Tag Archives: Mikhail Bulgakov

On the Golden Eagle across Siberia (Part IV) – From the Czars to Stalin

4-Vysotsky-2Reaching Yekaterinburg, another surprise. Not only another modern city, but one with the tallest building outside Moscow, a 54 floor business tower surprisingly named after Vladimir Vysotsky – singer, poet and satirist (“Vodka is our enemy, let’s finish it off”). He was a rebellious and charismatic figure, often seen to discomfort the powerful, who died in mysterious circumstances, aged 42. There is a Vysotsky Museum on the third floor (and he was even quoted by Baryshnikov in his thriller film “White Nights”).

Certainly the “feel” of this city is quite different. The locals in conversation are happy to consider themselves “Eurasians” having the best of both sides of the continent. Rebellious “Ural Rock” music is highly fashionable. Some young people openly say there is no need to discuss a return to authoritarian Imperial rule as “we already have a Czar”. They mention the Pussy Riot incident at the Cathedral in Moscow but refer to it as Russian Performance Art. In contrast,the white cross marker for the murdered Czar Nicholas and his family has been replaced by the Church of the (Spilled) Blood. It makes an important and interesting focus for our city visit.

photo-8 - Version 2The original execution site, the Ignatiev house, was demolished under Soviet rule but the cellar has been faithfully reconstructed within the church. The patriarch of Moscow has a huge house nearby and many people speculate about the close links between the official church and the Kremlin. In any case, a cult is growing around the Romanoffs, who have been canonised. Czar Nicholas is presented as an ideal father and husband and many young people with children are joining the church in growing numbers. The Bible has become a mandatory subject in grade schools. All this is explained to us by locals as being part of the increased search for basic values as, according to them “Russian values today have become money and sex”.

Not far from the Church of the Blood, we noticed a poster advertising performances in one of the twenty city theatres, much patronised particularly during the long winter months.It was a production of “The Master and Margarita”, based on one of the great novels of the twentieth century by Mikhail Bulgakov, which was highly critical of a stifling bureaucratic society. Tickets were sold out.

Returning to the Golden Eagle, we exchange notes with fellow travellers who had gone to stand with a foot in each “continent”, the marker for the Europe/Asia border. They had been subjected to a good-humoured mock “passport check” followed by celebratory champagne.

2442497027_ccd0043b10_zThere is further animated discussion on the train after another documentary film “Joseph Stalin; Red Terror” is shown. We recollect how our Moscow guides had illustrated Stalin’s despotic power with a story, maybe apocryphal, but credible to most, explaining the map of the Moscow metro lines. They mostly run north to south but in the middle is an absolute circle. Stalin insisted on approving all plans personally. When by chance he placed his coffee cup in the middle of the proposed map, it left a perfect circle. No one dared to even point this out, so there it remained and the circular metro line was built. During our debate, someone remembered that a recent Moscow television poll to determine public perception of Great Russians placed Stalin at number three, Tolstoy at number forty!

We go to the dining cars for the evening meal, but not before some enthusiasts ask for a 6.30am wake-up call, anxious not to miss anything as, already well into Siberia by then, the train was scheduled to make one of the short “in-between” maintenance stops at Omsk, Siberia’s second city and once a major place of exile.

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Sympathy for the Devil

8108499268_580a47c21e_zA good story has always had the power to evoke imagination in the mind of the reader – but nowhere more so than in Europe – where we can see evidence of that power everywhere.

For example:  Casa de Pilatos, Seville; Lago di Pilato in the Marche of Italy ; The Pilat regional nature park near Lyon; The Tomb of Pilate (a Roman pyramid) in Vienne and particularly Mount Pilatus in central Switzerland.

It is possible that Mt Pilatus got its name from “Mons Pileatus” or “cloud-covered” according to early traveller John Ruskin. But the more frequently  cited meaning of the name refers to the Roman procurator of Judea, Pontius Pilate,who presided at the trial of Jesus Christ in Jerusalem.

It is said that, following his death (possibly by suicide, although there are those that have other theories),the body of Pilate was thrown into the Tiber, thrown into the Rhône, into Lake Geneva near Lausanne or ultimately carried by bearers who, panicked by thunder and lightning, threw the remains into a glacier pool on the mountain which also bears his name.

Climbing the mountain itself was forbidden until 1400 when bishops led a procession from local communities to perform acts of exorcism and purification. It is still believed, however, that every Good Friday a shadow appears from the waters and washes its hands….

These and other legends provided fascination for countless European artists and writers: Anatole France in  “Le Procurateur de Judee” , Nikos Kazantzakis in ” The Last Temptation of Christ”  or perhaps most memorably ” The Master and Margarita” by Stalin-period Russian great Mikhail Bulgakov.

This last book concerns a version of the trial of Jesus imagined by the Master in which Yeshua (Jesus) states to Pilate that  “In fact I am beginning to fear  that this confusion will go on for a long time . And all because he writes down what I said incorrectly.”

Bulgakov’s tale intrigued Mick Jagger so much in the late 1960’s, that the Devil appeared in the Rolling Stones’ Beggars Banquet disc on the track “Sympathy for the Devil”, where he  “made sure that Pilate washed his hands and sealed his fate”.

Some old stories never die but are recreated in our imagination.

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