This week was in a sense a celebration of some of the great Russian women in my life.
On Wednesday I met up with Masha to visit the Anna Akhmatova House Museum. Anna Akhmatova was a Russian poet in the 20th century and is best known for her cycles about the repression and horrors of the Stalinist era. After studying ‘Requiem’, a cycle recording the suffering in Stalinist Russia, I have had a great admiration for her works and life. When I moved to my current apartment I soon realised I was but five minutes walk away from where she lived for a period of almost 30 years! The apartment where she lived initially with her third husband, and continued to live in after their split, is the main site of the museum. The decor of the era has been preserved and the rooms are filled with photos of Akhmatova as well as drafts of her work. Despite being a relatively small museum, it was a very inspiring place and a great monument to her enduring influence on Russian culture despite the dark conditions she faced. Her works were labelled as ‘counter’ to the state culture, and at times it was too risky to permanently record her works – instead, as other writers of the time were also forced to do, she would invite friends to her home, write her works on scraps of paper and then after reading the papers would be thrown into the fire. The conservation of her works carries great significance in cultural and historical circles.
“In those dreadful years of the Yezhov terror I spent seventeen months in Leningrad’s prison queues. On one occasion someone “recognised” me. A woman standing behind me, who of course had never heard of me, awoke from the stupor we all shared and murmured in my ear (for we all spoke in whispers there):
“So can you describe this?”
And I said:
And as I answered, something resembling a smile slipped briefly across what had once been her face.”
– ‘In Place of a Preface’ from Requiem
After the museum visit, I was glad to have something more upbeat for my evening. My friend Nelliya had passed her final exams with the highest grade and so we went out to celebrate at a nearby bar! I won’t include every bar visit, but I felt this anecdote fitted the week’s ‘theme’ and also the bar itself was rather trendy.
Return to Novgorod
Having riskily left my weekend open to last-minute plans (as Russians tend to prefer), I was very pleased to get a message from Nastya (for more info, see my last blog post, but in short she was my school exchange-student partner). She let me know that her parents were in St. Petersburg and would be driving her back to Velikii Novgorod for the weekend, and that if I wanted to join I was welcome. Having seen very little of Novgorod when I was there for my brief two-day visit (in sum: the school, their house and two hospitals), I was thrilled to take up the offer.
Meeting them at a station, I hopped into their car and we began the three hour drive to Novgorod. Her Dad, Sergei, employed classic Russian driving techniques and wouldn’t let falling snow drifts that covered the entire windscreen stop him from belting along the highway. Thankfully when we reached Novgorod the weather had cleared up and there was a beautiful sunset. Returning to their family home in proper health made me appreciate everything so much more. My health was not the only thing that had changed; my Russian is now much better and so I could actually have meaningful conversations with her parents. After an evening drinking tea and flicking through her childhood photos, we got some much needed sleep.
On Sunday we spent most the day walking around Novgorod. It is a very historic city and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. During the 14th century it was one of the largest and most prosperous cities in Europe, and many medieval monuments have been preserved there. As with most Russian towns, we began with the Kremlin. After bumbling around the main church we finally found the entrance, and walked straight into a church service. We looked about, listened to some of the service and grabbed some of the holy bread they were handing out too!
As the rain began again, we rushed out the Kremlin and for a quick lunch. On the way we saw another inevitable feature of a Russian town; a statue of Lenin. Some people had left flowers on it to commemorate his birthday on 22nd April. This particular statue appealed to me as it included some great Soviet imagery underneath, rather than being a monument just of the man himself.
In the afternoon we popped into the town’s museum and got our dose of culture. Although Nastya had warned me that the museum’s collection wasn’t going to be as impressive as those in Petersburg, we were pleasantly surprised by an exhibition of art by Ilya Glazunov. His images of Russia and St. Petersburg were bold and easily caught our attention. Our favourite picture there was sadly not an original but a reproduction – it featured nearly every influential figure in Russian history and culture up to the 20th century.
In the evening we decided to stay in and watch her favourite Soviet film, ‘Office Romance’ (Служебный Роман). It was a very cosy evening, topped off with a mug of hot milk and honey which her mum, Irina, prepared for us. It was tough to wake up at 5am the next morning and get the train back to St. Petersburg after enjoying these home comforts.
I was so grateful to have the opportunity to return to Novgorod and enjoy the experiences I had missed out on before. Exploring the town with Nastya and getting to know her family better was a wonderful experience. I thanked them greatly, and went home with a warm heart and a jar of Novgorod honey!