I’ve never visited Russia, but I’ve lived with a powerful imagined notion of this vast country for most of my life. It began as a child watching my father’s production of The Cherry Orchard at Chester Little Theatre and being enraptured. My father loved everything Russian before he ever travelled there – I’m afraid he might even have had a leaning towards the Soviet Regime – despite misgivings. In the cupboard there was a maquette of his stage set for the play, perfectly made, with little models of the characters in their silk clothes. I’d open the door to look at it admiringly, sometimes taking it down to re-enact parts of the play. Some years later, when I was eleven, every Tuesday evening we sat down to listen to a twenty-episode dramatisation of War and Peace on Radio 4. It was marvellous. At thirteen, inspired by the radio, I attempted to read War and Peace in three volumes of tiny print, which involved skipping the war and philosophy and revelling in the romance.
My imagined Russia was a place of vast empty landscapes, planes of snow, birch and rowan trees, and long light summers, of the wild haunting folk music that runs through Rite of Spring, of The Three Sisters and their longing for Moscow. I too longed to visit. I intended to save up to go on the Trans Siberian Railway as soon as I could.
My romantic attachment was still more or less intact in recent years when I read Natasha’s Dance by Orlando Figes full of rich stories about the cultural history of Russia, and Helen Dunmore’s brilliant novel, The Siege, set during the siege of Leningrad. But by the time I read her sequel, Betrayal, all romantic notions of Russia had been replaced by something much darker. I can’t remember why. A crack in the illusion and the news is sobering. Reality at last caught up with me. And earlier this week I finished reading Andy Miller’s novel Snowdrops – a haunting book, powerfully evocative of the dark nature of present day Moscow.
I’ll probably never visit Russia now. The desire isn’t there any longer. But I hope that the old Russia I imagined still exists at heart, if only in the richness of its culture, folklore and religion.
Tricia Durdey dances, writes, and teaches Pilates.