Compassion is a novel about the Russian intelligentsia during the Stalin Terror. Nearly all the characters were inspired by real people. Some, like Mayakovsky and Voloshin, appear as themselves in walk-on parts, but others, like Boris Pasternak and Nikolai Punin, have been disguised with new names. Fact and fiction are blurred, the better to bring out essential truths.
Visiting Moscow in May 2010, to see where my characters had lived and worked in the Thirties, I take along a friend who has never been to Russia before, does not speak Russian, and needs to see the sights. For the convenience of all, we stay at the centrally-located Hotel Budapest. From there I can wander round town on my literary pilgrimages, and Vivien can get to the major sites without taking the metro. The Moscow metro is fast and reliable and famously aesthetic, with statues and friezes and chandeliers and mosaics, but it’s totally non-navigable if you don’t read Cyrillic.
The Budapest doesn’t seem to have changed much since the Soviet era: musty carpeting, airless corridors, suspicious staff. Still, the plumbing has been upgraded since Soviet days, and the breakfast buffet is sufficiently copious to provide us with picnic lunches.
I haven’t been to Moscow since 1990, when the Soviet Union was starting to fall apart. Twenty years later, things have changed. Everywhere you look, there’s a glittering new church with a gold dome and pristine paint: yellow, green, pink, ochre, red. The old grey, gloomy city is being transformed. Some of the churches were used for other functions in the Soviet period and have simply been renovated, but others, razed by Stalin, have been rebuilt, the most notable being the flashy white Christ the Saviour Cathedral which now dominates the skyline.
Alongside the Orthodox time machine, we’re enthralled to discover a new, hygienic westernized Russia of modern conveniences. For every bright new church, there is a Kofe Khauz selling kapuchino and chizkeik, or a Starbucks, or a Kofe Mania. Teenagers pore over pages of plastic menus, young professionals opt for a biznes lanch, tourists revive over coffee and clean toilets. A cleaner in the metro sports a bright yellow overall that says Klining in Cyrillic characters. Waitresses wear red T-shirts, delivery guys wear yellow DHL shirts, security guys wear dark suits and earpieces.
Moscow makes an effort to be well turned out, even if it’s not always clear what look is being attempted. After seventy years of missed fashions, it’s a grab bag. The skinny girls who stalk past the Armani and Prada stores in central Moscow wear short skirts with clingy tops and lace boots with torn jeans – Western clothes that for some reason do not produce a Western effect. Is it the way they put it together? Is it the way they walk? Some people are stuck in the broad shoulders and droopy skirts of the 1980s. Others go for Soviet holdovers: contrasting panels and sleeves, or skirts with unfortunate knee frills. On Red Square, there’s a Gay Pride parade: pink T-shirts, yellow balloons, and a lot of police cars. Despite dire warnings in The Moscow Times, it all goes off calmly.
Pasternak’s dacha is in a village called Peredelkino. (Pasternak is called “Yuri Kastalnik” in my book.) I scheduled our visit on Sunday May 30th simply because it fitted in with museum opening days — but by an incredible stroke of luck it turns out to be the fiftieth anniversary of Pasternak’s death. On the suburban train from the Kiev station, we have the good fortune to fall in with Elena, who takes us in hand. Elena lives in New Jersey, and knows Yevgeny, Pasternak’s son. She says there is to be a ceremony at the cemetery, and another at the house. She’s worried about being late for the cemetery, so she steers us into a taxi when we get off the train. The driver is young and seems never to have heard of Pasternak, but it’s not very far to the cemetery and we get there with only one illegal U-turn. Unfortunately the cemetery sprawls in all directions, and Elena can’t remember where the grave is. We slip and slither through the mud (it rained last night) and finally find the grave. There are a dozen people there. One is Yevgeny, who at 87 looks exactly like his father.
The group takes it in turns to recite from Pasternak’s poems. They speak well, they are entirely unselfconscious, and they mostly recite from memory. When someone stumbles over a line, the rest chip in to supply the missing words. The atmosphere is fervent. It’s very moving. More and more people arrive. Flowers are laid on the grave. In due course, everyone adjourns to the dacha, further down the road. Elena leaves in a car with the family, and we set out on foot, but after a few hundred yards a car stops beside us and one of the ladies who was at the graveside drives us the rest of the way.
Pasternak’s dacha is an odd oval shape in dark-red wood, surrounded by trees. It’s vaguely evocative of a ship at sea. In Compassion it serves as the setting where my two main characters, Andrei and Nina, are reunited after twenty years apart. Elena has disappeared, so we join an impromptu guided tour. A helpful young man who has lived in England and the States provides a competent English translation. We are the only foreigners there. We see the table where Pasternak wrote Dr. Zhivago, the bed where he took his nap, the dining table where he celebrated the news of his Nobel Prize, the room where he died, the trees he never saw because they were only planted at the end of his life.
And then the priest arrives. We’re bundled into the dining room with everyone else and issued with candles. The priest recites a prayer for the soul of the departed. Chants are provided by a small group of singers. Everyone bows and crosses themselves in the appropriate places. We don’t understand much of what is being said, but it’s all so intense and fervent that it doesn’t matter. After the prayer, we all move outside for a concert. Benches have been placed under the trees for the spectators, who are still appearing in a constant stream. A trio plays Tchaikovsky, a choir of young girls sing, someone reminisces about Boris Leonidovich.
While Vivien attacks the Kremlin next day, I pursue my investigations into literary Moscow. Results are mixed. On Nastasinsky Lane, where the Poet’s Café used to be in the 1920s, there is now a chain restaurant called Dzhon Dhzoly, a Jaguar dealership, and a Subway. Patriarch’s Ponds has been yuppified since Bulgakov’s time: the tram has gone, and there is no sign of the devil. I walk past Beria’s old mansion, which is now the Tunisian Embassy. Skeletons left over from the secret police chief’s orgies were dug up in the garden in 1993. The Writers’ Union, where Mandelshtam and his wife used to go to beg for help, still sprawls luxuriously around a horseshoe-shaped courtyard.
But in the house where the poet Marina Tsvetaeva used to live on Borisoglebsky, the atmosphere is as fond and familiar as at Pasternak’s dacha the previous day. I am the only visitor, and the guide is happy to show me round and answer questions, referring affectionately to Marina and Sergei (Sergei Efron was Tsvetaeva’s husband, and his family provided documents for the museum) as if they were dear friends who had just stepped out. It’s a different world from the commercial glitz, and it clearly has stronger values and deeper roots. It’s a world whose inhabitants know who they are and where they’ve come from. Tsvetaeva doesn’t appear in Compassion, but I borrowed her house for “Kastalnik.”
Osip Mandelshtam, who is the model for “Ilya” in my book, has no house-museum. Unlike the other poets, there isn’t even a plaque on the places where he lived. Admittedly, there were a lot of them. Mandelshtam defied Stalin openly, and refused all compromises with the regime. Too well-known to be killed outright, he was hounded from pillar to post before being shipped off to the camps. He was an outcast during his life, and remains uncommemorated after his death – presumably because there is no family, no money, and no one bringing pressure to bear. On our last day we stop in Zamoskvoreche, across the river from the Kremlin, where he lived for a while. It’s a peaceful little neighbourhood that must have suited him well.
Back in Red Square, we take a look at GUM, the former State Universal Store, merchandise now supplied by Dior and MaxMara, and then splash out on an apéritif in the landmark Hotel Metropol. The bar is a haven of magnificent gloom where multingual businessmen huddle round their laptops in fake leather chairs. Outside, the air is full of puff balls from some mysterious plant.
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