In Our Russian Teacher's Shadow
AN outsider might wonder why, twice a week without fail, a group of students climbs up the elaborately carved stairway of an old, converted Victorian house, passes along a maze of corridors, finally entering a dim little room whose windows look across at the university tower. It is a very ordinary room, hardly the setting for revelations, yet it is just that. We meet to study Russian literature, and learn as much of life as of literature. Now an exile in this country, our teacher has lived through nearly a century of European history. Insatiable curiosity and a profound love of life have kept him as young and even younger than his students. As we read Gogol and Pushkin, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Bely, Leskov, and Chekhov, something in the text reminds him, he is swept back in time and takes us with him. We seem to float out of our window into a vivid, wider world beyond. Instead of the Clyde, the Neva flows; instead of on Scottish streets, we wander along prospekts, through Winter and Summer Palaces and into the cathedrals of the Imperial City of St. Petersburg, where he was born and bred. One of the four sons of a Lutheran pastor, he grew up with Protestant austerity on the one side, on the other the candles, icons, incense, and mystery of the Orthodox Church. With one ear they listened to their father's sermons, full of his love of reason and of liberty, with the other to the priests' chanting in St. Isaac's Cathedral.
He is launched in recollection. ``Our father told us of his adventures with packs of wolves as he rode about his far-flung parish, while our mother had tales of Tiflis, of her home in the snowy Caucasus. Like Pushkin we had a beloved nanny, Nyanya, tall and beautiful, wooed by a love-sick soldier in the czar's army. From her we heard fairy stories, the fables of Krylov, and accounts of the little household spirit who haunted the hearth of happy families. `Choora, choora,' we must call to invoke its protection.
``We played in the great park and around the lake at Tsarskoe Selo, the czar's village; here was Pushkin's school, there the yellow dacha where he brought his bride, Natalia Goncharov. Sometimes the poet Anna Akhmatova passed by or the czar swept along in his carriage. Everywhere elegance and luxury lived alongside poverty and oppression. `The serfs were only liberated in 1861,' our father would remind us. `Think of that first taste of freedom!'
``What sounds went echoing through our childhood - the muffled hooves of horses trotting over wooden bridges, the tinkling bells of troikas and tarantasses, the hissing of our skates on frozen canals. `Listen to the guns!' we would cry. They were fired from the Peter and Paul Fortress to warn of the breaking ice on the Neva. Music echoed everywhere during the white nights of June when darkness never fell and there was singing and dancing in the streets. All St. Petersburg was shimmering with an unearthly light, green and gold, blue and scarlet palaces were reflected in the Moika and Fontanka. We lived in a world of water, in the most beautiful city on earth.
``Every day we gazed up at the equestrian statue of Peter the Great who glared down at us. What were four little Lutherans up to in his city? There was nothing Peter had not done - shipbuilding, surgery, astrology, even dentistry. We pitied the poor courtiers who didn't dare refuse his self-made instruments - you couldn't tell Peter the Great to leave your teeth alone - you might lose your head! His character fascinated and repelled us at the same time.
``I spent hours vying with my brothers in who knew most poetry by heart. We recited long passages of Pushkin's `Bronze Horseman,' where the horseman, Peter, thundered along in pursuit of the downtrodden hero, Evgeny. Obsessed with dreams of the future, we declaimed from Gogol's `Dead Souls': `You, too, Russia, are speeding along like a spirited troika that nothing can overtake. Russia, where are you flying to? Answer!'
``We revered all those authors persecuted and exiled by the czar, but our greatest love was for Dostoevsky, who had faced the firing squad before the czar's last-minute reprieve. We traced the footsteps of his hero, Raskolnikov, along the Nevsky Prospekt and up winding back streets. See, here was the very staircase he climbed to kill the old pawnbroker, there was the very spot where he knelt to kiss the soil in expiation of his crime. At any moment, out of the mists curling and twining across the Neva, his anarchists, his devils, might slink. We would take to our heels in sudden panic, rushing over the Kalinkin Bridge as if pursued by the tyrant czar of all the Russias.
``We felt that we were living in a golden age. Who in all Europe had teachers like ours, where else did one thought set sparks off another, where else were there such writers and philosophers? In the air was a constant expectation of Utopia when all men would be free; `Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive...'
``Yet in spite of our exhilaration, we were aware of a dark side to life. There were those figures we called the Watchers on the Threshold, figures in tall hats and high-buttoned coats who followed us in the streets or stood staring up at our windows. Even our friendly concierge spied on us! - Don't trust those Lutherans! We had been scared by our father's tales of encounters with wolves. Now quite other wolves were unleashed all over Europe when the great war began. The revolution was only three years distant. Are you a Menshevik or a Bolshevik was the question. Lenin would arrive at the Finland Station, a new order would begin. Sometimes we stared across the great space of Kazan Cathedral at the czar and his Court. Had he no premonition of what lay ahead, no forewarning shiver of death in that cellar? `If you can look into the seeds of time and say which grain will grow and which will not...'
``There came the day when we left St. Petersburg at Tsarskoe Selo, the windows were shuttered as at the end of Chekhov's `Cherry Orchard,' the beds made up, the table set, the samovar ready to light. `Will we come back soon? Tomorrow?' we asked our mother. `Not quite tomorrow,' she replied. No cries of `choora, choora' could protect our dear home now. The only certainty in life for us was of family affection. The long exile had begun that would end in the mist, the rain and the snows of Scotland.''
Every autumn for years now we have set off for Russia, following in our teacher's footsteps, going where he is now too old to go. As we wander around Leningrad we keep hearing echoes of his voice with its accent of St. Petersburg. We drive in our Intourist bus over the Neva's bridges, visit the palaces at Petrodvorets and Pavlovsk. In Tsarskoe Selo, now called Pushkin, we pass the poet's yellow dacha, the Lutheran church, walk around the Catherine Palace and through the great park. Golden leaves of October flutter down on us along the tree-lined alleys, the sun glints on the lake and ducks fly up from the water. We can almost sense around us vibrations of that past happiness, hear the four brothers reciting the Bronze Horseman, see their tall Nyanya and her love-sick sergeant, feel the hopes for that brave new world. Each year now we are more and more aware of stirrings of fresh hopes, of the thawing of ice on the Neva, all over Europe.
We are back in time for the start of the Michaelmas term, climb once more up the stairway with its carvings of flutes and fiddles, enter the dim little room where our teacher awaits our return. Beyond the window lie the granite grey of the university spire, the grey Scottish sky. Where are the golden domes, the prospekts, the palaces, all those dreams of Utopia? Has he no regrets, no bitterness?
He sits there with that look described by Rupert Brooke as the ``unhoped serene that men call age.'' We begin the new term with more and still more books banned for years during the monstrous Stalin tyranny - Mandelstam, who died in the camps, Bulgakov - ``who died unflinchingly as he lived, with magnificent defiance'' - Rybakov, Solzhenitsyn, who endured the Gulag Archipelago. In Vasily Grossmann's ``Forever Flowing'' we read of the release of the hero, Ivan Gregoryevich, after thirty years' imprisonment. ``I believe in the inevitability of freedom,'' he declares, refusing despair. ``The history of human beings is the history of freedom.''
Our teacher smiles at the echoes of his father's sermons. When we consider it we realize that he has given his circle of students no specific message - he is the message in himself, with his curiosity at what will happen next: ``which grain will grow and which will not'' - his faith in man's unconquerable mind.