Russians speaking Irish with a fair degree of fluency, playing Kerry slides that would have had any Sliabh Luachra people up and dancing? This was something I hadn’t been expecting on my recent Moscow visit.
When I was invited to tell Irish stories there (in the university and several other venues) during the month of March it was a new experience for me. I had heard, right enough, that my book “Meeting the Other Crowd” was very popular there, but I didn’t realize how popular until I got there. Their interest in things Irish is amazing, especially music, fairy-tales and folklore.
My introduction to Moscow: it’s a peculiar city, an odd mix of the old and the modern. It had a wonderful underground/metro system, and utterly needs it, because with ten million people and traffic gridlock for much of the time it could not be done without.
And the drivers! They drove so fast in icy streets that I was hanging on to my seat in terror for much of the time, wondering “will he be able to stop at the next red light?”
But obviously they’re used to what would have all of us here confined to our homes. They just plough every new fall of snow either to the side of minor roads or on major streets load it into trucks and dump it in the Moscow River (which, by the way, is as wide as the Shannon).
Moscow University, where I was performing, is a town in itself – 30,000 students. Built by Stalin as a showpiece with prisoner labour, I was told, it certainly is impressive, but in an impersonal sort of way. Just like UCD. Its highest tower is surmounted by a huge red star. Some pranksters recently got onto it merely to defy the authorities. I doubt if they would have taken the risk in Stalin’s day!
One of the things I could not fail to notice was the number of city churches, practically all Orthodox. I was amazed, of course, at the decoration of their interiors, the gold-work, the icons, the very eastern atmosphere, the life of them even in the middle of the day, with constant coming and going, lighting of long thin candles, kissing of icons.
And in so many of them there were elderly women fussing, sweeping what seemed to me non-existent dust, tidying, hushing anyone who dared to speak.
And I thought it a pity. Because in one of those churches a group of school-children came in –very well-behaved, too –with their teacher, who was obviously showing them around. They were speaking among themselves, as young children will do, but not at all disrespectfully, when one of these old women almost attacked them. I didn’t understand what she said, but I understood clearly enough her demeanour. Not good for children’s attitude towards religion, I would think.
And I had a worse experience myself.I decided to go to Mass at an Orthodox church. Why? Because I had never seen one before and since I always go to Mass anyway I decided that this would be a useful way of fulfilling my Sunday obligation while seeing something new.
I said words to that effect to a woman at the door on the way in and explained that I was Irish. She laughed and said that I would yet be converted. Nice woman.
But during the Mass and its lovely choirs etc. I was suddenly grabbed -- yes, snatched -- and dragged across the floor from where I was standing quietly at the left wall with my rucksack at my feet. It was an old woman muttering something which, again, I couldn’t understand. Only later did I find out that in Orthodox churches the women’s side is the left, the men’s the right. I wish someone had told me this in advance and save her physically assaulting me.
In the interests of seeing some of “real Russia” I spent some time outside of Moscow in a village 20 Km. away, in a dacha which had an interesting history. Stalin and Beria stayed here for a night, I was told, guests of the grandfather of the present owner, a Red Army general, whose portrait still hangs on the wall. I even got to try on his military cap!
Among the lovely traditional-style houses in the nearby village was one that was reputed to be haunted. It had once been owned by a reclusive KGB husband and wife, and naturally no one wanted to have much to do with them, for obvious reasons. They had a cat and when the cat was found dead in a neighbour’s garden one winter’s morning with its tail sticking straight up everyone was convinced that the tail was an aerial and that the cat had been spying for its owners.
Such is Russian grim humour today. They can’t forget “the Bad Days”.
One of the greatest surprised of my visit was to find that people kept commenting on my beard (which is long!). A man even stopped me in the street to ask how did I grow a beard like that (we shook hands as if we were the best of friends after it had been translated for me). Another time two Jewish men – Hasidic, I think – gave me a very thorough looking up and down at a traffic lights.
But the best of all was in the subway. Time after time people got up to let me sit down. And I was advised to. It would be taken as bad manners not to. I asked why. Because I was probably being mistaken for an Orthodox priest – or even a monk, since my hair is also long. None of these things did I know when I was going to Russia. Which shows how easily one could give offence without intending to.
My biggest regret of the visit is missing the opportunity to get some pictures of a political demonstration near Red Square.It was by members of the Communist Party and they were making much noise, but I was wary of taking photos since there were both ordinary police and riot police present. The person who was ‘minding’ me that day asked one of the policemen if I could photograph them. He just laughed and waved me to do as I wished.
Unfortunately the last photo in the spool was used and by the time I’d loaded a new roll (my fingers were shaking so much with the cold!) the parade had passed. A pity, because it was proof that there has indeed been some change in Russia.
But the stories themselves. How could traditional Irish stories have such an appeal in a place like Moscow when so many in Dublin or Ireland in general have little or no interest in those same any more? It need be no surprise. Russia has a rich heritage of folk-literature which even eighty years of Soviet rule failed to destroy.
I was told to expect large attendances at the various sessions I was scheduled to do. In truth, I didn’t see how this would be the case. But it was. Every single one of them was fully attended, from the House of Artists to the University to two other venues, one of which was 100% over-booked. There were almost 200 people where they expected only 80-90.
Would it happen in Ireland for stories? It proves, as I said above, that Russians still have a high regard for literature, but especially for the traditional spoken kind that we have lost. How long that can last in the modern electronic age, though, remains to be seen.