of pictures of me posing around the theatre in a blue fur hat and a white polo neck, eating a shiny green apple. I used to sit with him in his dark room, until I found some pornographic negatives underneath ones of a theatrical production. 'I have to earn some money,' he said to me apologetically. I avoided the room after that. 

As I had boldly said to the Maestro during our first interview that I wanted to be a theatre director, he permitted me to take part in a 2 week course with a dozen other students, from all over Russia.

In our group I remember only Elena - a kind, open-faced girl from Khabarovsk, and Nikita, a boy of my age with glossy brown hair and a moustache who had jerky movements and slightly wet, shiny red lips. He was possibly a little mad. There were lots of others but they all refused to act with me as my Russian was broken.  

Our training consisted of the following: for two weeks we had to act out the same scene from The Meno by Plato - in which a slave explains to his master what a diagonal is, through a series of questions that prompt him. Plato, through Meno, is demonstrating that the soul is immortal and contains all knowledge, because even a slave can explain the complicated and unknowable fact of the existence of the diagonal. This is done through a series of lines that the slave marks out on the floor. So, the training was not just about making good theatre, it was also meant to imbue us with some spiritual conditioning. 

We were asked to conceive of three different ways to play this, every day, for 14 days. Nobody would act with me apart from Nikita and Elena, because of my poor Russian. Nikita would come to my room in the evening and look at me eagerly and prance around with a new idea of how to do it , and we’d rehearse. Other evenings Elena would come and we’d chain smoke and talk about boys and cry. The Maestro had called Elena’s accent ‘provincial’ sending her into a tailspin from the first day. She told me all sorts of exciting secrets about her life which I didn’t remember for very long but I enjoyed hearing them.

One day Nikita dragged me across the studio by my hair. The Maestro made an extremely rare interjection on my behalf and proclaimed: ‘you mustn’t drag girls by their hair.’ It shamed Nikita and gave me a glow of warmth. I had let him do it as I was utterly confused and beaten down by his cheerful coldness, and by this time I was so thoroughly exhausted, I had lost my grip on what was acceptable and what wasn't. It was one of only two directions I ever heard the Maestro give.

At the end of the two weeks the Maestro called us into a room and talked to us for 2 hours about our work. He said we were a particularly poor group and that only twice during the two weeks had he seen sketches that had worked and conveyed the great and momentous meaning invested in the dialogue. He spoke in long, convoluted sentences. Even though I concentrated with all my might, I found him almost impossible to understand. Finally the Maestro lifted his tired, hooded eyes and looked at us piercingly saying, with a sigh, ‘in the end, the acting has to be alive.’ I wondered why he didn’t just say that at the beginning and spare us the endless talking.


I went home for Christmas. On Christmas eve I fell into a deep and troubles sleep. I awoke imagining the Maestro walking out of my room: I could see his dark silhouette - the hunched shoulders, covered with a silk scarf, his large soft nose, his stooped gait. I was aware of him sitting heavy on my soul. I decided that on my return to Moscow I would move out of the theatre. 

Monday, 13 February 2017

Meeting the Maestro, Moscow summer 1997

It was late July 1997. I had just got back to Moscow for 3 months in Kolyma, NE Siberia - the wind of the taiga and a few cranberries were still clinging to my hair. My accent had slipped into a strange provincial twang and I’d take on some slang that made my Muscovite friends go into paroxysms of laughter. I had grown plump from too much bread and moose meat and sitting around dark Siberian village kitchens, escaping mosquitoes.

In such a state I ventured into the refined cultural sanctuary of one of Moscow’s most experimental theatres. 

I had been directed here by a Russian playwright who I had met in Glasgow earlier that year. I served as his interpreter for a couple of days while he was in Glasgow, where I was at university. We paced the streets - I showed him the Art School, the parks, the Art Galleries, the concert halls. He told me about his teacher - a famous Moscow theatre Maestro. He asked me what I wanted to do - I didn’t have a clue what I wanted to do, so I said ‘theatre’. He said ‘if you are in Moscow go to the Maestro’s theatre and ask to see him. Tell him that I sent you and ask for a job.’

So there I was sitting on a high backed sofa in a waiting room full of secretaries. ‘Is he expecting you?’ one asked. ‘No’. ‘Well you are very lucky because he happens to be here. Maybe he will see you after his meeting.’ I heard raised voices coming from a door in the corner. Beyond the glass wall beside me I saw what I presumed were actors, walking past in deep conversation. Every now and then one would open the door, say something to one of the secretaries, usually with a nod, grimace or wink towards the closed door in the corner. 

The lady opposite me punctured her work with sighs - her getting up - her answering the phone - her saying something to one of the other ladies. The sigh would sometimes be followed by a peal of laughter. At this point I didn’t know that most people who worked backstage, were looking for a way out. 

After half an hour the door in the corner opened - a dark haired lady with dark lipstick swept through the office and out of the glass door, an aura of stale cigarette smoke clinging to her. She was followed by a tall man with long hair, a long beard and a stooping gait. Around his neck was silk scarf and he wore a peasant tunic, å la Tolstoy. He slowly approached me, came to a stop, and fixed me with hooded eyes. 

‘Has she come to see me?’ he asked the room, looking all the while at me. ‘Yes, she is a friend of one of yours.’ ‘One of mine…? Who sent you?’ ‘Um, Alexei… He said that if I was in Moscow I should come and see you. I’m looking for work’ ‘Alyosha! So, you want a job do you? Come into my kabinet, let’s talk.’

Heart beating, I followed him into his study. We sat on opposite sides of a small round table. ‘Why are you in Moscow?’ ‘I just got back from Siberia.’ ‘That is not an answer, why are you in Moscow?’ ‘I’m studying Russian at university. I want to work in theatre, I’m coming back in 2 months, perhaps you have work for me here.’ ‘What kind of work? What do you want to be?’ ‘Um, I um, want to be a… theatre director!’ I said looking at him hopefully.

The maestro leant forward and looked deep into my eyes. We sat in silence - was this a staring competition? Then he proclaimed: ‘ты очень легкомысленная девушка*. I thought for a minute - it was not a word I had had reason to translate often in Siberia - and after a pause exclaimed, ‘no, no I am not a frivolous-minded girl! I am very serious. Very.’ 

At this point there was no obvious way for the conversation to go. The maestro called towards the closed door: ‘Lena, Lenockha! Come here!’ A small elf like lady opened the door. She was one of the secretaries. The Maestro said to her: ‘Lena, this english girl wants to come and work here. Perhaps she could help you?’ Lena looked over at me, her eyes alight. 

Lena was in charge of international affairs at the theatre. Having tested my Russian she said that if I was interested I could come and work for her as an assistant. They wouldn’t be able to pay me much but if I wanted I could live in the communal flat above the theatre.

The maestro was the enfant terrible of the Moscow theatre scene at this time, and is again today - he has recently been invited to return to Moscow after a period of voluntary exile in France. He is originally from Rostov-on-Don, before coming to Moscow to study at GITIS where he met the theatre designer with whom he subsequently collaborated and who had designed the interior of this theatre. It was nothing like a normal theatre space. Firstly, there was lots of natural light. It was a double-height basement with shining parquet floors and white walls. There was classical detailing and partitions pierced with openings to watch performances. It was a cross between a Greek temple and the Great Hall of an English country house.

Before I went back to England, there was a dinner in the theatre. I was introduced as the maestro's new follower - my foreignness giving me extra gloss. Over dinner one of the actresses asked me about my plans. 'Oh, well, I'd like to work here for the year and then perhaps go and work in another theatre, to get a sense of how it all works,’ I said blithely. There was a stunned silence. Afterwards I learnt that this was a major faux pas. The very idea that I was considering life beyond the maestro or would be interested in other theatres was an insult to him. On learning this, I shook my head in dismay, doubting I would ever get the hang of the level of servitude that was expected. 
Nevertheless, one day in August, an offer of a job came juddering through the fax machine, on fine, shiny paper and signed by Lena, the Head of International Affairs at the theatre, underneath an elegant asymmetrical neoclassical wreath around which was emblazoned the name of the theatre. I was to be Assistant to the Head of International Affairs. The letter outlined that I would be provided with a room in the theatre. I sent it to my university as proof that I was working and that I didn’t need to study with the other students, which I was determined not to do. I wanted adventure, separate from the confines of any familiar institution. Little did I know I was walking into deep confinement at the theatre.

*'You are a very frivolous minded girl.'