Sunday, 2 December 2012

Theatre, improvisation and Superstition all in a Moscow Night

At the Metro station Ploshad Revolutsy we were staggered to find, as we left the carriage, an array of statuary on every available corner of the platform and in every available recess from its main thoroughfare, depicting the revolutionary proletariat working, resting and multiplying whilst building the socialist paradise on earth.

The figures were carved from bronze, and each carried a beatific and hagiographic expression as he, she or their dog stared with glistening and wet eyes towards the collectively built future. Their labour was hard - no matter; the future would reward them and each gave according to their ability and each received according to their needs.
Each being frozen in an attitude of sublime satisfaction or confident longing, I could only think of Keats, but sorry John, I've tampered with two lines from your brilliant ' Ode on a Grecian Urn':

Thou still unravished bride of quietness!
Thou foster child of silence and slow time
Soviet sculptor, who canst thus express
A labouring tale more sweetly than our rhyme!

The station was busy, people surged back and forth from the central corridor to the platforms on each side. It seemed even more crowded because there were so many of these frozen figures from the past, busy building the future or resting from it and raising the next generation for whom the state will have withered away and the only remaining task that of ‘ the administration of things’.
Stopping to photograph a handsome worker with his dog, I found myself, whilst posing beside it, in the way of people who wanted to pat it.

 But no, it wasn’t a pat, it was a rub, and it was its nose which they rubbed. Every other person rubbed the happy dog’s nose as they passed.
Its nose shone with a century of affectionate rubbing. Yes, despite the best efforts of the Bolsheviks to suppress religion and superstition, a custom had emerged from the impenetrable mystery of the human soul, of rubbing a bronze dog’s nose for good luck.

How happy this charming irrationality made us feel. We rubbed its nose too, and we had some good luck as a result - there is no smoke without fire after all and which of us knowingly walks under a ladder if we can avoid it?

Though cowards flinch and traitors snigger,
We cannot help but stand and stare
Before each touching, crouching figure
Deep down Revolution Square.
Who could not love such noble creatures?
Their kindly but heroic features
Suggest a race of Myrmidons,
The rational Future cast in bronze.
For luck - or else to ward off failure -
Commuters rub the guard-dog's nose,
Till you could even say it glows;
They also stroked its genitalia
But higher organs disapproved 
And now he's has his balls removed.

(by Andy Croft  'The Dog's Bollocks' from "Three Men on Metro", 2009)

We were transfixed by the range of statuary in the station - young mothers with children on their laps, young fathers helping young sons to play with model aircraft. It was Raphael like in its attempt to show the divine at work in the human vessel, the divine light of socialist love, finally revealed and made incarnate here on earth.

But it was time to move on - we were due at the theatre to watch an improv actor perform a piece at a small theatre on the Arbat street.
Of course, there was no signage and the number of the block was not visible - there was 45 and there was 49, but we needed 47 and it was not there.
We asked in the big theatre opposite where it should have been.
It’s opposite, she said.
It’s not, said Elena.
It is, go away, she said.
It was opposite, but around the corner. How were we to know?

The theatre was packed with people from 5 to 60 years old. Most seemed to be young teenagers, the girls painfully self-conscious, looking for looks, the boys equally so but hiding it, and looking to give the looks and hold them, but the girls looked away quickly.
The remainder must have been parents, but there were some student age kids too and a few sad stragglers like us, friends of friends of the performer.
It reminded me of a Niel Young concert from the 70’s.
A man around 30 sat on the stage, strumming his acoustic guitar.
The girl next to me - not Elena - was singing the song he was strumming.
It was a Happening!
He eventually introduced himself, his back-pack and his boots.
He had hitch-hiked to Moscow from small town Mariinsk in Siberia and he was going to introduce us to the gallery of characters who had been kind enough to give him a lift.
I hope none of them were in the audience, or it will take him a long time to get home.
No, many of the portraits were affectionate, but they mostly came from the strange position that I remember I had when, many years ago, I hitch-hiked my way across the USA - the position of moral superiority to the car-owning and square bourgeoise who had given you a lift.
It was, though, a happy atmosphere, pleasant, mild and congenial, and a lot of laughter and cheerfulness was created by the itinerant artist and his tales of the road. 

It is refreshing here the way that so many genres and periods seem able to co-exist without the slightest self-consciousness or snobbery.
London or New York have splintered their cultural life into thousands of shards of sub-cultural niches, but they are generally very intense, almost Masonic, and the correct clothes must be worn and verbs and nouns employed.
Here it’s all jumbled up like a car-boot sale and it’s very relaxed as a result and usually a bargain too. And mum and Dad come too.
Now that is weird.

PS. By the way, Elena said me that the actor's name  was Petr Zubarev and the performance was in the Dom Aktera at Arbat street. 

Unless otherwise stated all photographs by Elena Bruce

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