When the twain did meet, Janet Wilson

The gigantic stage in the vast, half‑filled auditorium of the Moscow State Pedagogical University is dominated by an image of the head of Mikhail Bakhtin above the dates 1895 (the year of his birth) to 1995. At its edges stand two enormous vases brimming with plastic flowers. To the tinkling sounds of Für Elise, Vitalii Makhlin, organiser of the seventh conference on Bakhtin ‑ Russian philosopher, literary critic and linguist ‑ introduces Professor Caryl Emerson from Princeton University, noted translator of Bakhtin’s works, who will give a concluding keynote address to conference delegates.

The Russians are generous to the point of idolatry in celebrating their heroes. Behind the tomb of Lenin in Red Square is a grand pathway lined with statues and plaques commemorating the political and intellectual luminaries of the 1917 Revolution and after. Lenin’s tomb itself is one of the national treasures. The famous leader lies in state, his mummified body clad in what looks like a Victorian pinstriped dinner suit and bow tie, his mustaches and goatee waxed, his blue eyes staring into space. We had already experienced the paranoia which greets the unexpected or forbidden act when Laurie had taken a photo of Ron and myself outside the tomb, only to have her camera seized by a guard and the film exposed. Inside austere reverence hung in the air. “Absolute silence,” intoned the guards who stood at every corner of the mausoleum, watching as we filed round ‑ fair haired, youthful, not more than 18, in grey uniforms, their faces impassive.

In the case of Bakhtin, however, Russian hero‑worship has been belated, occurring only after the great man’s theories were seized upon by the west and introduced into ongoing debates on structuralism and post‑structuralism. Bakhtin devotees now come from a range of political persuasions and the conference was peppered with British marxists, American feminists, slavicists and theorists, philologists and translators of all schools. Debates centred on key concepts of his thought: the cultural category of carnival, speech genre theory, the “chronotope” and “dialogism” in the novel.

The attraction of Bakhtin’s thought is in its eclecticism and its democracy, although his cardinal works were written in the late 1920s and 1930s before and during Stalin’s purges. For many it underpins the burgeoning discipline of cultural studies and suggests viable philosophical alternatives to late twentieth-century capitalist ideologies like postmodernism.

But this was only the second conference on Bakhtin at which a Russian presence was visible and it was the first held on his home ground. The Russian delegates worked to promote their hagiography, to protect his reputation and to reappropriate through linguistic, philological arguments his very words. Before long I realised I was witnessing an extraordinary contretemps between the east and west. “The Bakhtin police again,” the Americans muttered when Russians jumped up and argued points interminably in Russian in response to criticisms of their hero. Caryl Emerson spoke tactfully about the problems of translating Bakhtin, gesturing towards the Russians who had unearthed mistakes in the translations. But that cut little ice with the Americans who have discovered their Bakhtin through her translations over the years. They complained about this new image of Bakhtin as being too cold, too formal, too unfeeling, unlike the Bakhtin they know (or created), who is expansive, inconsistent, but challenging intellectually.

The east‑west encounter was enacted in other ways. Ron and Laurie arrived in Moscow complete with rolls of toilet paper and a bicycle chain for the train trip to St Petersburg to chain their bags against thieves, thugs, intruders. They also had a store of horror stories, which I had been mercifully spared, coming from New Zealand. But incidents happened which defied all our expectations: unsurprisingly the imported toilet paper was in use after two days; but the hotel hot water ran out for several days of boiling heat and we had to grit our teeth and take cold showers or none at all; the management refused to take roubles if the notes looked too worn, a problem overcome by “laundering” ‑ sprinkling with water and then ironing them. The conference food was grey, generally unappetising and vegetarians were segregated from carnivores, but then we found a Georgian restaurant which proved that Russian food can taste wonderfully exotic. The entire conference was bilingual and we all had to halve our papers to allow time for translation into Russian. Even the glittering glories of the Kremlin jarred against the sight of machine-guns and cannons on display as we walked around. Moscow was grim, despite the conspicuous opulence of the “new Russians”; the “Chechnya business” had made everyone jumpy.

Having planned a visit to St Petersburg after the conference, we embarked from Moscow on the overnight train. Contrary to the Americans’ expectations it was completely safe and in fact symbolised the efficient modernisation which elsewhere in Moscow seems to have been abandoned. Not only were the compartment doors thief‑ and thug‑proof but the bathrooms boasted showers which we would have willingly have used had we been up to translating the instructions. Our accommodation in St Petersburg was in a flat near the centre of town with a “hostess” called Anna, who had sent her husband off to the dacha (summer house) in order to accommodate us. This she proceeded to do in the belief that the stereotype of western tourists was accurate; but to her dismay we politely refused the cornflakes she offered us for breakfast, settling instead for cheese and dumplings. She was overwhelming in her enthusiasm to show us around, but again we refused saying we preferred to walk. This left her with but one role, to try to sell us what she had, and each breakfast was punctuated by displays of her wares ‑ samovars, breadboards, clothes and finally jewellery; until at last we succumbed and bought rings, earrings, and brooches.

The weather was cooler than in Moscow and it rained steadily on the day of our arrival, making a visit to the Hermitage most desirable. We wandered round in a daze, overwhelmed by the glittering spectacle of room after room of precious stones like malachite, pillared in burnished gold, by the elegance and beauty of the treasures including paintings and artefacts from all centuries and all European countries, becoming glutted on such wealth and phasing out just as we reached the contemporary art of Picasso and Matisse. The Hermitage is the real tourist highlight, but St Petersburg is in many ways a more attractive city visually than Moscow and we found much to entertain us.

Even our modest explorations turned into adventures. One day we wandered in the opposite direction to Nevsky Prospect and found ourselves in what looked like a pleasant, wooded estate, filled with people wandering or working in the grounds. But despite its seeming a haven from the city traffic the atmosphere was mysterious; only after seeing an ambulance picking its way along a mud track and then a woman in white uniform hurrying along did we realise that we were in a mental asylum and the giggles we’d heard as we walked in, came from the patients. And we were fortunate to visit St Petersburg at the height of the summer, the time of Dostoevsky’s “White Nights” when darkness never descends. Throughout the weekend at a gigantic street party in the square outside the Hermitage and Winter Palace pop bands played incessantly, rising constantly to a pitch of excitement, fireworks were shot off and a hot air balloon hovered in the sky.

These innocent tourist pleasures all too quickly came to an end. My hour of reckoning came at Sheremetov airport, when I arrived off the St Petersburg train, ready to board the flight to London. All went swimmingly until I reached passport control, when suddenly the official disappeared with my ticket, boarding pass, passport and visa. After a long time I was hauled out of line for questioning: apparently my visa had been wrongly dated and I had to prove where I had spent the last three days. The Russian Embassy in Wellington had been asked to issue the visa for the length of my stay; in my naivety I had never checked it. I tried to explain it was a mistake but the border guards were implacable and my “conversations” with airport officials were constantly interrupted as they wandered off to do something more pressing. Hours went by, my plane took off and finally a Russian consul arrived, accepted the official bribe of $US110 and stamped my visa for departure the following day. Despite resistance, storms and tears, I had to bow to the inevitable, load my luggage into a taxi and find a hotel for the night.

The iron fist of bureaucracy in Russia is as invincible as ever. Suspicion of strangers remains deep‑seated. The seemingly exotic can change to Kafkaesque nightmare within seconds.

Janet Wilson teaches English at Otago University.

Tagged with: , ,
Posted in Literature
Search
Subscribe to NZ Books
We're pleased you're using the New Zealand Books archive.

To ensure the survival of this important journal, please consider
subscribing — only $44 a year, or $30 for digital-only.

Go to the Subscribe page.
Search by category

Read more