My last visit to Russia, undertaken when researching a biography of Tolstoy, was in the tail end of communist days. This time, 24 years on, I had warned my wife and daughter – “There’ll be no restaurants in Leningrad, not that you can eat in.”
“Petersburg,” they corrected.
“Petersburg, Leningrad – when I stayed there last, they put me in a tourist hotel. It was as far out of town as Reading is from Trafalgar Square. Dinner took two hours coming, and consisted of a plate of tinned peas.”
Needless to say, everything has changed! Superb, cheap Finnish hotel on Vasilyevsky Island. Not one dud meal in a week. The best was eaten at the monastery of St Alexander Nevsky. Borsch, black bread, little pancakes, sour cream, some pastries with cheese in them, black tea. Dostoevsky is buried there. The monks were exiled after the Bolshevik takeover and many of the buildings were given over to government institutes. When I last visited, it was some atheist educational dump and only with difficulty did I get into the cemetery. Now the swarms of young monks are back and amble about the well-tended gardens. The church is full to bursting (on a weekday) with people praying, lighting candles to the last tsar (a devotion one step beyond the possible, surely, even for the most enthusiastic English Russophile). The crowd is of all ages, including quite groovy young women in cheap, tarty clothes. The monks huddle around what appears to be a birthday cake with candles on an altar, while the crowds join fervently in the chanting.
Dostoevsky’s flat, where he wrote The Brothers Karamazov, from 1878 to 1880, and where he died on the sofa in the study aged less than 60, is almost unbearably moving. Like many great novelists – my friend Beryl Bainbridge comes, as so often, to mind – he kept the creative nerves tingling with copious numbers of cigarettes. On the last box of papirosi, his 11-year old daughter has written in pencil, “Papa died today”, with the date. Is this the first example in history of a cigarette packet carrying a health warning? If so, it is the first which brought tears to my eyes.
And then, since the day was devoted to literary pilgrimages, to see the modernist poet Anna Akhmatova’s flat, also kept as a superb museum. It was here that she sustained her really extraordinary ménage à trois with one of her many lovers and his long-suffering doctor wife, who paid the rents; here, from 1935 to 1940 that she wrote her great poem Requiem (another masterpiece by a cigarette-addict). Her son was arrested, her lover was arrested, her first husband was shot ... She doggedly went on making the personal and the inner the subject of her art, while the Soviets insisted that the tide of history was sweeping all that soul-stuff away. Today, her experience, crystallised in the greatest poetry of the 20th century, is seen for what it always was – immortal. The Russians have even named a small planet after her, while all the KGB nerds and thugs who made her life hell are nameless.
I once asked Isaiah Berlin to give me the gist of his famous 1945 conversation with the great woman in this very flat, which began at 3pm one afternoon and continued until 11am the next morning. He obliged. It was, precisely, about the core centrality of personal experience against theory, of love against power, with many a glance towards Turgenev, Tolstoy, Pushkin, Herzen and all the favourite authors this prodigious pair loved. Berlin took about half an hour to give me the gist of the 20-hour marathon, but since he spoke more and more rapidly with the passing years, I suspect I got most of it. No wonder it became one of the conversations of historical legend. Rumours of it reached Stalin’s disgruntled ears – “So our nun has been receiving foreign spies,” he is reputed to have said. She was hardly a nun – though the one point on which she and Berlin seriously disagreed was the existence of a personal god. For her, this was central.
We come home via the ferry to Helsinki. When we set out, the Gulf of Finland was thick with ice. While we were in Russia, spring came all at once. The Neva melted in great noisy cracks. Huge snow-lumps cascaded from neoclassical parapets. Finland, on our return, was similarly watching the spring come, not gradually, but in a burst. A park that last week had been packed with ice and dirty snow is now a blaze of bluebells. The market hall in Helsinki must be one of the best places in the world to go food shopping. Provided you like fish and reindeer. They have reindeer steaks, reindeer burgers, reindeer stew – and reindeer skins, of which we bought several. All Finnish dishes, even a cheese sandwich, would appear to be garnished with dill.
At the market café where, homesick for Russia, we sat drinking black tea, a sensationally drunk old Finn approaches and, in rather broken English, tries to explain that he watches an English TV programme. The word “Yorkshire”, with some difficulty, comes forth. Channel hopping on the hotel TV, we find Emmerdale with Finnish subtitles. The low grade of Finnish TV is a sign of their sophistication rather than the reverse. That is, most Finns do not watch telly; they read. Two of the largest bookstores I ever saw – easily as big as Barnes & Noble in New York, are to be found in the middle of Helsinki, the shelves groaning with historical, philosophical and literary works that would, in England, be thought too highbrow for popular consumption. Indeed, the largest of these emporia is called the Academic Book Shop but it adjoins Stockmann, the popular beautifully designed department store. Just down the marvellous boulevard is the legendary Marimekko textile company. I know you can get their fabrics in John Lewis but there is an added excitement about the fons et origo.
Home to our overcrowded archipelago, where the glad nuptials of our future monarch and the forthcoming council elections are billed as the next excitements. No doubt I shall get in the mood. Someone who is a bit of a royal insider told me that the happy couple were to have been proclaimed as “William and Catherine”, with their initials festooned on banners all the way down the Mall. The innocence of this, on behalf of the royal family and household, was pleasing. It needed an outsider to indicate that calling them “William and Kate” would avoid the absurdity of an infinity of WCs, stretching all the way from Admiralty Arch to Buckingham Palace.
Going to Russia was a good reminder of the fact that royal personages are really what we choose to make of them, a bit like those beguiling cardboard cut-out dolls that you can dress in a whole variety of costumes. The last Romanovs were regarded by such sensible heads as their English kinswoman Queen Victoria as almost criminally irresponsible and foolish. Then, by the Bolsheviks, as positively evil. Later, by liberal historians, as pathetic victims of history. Now, in the Russian churches, as venerable icons before whom the faithful pray. Let’s hope for the sake of “W and K” that we do not festoon any such intolerable heaviness around their young necks. So far, the worst, or best, a loyal subject can do is to avoid any silly metaphors about fastening seat belts or doors to manual.