Russian visit reveals contradictions

(December 10, 1998)
By Stuart Durrant
Special to the Gazette

There are very few direct references to Newfoundland in Russian literature, yet the students who participated in the 1998 Summer Russian Program can cite one such rare reference. In his masterpiece St. Petersburg, the eminent symbolist prose writer Andrei Bely makes two direct references to Newfoundland. Consequently, it was a natural choice as a text for a summer course which examined the symbolic confrontation between east and west, the dual temperament in Russian culture comprising European and Asiatic elements.

The novel is set in the tense atmosphere of mist-enveloped St. Petersburg, where revolutionaries, workers and malcontents plot to detonate bombs to herald the new order. Amidst these fluctuating political forces, which Bely senses in the cultural contradictions embodied by St. Petersburg, Apollon Ableukov, an imperial senator, inquires about "the consumption of pepper on the island of Newfoundland." His interlocutor observes that "pepper is consumed by the Newfoundlanders in enormous quantities, which was an invariable fact in all countries that had a constitution."

It would be presumptuous to decipher this obtuse reference with any certainty, yet to the students of Russian 4100 (Russian Literature) and 3007 (Revolution and Cultural History of St. Petersburg) this reference acquired personal significance.

On Aug. 4, 1998, 25 students arrived at our destination the former palace of Prince Vasily Kochubey in Tsarskoye Selo, a town just south of St. Petersburg, whose small size belies its importance to Russian cultural history. This was an ideal setting to study Russian language, Russian literature and the cultural evolution of St. Petersburg. The town's extremely rich cultural heritage provokes an interest in Russian poetry and literature, painting, sculpture and architecture. But the history of the former imperial capital also represents the fate of Russia as a whole. On June 24, 1710, Peter the Great presented his future wife with the territory of present day Tsarskoye Selo; this day is the birth date of the town. It was the beloved retreat of the future empress Elizabeth, Peter's daughter, and later of Catherine II (known as Catherine the Great).

Prior to the revolution, the town was no ordinary suburb of St. Petersburg, but the summer residence of Russian tsars, and the last residence of Tsar Nicolas II and his family prior to deportation to Ekaterinburg, where they were assassinated. The impressive classical and baroque palaces are separated by spectacular parks, broad and narrow pathways lined with neoclassical statuary. Many claim it is the birthplace of Russian literature, since this town is fraught with literary connotations Alexander Pushkin, Russia's national poet, studied at the lycée founded by Alexander I in 1811 to educate the children of the nobility, and the town is the setting for 130 of Pushkin's poems.

For these writers of our century and for our students as well the political and social realities of the revolution and serious turns of events which characterize Russian history were never far off. The urban world of St. Petersburg is just 20 minutes away. The capital gave rise to the works of Pushkin Gogol, Dostoevsky, Blok and Bely and a host of other writers.
In retrospect, the political and economic events of last August seemed orchestrated to dramatize the contradictions of Russian life, the curious interrelationship between literature and politics in that country and those very cultural movements, moods and themes related to Tsarskoye Selo and St. Petersburg which we were studying. In the western newspapers we could read about the economic instability triggered by the government's reckless reliance on borrowing to cover the federal budget deficit, but the constant sense of tension caused by the unpredictability of imminent change was strangely reminiscent of Bely's frenetic descriptions.

By August 15 the first indications of abrupt change were evident as the rouble fluctuated by 10 per cent daily. (Over the next two weeks the rate of exchange would increase by almost 300 percent).

In mid-August panic buying was evident. The ominous symptoms of destabilization which were the barometer for political prognosis in the late eighties reappeared overnight vodka disappeared from the stores in St. Petersburg, then flour, sugar, rice, kasha and otherbasic products. Lineups reappeared for food. Banks were closed, and people were unable to withdraw money or to buy western currency. The black market was reactivated. In hopes of making extra cash people, particularly the elderly, were selling off their last treasures on street corners. Luxury items and imported goods lingered but then were bought up, the value of our money soared, in proportion as the rouble lost value. Demonstrations of protestors, representing various ideological shades of radicalism from Nationalist and Fascist, to Statist and Communists were more numerous on Nevsky Prospect, trying to rally support for change and order.

Then with a subway token for 20 cents, the students returned in the evening to Tsarskoye Selo and the omnipresent shadows from the past grand houses, now transformed into schools, hospitals, official buildings.

The shift from provincial tranquility to the cosmopolitanism of St. Petersburg became a daily custom for the students, who travelled into the city following morning lectures and lunch, for excursions and exploration, realizing that their own "sense of place" lead them nostalgically back to the streets of Tsarskoye Selo which Pushkin wrote of so lyrically.

This attachment must be akin to what Pushkin wrote of, shared and echoed by poets and writers of successive generations who witnessed the chilling signs of political and economic crisis of other periods. Russian politics has been characterized as a mixture of the apocalyptic and the absurd. Petersburg has been the arena for implementing theories and reforms in the name of higher spiritual purposes, which have resulted in drastic change, revolution, vicious conflicts between eastern and western cultural values, traditions, philosophies and armies.

As the students returned daily to the quiet tree-lined streets, the parks and solitude of Pushkin, the contrasts with the heightened artistic life of St. Petersburg, the frenzy and growing tension of the city could not be ignored. The same contrast was all the more profound upon returning to Newfoundland as disconnected and jarring as Bely's puzzling symbolic reference to Newfoundland a distant island.