I had only been in the Soviet Union for about seven days, the first five days having been spent in a new, obnoxiously-fancy, un-Soviet, Finnish-constructed Intourist Hotel in Leningrad. “Go to Pushkin Square in Moscow on Pushkin's birthday, June 6th!” a Russian teacher had said to me in California. Not that I was a specialist in Russian or a student of Pushkin. I knew nothing of the poetry of Pushkin – and shamefully little still. But on June 6, I, and four or five other young, enticed Americans, on our first trip to the “USSR”, traveled on the subway, heading to a “metro station” of the poet's name. The extent of my knowledge of Russian at that time constituted a complete vocabulary of perhaps 40-50 words – some of which were even known in phrases. In other words, I was linguistically dysfunctional in Russian.
There, on Pushkin Square, after about five hours around the statue of the poet, my relation to Russia was permanently established.
Sometimes speaking to the “four winds” – sometimes three, two or one – stood people of all ages and types, reciting poetry to the listening crowds. Now, my experience of poetry in the West – aside from a very few good poems well read in classes – was that it was illusive or effusive utterances, seemingly deliberately obscure, and often so purely idiosyncratic to the writer as to be disinteresting or unintelligible to others. As to poetry in the Russian language, I knew less than zero – because I did not know Russian either. So I could only watch and observe the people reciting incomprehensible sounds.
The first and most unexpected sight was the enthusiastic passion – having already been officially exposed to the serious bureaucratic, Communist “face”. But here was sometimes displayed, unabashed passion and soul. Or sometimes a timid young child would recite – with mother’s nearby insistence and encouragement – to the by-standers straining to hear the small, uncertain words. Old men. Young women students. Housewives, whose like in the USA led me to disbelieve they could ever either stand up before a crowd, or know any poetry to recite. Neither their standardized dresses, nor their faces, nor their purses and loaded sacks in hand, allowed me to believe such women would recite poetry so obviously close to their hearts. I could not believe, or understand, what I was seeing. After a couple of hours just watching, I could withstand this state no longer. I searched among the Soviet crowd for someone who might speak some English. After a friendly “nyet” or two, I found a man who must have soon wondered if I were not a bit crazy, simple or stupid, asking questions about things so obvious to sight. Never – as I said it in those times: “from California’s ‘Golden Gate’ to the Iron Curtain” – had I ever seen anything quite like this. I reviewed my time living and traveling in America and Western Europe. No, nothing. And I must admit that it was somehow psychologically strange that I needed to hear confirmed in words, what I could see clearly before my eyes. “Yes they are reciting poetry.” “Yes anyone can recite poetry here.” “No, it is not only Pushkin’s poetry; but mostly, because it is his birthday. Do you know Pushkin?”, my English-speaking Russian said to me. With real embarrassment I admitted my ignorance – “But, of course, I know the name”. And the militia, we naive tourists were so anxious about (would they allow this public event? would they arrest people?), stood by indifferently, in conversation, or even attentively listening to someone’s poetry recitation. And the faces in the audiences!
A woman suddenly approaches me with a camera, indicating her desire to take my picture. Was this an insidious trap of some strange kind? “Why does she want to take my picture?”, I asked via my impromptu translator. What he told me was so clear in her face and eyes as she answered, yet still impossible for me to accept or believe – after, or perhaps because of, all my prior life and experience in the USA and the West: “I look for the mankind, the human being”. We young “intourists” were somehow conditioned to expect the KGB to be listening to us, even via salt shakers on our dinner tables in the Intourist hotels (poor spy movies?) But I, with some uncertainty, agreed to her photographing me. (It was only later in Russia that I came to understand that “western” faces were very readily distinguishable and (then still) novel and interesting to Russians. This woman, in search of the essence of man with her camera, had spoken with such revealed sincerity and emotion, that I was charmed, astonished, disbelieving, and touched at the same time. Now I began to be uncertain of even what I heard in English! I had never seen such open enthusiasm, such willingness to speak unreservedly of the great and noble aspects and feelings of the human being. It was impossible for me to imagine even a drunken “Westerner” speaking with such passion and verve – it was neither rational, nor moderated enough; and few “Westerners” I knew would not be embarrassed to be so open and honest of any higher ideals and aspirations. Is this the Soviet Union? How can it be this way?! What is this place? I was mystified – but charmed.
It is not even really polite, in the West, to describe someone this way – even if they are toothless and a “peasant”; but that is what I saw.
There were many events, scenes and thoughts that day, which permanently sealed my interest and relation to Russia. I had lived and traveled in Western Europe many times, but no one had even hinted to me, nor had any of my Western European experience given me a clue, that Russians were so different.
I recall my emerging disappointment in Germany, where I had first traveled in my early 20’s in semi-conscious, naive search for some magic and mystery in “Old Europe”... Years later, more mature and experienced, I recall, after about a year living and studying in the Federal Republic of Germany, writing reluctantly to a dear friend in the USA: “I find no mystery here.” And it was indeed so. For example, the radio was full of “new” music from America where it had been played 15-20 years before; and things American were “très chic” – like breakfast cereals and blue jeans. But the daily life, the people, the conversation, the atmosphere, the remaining old buildings (not destroyed by the World Wars, or progress), did not have the mystery and magic I still somehow sought. It was a disappointment and a resignation to the facts of life. I began to feel that I was in a sub-colony, or a sub-nation to the USA – but was not courageous enough to offend my various “European” friends with this truth.
I recall sitting daily in a student cafeteria in a famous old German University town, around a table with six or so strangers, none of whom would say a single word to each other, even in polite chat, just awkwardly trying not to look as each other as they enjoyed their meal at the same table. Strange manners I thought; strange “uptight” people and society. I remember the fear in someone’s eyes when I broke the unspoken rules, said hello in German, and tried to make some small talk. After about a year, one afternoon, when I physically felt my soul being fought against by social forces telling me to be silent, I decided to leave Germany. The atmosphere was too concrete-like. By the time I had arrived in Russia, I had stop expecting magic and mystery in Europe. But one unforgettable sight…
I watched an old woman for about 45 minutes in astonishment. She had drawn the largest audience I had seen around the monument. And as they listened, silently, attentively, sometimes laughing – as we say it in the west: she “had the crowd in her hands” – I watched one half hour pass by, as this short, stocky, peasant-looking woman continued to recite poetry from memory. (The housewives had been difficult to believe; this was impossible.) I would not have been able to believe what I was seeing, even if I had seen her reading the poetry from a book, but from memory… Such women took care of goats or cows in fields, they did not – now for 40 minutes non-stop! – recite Pushkin’s poetry (of which I – an “educated” American tourist with money in bad Communist Russia – knew not a single verse!). I was a bit perplexed and confused.
Such animation and vitality (in a toothless peasant of her age) – as she periodically switched the rather full sack from hand to hand (the stone being damp from the light falling rain) – I simply, again, could not believe what I was seeing. Something must be wrong, somehow. I needed words in English, to hear confirmed what I was seeing. So, again – as the incomprehensible Russian continued to flow from her to her now visible loyal and devoted audience – I sought out somehow to answer my stupid questions. “Yes, she is reciting poems from memory.” “Yes she is a short, stocky peasant woman with little more than two teeth.” Yes this is really happening I needed someone to know. It was a strange experience. I simply was unable to believe what I saw clearly happening before me – even when it was “proved” in English.
This was about my seventh day in “evil” communist Russia, and I thought to myself that day, in English, that I would always return in my future to Russia…to this strange, incredible place. I had come in following the related historical themes of the “sophia”, the Palladium and the “Third Rome” – but I found unexpectedly some strange magic, some strange soul and vitality in the people, some unexpected mystery. “Un-western”, and yet so close or kin to “western” at the same time. “Do people really have such souls?” I asked myself skeptically. “Or am I somehow not correctly understanding what I am seeing?” Russia had enchanted this moderately well-traveled American.
First published in the magazine English, #21, June 2000, p. 12.