An Innocent Abroad (Japan and Russia)

To continue my jubilee quest of 50 years ago (see my previous post of 06.10.2018 – An Innocent Abroad (Hong Kong):

Stopover in Tokyo

After leaving Hong Kong I had a stopover in Japan. Unlike Hong Kong where street names signs were duplicated in English, Tokyo streets were all in Japanese. Understandably, they made no concessions to Australian tourists. Oh, how I wish that Google Translatehad been invented then! And there were no or Google Maps: not even an internetto share my frustrations with my Facebookfriends. So after spending two nights in Tokyo and Yokohama YMCA’s, I took the easy option and booked a bus tour to Mount Fuji and environs.

October 1968 – cone of Mt Fuji

The beautiful Japanese countryside was a welcome relief from the throngs of Tokyo and Yokohama.

Stopover in Moscow

After a rattling 10 hour flight across Siberia, the Russian Aeroflot airliner touched down in a chilly Moscow where the trees were wearing their autumn garbs, the skies were grey with clouds, the Muscovites were donned in their thick black coats, and their faces were already set grimly against the onset of winter. But it was not only the weather that was cold, for in 1968, it was still the Cold War with the West. I could still feel the excitement at arriving in an alien territory.

October 1968 – Moscow – Red Square crowds

Even so, Moscow was a beautiful city and one steeped in history. I again took the easy option and boarded a sightseeing tour.

Destination London

When I touched down at Heathrow, I immediately felt at home. I was greeted by friends who spoke Australian, and who introduced me to familiar sites that I had up until then only been able to read about in books and travel brochures. The first night I was taken to Piccadilly Circus and the statue of Eros. I have been in love with them ever since.

I hadn’t fully realized the solitude that necessarily accompanies the lone traveller. Nor the anxiety of travel: of having to deal with timetables and unfamiliar situations. It’s something the travel agent didn’t deem necessary to relate.

From the perspective of 2018, I wonder how I could have been so naive and unprepared for my journey – just throwing my clothes into a port on the morning of departure from Brisbane. No travel money, no travel books. I was focused on my destination in London. I forgot that travel, like life, is a journey not a destination. Young people today have it easy. All their travel information is online – so much so that they almost don’t need to actually travel at all.


A gentleman in Moscow

 Fifty years ago this October, I briefly visited Moscow en route to the UK. There were signs that the cold war between East and West was slowly defrosting but even so I felt a sense of excitement just to be there: that I was infringing on an alien culture. I was staying at the Hotel Berlin on Red Square and the autumn cold was already seeping through the double glazed windows of my austere room. Outside, in Red Square an endless stream of Muscovites lined up outside the Lenin Mausoleum waiting their turn for a glimpse of their revolutionary hero; another line waited outside the GUM department store to shop; and at the far end of the square, St Basil’s Cathedral was undergoing restoration, though I was still able to enter and marvel at the holy icons adorning the walls of the many private chapels of the former Tsars and other Russian nobility.

St Basil’s Cathedral on Moscow’s Red Square. Undergoing restoration in 1968

The 1965 movie and hence the book of Boris Pasternak’s ‘Doctor Zhivago’ were still very much an influence on me then. For me, it helped to humanise the inhumanity that occurred during and after the Russian revolution; it was ordinary people tested in extraordinary times; it put the individual before the State – a fact that caused the Soviet Government to force Boris Pasternak to reject his Nobel Prize. 

The cover of Amor Towles 2016 book ‘A Gentleman in Moscow’

‘A Gentleman in Moscow’ is another life-affirming book full of humour and charm that brings together the profound, the political and the personal aspects of Soviet life during and after the revolution. In this case, the novel’s protagonist is Count Alexander Rostov, starting in Russia’s turbulent early 1920s and spanning 30 years. When the Count is deemed an unrepentant aristocrat by a Bolshevik tribunal, he is sentenced to house arrest in the Metropol, a grand hotel across the street from the Kremlin. Having never worked a day in his life, he must now live in one room as history is being made outside.

Happily I now read that the book is soon to be made into a television adaption. Kenneth Branagh is to play the Count. I hadn’t imagined what the Count might have looked like, but Kenneth Branagh seems to be ideal. 

Moscow’s Metropol Hotel in 2018 (Google street view)

‘It’s Pistols at Dawn, Sir!’ (again)

‘It’s pistols as dawn, Sir!’

Some five years ago, I blogged the question “Whatever happened to duelling?”

to which Paul Bailey replied that the first libel laws were passed to stop people from settling disputes with duels. More recently, American author Amor Towles wrote in his wonderfully perceptive book “A Gentleman in Moscow”: When duelling was first discovered by the Russian officer corps in the early 1700s, they took to it with such enthusiasm that the Tsar had to forbid the practice for fear that there would soon be no one left to lead his troops.

I had always been under the impression that duelling was a historically recent contest between two people to settle a point of honour, and, indeed, my computer’s dictionary backed me up with:  the sense of duelling as a contest to decide a point of honour dates from the early 17th century.

However, last week I participated in a seminar in which one of the speakers, Ray Kerkhove, mentioned that Australia’s Aboriginal people also conducted individual and collective duels under strict rules and fought with their traditional weapons such as spears, boomerangs or fighting sticks. Presumably, the history of their duels dates back much further than the European’s 17th century. 

Maybe our sense of honour has always been an inherent part of our human nature, and more importantly, its defence seems vital to our survival as individuals, communities, or nations.

Fallen Statues

Moscow’s Park of the Fallen Heroes (Photo Paul L Dineen)

With the fall of the USSR, thousands of Soviet statues were destroyed or dispersed. Some ended up in Moscow’s Fallen Heroes Park. It displays more than 700 sculptures saved and preserved from the Soviet era. Walking through the park is like visiting a cemetery, bronze and stone sculptures loom from every corner. The park has mutilated busts of Stalin, as well as those of Lenin and a statue of Dzerzhinsky, the founder of what became the KGB. There’s a massive Soviet emblem, and clusters of modern art contrasting with the very non-conceptual Communist monuments.

Further to my blog of 09.09.2017 – Centenary of a Revolution, my son Trevor informs me that Melbourne’s Heidelberg Gallery (The Heidi) has a Constructivist Display of artworks mainly from the Russian Revolution. No doubt many of the items on display would have come from Moscow’s Fallen Heroes Park.

I have never felt a great emotional attachment to statues. My first was probably the dog sitting on the tucker box five miles from Gundagai.

The Dog on the Tucker box (photo courtesy AYArktos)

For me, it always the highlight of our road trips to Melbourne.

The other  statue that has triggered my emotion was seeing Winston Churchill’s statue on a Paris footpath as our tour bus flashed past. It was so unexpected, considering the historic rivalry between the English and the French, but a touching acknowledgement of France’s gratitude for Churchill’s help during WWII.

Centenary of a Revolution

Grave of Karl Marx in London’s Highgate Cemetery (Photo courtesy Paasikivi)

When I was living in London during the late 1960s and early 1970s, I was intrigued by the huge bust of Karl Marx in Highgate Cemetery not far from where I lived. This was at the height of the Cold War between the West and Russia and just half a century after the Russian revolution. Feelings of angst were still running high then, and Karl Marx statue endured several bombing attempts.

Marx had hoped to incite the British workers to revolt, but this didn’t seem to be in their nature. It was left to the Russian peasants in 1917. Perhaps they were the more desperate and downtrodden.

This week I attended a lecture by visiting Professor Sheila Fitzpatrick to mark the centenary of the October 1917 Russian revolution. I was surprised to learn that the event is not being celebrated with any great enthusiasm, not even in Russia. An exhibition in London of Russian revolutionary inspired artworks seems to be the world’s major contribution to its memory.

The passion for revolution seems to have burned out and I don’t think even Karl Marx statue will raise the prospect of another explosion.

The Lepers of Viluisk – 2

Kate Marsden memorial statue at Viluisk

Further to my blog of 24.07.2017, I was keen to learn more about Englishwoman Kate Marsden and her journey to Viluisk in Siberia to establish a hospital for lepers.

Naturally, I looked up Wikipedia first, and here is the introduction to what it had to say:

Kate Marsden (13 May 1859 – 26 May 1931) was a British missionary, explorer, writer and nursing heroine. Supported by Queen Victoria and Empress Maria Fedorovna she investigated the care of leprosy. She set out on a journey from Moscow to Siberia to find a cure, creating a leper treatment centre in Siberia. She returned to England and inspired Bexhill Museum, but she was obliged to retire as a trustee. Marsden was dogged after her journey by homophobia, her finances were questioned as were her motives for her journey. Her accusers almost succeeded in making her sexuality the basis for an “Oscar Wilde”-type trial. She was however elected a fellow of the Royal Geographical Society. She has a large diamond named after her and is still remembered in Siberia, where a large memorial statue was erected at Sosnovka village in 2014.

However, google led me to another Kate Marsden, whose WordPress page revealed that KM The Younger has just completed a re-enactment of the original Kate Marsden’s journey and is now writing a book about the subject. You can find out a whole lot more about the two KMs by clicking on her webpage here:

The Lepers of Viluisk

Leper Yakuts (Eastern Siberian people) in Viluisk (1905)

At a recent meeting of the Friends of Peel Island Association Inc. a colleague showed me the following extract from ‘The Friendship Book’ that had been published in 1976:

‘Wednesday July 7

 ‘Very few people in this country (England) have heard of Kate Marsden, yet in parts of modern Russia she is famous. For in the 1890’s this trained nurse and dedicated Christian began to inquire into the lot of lepers in Russia. Armed with a letter of introduction from the Princess of Wales, she personally interviewed the Empress of all the Russias and learnt of the lepers of Viluisk, expelled from their homes to a living death in the frozen forests of Siberia.

‘Kate Marsden went to see for herself, enduring terrible hardships on the journey which were to leave her an invalid for thirty years. What she saw made her badger the Russian authorities until, six years later, a leper hospital was built.

‘That same hospital was closed down not so many years ago because, thanks to one determined woman, there are now no more lepers in Viluisk.’

Notwithstanding that the term ‘lepers’ was no longer in use in 1976 except in derogatory terms and jokes, the article surprised me because I had never considered Russia to have had such patients. However, as leprosy (or Hansen’s Disease, as it is now known) is thought to have originated in China, it would have been brought by traders along the Silk Road all those centuries ago and thence into what is now known as Russia.