I have not travelled much. Neither have I been the stay-at-home sort. I have tried to exploit every opportunity to “relay the picture”. Because of the “iron curtain”, my travels originally were limited by the boundaries of the Soviet Union. Surely, that country was big, and there were many things to see there. And yet, I felt cramped within those vast expanses, and I never knew rest until the “iron curtain” fell, and the world opened up before me in all its natural and human diversity.
My 1st relatively long-distance trip was to the city of Yaroslavl, north-east of Moscow. It occurred in my infancy, so I do not remember the details. But it sank so deep into my soul that I was sure for a long time that I had been born in Yaroslavl, and it took much effort for my mother to dissuade me from it (officially, I was born in Moscow).
My 1st relatively long-distance trip was to the city of Yaroslavl, north-east of Moscow. It occurred in my infancy, so I do not remember the details. But it sank so deep into my soul that I was sure for a long time that I had been born in Yaroslavl, and it took much effort for my mother to dissuade me from it (officially, I was born in Moscow). Soon the station was left behind, and our train, having gathered speed, was already rushing through fields and forests with its wheels percussing their characteristic rhythm. I greedily absorbed impressions and looked through the window almost nonstop. I could see Russian log huts giving place to Ukrainian clay-wall huts, and forests, to the steppe. Next morning we arrived in the city of Sevastopol.
This city is said to have been a restricted area, since the USSR Black Sea Fleet was based there. It may well have been the case. But, outwardly, it was not noticeable in any way, and Sevastopol stuck to my memory as a quiet, cozy and clean town. We had a bite at a “yidalnya” (Crimea formally belonged to Ukraine back at that time, and some signs there were in Ukrainian). Then we boarded a bus-shuttle that drove us to the very south of Crimea, the village of Mellas.
This city is said to have been a restricted area, since the USSR Black Sea Fleet was based there. It may well have been the case. But, outwardly, it was not noticeable in any way, and Sevastopol stuck to my memory as a quiet, cozy and clean town. We had a bite at a “yidalnya” (Crimea formally belonged to Ukraine back at that time, and some signs there were in Ukrainian). Then we boarded a bus-shuttle that drove us to the very south of Crimea, the village of Mellas. I felt tired after a long train journey and had eaten quite inopportunely. In the meantime, we entered a mountainous area, so our bus had to take many sharp turns. As soon as we passed the Baydar Gate, my mother exclaimed: “Look, there’s the sea over there!” I looked where she was pointing only to see the blue sky and a white steamer floating across it… This is where I vomited. Happily, I had time to stick out of the window, so, at least, the interior of the bus and the passengers proper were not hurt.
Having gone over the pass, the road got a bit straighter. But soon we turned to a narrow road steeply descending to the sea. This road consisted entirely of tight zigzags: the bus now sharply gathered speed, now sharply turned. That was also when I noticed runaway truck ramps, that is, dead-ends going uphill to be used in case of a brake failure. But we did not come down to the sea that day – we disembarked at the of the hotel staff village of the “Mellas” health resort belonging to the Central Committee of the USSR Communist Party, which was situated well above the sea level. We were met by hospitable hosts who were merely distant relatives of a cleaning lady working within the framework of the USSR Naval General Staff, where my mother was employed as a doctor. A sumptuous dinner was waiting for us, after which we were put to bed.
I slept badly that night. As soon as I closed my eyes, I again saw the fleeting glimpses seen by me through the train window. It was not until morning that this obsessive stream died down, and I got lost in sweet and careless sleep.
The village in which we had arrived consisted of two 2-storey blocks of flats located on a broad terrace of the Crimean Mountains running down to the sea. The mountains formed a continuous wall at their highest point, where somewhat eerie mount Shaitan could be discerned. On the slightly sloping sectors of the terrain there were high and branchy trees growing, including the Stankevich pines and the Crimean cedars. The steep sectors were overgrown with undersized oaks alternating with the patches of sun-burnt grass. The path leading down to the sea was lined with cypresses. It was early September, and it was not especially hot. Still, it was the south out there, and we, the inhabitants of northern latitudes, got a pretty bad sunburn on the very 1st day of our stay there.
It was stilly there. But this silence was rich and ringing, and it was echoed by the mountains soaring into the sky. This silence was based on the distant lapping of the sea waves, combined in the daytime with cicada chirp, and with cricket trills and the rustle of bat wings, at night.
The evenings there were warm, and we would often spend them sitting outside our dwelling and talking unhurriedly with our neighbours. And almost always these were stories about something good: about interesting natural phenomena, about gentle people, or about someone having a stroke of luck… The beauty and harmony of Nature in that place was so striking that people, abiding there, unwillingly tended to imitate It. Similarly, the harmony of music affects the sensitive human soul. Maybe, it was for this reason that the residents of our village were pure and placid, and the doors there were never locked. A wonderful transformation took place in my mother. Her usual sullenness vanished somewhere. Some good nature awakened in her, she started smiling and kidding. In other words, she may have become the kind of person my father had fallen in love with. We established an uncommon mutual understanding. Every day, we would walk hand-in-hand down to the sea, admiring the beautiful sights opening up around us. In so doing, we every time crossed the picturesque ridge-shaped mountain Dragon – the road was running just between the pinnacles of His “backbone” (formerly, this mountain had been called Agios Georgios).
The “wild” beach, which we would walk to, was shingle. On its right it was confined by the mountain Dragon, jutting into the sea. On its left, there were weird-shaped rocks, under which crabs could be found. There were few people there, for example, some old lady with a little kid or a swimmer hunting for conch shells. The water was warm, except when the Sevastopol current prevailed. The pebbles were so heated by the sun that you could hardly walk on them barefoot. By the end of our holidays, our feet became as calloused as those of a camel. Sometimes, dolphins swam close to the shore, and we watched their plays.
But we did not only walk down to the beach. We went on excursions along Crimea’s Southern Coast, visiting various places of interest, in particular, Anton Chekhov’s house in the city of Yalta and count Vorontsov’s palace in Alupka. The holiday-making employees of the USSR communist party’s central committee, with whom we were riding in the bus, also appeared to be unpretentious and affable people. On the way, some of them would begin to sing some “folk” song, kind of:
- And when will you die, my dear old farty,
- When will you die, my warm-grey dovelet?
And all the rest would join in:
- On Wednesday, my old woman, on Wednesday, Lyubka,
- On Wednesday, oh you my dear old duck.
Besides, we took a ride in a battered jeep to the mountains to pick up Cornelian cherries which my mother later preserved. Another time, our neighbours took me quail hunting. At the same time, I was well aware of my educational duties. At my service there was a piano standing in the hotel’s dining room, on which I squeezed out my summer homework given to me at the music school.
Everything in this world ends one day. And all that is good ends especially quickly. So, our Crimean fairy-tale came to an end, and we returned to the squalor of everydayness. However, the image of Nature as a beautiful and harmonious Cosmos was deeply imprinted in my soul, and no vicissitudes of life could obliterate it. The Artist strives to transfigure the objects of Nature into something perfect. But what is His surprise when He finds out that the desired Perfection already exists, and it looks like no effort is needed for it to exist. Still, such a Perfection is not opened up to anybody, but to the One Who seeks It.
Subsequently, I have visited Crimea a few times. In particular, I have spent my summer vacation in a young pioneer camp located on the west coast, near cape Lucullus, not far from the site, where the battle of the Alma had occurred. But that was a steppe Crimea. Besides, there was a clammy atmosphere there, so such a revelation I had gone through in Mellas, did not recur this time. Nevertheless, there were many excursions, including, to Bakhchysarai (where I saw the khan’s palace with the famous “fountain of tears” sung of by Pushkin), to Theodosia (where I visited the Aivazovsky picture gallery) and to Kerch (where I climbed the Mitridate Mount).
I managed to visit Mellas again only at a mature age. Those were the years of Perestroika (the “rampancy of democracy”, so to speak) and vouchers for many hotels formerly inaccessible to common folk were now selling to all those wishing. I, too, taking advantage of the moment, bought a voucher for the formerly Nomenclatura-owned holiday hotel “Mellas”. It was with some quiver that I entered the familiar precincts, this time as a rightful holiday maker. But my joyful anticipation did not last long. It turned out that the hotel had no singles available, and a swimming pool was not operational (that was the month of October, which was considered the “off-season”). When I voiced my complaint to the administrator, she simple-heartedly replied: “You don’t like it here? Just leave this place.”
But that was not the only disappointment that befell me then. Having ascended to the hotel staff village, I failed to find there that solitude, which had once so amazed me. All the area was built up with 5-storey apartment blocks, behind which garages were looming. Now it was an ordinary semi-urban settlement named “Sanatornoye”. Unpleasantly surprised by what I saw, I began looking for some old local resident who could tell me what had happened there during my absence. Soon I got into conversation with some gloomy old man, and his narrative was as joyless. He told me that the hosts we had stayed with had gone to their relatives in Czechoslovakia. The fate of our other mutual acquaintances proved unenviable: someone had ruined himself with drink, another had been put into prison, yet another had been thrown alive into an abyss…
What, then, has happened to this materialized Paradise, to this unclothed Cosmos? The Nature there seems to be still beautiful… Or, rather, it is not quite so. The village had excessively spread out both in breadth and upwards. The “wild” beach had been appropriated by the hotel, and, instead of weird-shaped rocks, now there was an asphalt road there. Aloft, at the foot of Mount Sh—-n, a high-speed road, Sevastopol – Yalta, had been built. Moreover, loud explosions could now be periodically heard from the direction of the mountains, which was evidence of gravel being intensely mined. Certainly, all those changes were for the convenience of Man. But Nature is jealous of Her own beauty. And She would not forgive Man His reckless encroachments.
I quitted the holiday hotel “Mellas” and found a shelter in a private rented sector of the neighbouring village, Castropol. All day long was spent for settling down. In the evening, the landlady asked me: “Did you see the rock Ikhinenia? It was not right away that I understood what she was talking about. But, knowing the peculiarities of the folk dialect, I soon got it: Iphigenia! Yes, it must be that very place, where the action was unfolding of Euripides’ famous tragedy “Iphigenia in Tauris”! The next day, I went to see the sights of the glorious rock, and it really amazed me by its unusual beauty. It had some feminity and some determination in it. I once again made sure that the Nature of Crimea’s South Coast, in and of Itself, aspired to perfection to such an extent, that the Artist did not need to exert much effort to complete this aspiration. Perhaps, this is the way the ancient Greek colonizers had acted, erecting here their temples and assuming the unity of gymnastics, mathematics, and music as a basis for the upbringing of their youth.
One day, while exploring the outskirts of Castropol, I stumbled upon another marvel. That was a park, built around an old country estate. I was especially amazed by the sculptures of naked youths. Surely, such a subject is a fully relevant complement of a Mediterranean landscape. But those were not antique youths, who created a mood of harmony and perfection. The youths decorating the park put the spectator in a state of profound reflections and inconsolable sorrow. The very titles of those sculptures hinted to some “beyondness”, that is, “The One Falling Asleep,” “The Sleeping One,” “The Awakening One”. It looked like someone had died here. I tried to inquire into the matter, and one of the local legends did have it that the son of the estate’s owner had died, and these sculptures had been installed here in his memory. Subsequently, however, such a version of events failed to get confirmation.
When speaking of Castropol, one cannot but mention visiting it by the poet Alexander Pushkin on his way from Gurzuf to Bakhchisarai, reminding of which is a memorial sign installed there.
My last trip to Crimea was to the village of Novy Svyet /New Light or New World/. I made up my mind to explore localities eastwards of the town of Alushta, which was considered the eastern limit of Crimea’s South Coast with its Mediterranean climate. I travelled there not via Sevastopol, and not via Simpheropol, but via Theodosia. I got mixed feelings about this place. The mountains there are not as high as in the South Coast, but they, too, closely approach the sea, forming weird-shaped figures, between which there are picturesque bays. Beyond the mountains, a deciduous forest begins, which is quite accessible here, whereas in the South Coast it is thoroughly out of reach and hidden beyond the mountain wall. As for the plants, Novy Svyet is noted not by the cypress, as the case is in the South Coast, but by the tree-like juniper. Those are rather high trees, resembling pines, exhaling an aromatic resinous odour.
Novy Svyet is also famous for its champagne-type wine factory. Certainly, I did not miss a chance to learn what the effect of the young Novy Svyet champagne felt like. What a pleasure it was for me and my friends to taste this sparkling liquid, which did not get you drunk, having a picnic at the Razboinichya /Brigands’/ Bay! But as we were to set our feet on the return path, our legs proved not to obey us, so we had to scramble out of this bay, crawling. The Novy Svyet champagne is also related to the legend about where the name “Novy Svyet” came from. The winery was founded by prince Golitsyn, whose estate was located on the site where the village now is. It is said that Tsar Nicholas II visited the prince on his estate. Having degusted the product yielded at Golitsyn’s factory, he said: “Now I see everything in a new light.”
True, Novy Svyet is beautiful in its own way. Still, I have failed to find anything better than Mellas. I mean that Mellas which has vanished in the maelstrom of time, but stayed on the far-away shore of my childhood.
In my student years, I more than once took part in folk song expeditions, where I was invited by my friends from the Moscow Conservatoire. The backbone of those expeditions was formed of fragile girls, so I would be used there mostly as a “draught power”. In other words, I was supposed to carry a reel-to-reel tape-recorder. With this appliance on a strap thrown over my shoulder, I walked across broad expanses in the Ryazan, Vladimir, and Gorky (now Nizhny Novgorod) regions.
Then I felt the difference between the urban and rural life, between the urban and rural population of our spanless country. Those were 2 worlds, which were in no way intercommunicable. First of all, I was impressed by rural roads, or their actual absence, to be more precise. Instead of buses, transportation of goods and people in some places there was carried out by small airplanes. Because of a swampy soil, many roads failed to dry up during the summer. To get from one village to another, we sometimes had to splash our way overshoe in water. I could see it with my own eyes how a wheeled tractor had got stuck on one of those roads, while a caterpillar tractor was pulling it out. On the one hand, the lack of roads was a great inconvenience. On the other hand, those places’ “immunity” was insured thereby, which contributed to the better preservation of the remnants of the ancient culture. In other words, where there were asphalt roads, people only sang sentimental city songs or those by Soviet composers.
The general public of those villages was represented mostly by old ladies (men had died in the wars, repressions, or just ruined themselves by drinking). The houses they lived in might seem rather squalid, but their inside, as a rule, was clean and cozy. The folks were hospitable there: you will always be fed and provided a night’s lodging (especially, when they learn that you have come “all the way from Moscow”). The dialect there is very special. In The Ryazan Region, they pronounce [ya] instead of [ye], and [w] instead of [v] (for example, not [v lyesu], but [w lyasu] /in the forest/), which reveals Belorussian and Ukrainian influences. They also pronounce [ts] instead of [ch] ([lavotska] /a little bench/, [okoshetsko] /little window/). Besides, they pronounce [kh] instead of [f]. As a result, my patronymic sounded like [Yakhimovits] instead of the “correct” [Yefimovich]. In the Vladimir and Gorky Regions, they pronounced [oh] in the unstressed position instead of a schwa, characteristic of the Moscow dialect. Interesting linguistic combinations occurred in the regions’ cross-border areas. Finally, when asking questions, they used the interrogative particle [ti], and, like in the English language, ended their questions in a rising tone.
That was really another Russia. You got the impression that the clock there had stopped long ago, that there was no Soviet system and no communism around. Kids openly wore pectoral crosses. Each village had its own character, its own songs and customs. Even the “common” songs would be performed differently. One day, we came across a village, where Molokans lived. Another time, we met Old-Believers. All of them extended to us a warm welcome and eagerly let us in on the peculiarities of their doctrine.
But the biggest shock that I experienced was when I for the first time heard a genuine folk song, genuinely performed at that. This happened towards evening, when we, at last, got to the village mentioned as No. 1 in our itinerary. We saw a group of old women carrying scythes and rakes on their shoulders, who were, apparently, returning from field work. They surrounded us, asking who we were and where from. Having learned that we had come to collect ancient songs, they became somewhat puzzled: who on earth could need it now? But since we had covered such a distance, it meant there was someone who really needed it. All in all, they agreed to sing for us right in the street. One of the women began singing, the others joined in, and… I had never heard anything like that before in my life. It felt like space and time yawned in front of me. I ceased to be aware of where I was and what century was it. If it was not for each couplet being concluded in a powerful unison, all this might have been perceived as a continuous cacophony. However, the old women industriously performed this “cacophony” each time, and for them it seemed to be as natural, as our cherished “3 cords” were for us. Besides, they sang in a straight and strident voice, without vibrato, which was why those glaring dissonances sounded even rougher. You got the feeling of something primordial, of some savage and uncontrollable element being there.
Subsequently, we made multi-channel recordings of some songs, where each singer sang into an individual microphone. It turned out that each singer carries her own tune, which, however is performed at the same pitch. In doing so, nobody cares about what chords are formed vertically. Bach’s polyphony was rather concordant. But, here, compared to these grannies, the great cantor evidently “pales”. Soon we took to this kind of music. Having returned after a working day to our base camp, we would listen not only to the Beatles or the b-minor mass, but would also often play new recordings of our “grannies’” songs.
We kept on walking from village to village. Gradually, a comprehensive picture of peasant life began to emerge, the way it has been over the centuries (and, maybe, milleniums). Song accompanied Man from cradle to grave. Some songs would be sung on holidays, others, on weekdays. There were “labour” songs, round-dance songs /karagods/, as well as “slow” songs sung at sit-round gatherings. There were also songs about some historical or mythological events. Certainly, wedding came as the climax of peasant song. That was a music and theatrical action, which lasted many days. Wedding was played out, and at its each stage certain songs would be sung. Funeral did not go without a song, either. Such a song was called a “funeral cry”, which would be wailed with a certain text and with a certain tune. Besides, there were “spiritual songs”, based on a religious (Christian) subject, often coupled with the reflections on the meaning of life:
- The sun’s gone down to the sunset
- As the soul’s parting with the body
- Oh, thou my body, body white
- What hast thou been doing on earth?
No wonder that all peasants had an ear for music, a perfect ear, at that, and the question of musical upbringing was solved there from the very start. And, in general, the peasant’s life was harmonious, measured, and sensible, where metaphysical issues would be sublated by the organic combination of Christianity and Paganism. It is not without reason that our “Narodniks” and then Leo Tolstoy and Martin Heidegger extolled peasantry so much. A leaf out of their book is really worth taking.
But Russia was not lucky. All its miscellaneous culture, including the folk culture, was almost entirely laid upon the altar of Communism. Despite the communist priests’ incantations of the golden age of Russian culture reached under the command of the wise communist party, it irretrievably fell asleep in the Lord. For you may not water a tree with one hand and cut its roots with the other, or widen the river-bed with one hand and plug its spring, with the other. Those who sang to us were 60-90 years old, that is, those were people brought up in pre-revolutionary Russia. Neither inter-tribal conflicts, nor the Tatar-Mongolian invasion, nor Ivan the Terrible’s atrocities, nor Peter the Great’s reforms, nor Alexander II’s reforms could destroy what the communists managed to in the matter of years. “It is the people who create music, and we, composers, only arrange it,” – Mikhail Glinka once said. There is nobody any more to create music now. So, there is nothing to arrange.
PS. Perhaps, this is the only genuine folk song that can be found on the Internet now:
Across the Soviet Union’s Republics
I did not belong to the Soviet society’s elite: I never had either a sheepskin coat or a deer-skin cap, I was not a son of high-ranking parents, I lived in a community flat, and my salary was 110 rubles per month. It was my social position that conditioned the geography of my travels at the time: it was limited by the USSR’s borders. I have been to Ukraine, Belorussia (now Belarus), Latvia, Lithuania, Georgia, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, and Uzbekistan. As to Russia proper, I have travelled to Petrozavodsk and Karelia, Ryazan and the Ryazan Region, Vladimir and the Vladimir Region, the Gorky Region, Leningrad and Gatchina, Vologda and the Vologda Region, Yaroslavl and the Yaroslavl Region, Yekaterinburg, and also visited a number of places in the Caucasus. I would like to tell you about some of those trips in more detail.
I have already told you about by travels through the Crimea, which formerly belonged to Ukraine. Apart from it, I have also been to the city of Odessa, where my grandmother’s gymnasium friend with her descendants lived. I do not know how matters stand now, but at that time the folks there were very peculiar. You never knew whether they wanted to treat you kindly or play a trick on you, whether they were kidding or serious. Something medium, I guess. Most likely, the inhabitants of Odessa see things differently, and their mentality is inseparable from the famous Odessa (mostly, black) humour. It is appropriate here to cite the following joke. A tourist asks an Odessite: “Where is the sea here?” To which the Odessite replies: “We’ve got a sea of Jews, a sea of prostitutes, and the Black Sea. So, which one d’you need?”
They had a special accent and a special intonation, and a special dialect, after all. For example, it was only there that you could hear the phrase “to do the boulevard” (to walk back and forth along the boulevard). When you rode a packed tram passing between a prison a cemetery, you could hear a laconic comment: “Here they’re standing, there they’re sitting /serving a term/, and there they’re lying”. And so on. And so forth.
I remember the beautiful Odessa Opera House, the Potyomkin Steps, the Duke statue, and also the famous “Privoz” market place. But it is not only the city centre that I can still recall. I remember Odessa’s outskirts, dominated by private houses buried in verdure, and where there were streets having endearing names, like in the well-known song by Yuri Antonov:
- I’ll walk down Apricot Street, turn to Grape
- And on Shady Street I’ll stand in the shade
- Cherry and Pear Streets
- Green and Cool
- As though they lead me back
- To my bygone childhood.
There is a sea in Odessa (I mean the Black Sea), as well as sand beaches and rocky shores. All this was a bit reminiscent of Crimea. But the more so it aroused in you a yearning for Crimea, for its South Coast. To designate such landscapes and such feelings, I even coined a new term, an “under-Crimea”. Similarly, music by Medtner resembles such written by Rachmaninoff, but still falls short of it.
In the evenings, we would get together at the common table, all 3 generations. Then there was no end of stories told about the prerevolutionary Russian life, about the life in Odessa occupied by the Rumanians, and surely, about modernity.
I have also been to West Ukraine. That was a health centre in the town of Morszyn. My trip took place in summer, but I was not lucky with the weather – it rained virtually all the time. The nature there, however, thanks to the warmth and humidity, amazes one with its opulence. Broadleaf woods spread all around the place. Deep-blue contours of the Carpathian Mountains could be seen in the distance. Crushed grass-snakes, who would crawl out to warm themselves on the asphalt, could be often found on the roads. The folks spoke Ukrainian there, in the Western dialect, at that, with its illustrious “faino” /fine/. There were “classical” Ukrainians there, too, who would say “harno” in such cases. The chambermaid welcomed me with the question: “Yaka kimnata? /What’s your room number?/ Nevertheless, there were also those who spoke Russian there. And everyone understood each other.
I had nothing to do there, except walking under the umbrella around the health centre in the intervals between the procedures. During one of such outings I stumbled upon a magnificent building. That was the “Cristal Palace” spa resort. I asked the locals “Who gets treatment at this spa?” “It’s for aristos,” – was the answer. From which I inferred that social contradictions were at the time stronger than nationalistic ones.
It was only a couple of times that I managed to break out from Morszyn, first, to Stryi, then to Lvov. I rode an electric train there. On arrival in Lvov, I followed my nose. First of all, I noticed that almost all the roads (and even some walkways) there were stone-paved. Of course, it created a certain flavour, but this kind of pavement could hardly be considered ideal for a pedestrian. Before too long, I stumbled upon a huge Christian temple, which, in accordance with the best “sovok” traditions, now housed a “Museum for the History of Religion and Atheism”. I walked further until found myself at Lychakov Cemetery. It was operational. Right at that moment, some youth was being buried there. He lay in the coffin looking as if he was alive. His friends that accompanied him in his last journey seemed to care more about how they looked like, and less about the grief over the loss. I decided not walk deeper into the graveyard’s confines and returned to Lvov’s “acropolis”.
Soon I reached a cosy square, where I saw the monument of A. Mickiewicz, opposite which there was a bookshop, where, apparently, the great Polish poet’s works were on sale. Having walked as far as the Lvov Opera Theatre and having admired it, I turned to a street, which led be back to the railway station. Thus, my travels across Ukraine came to a close.
However, my relationship with Ukraine is deeper-rooted. My father is a native of the Chernigov Province, which may be considered indigenously Ukrainian. When I was 13, I heard a lovely Ukrainian song called “Cheremshyna” (the bird cherry tree) and was enchanted by it. The lyrics were then procured for me and I learned it by heart. Ever since that time, I have crooned on occasion:
- Znov zozuli holos chuty w lisi
- Lastiwki hnizdechko zvyly w strisi
- A viwchar zhene otaru playem
- Tyochnuw pisnyu solovei za hayem.
- A cuckoo’s voice can be heard in the woods
- Swallows have built their nests in the roof
- Shepherd’s driving his flock down the path
- A nightingale’s begun to sing its song ‘cross the grove.
My acquaintance with Belarus was rather short. It took place during my university years, when I was on a visit to my fellow student in one of the villages of the Mahilyow Region. Right away, this republic seemed to me more “European”, than Russia. People there were largely more open-minded and more liberated, than ours. In the city of Mahilyow, the streets were clean, and the road surface was unbroken. In the shops, I saw affable assistants wearing a uniform. In the villages, farmsteads were wider, compared to Russia’s, the houses being more spacious and better attended.
In the village where I stayed, the folks spoke Russian (at least, they thought so). But, at first, I could understand little of what they were saying. This version of the Russian language was very peculiar. They pronounced [dz] instead of just [d], while [tʃ] was over-pronounced (e. g., they said [tʃtʃaˊho] instead of [chto] /what/). Instead of [pjervy] /first/ they said and wrote [pjershy], etc. Such phrases as [u ljaˊsu] /in the forest)/ I had already heard in the Ryazan Region ([v ljeˊsu] in the classical Russian), and there were no problems with understanding them. But in their patois there were words that could never be found in Russian. For example, they had special terms for a “squirrel”, a “stork”, a “cattle shed”, and “sausage”. And until they translated them for you, you would never understand what was they were talking about.
In the village where I stayed, the folks spoke Russian (at least, they thought so). But, at first, I could understand little of what they were saying. This version of the Russian language was very peculiar. They pronounced [dz] instead of just [d], while [tʃ] was over-pronounced (e. g., they said [tʃtʃaˊho] instead of [chto] /what/). Instead of [pjervy] /first/ they said and wrote [pjershy], etc. Such phrases as [u ljaˊsu] /in the forest)/ I had already heard in the Ryazan Region ([v ljeˊsu] in the classical Russian), and there were no problems with understanding them. But in their dialect there were words that could never be found in Russian. For example, they had special terms for a “squirrel”, a “stork”, a “cattle shed”, or “sausage”. And until they translated them for you, you would never understand what was they were talking about. Of course, “Belaruskaye” spelling is a paradise for lazy-bones: just write as you hear. Soon I became skilled at the local patois, and, as necessary, would put in my speech phrases, kind of [njeˊma kaˊli] /I’m in a hurry/ or [ˊvjelmi ˊdobra] /very good/.
My fellow student’s mother was a simple Belorussian peasant, recently widowed, who had survived both communist collectivization and Nazi occupation. As for collectivization, she found herself here in a privileged position, since her husband was himself a chairman of a kolkhoz. As for the occupation, a Nazi officer paradoxically came here as her guardian angel protecting her from a native policeman who was going to shoot her.
A wired radio outlet worked round the clock in many houses of the village. But the peasants paid no attention to this continuous “brain washing”, and the louder the radio sounded, the tighter they slept. Interestingly, the radio broadcasted there in the pure “Belaruskaya mova”. So, while giving due to “proletarian internationalism”, the republic’s authorities, nevertheless, took care of the national uniqueness.
Beautiful is Belarus’s wildlife, full-flowing are its rivers, and unbounded are its forests. Its people are hospitable and hearty. Its culture is living and miscellaneous. It is replenished from the contemporary classics of Belarusian literature, including, Vasil Bykaw and Maxim Tank. Thanks to “The Pesnyary” music ensemble, the Belarusian culture reached new heights. The ensemble’s works were highly praised by many world celebrities, among them, George Harrison, one of “The Beatles”. I would like to end this brief essay with an excerpt from a song performed by another Belarusian ensemble, “The Syabry”:
- Vy shumitse, shumitse, nadamnoyu byarozy,
- Kalyshitse, lyulyaitse, svoi napew vekavy,
- A ya lyagu-prylyagu krai hastsintsa staroha
- Na dukhmyanym prakose nedaspelai travy.
- Rustle, oh rustle, you, birches, over me,
- Sway and lull me with your age-old tune
- And I’ll lie down by the side of the road,
- On the fragrant swath of green grass.
- Oh, maiden, do not sing me
- Songs of wistful Georgia.
- They remind me of another life
- And a far-away shore.
One of my 1st trips beyond the limits of Russia was to Georgia, which at the time was part of the USSR. That summer, I spent my student vacation at the village of Ashe located on Russia’s Black Sea coast of the Caucasus. That was my 1st trip to the Caucasus, and I was amazed by this region’s revel of Nature. The mountains there are covered with wild, dense forest. When you find yourself in it, you can often feel a very special smell – it is a musky worm crawling about nearby. At night, a jackal howl could be heard. Not far from that place, there was a weird ancient construction, a dolmen. The local people were called themselves “Adyghe”. In their language I heard an unusual sound, [l], but without voicing (subsequently, I would find such a sound in Welsh, which is designated there as “ll” and pronounced as [ɬ].
Having stayed in Ache for some time, I decided to avail myself of my sojourn in this region and pay a visit to my university course mate, who lived in the capital of Georgia, Tbilisi. I got an electric train, crossed the Georgian border (which went perfectly unnoticed then) and rode as far as Abkhazia’s capital, Sukhumi (Abkhazia was part of Georgia at the time). The railway run largely along the Black Sea coast, while the Caucasus mountains approached the sea from the other side. All this provided a breath-taking view. The locals getting on and off the train were dressed richly and tastefully, leather items prevailing in their clothing. Through the train’s open windows, polyphonic folk songs sometimes wafted to my ears from nearby villages.
Having reached Sukhumi, I found that there were no tickets available on the train bound for Tbilisi. I had to call my friend’s mother on the phone, and she suggested me where I could turn to. Soon I held in my hands the desired ticket, and the next morning I arrived in Tbilisi.
My arrival was for my friend both expected and incredible. He was unable to hide his joy and would only reiterate perplexedly: “It’s surreal, surreal…” He could not wait to let me into all the niceties of Tbilisi life. We strolled all days through the old Tbilisi, saw its best sights, ate Khinkali dumplings, drank Lagidze water, came to see his friends, spending our time in everlasting talks. Sometimes, wonderful Georgian city songs would waft through the neighbouring houses’ windows.
Tbilisi had been earlier known to me thanks to Georgian short films, which had been very popular in the USSR. Now, I could see those films’ predominant scene of action with my own eyes. It seemed to me that the old Tbilisi’s general pubic were people of modest means, ethnic Armenians constituting a significant part of them. They lived in old houses, which actually represented low-rise blocks of community flats, with galleries overlooking their inner courts. I saw hovels stuck to the abrupt banks of the Kura river, resembling sand martin nests, in which Tbilisi’s poor huddled together. Georgian ladies, as it seemed, dressed better than gentlemen; they walked at a leisurely pace, keeping some special inner dignity. I also noticed people dressed in colourful attire, with brooms in their hands. “There are our street cleaners, – my friend explained (they were predominantly Kurds). I tried to learn some Georgian words: mahdlobt /thanks/, ghismend /I’m listening/, verghetkhvid /I can’t say/, ukatsravad /excuse me/. Such a phrase as “gamarjoba ghenatsvahle” /hello, comrade/ was known to all Soviet people. I also liked what was the Georgian for a “cricket” – “tsintsinatela”. But, most interestingly, “Georgia”, in Georgian, is “Saqartvelo”, which means “the land of Kartvels” and which miraculously echoes my family name.
My friend’s mother worked at the Ministry of Enlightenment of the Georgian SSR at the time. Thanks to her effort, a governmental black “Volga” limousine was provided for me, a guest from Moscow, in which I was driven to Georgia’s ancient capital, Mtskheta. Yes, is was that very place, sung of by Lermontov, where, embraced, like two sisters, the streams of Aragva and Kura roared. I saw Georgia’s main Eastern Orthodox cathedral, Svetitskhoveli, and also the Jvari monastery. In the 4th century A.D., St. Nina preached the teaching of Christ to the inhabitants of Caucasian Iberia there.
My friend’s grandmother was still alive at the time, and we would listen with great interest to her tales of olden times in the evenings. Before the Bolshevik revolution, she was a Socialist Revolutionary Party activist. Her party work was largely conducted in the city of Batumi. She recalled how during the 1st Word War the city had been occupied by Turks. Then the British had come, and they had fed their horses with chocolate. Among them there had also been Scots, whom some brazen citizens would tend to peep under the kilts.
Symbolically, my friend lived in a street named after an outstanding philosopher, Shalva Nutsubidze, the founder of “alethology” (the study of truth), who strived to overcome the opposition of Subject and Object. This opposition has eventually been overcome. But such an achievement could not have been reached without a comprehensive theoretical preparatory work.
My trip to Latvia, too, occurred during my university years. The mother of one of my friends was employed as a secretary to the then chairman of the USSR council of ministers, Alexei Kosygin. Thanks to her effort, a room was booked for me at one of the hotels in Jūrmala, on the Riga bay of the Baltic Sea, noted for its vast, sandy beaches. That particular place was called Majori. The USSR’s Baltic republics were generally regarded as “our Soviet overseas”, and it was not without some thrill that I anticipated my 1st encounter with “Europe”. And my expectations proved pretty much justified.
Majori turned out to be a cosy little town located along the sea coast. The hotel I stayed at bore the same name and was housed in an old, odd-shaped building. Relaxing at the same time as me, there were Moscow’s Mossoviet drama theatre actors, in particular, S. Yursky, M. Terekhova, and Ye. Steblov. We would see each other every day in the hotel’s dining room. Yurski wore a fashionable at the time blue jeans costume with a cap, Steblov, in “provoking” shorts, and Terekhova, apparently, always staying “in character”. I remember how she was theatrically addressing some old lady, uttering drawlingly: “Let me help you carry your tray.”
It was summer, so I spent on the beach nearly all day long. The Baltic sun was not baking, and it was virtually impossible to get a bad sunburn there. In the evenings, I would stroll along the beach, which would turn into a boulevard at that time of day. The public were respectable there, and everyone wore suits and evening dresses.
It was very clean in Majori. Also, I was amazed to see cars and lorries stop, giving way to me, as I was preparing to cross the street. According to the local legislation, the fences in the town might not exceed half a meter, so, while walking down a street, you could watch every detail of the Latvian family life going on in their courtyards.
Of course, I bought a phrase-book and started learning Latvian. In this language, like in Finnish, the stress in words always falls on the 1st syllable. This is often combined with the last syllable being drawled, which gives an impression of a complete lack of stress. Something like that can be heard in the north dialect of the Russian language, for example, in the Vologda Region. There are many interesting parallels in the Latvian language with Slavic and other languages. Like in Latin, masculine nouns in nominative singular end in “s” here. Thus, “he” will be “viņš”, and “snow”, “sniegs”. Significantly, the infinitive “to work” sounds fairly bluntly in Latvian, “strādāt”, that is, “to suffer”.
Subsequently, I learned an entire song in Latvian. There is the following refrain there:
- Skaties, celiniek, tur augstu, augstu gaisā,
- Staigā ziemelis un māsas lapas kaisa…
- Viņš jau nežēlos, viņš metīs tieši sārtā
- Lapas dzeltenās un lapas tumši sārtās.
- Look, traveler, there high up in the air
- A north wind goes and tears off the leaflets
- It’ll not pity and throw right into the fire
- Leaves yellow and leaves dark-crimson.
I have been to Lithuania twice. First, it was a health centre in Palanga, where I travelled in winter using a social insurance voucher. I did not manage to directly get to the place by train for lack of tickets. So, I had to fly to Kaunas first. Having arrived in Kaunas, I felt somewhat lost. For a long time, I wandered with a suitcase in my hand through this alien and comfortless city. Despite a zero Celsius temperature, it was beastly cold. And it was cold everywhere, both outside (apparently, because of high humidity) and in the café, where I looked in to have a bite and get warm (apparently, because of energy saving). My question “How do I get to the railway station?” the passers-by would answer with a specific accent: “Don’t know” or “Don’t understand”. At last, I came across a Russian serviceman, the same “occupant” as me, and he explained me in every detail how to get there.
The health centre I finally arrived at represented an old, wooden, 1-storey building, overlooking on one side straight out to the sea. I was lodged in one of the shared rooms in the ground floor on that very side. Possibly, such an “ocean view” would have been quite appropriate in a warm season and in some southern land. However, in the conditions of winter Baltics this could hardly bring much pleasure. Although the windows were sealed up, the wind blowing from the cold and stormy Baltic Sea, reached all the nooks of the room, and there was no escape from it. I called the health centre’s officials. They walked around the room, exchanging glances and perplexedly shrugging their shoulders. Despite my presence, they spoke Lithuanian. Nevertheless, I discerned in their talk one word, which could be heard most often, that is, nervai /nerves/. All in all, I was transferred into another room overlooking the opposite side.
But there was another misfortune lying in wait for me there. The plywood partition, at which my bed stood, adjoined the building’s entrance-hall, where there was a glazed door, which slammed every now and then. I wrote a sign “Do not slam the door” and attached it to that door. Since it was Lithuania, I decided to make the sign bilingual. The nearest native-speaker was our cleaning lady, and it was she whom I addressed my question: “What is the Lithuanian for “Do not slam the door”, please? The lady got embarrasses, blushed and, finally, gave out: “Our people don’t slam”.
The health centre I stayed at was located not far from the Tyczkiewicz palace, around which there was a beautiful park. I would find repose strolling along its alleys, and I would be amazed by the intactness of the Nature of this long-populated area. Unscared birds scurried about me, squirrels would run up to me, and a herd of wild goats once unhurriedly proceeded past me. One day, my communing with Nature was disturbed by the emergence in front of me of a group of youths. One of them came up to me and strictly asked: “Kiek valandų?” But I kept my head, since I had bought the Lithuanian phrase-book by then, so I could identify the question “What is the time?” rather well. I made the friendliest face and extended my hand to him, exposing the watch on my wrist. He looked at my watch and, apparently, was satisfied with my response.
The same question was subsequently addressed to me in various places. When I was in Turkey and wandered in the environs of Phaselis, I came across a local peasant woman, who asked me: “Saat kaç?” Having become skilled a little in Kazakh by then, I remembered, that the Kazakh for “What is the time?” was “Sagat kalai?”. In the same manner, I exposed my wrist watch to her, so she could read the time. After all, it may be very useful to know languages sometimes!
My 2nd trip to Lithuania proved more fortunate in many respects. Again, through the premier Alexei Kosygin’s secretariat, a room was booked for me at the prestigious “Sailors’ Holiday Hotel” in the same Palanga. Again, it was winter, and, I was sick with a severe cold. But I was told: “You only get there!” And, in the end, I decided to go.
I arrived there safely and found the above-mentioned hotel quite easily. It was housed in a respectable, brick building. I was given a mansard room on the top floor. It was a small, but quiet, cosy, and warm room with a TV set and a full bathroom. But, most importantly, it was a single room, which, by Soviet standards, was unprecedented luxury. However, my sickness did not lessen, and, in the first place, I set off to the local polyclinic.
At the polyclinic, I was given a medical card, where my first name and patronymic appeared as “Aleksejus Jefimevičius”. Having entered the consulting room, I was somewhat taken aback. In front of me there was a skinny man in horn-rimmed glasses with a typical “Nazi” appearance. I’m a goner,” – I thought to myself. Apparently, having noticed my confusion, he smiled and started speaking to me quite kindly and even genially. Soon we were talking like old friends. By his manner of interacting, he resembled me the remarkable doctor Kulizhnikov whom I had met in my university years. This doctor’s name was Vaškelis, and he was well-known in Palanga. He prescribed me a couple of medicines, and in a couple of days I was as good as new.
Beside the hotel there was a swimming pool, which caught my fancy at once. The question of what pool I would like, in-door or open-air, addressed to me I answered: “Certainly, open-air” (atviras, in Lithuanian). It was warm in the locker-room, and you could walk there in your street footwear, and no one shouted at you; only a man with a rag would run after me and wipe off footprints left by me. He would also offer the visitors swim pants and other pertinent accessories. There were also a hair-dryer, a lounge, and a bar available there. Of course, swimming in an open-air pool in below-zero temperatures implies incomparable sensations. Besides, a swimming session had certain dramaturgy in it. At first, you swim circle-wise and against the sun to the relaxing music. Should you inadvertently hit someone with your arm or leg, you just say “atsiprašau” /sorry/. After a time, a “waterfall” turns on, and every one rushes there to stand under its flow. Finally, you run upstairs to the ice-slope and slide down it on your bum right back into the water.
I am not sure whether it directly related to my visiting the Palanga swimming pool, but an upheaval occurred in my Weltanschauung at the time. That is to say, I got out of Nietzsche’s influence. Restating one of his quotations, I would now reiterate to myself: “The beauty of God came unto me as a shadow. What is the Superman to me now!
In the meantime, I came to feel fairly at home in Lithuania. I would bargain at the market place rather glibly in Lithuanian. Should I was told “keturiasdešimt /forty/, I would stubbornly insist: “Ne, trisdešimt” /no, thirty/. Returning to the hotel, I would say: “Prašom duoti man raktus kambarys šeši šimtai ir aštuntas” /please, give me a key to the room 608). In the evenings, I would walk to the seashore, and, after that, before going to bed, I would watch on TV a lovely Australian serial “All the Rivers Run”. On the last day of my stay there, I bought the freshest Lithuanian dainties and, on my return to Moscow, handed them out to my relatives and friends.
I learned much about Lithuania, about its complex history. In the 15th century, the Grand Duchy of Lithuania stretched from the Baltic Sea to the Black Sea and was the largest state in Europe (although Russian was spoken, and Eastern Orthodox Christianity was professed there). Like some other peoples, the Lithuanians, too, were looking for their “national idea,” which, in the end, seemed to come to them being “neither red, nor brown”. I also learned that Lithuania, despite its small size, is, in fact, divided into two major parts, that there were Aukštaitian /highland/ and Žemaitian /lowland/ Lithuanians, between whom mutual understanding not always prevailed. And the name “Lithuania” /Lietuva/ stems from the word “lietus” /rain/.
Long ago, in a musical and literary show devoted to the 50th anniversary of the USSR, I, in accordance with my appearance, represented Lithuania and declaimed a poem by Salomėja Nėris:
- My little land is like
- A golden drop of amber.
- It glitters, blossoming, in ornaments
- And sung of joyfully in songs.
- Having flown into the sea of Soviet peoples
- Ring, like a new string
- In their mighty and concordant chorus,
- Oh blessed Lithuania, my country.
Just as Lithuania flew into the USSR, so, too, it flew out of it. Now it has flown into the European Union. But does it mean that it has, at last, found itself? Rather, it has just chosen the lesser evil.
I found myself in Kazakhstan, again, during the Perestroika years, when holiday hotels and health centres, formerly belonging to the Communist Party’s Central Committee, became available to all. The health centre I arrived in was situated in the steppe, not far from the then Kazakhstan’s capital, Alma-Ata (now, Almaty). Near the centre, the river Aksai flew, and, in the distance, you could see the peaks of Tian-Shan, the northern ridge of this mountain system, to be more precise, called Trans-Ili Alatau. As a musician, I was, first of all, amazed with the unusual acoustics of that place, created by this natural reflector, thanks to which all sounds uttered there acquired certain “hollowness”.
The centre’s main building was grandiose and rather resembled a palace: the Kazakh communist party nomenklatura would recreate themselves on no larger scale than the Russian nomenklatura. At first, I was lodged in a double room. I was not young already at the time, so sharing a room with some other man, even if a very nice one, irked me (besides, I felt bad after a long flight). I arranged to see the health centre’s director, and, perhaps, it was for the 1st time in my life, that I managed to wangle a single room for me. The director’s name was Oraz-geldy Bedenovich. Subsequently, I repeatedly happened to see the benevolence of oriental people and feel the warmth of their hospitality.
The swimming pool was not operational there. I had nothing to do and nowhere to go. It was a good thing that the library was working, so I, having borrowed the needed manuals, started learning the Kazakh language. That was my 1st experience of familiarizing with a Turkic language, and this experience proved interesting and useful for me. I learned that initially Arabic characters had been used by the Kazakh language. Then the Roman alphabet had been employed. And it was not until recently that the Cyrillic alphabet came to stay. Accurate principles of sentence building and a strict word order make Kazakh similar to Western European languages, in particular, to German.
Kazakh sounds somewhat harsh and even “rude” to the European ear. Before my trip to Kazakhstan I had heard some comments on the Kyrgyz language (which is very much like Kazakh). An acquaintance of mine had been sent to the capital of Kirgizia (now Kyrgyzstan), the city of Frunze (now Beshkek) after graduating from a higher educational institution. She had once called me and said: “You know, the Kirgiz language is a sheer swearing. Whenever you turn on the radio, you can only hear: “rat-tat-tat… party”, or “rat-tat-tat… CPSU” /Communist Party of the Soviet Union/, or “rat-tat-tat… Brezhnev” /the then Soviet leader/. And, – she went on, – the Kirgiz for “a house” is “uy” /uj/ (in Russian it sounds somewhat obscene), and the Kirgiz for a “well-kept building” is “uy-uy-uy” or something like that. Moreover, a film was on at the time in Frunze titled “Our Contemporary,” which in Kirgiz sounded like “Bizdyn Zamandash”.
Fort the May Day holiday, I delivered to my consulting physician the following text:
- Sizdi merekenizben kuttyktaimyn!
- Sizge zor densaulyk, zor bakyt, mol tabys tileimin!
- I congratulate you on the holiday!
- Wish you good health, happiness, and success!
I had rehearsed this congratulation for a long time. Especially difficult for me was the word “kuttyktaimyn”. I tended to pronounce it like “kutaktaimyn”, and I could not understand why Kazakh girls employed with our health centre laughed every time, when I tried to pronounce it in their presence. Subsequently, it was explained to me that “kutak” was the Kazakh for a “virile member”.
When I have delivered the above text to my doctor, she looked at me rather strangely and said: “Sorry, I’m not Kazakh”. I’m Uighur.” “Did I really learn it all for nothing? – I thought to myself. Or, I may have again mispronounced the word “kuttyktaimyn”? But she, having noticed my confusion, smiled and comforted me: “Don’t worry, I’ve got it”.
Eventually, I grew fond of the roughness of the Kazakh language, and “smoother” Turkic languages (for example, Uzbek) now seemed to me insufficiently “articulated”. I liked it when in answer to my question “Khaliniz kalay?” /How are you?/ I could hear the fruity “Zhaksy!” /good/.
I kept on familiarizing with the culture of the Kazakh people. In particular, I listened to infinite, like Kazakh steppes, dombra improvisations. There is a legend associated with this musical instrument, glorifying an invincible power of art. When Genghiz Khan’s beloved son had died while hunting, nobody dared to bring this bad news to the redoubtable khan, since he would pour molten lead down such a messenger’s throat. Then the khan’s people found a Kazakh virtuoso dombra player and ordered him to appear before the khan and express what had happened in music. The great khan listened long and silently. But, when the narration reached a climax and suddenly stopped, he realized the horrifying truth. Carrying out his threat, he ordered to pour molten lead into… the dombra.
I visited, too, the Medeo high-mountain skating rink. What a beauty opens up before you there! We greedily inhaled the purest air and admired the mountains overgrown with famous Tian Shan fir-trees. Even higher than Medeo, there was an Alpine ski resort Chimbulak, but we were not supposed to climb as high that time.
At last, my sojourn in Kazakhstan came to a close. My return path lay, again, through the then capital city of the republic, Alma-Ata. I do not know the way it is nowadays, but it was a clean and cosy city at the time, with numerous fountains and snow-clad summits of Tian Shan approaching it from afar. I bought a lot of souvenirs there, and, at a book shop, heaps of literature hardly available in Moscow, including Russian classics and amply illustrated books on antiquity. I sent all this by air mail to Moscow, whereas I myself flew to the capital of the neighbouring Soviet republic of Uzbekistan, Tashkent (now Toshkent), to see my friends. Entering the plane, I turned around and for the last time saw a sign, “Kosh keldinizder!” /Welcome!/, which was already quite intelligible to me.
I have been to Uzbekistan only for a few days, so my memories of this land are not too ample. My friends net me at the airport, and we drove for a long time down a street called “Lunacharsky Highway”. Then I wondered if anyone of the locals had an idea of this street actually bearing the name of Anatoly Lunacharsky, the minister of enlightenment in the Bolshevik government. Similarly, in Moscow we had “Kalinin Avenue”, which would rather be related with the images of Russian nature (“kalina” means a snow-ball tree in Russian), and, to much lesser extent, to the “all-Soviet monitor” Mikhail Kalinin, after whom the avenue had once been named.
I stayed for a couple of days in this republic’s capital city, Tashkent. As an innate philologist, I, first of all, noticed that in Uzbekistan, like in Russia’s Vladimir Region, people would use “o” /oh/ instead of “a” /ah/ (at least, in writing). In particular, they wrote “Uzbekiston” instead of “Uzbekistan”, and “Toshkent” instead of “Tashkent”. That was also when it came to my mind that long ago you could find in Moscow an expensive sweet wine, “Uzbekiston”.
Catching my eye, too, was the difference between the modern Tashkent and the old city. The former is noted for magnificent buildings and spacious squares (which are called “pans” in summer). The old city, on the contrary, is perfectly adapted to living in hot climate. There are narrow and shady streets there with aryks (canals) flowing on the side. There are also wattle and daub walls and cosy chaikhanas (tea houses), where you could see picturesque aqsaqals (oriental male elders), wearing caftans and skull-caps.
In Tashkent, there is a wonderful subway, resembling that in Moscow, with spacious palace-like stations. Certainly, subway stations are shaped there with the wide application of national motifs. Here, as a model station, appears “Alisher Navoi” located under the avenue of the same name, both perpetuating the famous Central-Asian poet and philosopher.
Despite the brevity of my stay in Uzbekistan, I managed to find time to visit the city of Samarkand, because I wanted so much to see Registan (Registon) Square. A train bought me there at 6 o’clock in the morning. In expectation of city life awakening, I sat down on a bench under a branchy plane tree and fell into a light sleep. Soon, some man approached me. “You may have come from afar, so you may need to refresh yourself””, – he said and extended to me a handful of mulberries. “Welcome to my chaikhana,” – he went on to say and with a hand gesture invited me to follow him. We entered his cosy chaikhana and sat down right on the floor, covered with carpets and lined with embroidered cushions. He treated me to green tea and entertained me with a leisurely talk. When it was time for me to take my leave, my host would not receive money from me, saying: “You’re my guest, aren’t you?”
Warmed by gentle oriental hospitality, I got a bus which took me directly to the goal of my travel: the Registan square opened up before me in all its grandeur. The oldest out of the three buildings lining the square is the Ulugh Beg madrasa – it was built in the 15th century AD. Ulugh Beg was Tamerlane’s grandson and the ruler of the state founded by him, with Samarkand as the capital city. Unlike his granddad, who had predominantly been preoccupied with conquering new lands, Ulugh Beg concentrated more on scientific work and enlightening his subjects. Of all sciences, he preferred astronomy and, among other things, built an observatory. The slogan that could be seen on educational institutions that he had built read: “A quest for knowledge is a duty of each Muslim man and Muslim lady”. Ulugh Beg set up scientific and educational traditions, which were taken up by Samarkand State University.
My sojourn in Uzbekistan was brief, but action-packed. I retain vivid memories of its people, of its distinctive and still universal culture.
The prehistory of my trip to Azerbaijan was as follows. One of my friends was a serviceman, and he had often been sent to various localities of the Soviet Union, and even abroad. This time, he, together with his family, was sent to Azerbaijan. The situation in this republic was tense: after Armenia’s attempt to annex Nagorno-Karabakh, the wave of anti-Armenian pogroms swept across Azerbaijan. Thereafter, Russian troops were brought there, and they shot dead a lot of people. All in all, I made up my mind to rush to this hot spot, so as to support my friends morally.
Using backstairs influence, I procured an air ticket to Baku, sent a cable so that I could be met at the airport, and in a couple of days I arrived in the capital city of Azerbaijan. To my unpleasant surprise, nobody came to meet me there. My friends’ phone did not answer, and I only had available the military unit number. What was to be done?
I took a taxi and showed the military unit number to the driver. I do not know how matters stand now, but at that time there were no signs “The military unit No. so-and-so” on such objects’ entrance (there were no signs there at all, to be more precise). The driver was Baku born and bred, so he knew the location of many military units in the city, but, surely, he could not know their numbers. All in all, we started driving from one military unit to another. Each time I entered a checkpoint and asked if colonel so-and-so served there. But each time, after the needed clarification I was answered in the negative.
Certainly, we had a talk of one thing and another with the driver in between. I feared he would talk about politics. And that was exactly what happened. In his reasoning I could hear resentment towards Russians, but he was tactful enough not to go into personals, and his message came to “abstract humanism”, that is, you can’t kill a human, by he an Azeri or any other national.
We had visited a number of military units, and then I considered it inappropriate to hold the driver any longer. In line with oriental hospitality, he refused to take money from me, but, after all, I managed to pass off some amount to him. With a suitcase in my hand, I dragged myself through the streets and squares of an unknown city.
Of course, I felt uncomfortably, but I had no felling of despair. It had already become dark by then, but street lamps went up, so it was bright enough. It was early November, but, since Baku had the same latitude as Madrid, it was warm enough, about 15 degrees Celsius. The passers-by that I met on my way were polite and affable, and there were neither drunks nor tramps among them. Even the packs of youths I came across looked friendly and were dressed in suits and ties. All in all, the centre of Baku made a good impression with its clean streets, mid-rise buildings, squares with fountains and public gardens with benches (probably, one could see a similar thing somewhere in Paris). The windows were invitingly lit in residential houses, and it seemed to me that if I knocked, the door would be opened, and, maybe, even a night’s lodging could be provided for me.
Eventually, I stumbled upon some big and bright hotel. I was already on the point of rejoicing, but it turned out they had no vacant rooms there. But then I found a long-distance coin telephone in the hall, over which I called my friend in Moscow. He gave me the phone number of his Baku pal, a certain Nazim who could help me with a night’s lodging. And so it happened. Nazim was there in a few minutes. He took me to another hotel, where a room turned out for me, where I could get through that night.
In the morning, I resumed attempts to reach my friends by phone. Happily, those attempts proved successful this time around. I learned the address of the military unit where my friend served, and, having checked out, rushed there. I was met at the checkpoint by an orderly officer who was so kind and complacent that it seemed to me he was a bit tipsy (Eid al-Adha was celebrated in Azerbaijan at the time). Shortly, my friend appeared before me in all his military grandeur.
And now I found myself at his home. At my disposal there was a room in the flat which my friend occupied with his wife and son. As the only inconvenience there came their dog, which we failed to achieve mutual understanding with. It was a hybrid male mastiff-Doberman, and it was settling himself in the hall.
A dinner was arranged on the occasion of my arrival. There was no end of questions asked (through the lack of neither mobile phones nor the Internet, news would not be very fast to spread). It turned out that my friends had not yet received my cable (it would take it another couple of days to reach them), whereas their phone would always go haywire.
The next day, we went sightseeing. First of all, I noticed that the residents of Baku called their city not [baˊku], but [baˊkı], so I, too, started to call it so. Some buildings bore the traces of shells, and little vases with flowers set in memory of the “events” could be seen here and there. Soon we approached the ruins of some church. I just opened my mouth, but my friends anticipated me: “Do not say anything, or else you may be misunderstood.” Then they whispered in my ear: “It’s an Armenian church”. I got the point right away and restrained myself from asking any questions. Later, having made sure no one was around to hear us, I asked my friends weather any Armenians were left in the city. My friends answered that they knew about, at least, one Armenian who was “in hiding” in the military compound and whom his fellow soldiers blamed for “framing” them. I also learned that some Azerbaijanis regretted the Armenians’ exodus, since there had been many teachers, physicians, and other highly skilled workers among them. In the meantime, we were walking past a Jewish cemetery. ”And what’s become of the Jews?” – I asked. “They had made off before the anti-Armenian pogroms started,” – was the answer.
As for the rest, the life in Baki made quite a favourable impression on me. I was pleased by the Baki residents’ amiability, by the full shop shelves (especially in contract to the then hungry Moscow) and also by the fact that food stuffs in the market were there cheaper than in state-owned outlets. Moreover, I felt that the Azerbaijanis had their own culture, which was inseparable from the European (above all, Russian) culture. I saw a monument to K. Marx having Azeri features and captured, for some reason, in an ice skating posture. I also saw commemorative plaques on buildings perpetuating the memory of outstanding Azerbaijani writers, painters, and composers. By the way, there is an imposing jazz school in Baki, based on the traditions of the local folk musical improvisation, the Mugham. When I asked a passer-by how to get to the Maiden Tower, he answered me fully in the spirit of Russian classical literature: “You see, sir, the road leading there is, how to say it best, somewhat convoluted”. As for the Maiden Tower proper (which is considered one of Baki’s main places of interest), I could never figure out what it had been built for. One of the legends has it that this tower “grew up” out of the ancient basilica, built in the place of execution of one of Christ’s disciples, Bartholomew.
Certainly, I could not wait to come nearer to the Caspian Sea. Although it was the month of November outdoors, I could not miss a chance to plunge into tis chilling waters. Also, I noticed that Baki’s beaches with their facilities were submerged. In former times, the Caspian Sea was growing shallow, and even a reversal of some rivers to feed it was considered in earnest. In recent years, however, the sea started rising again; apparently, it is governed by some hydrological cycles which are unknown to us. On the Caspian Sea coast there is one of Baki’s most prestigious districts, Zagulba, built up with the mansions belonging to prosperous Azeris. Should you travel away from the sea, you can see the city of Shamakhi, the remainder of the Shamakhi khanate, where ruling was the “Shamakhi tsarina” sung of by Pushkin. South of Baki, there is a heavenly spot of subtropical nature, Lenkoran.
Also, we travelled to the mountains for truffles. Surely, we failed to find any. However, I collected there a bundle of fragrant steppe herbs, which long afterwards still reminded me of my journey.
My trip to Azerbaijan brought the history of my familiarizing with the USSR’s republics to a close. As soon as the borders were opened, I, right off the bat, rushed to visit foreign countries.