Russia: Landscape and History

Russia, a vast and ubiquitous place was to constantly surprise and contradict my preconceptions. The family I stayed with, resided in a one bedroom, a typical soviet tower block, the grandmother, mother and son shared the single room. The practical, thick walled (designed to bear bitter winter months) oppressively bleak apartment was, once inside, cosy, warm and filled with trinkets and smiling photos focused around the families close and intimate life. I was staying in Vladimir, a historically rich and once prominent city. The expanse of concrete blocks, with towns interrupted from each other by dense, Bear inhabited, forests still seemed to be slowly emerging from the previous grips of despotism and economical struggles. At times my sense of place was dominated by these landscapes. Yet the immense, even spectacular past, would in spurts assert itself, overriding the less glamorous modern history and unravelling such notions of oppression, instead evoking the romantic, artistic and culturally opulent Russia that might be envisaged within the work of Pushkin and Tolstoy. This sentiment is most vividly encapsulated on my excursion to Suzdal.

It is one of few villages to have survived the communist revolution; the traditional wooden architecture remains intact. It is considered a Holy place, its river, it is believed, posses healing properties and the ‘Convent of Interception’ built in 1518 captivates the landscape with the stunning gold marsh-mellowed topped towers. A villager offered to show me around her Dacha, Russian hospitality had it that I had eaten a three course meal by the time I had left, it never struck her as unusual to invite a stranger in for dinner, yet more as a right of common kindness. Our conversations turned towards my interest in the village’s history, she began a story of a very wealthy man, who built a large switchboard that served the area in the beginning of the Soviet era. He was remarked as being a generous man, a kind employer and enjoyed a lavish life. He quickly became a prominent figure, mostly for the wild and decadent parties he would host. However he was soon forced to flee Russia as his extravagance marked him an enemy of the Soviets. She then asked if I wished to see his home. The walk was longer than I expected, through abandoned over grown fields and woods. Cables, street lamps and concrete now usurped by weeds provoked the sense of desertion. We approached vast single story hall, with beautiful red bricks, though the smashed windows and huge amount of litter, evidence of squatters, sadly dominated its previous aesthetic qualities. It must have been wonderful I remarked to my guide, he certainly loved his horses she replied. Horses?

We walked further through a similar apocalyptic setting, a turret poked though the trees and I pointed with interest. She indicated for me to continue. Once through the dense trees I finally located that turret and now recognised my mistake- this must have been the entrepreneur’s home. Before me stood was a disneyesque structure, a wonderful mansion, with spiral staircases, innumerable rooms to get lost in, and several wonderful fairytale towers. I looked out upon the once wonderful landscaped garden, the disused fountain, the long drive carriages would have brought his guests along. Though the interior now stripped by thieves, walking around the abandoned mansion, felt as though the place had been forgotten by civilisation, it quite literally had, except for opportunist petty criminals. The splendid décor, remnants of gold leaf, midnight blues and deep reds, echoed its immense opulent history as I imagined the magnificent parties -women in beautiful gowns, men in top hats, within this wonderful ruined Russian castle.

Yet it also echoed the sad story of a man and his family, forced to flee in the secret rather than face prison, or even death. The family were not heard off again after they left, it is believed he went to
Paris and died impoverished.

Ultimately this derelict home summarised my relationship with the culture and landscape, a majestic place that was to constantly surprise, dismay and captivate my imagination.

S David

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