What Ho, Comrade!
BY SUSAN BROKAW
Inspired by Masha Lebedeva's eight-part series in Wooster Sauce
on Russian references in Wodehouse, as well as the three supplementary
issues of By The Way with hundreds of PGW quotes, Old Home Week in Moscow
was a rousing success. Here we have the report from the erudite and
well-traveled Susan Brokaw.
THANKS TO THE organization and attention to detail by members of The Russian Wodehouse Society-specifically, Masha Lebedeva and her assistants, Lena Lebedeva, Dmitry Pritykin, and Irina Alexeeva-our August trip to Moscow for the society's "Old Home Week" was a bit of a vacation, but mainly a 500-level cram course in Russian literature, history, art, cuisine, and architecture. E-mail correspondence with Masha began nearly nine months in advance of the event. She gathered our input on scheduling, choice of possible venues, and preferences of accommodations, transportation, and the amount of desired "down time." With all of Masha's preliminary spadework and the tendency for Wodehouseans to, as Plum Lines editor Gary Hall put it, "oil through bureaucracy," we had a wonderfully memorable week.
On the Sunday evening of our arrival, my husband Dirk Wonnell and I were met in the lobby bar of the Hotel Budapest (the official Old Home Week lodging) by Masha and several other attendees: Jelle Otten from the Netherlands and Hubert and Marie Lasson from France. There we received our subway tickets, city map, and bound booklet describing the week's activities. From the hotel bar we walked to Elki-Palki, a nearby restaurant, for the welcome dinner. There we joined other Muscovite members of The Russian Wodehouse Society and another fellow OHW attendee, Elena Kirillova from the Volga region of Russia. It was there that we first sampled kvass (a mildly alcoholic quaff), mors (a substantial cranberry juice), and blini with caviar and sour cream, as well as an extensive array of cold salads and fish, often encased in cubes of clear gelatin. Afterward, we set out for a little jaunt around our "neighborhood," with the illuminated ruby glass stars of the Kremlin winking in the night sky. Soon, however, the combined effects of a late meal and jet lag had us heading back to the hotel for the night.
Monday began our week of tours, walks, and day trips. On our first day, we made our way to the Moscow Kremlin and Armory via the metro. Seen through the eyes of an American midwesterner, the Moscow metro system had the precision and reliability of a guillotine. Fortunately for our limbs, Masha herded us like sheep, making sure we were all together before boarding, because once the doors of a subway car started to close, any errant appendage still blocking the way was subject to amputation. No chirp of "Mind the Gap," no warning bell, just a brief delay to allow boarding and disembarking and then, WHAMMO! Shut tight as a drum and rocketing forward at what seemed 90 mph.
"Aline, my pet, it's no good arguing. You might just as well argue with a wolf on the trail of a fat Russian peasant."
Something Fresh (1915)
Once at the station closest to the Kremlin, it was a short and pleasant walk in a park-like setting to the gates of the Kremlin. There we experienced the first of many times we witnessed Masha fully realized as our "fearless leader." In this role, she would encounter a uniformed official at a gate, fan out tickets for inspection like a poker hand, exchange Russian words along with a few accompanying hand gestures, and suddenly the velvet rope would be unclasped and the knot of Wodehouseans would be allowed to "oil through." We were met by an English-speaking interpreter who guided us through the museum rooms filled with artifacts treasured by the czars and Russian Orthodox Church hierarchs: silver- and jewel-encrusted gospel covers, incredibly intricate icon frames, ermine and sable robes of state, carriages, weapons, and unbelievably delicate creations by
Faberge. We then walked around outdoors within the Kremlin walls. For someone who had always assumed the Kremlin was simply a collection of drab government buildings, it was stunning to find so many onion-domed cathedrals. Afterward, we toured the Cathedral of Christ the Savior, recently rebuilt and reopened as the largest cathedral in Russia. It stands majestically on a site that was, during Khrushchev's tenure, an open-air swimming pool that was built atop a crater left when the original cathedral was destroyed in the troubled times of Stalin. From the top of the cathedral we had commanding views of the Moscow River and the whole of urban Moscow. We ended our first day with a boat trip on the Moscow River.
We started Tuesday with a guided bus tour of the city. It was an excellent way to see a panorama of the Kremlin, Red Square, Moscow State University, the Novodevichy convent, and Lubyanka Square with the former KGB headquarters.
Anything modern was taboo, unless it were the work of Gotsuchakoff, Thingummyowsky, or some other eminent foreigner.
The Head of Kay's (1905)
We stretched our legs in Red Square and had a good look at the exterior of the iconic St. Basil's Cathedral, with its domes and polychrome decoration. Next was the melancholy Novodevichy convent. The lake on the convent grounds inspired Tchaikovsky to write Swan Lake, and in the park is a sculpture of Robert McCluskey's famous children's work, Make Way for Ducklings, presented to the children of Russia by former first lady Barbara Bush. Our tour guide, Elena, was excellent, her knowledge vast, and her command of English superb. After lunch we donned paper booties and toured the Moscow home of the great Russian singer, Feodor Chaliapin, famous for his rendition of "The Song of the Volga Boatmen." From there it was back to the Hotel Budapest for a late afternoon restorative.
He looked like a Volga boatman who has just learned that Stalin has purged his employer.
Wednesday's highlight was the afternoon's mini-golf tournament that followed an early morning visit to the museum-estate of writer Leo Tolstoy. The organizer of the tournament, Dmitry Pritykin (a member of The Russian Wodehouse Society), is ranked 10th in Russia's mini-golf federation. He and my husband Dirk, a golf aficionado, bonded over golf stories like twin souls. Dirk even changed into his plus fours, long socks, and argyle vest for the event. We were assigned to foursomes, given a putter each, and placed at staggered tee boxes to begin the tournament. I am very proud to announce that yours truly brought home the winning gold medal for the United States, besting second-place finisher Elena Kirillova and bronze medalist Masha. We ended the afternoon with a pleasant walk in the park of Kolomenskoye, a place Jelle remembered from a prior Moscow visit. It was there that some of us got a glimpse of a Russian Orthodox evening service in progress. It was a profoundly moving experience.
Thursday and Friday were given over to our day excursions. On Thursday we were bused to Serednikovo, the country mansion of the Russian Romantic poet and writer Mikhail Lermontov. Following a tour of the home and a box-lunch picnic overlooking the estate's pond, we performed a reading of "The Clicking of Cuthbert." Masha was a most excellent sport portraying Vladimir Brusiloff in fabulous fake zareba. Friday's trip to the museum-reserve of Anton Chekhov was my favorite. The house was cozy and warm, with his collection of seed and vegetable catalogs arrayed on his desk in a way that made one think he had just stepped into the kitchen for a cup of tea before returning to plan his early spring plantings. The gardens and orchards are still being cultivated and have an appealingly intentional disarray of annual flowers admixed with perennial herbs and ripening vegetables. Chekhov's little doctor's office was built just beyond the main house, and has its own physic garden. Friday evening several of us enjoyed the entertainment of the Moscow Circus.
The week ended on Saturday with a trip to the lands of the State Museum-Reserve Tsaritsyno, the center of which is Catherine the Great's palace, the largest in Moscow. We walked the extensive grounds and visited the museum, which contains the most complete collection of 20th-century Russian paintings.
. . . he emphasized the grievous pain it gave him to think that one of his flesh and blood should deliberately be embarking on a career which must inevitably lead sooner or later to the painting of Russian princesses lying on divans in the semi-nude with their arms round tame jaguars.
"The Story of Webster" (1932)
The tour came to an official end Saturday evening at a wonderful farewell dinner at the beautiful Cafe Pushkin. We toasted new friends and great memories, laughed, and shed a few tears. And we were presented with a unique commemorative of the week, a 2009 wall calendar with 12 months of original Wodehouse characters conceived and drawn by Raya Ivanovskaya, a Russian Wodehouse Society member.
On Sunday morning it was back to Domodedovo airport for an American Airlines flight to Chicago and a late-night connection to Cincinnati. For their hospitality, generosity of time, and energy, we must thank our Russian hosts: Masha, Dmitry, Anna, Natalya, Mikhail, Irina, and Lena. And thanks, too, to Jelle, Marie, Hubert, and Elena, our fellow travelers, for enduring our pitiful broken French and nonexistent Dutch and Russian tongues. We hope to see you all again!