Extract from “Group Email describing my experiences from Helsinki to St Petersburg”
I stayed with Luda, an old friend of my mother’s for a few days, sleeping in her flat while her son was away. She was an excellent host and went out of her way to make my stay as comfortable as possible; not only did I have access to the sauna in her flat (which is not as unusual in Finland as it would be in England), but Luda showered me with gifts of chocolate, champagne and smoked fish. In the morning she insisted on making me breakfast – a delicious semolina porridge seasoned with salt, sugar and butter; and I felt spoilt twice over, both as a guest and also a surrogate child in her son’s absence.
One of the most remarkable discoveries I made while at her flat, was an old photograph-album full of pictures of my mother, my aunt and Luda when they were in their twenties. These pictures were taken in the old Soviet days in Fronzee (Kyrgyzstan), where my mother grew up. As I sifted through them, one in particular made a vivid impression on me: it showed Sveta (my aunt), captured mid-motion, sending a spinning jet of water through the air as she bathed in the spectacular Izi Kull lake. She was laughing in the photograph, and like a pastiche of a Russian peasant, wore a quaint little scarf tied around her head. In another photograph, I recognized the figure of my mother playing the piano in the foreground, surrounded by a crowd of eager young girls. Her beautiful face was in profile, yet I thought she looked rather austere and pale, sitting straight-backed at the piano like that, the bridge of her hands tensed and strong. It reminded me of the way that she used to rub milk into the keys of piano we had at home “to keep them white”, she explained.
Luda told me lots of stories: stories about my mother when she was small, about Sveta, and about their first days in St Petersburg when they were all in their twenties. Sveta emigrated first, then called Mum and Luda in Bishkek: “You have to come here! This is the best place you can imagine!” She told me about the hotels in St Petersburg where they used to go for dinner, dressed in the contraband Western clothes that my father would bring over from England in a suitcase. I could almost feel with what excitement my mother, her sister and their friends arrived in St Petersburg, ‘the window onto Europe’, having spent all their lives in the provinces and mountains of a remote satellite state. I also found out that my aunt Sveta used to smoke, some ammunition to tuck away for when it was needed, I thought. When pressed later, Sveta herself supplemented this image with some information about her time in the Institute of Foreign Languages in Moscow: “I used to live in a shared flat opposite a big chocolate factory. It was called Babaevsky, and made the most delicious chocolate in the whole of the Soviet Union. Some days I would lean out of the window facing the factory, sit on the sill and smoke a cigarette. I was so stupid then.”
Luda was a little hunched, small and willowy; but she was still beautiful. Like a twittering bird, she spoke nervously and incessantly, and sometimes cast her eye about anxiously as if to check that Big Brother wasn’t listening. She had emigrated, like most of the people in their circle of friends, as my mother later explained. Luda’s husband was Finnish. With Brodksy, Pasternak and other Russian émigré writers in mind, I asked why so many Russians were in exile. Luda replied that Russia was good to visit but not to live in. In Finland she had a big pension, there was an excellent welfare system, life was very ‘spakonya’ or calm. In Russia… she tailed off. Luda’s husband had tragically died of a heart attack three years ago and she had been a concert pianist. She stopped playing after he died (as the out of tune concert grand in her flat testified to).
In the quiet, nostalgic days I spent with Luda, we traipsed about the island of pine trees on which she lived, and I listened to her wistfully recounting memories of the past, desperately trying to decipher the incessant tide of Russian language coming my way. I was gradually excavating my mother’s history and by extension my own, and was being filled with a vision of how beautiful that past was: gathering mushrooms in the forests in autumn, picking peaches from the orchards of their dachas, baking in the intolerable heat of the Kyrgyz summers, bathing in the Izi Kull lake. Sveta and mother; their friends. In Luda’s habits, a saw a reflection of my mother’s, in her lilting, singing Russian, I heard my mother’s voice; in the character of her exile and her yearning for a Russia that no longer exists I saw my mother’s yearning and my mother’s reproach. Suddenly I realized how much I was looking forward to seeing her, how much closer to her I felt though she would never know – and I would not be able to find the words to tell her.