Some Russian memories
HINDSIGHT - F. Sionil Jose (The Philippine Star) - December 22, 2014 - 12:00am

The Russian Ambassador Nicolay R. Kudashev and his wife, along with his deputy Vadim V. Velikanov, dropped by last week. The ambassador and his wife were in Manila in the ‘90s but I did not meet them then. They were introduced to me by an old Russian friend, perhaps Russia’s foremost expert on ASEAN today, Victor Sumsky who I met some 20 years ago. I took him then to the Ilokos together with the Atlantic Monthly editor James Fallows who subsequently wrote that article about our “damaged culture.”

My wife brought out our California-made samovar. Over cups of Russian tea, we reminisced. I recalled my first visit to Moscow in 1967. Russia was celebrating the 50th anniversary of the October Revolution. My invitation came from the Writers Union. We had no diplomatic ties with the Soviet Union then and I had to go to Berne to ask our ambassador there, the late Modesto Farolan, to get the visa for me.

I arrived on an Aeroflot flight in Moscow in the late evening. I was met by an Intourist guide in a big black limousine. All the way from the airport, the car radio was playing that popular song, Moscow Nights. I learned later it was Radio Moscow’s signal call.

We drove through dark streets walled with trees and after about an hour, we stopped before what seemed to me a big gloomy building. Without the bright neon of European capitals, I thought we were in some isolated suburb. The hotel looked antique, with wide carpeted passageways. I was surprised to find that my room had no key. A fat middle-aged woman sat in the corner; I later learned that she was called Babushka. She acknowledged my arrival with a smile. It was October but already very cold to me, but the room was comfortably warm. I was tired after the long haul from Geneva and I went to sleep immediately.

Morning came and I went to the window. Like the door, it had double panes. I opened it and was pleasantly surprised. I recognized immediately where I was — right in front of Red Square, Lenin’s tomb to my right, the distinctive onion-topped spires of St. Basil’s Cathedral out front, and on the left the GUM department store.

Ambassador Kudashev said that was the Moscow Hotel; I said that was not the name I was told. In any case, what made it famous was that Lenin stayed there.

On my first day, I waited for a call or a visitor, but no one came, so, bundled against the autumn cold, I went for a walk. On the second day, still no one came or called, so I went walking around the city again. And that early evening, there was knock on my door. I opened it and there was this young, tall Russian with a crew cut, a grin on his face. He greeted me with a flourish of archaic Tagalog — the Tagalog of the poet Francisco Balagtas. I was stunned, I stepped back and told him, “Pare, I can’t understand a word of what you are saying. My Tagalog is the Tagalog of the Manila sidewalk.”

My first Russian visitor was Igor Podbereszky, a student of Foreign Studies of Moscow University. He was with me most of the time I was in Moscow. He was going to learn Manila Tagalog from me. He would visit Manila soon to become Russia’s foremost Filipino specialist and biographer of Rizal and eventually my translator and longtime friend.

I told Ambassador Kudashev that it was the Russians who first translated me, not just into Russian but also Ukrainian, Latvian and Estonian. I don’t have the Latvian and Estonian editions, but I met my Latvian translator, the poet Imants Zydonis. I was to visit Russia again, go to Stalingrad (Volgograd), which was one of the fiercest battlegrounds during the World War II. I saw the Volga, and remembered Ptemkin’s villages, the many social-realist monuments celebrating Russian heroism and labor in the public spaces.

Soviet economics did not impress me at all. Igor told me to join any queue on the sidewalk. I did append myself to one and at the end was a basket of the sorriest-looking apples I ever saw. At one of the stores near my hotel I saw a beautiful pair of opera glasses. I thought it was too expensive but I changed my mind and went back. It was already sold. Igor told me that every time I see something in a store and want it, I should buy it immediately.

At one hotel where I was billeted, I took him to the bathroom and showed him the towel that was so hard and stiff, it could stand on its own. He said, “Towels are not the Soviet Union priority. Rockets are.”

On that first trip to Moscow, I bought a big bundle of revolutionary posters and sold them at our bookshop and our Solidaridad Galleries near the Malate church. They sold very well, more as curiosities, I think, than as propaganda pieces.

And so Mrs. Kudashev and I talked about revolution and how I had hoped for so long that it come soonest, that I would see it within my lifetime.

I told the Ambassador how much I envied Russian history primarily because of their October Revolution. Foreign scholars have told me it may not have happened at all the way I’d like it to be. I know it is difficult to polarize this country, to bring about not just class-consciousness but a class war itself. Maybe that would be possible if we had an industrial proletariat. Mrs. Kudashev mentioned China where the peasants were organized, where the countryside engulfed the cities. I am only too aware of that momentous event but there were many things going for the Chinese — for Mao, too. I argued there is not enough sense of nation in this country, that we are fractured by regionalism, ethnicity, clan, that Filipino egoism so often obstructs compromise and solidarity.

Needless to say, it is perhaps not necessary to conclude that communism will never be the harbinger of revolution. It will be patriotism with a very strong and fundamental social base. Communism itself failed in Russia, even before Gorbachev brought perestroika to the country.

In the ‘60s, I wanted one of my boys to study there, specifically at the Patrice Lumumba University. Igor began making inquiries. Then it occurred to me to voice my worry that if one of my sons studied in Russia, he might become a communist. To this, Igor laughed aloud. He said that all the foreigners who went to Patrice Lumumba, when they returned to their homes, they were all anti-communist.

The ambassador’s wife is a university teacher. I told her most university students and young Filipino readers are familiar with the Russian classics which are taught in school — Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Pushkin, and of course, the contemporary authors Solzhenitsyn and Pasternak. My own favorite poet is Anna Akhmatova. I found Solshenitsyn very dull and I appreciated only his One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. Igor told me facetiously that not to read Dostoyevsky is a crime — but to read him is punishment. Every Filipino short story writer is familiar with the Chekov dictum: If you put a pistol on the mantle in the first act, it must go off in the third! This, I said, is Rizal’s most glaring fault in his second novel, El Filibusterismo. He brought a bomb in the last portion of the novel, but did not explode it. Had he done so, the novel’s ending — and our interpretation — would have been different.

I observed that Dostoyevsky’s profound journey into the interior is familiar to many of us, even among the peasantry, but is rarely articulated in our discourse or in our fiction.

Indeed, in spite of the vast differences in geography, culture and history, as Igor told me way back, the Russians and us have some happy similarities. The Russians are always for the underdog and as the critic Bienvenido Lumbera said, our literature from Rizal onwards is characterized by “searing social criticism.”

One evening at home, my children were playing a new record and I asked the name of the Tagalog tune. They said it was the Russian record I had just brought home from Moscow.

Some 10 years ago, my wife and I visited Moscow again where a writers’ congress was held. I remember the sparse traffic in the ‘60s, the drivers removing their windshield wipers lest they get stolen. The city had changed tremendously with spanking new skyscrapers. Now there’s so much traffic in the streets, glossy Mercedes-Benzes and McDonald’s everywhere. No more queues on the sidewalks; the stores are laden with goods. But Igor, my dear old friend, complained — the publishers were no longer interested in bringing in foreign authors like myself; what they wanted were commercial successes, sex and violence, the same gaudy thrillers that flood the bookstores in the capitalist West. Igor’s beautiful wife Valentina had died, and Igor’s interest had veered into the study of religion.

We went to St. Petersburg by overnight train. Igor had warned me that the city, once called Leningrad under the Soviets, had become Russia’s crime capital, and that I must not venture out of our hotel alone and should always be with the other writers when we went on tour.

St. Petersburg had changed a lot too, and like Moscow, appeared more prosperous looking, with so much traffic in its streets and those ubiquitous fast-food shops. On the overnight train to St. Petersburg, the Korean couple in the next compartment were not so careful; while they were asleep, robbers forced their way into their compartment and stole their passports and all their money.

The expanse from Moscow to St. Petersburg is the most populated portion of Russia, but most of it is vast unrelieved stretches of forest; the silent emptiness soon impacts on the mind. Is this enormous space a liability, an impediment to cohesion and progress? I suggested to Igor that I would like to take the Siberian railroad to Vladisvostok in the winter. The trip takes several days and he warned against it for I will certainly be bored by the endless vista, the snow-draped landscape with hardly a town or city in between.

Indeed, as Ambassador Kudashev emphasized, Russia — with Valdivostok so near to Japan — is closer to us than the United States.

We should know more about our huge neighbor as, indeed, the Russians are getting to know more about us. Thousands of Russians now visit the Philippines each year compared to the trickle that came in the past.

There isn’t a single Russian restaurant in Manila and perhaps it is time that the Embassy itself should support one. I recounted my most memorable breakfast in that old hotel in Moscow where I stayed the first time I visited Moscow: Russian black bread with fresh white butter and a spread of caviar and aromatic Russian tea. But there was nothing like the meals I shared with Igor and Valentina in their apartment, the enjoyable conversations I had with him in their kitchen. Igor is representative of the Russian people; here, then, are a people gifted with humor, goodwill, and sturdiness of spirit who should be our friends.

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