Crossing the Dnepr, and Nadezhda Mandelstam

I'm reading and re-reading Nadezhda Mandelstam Hope Abandoned (= Nadezhda Abandoned). Pretty much every chapter strikes a powerful chord with me. I liked this observation which I read last night, where she's talking about the poetry of her husband Osip Mandelstam, and not only that:

"For some reason impossible to explain or understand, the flash point in art comes through contact between what has been accumulated (or concentrated in the bloodstream) over the ages and something occurring at a single passing moment which, as a particle in the flow of time, is unique and never to be repeated, yet also eternal by virtue of having been stopped in its tracks. (Stravinsky made a similar observation about music.) The passing moment is eternal for him who halts it, and his reward for this brush with eternity is a sense of poetic rightness: "How to describe this roundedness and joy?" ... The passing moment is embodied in a combination of words uttered for the first time, though each by itself has long been in existence. What it amounts to is that the sudden contact between time past and the present moment, between the individual personality and the inherited world of other people, sparks off new ideas and words never before spoken.

The falsity of experimentalism is that it always skims over the surface in pursuit of some startling novelty or other. (For some reason, innovators always favour form at the expense of thought...) Novelty of this kind has a very brief life, since it lacks the unique and inimitable qualities obtained through the conjunction of time past with the present moment, of the personal with the universal, of one's own ideas and experiences with those of all humanity."

She has an uncanny habit of whacking the nail on the head, time after time.

Here is another image from our last visit to Kherson, crossing the Dnepr:



The artist Mikhail Tolstykh


Mikhail Tolstykh

Among other things we discussed in the radio interview was the artist Mikhail Tolstykh, who we had met a couple of days earlier, along with his extraordinary paintings. Here he is in his studio, where he has been producing his work largely unappreciated by officialdom for decades. The electricity has been cut off to the cellar studio, but at least in summer it is cool down there away from the searing heat on the street.


Mikhail took us home for cognac and various tastes - Mikhail's wife Nataliya is also an artist, a creative couple:


Black Death - and a Rant

I caught a ride through Feodosiya with a car driven by a burly gentleman, an Afghan war veteran, who took the opportunity to deliver an impassioned and damning invective against one politician after another. A rough precis as follow: "That Preaident Yanukhovich, of course he's mafia - you know he's been in prison twice? And of course Yushenko before him, they're all mafia, every one of them. What kind of country is it where people can’t support their children? Yanukhovich and everyone in government are s**ts because they create a country where people are unable to support themselves. There is no physical way that they can get money to feed their families so they have to live off other states - they have to go abroad to Italy and wipe the s**t off a***s because they can't pay for their children at home. The population has dropped by 10 million over the last twenty years and you know why? Because people are simply dying. How can pensioners live off a pension of 800 grivna? I'm on a pension, but at least I get an extra 140 grivni on top for being a veteran and of course everyone has to work too. But what if you have to actually survive on a pension? People are just dropping dead. A babushka can’t afford to go to chemist and get a test to see what the problem is, let alone treat it. Just to get a blood test, they have to pay first for the syringe and then the needle and then the swab, and if they can’t afford a bit of meat once a month, how are they going to pay for that? They’re ‘just dropping dead’...

“Can you smell that?” “ Smell what?” “The sewage from the streets. That’s the smell of corruption - this town has been here for two and a half thousand years but now the city mayor isn’t able to sort the drains out now. People managed in the past, but now there’s no management of the city.”

Apart from distinguishing itself as an ancient Greek city, Feodosiya also has the distinction of being the spot where, in 1346, the Black Death entered Europe when a besieging Mongol army used their siege catapults to hurl infested corpses over the city walls. The resulting plague would wipe out around half the population of Europe:


Traces of a Faded Soviet Civilisation

The kitsch fake Greek temple columns of Arkadia (previous post) are not so grossly inappropriate as they may seem. Feodosiya used to be an ancient Greek city, the trading port at that time called Kaffa, which the Greeks used as a base to trade with the Scythians (those with the crocks of gold under the kurgany in the Chekhovian landscape a few blog posts back). Here are traces of another past civilisation - the Soviets. The remnants of a Soviet temple of pleasure in Koktebel, where the elite who made the long journey from Moscow managed a brief escape to a more bohemian and permissive style of life. Koktebel was a hippy and clothing-optional get away from it all lifestyle destination within the Soviet Union for those in the know:


Kaffa, or Feodosiya, is still a port, still supplying the descendants of the Scythians in the steppe beyond with goods:


Et in Arkadia (sic) ego

More films scanned. Two views of Arcadia - Arcadia and Arkadia. The first is Koktebel, a place which I already recently blogged about whose name conjures up an association with utopia, partly because of Boris Khlebnikov's film Koktebel, where a young boy is trying to make it to the seemingly unattainable place. The second - Arkadia - is a spectacular night club in the form of a fake greek temple in the very centre of Feodosiya. Here is a young lad called Ruslan, who was passing by with his sister on the way to a music lesson, and paused to be recorded. He's a bit older than the hero of Koktebel, but also seemed fiercely independent and self-confident:

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A bit more on the nature of happiness: a lucky magpie

As I took my journey around the Crimea and decided to try out a daily online diary for the first time, I was wondering whether it was a good idea or not. That's because I was really there, as a method of working, to take pictures on medium format film, and if at the same time I took a moment out to take a quick, inevitably slightly different, digital version of the same scene and posted it in the road diary, that might undermine in some way the final image. I guess it's the age old nervousness of opening up your ideas sketchbook before you show the final version - it might affect the way people saw the final. That's especially true because I had a wide angle lens for the medium format film that let me take pictures I couldn't with the (single fixed lens) digi camera. Yesterday's picture of the Kurgan in the Chekhov landscape is an example - in the road diary I had to post a 'cropped' version because of the lack of wide angle lens on the digi camera - which was fine for the sake of keeping the diary going, but in this image I much prefer the wider landscape shown in the medium format film.

Anyway, here are four of the film versions from some images I posted in the daily diary, some of them are close to the digital version - but the film version will blow up large nicer and has a somewhat different tonality - sometimes they are just different. In the case of the steps image, the magpie is only there in the film version.

I had first framed the steps simply because I liked the scene, and saw a kind of symbolism in the steps, but then the magpie landed on the wire above, and I immediately started thinking about 'luck', finding happiness or treasure - and so forth. I took a few pictures, and prayed he would flutter down and land on the steps. Amazingly, he did what I asked. Only for a moment before he hopped off down the steps, but long enough for me to take a frame on the medium format camera. Not long enough to take the same image for the 'road diary' on digital, but that was fine - I had had enough luck already, and I was happy.

All of this of course just happens to tie in rather nicely with Chekhov and yesterday's kurgan image, which is rather lucky!

So here are four images in their 'proper' film versions. First, the guide to the underground caves of Adzhimushkay (here is the original post that talks about the extraordinary story of the place). Then the magpie, followed by Koktebel (aka 'the promised land'), and then, Kerch.

BTW, in the Koktebel image of the roofs and the sea, there is just the tiniest hint of Crimea's Tartar past, a merest suggestion of the romantic, in the spike between the two roofs:


On Chekhovian landscapes in the Ukrainian steppe, and burial mounds

I have been scanning my films from Crimea, and some of the landscape images of the steppe kept bringing me back to thoughts of Chekhov, who had grown up not far away and spent early days wandering the steppe - many of his later plays and stories involve people adrift in houses set in wide empty spaces. Yesterday I read his short story "Happiness" with its description of the open steppe and the 'kurgany' - enormous burial mounds of Scythian or Bosporan kings that arise out of the flat landscape. Two shepherds are sitting in the steppe, discussing the nature of happiness - or luck - since schastye in Russian can mean either, or both. The kurgany are well known for hiding treasure - crocks of exquisite Scythian gold. The older shepherd was dreaming of finding a crock of Scythian or Cossack happiness - or luck - while recognising that it wasn't going to happen:

“In the bluish distance where the furthest visible hillock melted into the mist nothing was stirring; the ancient kurgany, once watch-mounds and tombs, which rose here and there above the horizon and the boundless steppe had a sullen and death-like look; there was a feeling of endless time and utter indifference to man in their immobility and silence; another thousand years would pass, myriads of men would die, while they would still stand as they had stood, with no regret for the dead nor interest in the living, and no soul would ever know why they stood there, and what secret of the steppes was hidden under them.”

Here was the image I was scanning:

I posted a digital test picture for this image while I was travelling so if it looks a little familiar from an earlier post, don't be surprised, but this is the final version, quite a different composition from the (somewhat cropped) earlier on-the-road image.

Day 10, homeward bound

My main purpose in heading to Ukraine was to take pictures on medium format on film, so many of the images posted over the last few days, especially portraits, were by way of test images for the final film version, and they were roughly posted through the iPad so please forgive some of the slightly dodgy colour balances. Many other images I only took on film so of course I couldn't blog temporary digi versions, so let's hope that there are one or two interesting ones among this lot!:-


Take off from Simferopol followed by Kiev airport in the early morning gloom:


And that is it! Hoping to make it back in the new year, it's been an interesting trip.

Day 9, Into the Valley of Death (Balaklava)

On the road to Balaklava, a new district for the rich takes shape higgledy-piggledy:

Balaklava is a place of course known to every British schoolboy through Tennyson ('"Forward, the Light Brigade!"/ Was there a man dismay'd?/ Not tho' the soldier knew/ Someone had blunder'd"). Tennyson's view of the war was rather more romantic than Tolstoy's ("the only hero of my story is truth"), perhaps because, unlike Tolstoy, Tennyson wasn't there.

Nobody I met in Balaklava seemed to have heard of the Charge of the Light Brigade, and seemed vaguely puzzled when I told that Balaklava is a household name in the UK. When I mentioned the Anglo-French invasion, Vova, a security guard, said: "everyone has been here at some stage. We joke that we think of ourselves not as Ukrainian, or even Russian, but 'theirs' - belonging to the abroad".

Balaklava was a top secret submarine base during Soviet times, with a James Bond-style base hidden inside the mountain, with caverns at sea level that submarines disappeared into. When I visited ten years ago, the bay where Florence Nightingale had set up her hospital was rusting and ramshackle, what has happened since is truly remarkable - the town has been transformed into a superyacht base and holiday resort for the super-rich. Here is an image of the entrance to the bay, you can see the entrance to one of the submarine pens at the base of the hill opposite:


A Volga in Balaklava village, many of these Soviet era cars are still going strong:


Staircase to nowhere, Balaklava:


Balaklava was one of the lynchpins for the defence of Sevastopol during the Great Patriotic War. I found an informal memorial to soldiers of the 'Cheka' - the NKVD - more commonly known as the KGB, who died in the defence of Balaklava. Here is another, official memorial, to Gerasim Arkhipovich Rubtsov, commander of the Border Regiment, who died in 1942 in the defence of Balaklava:


When I climbed the hill over Balaklava I met Ira and Ira and Anatoly having a picnic consisting mainly of vodka and salo - Ukrainian national dish consisting of raw pig fat. They kindly invited me to join them, so getting down the hill was much harder drunk. As a former soldier, Anatoly wasn't keen to have his portrait taken, but here is Ira and Ira, with the spectacular setting of Balaklava Bay in the background: