Gogol's Government Inspector on medical treatment

"It would be better if there weren't so many [patients]. If there are a large number, it will instantly be ascribed to bad supervision or incompetent medical treatment.

"Our rule is: the nearer to nature the better. We use no expensive medicines. A man is a simple affair. If he dies, he'd die anyway. If he gets well, he'd get well anyway. Besides, the doctor would have a hard time making the patients understand him. He doesn't know a word of Russian."

- The Government Inspector, Nikolai Gogol

Dostoyevsky's Rant against Foreigners

"a Frenchman knows everything, even 
if he has learned nothing - but because, in the first place,
 he comes to our country in order to cast the most penetrating look at us, to pierce with his eagle eye all our
 secrets and then pronounce his final, categorical opinion 
of us; second, because he already knew in Paris what he 
was going to write about Russia; he may even write an 
account of his travels before he has even been to Russia and sell it to a publisher, and only then come to visit us
˜to show off, to captivate and to fly off.…"

Some of them arrive
 with serious, important intentions, staying for as long as
 28 days, an immense period, the number of
 days showing the great conscientiousness of the explorer, 
for in such a time he could carry out and even describe 
a voyage round the world. After snatching his first impressions of Petersburg, in the description of which he 
is not entirely unsuccessful, and, incidentally, casting a
 critical eye over the English institutions as well, teaching, in passing, the Russian boyars (les bayards) table-rapping
 or blowing soap bubbles, which is very charming and a
 great improvement on the majestic and swaggering bore
dom of our assemblies, he finally makes up his mind to
 make a thorough and detailed study of Russia, and leaves 
for Moscow. In Moscow he has a look at the Kremlin, 
gives a thought to Napoleon, praises the tea, praises the
 beauty and the health of the people, sheds a tear over 
their premature depravity, over the lamentable results of 
the attempts to inoculate them with European civilisation, 
over the disappearance of national customs, for which he 
will immediately find proof in the change of ten guitar-
shaped hackney cabs for one that is wagonette-shaped, 
resembling a European cabriolet"

"The most stupid and dissolute of
 them, having spent some time in Russia, leave us absolutely convinced that they have made the Russians happy
 and to some extent changed Russia."


Gogol's view of the Ukrainian steppe in Taras Bulba

“All that was dim and 
drowsy in the Cossacks’ minds flew away in a twinkling: their hearts fluttered like birds.
 The farther they penetrated the steppe, the more
 beautiful it became... The air was 
filled with the notes of a thousand different birds.
 On high hovered the hawks, their wings outspread,
 and their eyes fixed intently on the grass. The cries 
of a flock of wild ducks, ascending from one side,
 were echoed from God knows what distant lake.
 From the grass arose, with measured sweep, a gull, 
and skimmed wantonly through blue waves of air.
 And now she has vanished on high, and appears
 only as a black dot: now she has turned her wings, 
and shines in the sunlight. Oh, steppes, how beautiful you are!”

— Taras Bulba, Nikolai Gogol


Where the birds are never silent, day or night, where the jasmine never fails, winter or summer

"By the sixth day I was so pissed that the line dividing heart and reason had disappeared altogether, and they were both clamouring: 'Go to Petushki! Go to Petushki! That's where your happiness and salvation lie, go to Petushki!' Petushki is where the birds are never silent, day or night, where the jasmine never fails, winter or summer. Original sin - presuming there ever was one - doesn't burden anybody there. And even people who don't dry out for weeks on end have a clear, unfathomable look in their eyes in Petushki."

Moscow - Petushki, by Venedikt Yerofeyev

Dostoyevsky's muzhik Marei

"Our experience has shown that the muzhik Marei (unless he became an apparatchik) readily understands the intellectual who has been exiled to his village. I have had occasion to drink tea or share a bottle of vodka with him while we talked in whispers for fear of being overheard by informers. I also got on well enough with the ordinary working women whose husbands had been sent away along the same road as M. They are now lying together in the same burial pit with identical tags on their legs. Nobody shied away from me because I was Jewish. Anti-Semitism is propagated from above and brews in the caldron known as the apparat. Between these ordinary people and myself there was not the slightest misunderstanding or breach. If there ever had been anything to separate us, we were now joined together by a common fate and mortal terror of the authorities: all the oprichniks, apparatchiks, bosses, informers, toadies, and various other kinds of hangers-on."

Hope Abandoned, Nadezhda Mandelstam

An Interrogation in Belarus

The portrait above, of a friendly militia/security guard in Kherson, has nothing to do with the following incident, except that the gun seemed kind of appropriate...

One night, in 1993, I stayed the night in a hotel in central Minsk.

The circulation of foreign currency was of extreme value. At the time the Belarussian rouble - unofficially called 'rabbits' (zaitchiki). The currency had devalued so much that you had know to read an additional two zeros on to any note - so that what looked like a 100 rabbit note was actually 10,000 rabbits. I first found this out when I went out to eat in the centre, having changed $100 into rabbits. When they brought the bill, it looked like it came to nearly the whole $100 and I was shocked. Then the waitress explained to me how the notes worked, and that the meal cost 100x less than I had feared.

So far so good. I booked into the hotel, paid for the room, and left my passport in the safe with Reception desk as required so that they could register my stay.

Taking my key, I went up to the floor and was shown to my room by the dezhurnaya, the woman concierge in charge of that floor.

I had been cycling for over two weeks, and this was my first night in a bed, and I fell into a deep sleep. That night, at around 4 in the morning, there was a hammering on the door. I opened it, and two men in leather jackets came into the room. They were apparently from the economic crimes unit of the KGB. They sat me on the bed, turned a lamp into my face, and began interrogating me. Just like in the films.

My Russian at the time was embryonic, and I was still half asleep and at first confused about where I was, what was real and what wasn't, but I did my best to answer their questions, and bit by bit it became clear that they were interested in how I had checked in to the hotel, and how I had paid. Someone had apparently denounced that I had bribed the dezhurnaya to be allow me to use a room unofficially, and that I had given her foreign currency.

After twenty minutes or so of interrogation, they had realised that I had checked into the hotel and paid officially, and that my passport was with the hotel administration, and they disappeared.

Health and safety on the road in Moscow

À propos fellow passengers glaring when you do up your seat belt on take-off on an internal Russian flight:

It was much the same in Moscow when you flagged down and negotiated the price of a ride home with a driver heading in the same direction, he would invariably take it as a personal insult to his driving if you tried to do up the seat belt. The protocol was that you should take the seat belt and drape it across your shoulder, so that it looked to traffic policemen (GAI-shniki) like they might not be able to extract an easy bribe if they stopped you. On the whole, I gave up and took to enjoying the sensation of not wearing a seat belt, enjoying sticking two fingers up to the British health and safety obsession, even when we passed the occasional gruesome traffic accident. One in particular stuck in my mind - a minibus that had crashed into a Volga car on the way back from Sheremetyevo airport, leaving several bodies scattered across the main road, and the corpse of a young woman hanging crumpled half way through the back window. That time I actually buckled up my seatbelt as we passed the carnage and the driver glared at me angrily, as if I were implying that he might cause a crash like that too, but on that occasion he said nothing.

A Kantian analysis of hiccups

"Well, you tell
 him where to shove his pickled mushrooms. You do far better 
studying the hiccup, i.e., to undertake research on the drunken
 hiccup, in its mathematical aspects...

'Dear God Almighty!' I hear on all sides. 'Surely there's
 more to life than that, there must be something...'

But there isn't!' I shout. 'That's just my point. There really 
isn't. There's nothing else.'

I'm not a fool. I'm well aware there are such things as
 psychiatry and extra-galactic astronomy and the like. But I 
mean, really, that's not for us. All that stuff was foisted on us
 by Peter the Great and Dmitri Kibalchich, and our calling lies 
in an entirely different direction. Yes, and I'll lead you in that 
direction if you're not going to be awkward. Of course, you'll
 say: 'This calling of yours is vile and false.' But I'll tell you, I'll
 repeat what I've already said: 'There are no false callings, every
 profession deserves respect.'

So, the hell with you! You can leave all that extra-galactic
 astronomy to the Yanks, and the psychiatry to the Germans. Let 
all those Spanish bastards go watch their corridas, let those 
African shits build their Aswam dam, go ahead, the wind'll
 blow it down anyway, let Italy choke on its idiotic bel canto,
 what the hell!

And meanwhile, I repeat, we'll turn to the hiccup."

Moscow - Petushki, Venedikt Yerofeyev

Shostakovitch, Yevtushenko, the five poems and the Land of Endless Expectations

I moved to Russia in 1993 above all driven by the music Dmitry Shostakovitch. One of his most powerful (and hardest to listen to) works is his 13th Symphony, which is for both orchestra and choir, and sets five poems by the poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko to music. The titles and themes of those five poems are a kind of broad brush overview of Soviet life. While I was developing In the Land of Endless Expectations, I noticed that the themes that I saw around me, mirrored quite closely (but not identically) the themes of the five poems - memory, fear, career (fortune/intelligentsia), women, humour (a thread of absurdity in literature through Gogol, Bulgakov, Yerofeev, Kurkov and so on). Whether this was coincidence, or operation of the subconscious, or just because Yevtushenko and Shostakovitch had covered themes that are universal in a Soviet/Russian context, I don't know. But here are links to the five movements/poems on Youtube:

 I      Babi Yar 

II      Humour

III     At the Store

IV    Fears

V     A Career

A lot of western music critics bend over backwards trying to identify Shostakovitch's music as 'anti-Soviet', or at least 'critical of the Soviet regime' - and therefore good. Nearly every concert programme note includes the words "anti" or " against" and "Soviet" somewhere in the same sentence. It's as if one symphony might almost be regarded as better than another because it demonstrated more 'anti-Soviet' feeling than another. This has always irritated me as a way to evaluate music. Life, music, art - at least, if it is any good - is not so black and white, good and bad, pro- and anti-. You don't have to be a dissident to be a great composer. The music, and Yevtushenko's words, speak for themselves.

Kerch landscape


We have all heard of the Normandy landings during WWII, but in the West few people have heard of the amphibious landings at Kerch. They were some of the most ambitious amphibious landings in history. The technique used was crude - with relatively little preparation or bombardment, instead of using landing craft, merchant ships were simply driven onto the shore and soldiers had to jump over the side to reach the shore. Perhaps not surprisingly, the result was ultimately the near total destruction of the Soviet forces involved.


Heroes of socialist-realism, Kherson, Ukraine

The onlookers were watching the US ambassador, who had come to Kherson to celebrate the 225th anniversary of the induction into the Cossacks of the founder of the US navy - John Paul Jones. John Paul Jones was a Scottish sailor.

So the US Navy was founded, bizarrely enough, by a Scottish Cossack from Kirkcudbrightshire. That fact has to come in useful at some point in life.