My old Rough Guide to Moscow puts it well, “Private and cultural life are as passionate as business and politics are cynical.” Water in apartments goes stone cold for weeks each year, post-perestroika leaders are accused of drawing on dark czarist and soviet political tricks, bandits and oligarchs clean out the pockets of pensioners and war veterans.
Still, somehow, no matter what, Russians high and low treat the works of Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Tchaikovsky, Stravinsky, Gogol, Chekhov, Repin, Vrubel and Malevich with the respect they deserve. Children are still formally schooled in classics and learn Russian poems by heart.
Pounding the well-worn parquetry of Moscow's art galleries this week, and fielding security checks on entry in the shadow of the anniversay of the Beslan massacre, I've in turn been shadowed by troupes of schoolkids wearing neat backpacks, blazers and lacy confections in their hair. On every metro ride I sit in gloomy, whisper-quiet carriages with self-contained adults reading Russian novels. The other day I nearly fell into a half-dug hole in the footpath. But the ditch digger wasn’t drunk or asleep at his wheel. With tank-like SUVs screeching past at breakneck speed, he was taking quiet time out with what looked suspiciously like Pushkin.
The stereotype of the romantic rich inner life of Slavs must be taken with a pinch of realist salt. But so must Cold War stereotypes that linger with surprising tenacity in the West, including Australia. I'll bet a tin of Beluga caviar that most Australians don't fully grasp the essence of Pushkin - sorry, who? - never mind the sense of what was happening on that pavement.
But I'll bet a crate of vodka that most Russians wouldn't begin to comprehend our national gallery's recent decision to pass up a Kandinsky. How could anyone say “nyet” to such a big, beautiful Russian, considered the founder of abstract art, as the Tretyakov gallery catalogue bluntly reminds us.
Even penny-pinched babushkas begging at supermarket doors might have trouble understanding how a nation with a population four times larger than its rich neighbour, Finland, with apparent money to burn on real estate investments, plasma TVs and our very own SUV menace, could collectively baulk at the $35 million asking price. The nouveau-riche-as-Croesus stratum of Russian society, which drips in Hermes and Bulgari, drinks €100 bottles of rose from Fauchon in downtown Moscow and owns apartments in Belgravia, might just blink in amazement.
Surprisingly, perhaps, the Australian Kandinsky episode hasn't rated a blip locally. (Nor has the cricket - sorry, what?). The Australian flavour of the month in the Moscow press has been kangaroo. Russians are now the biggest buyers of the carcass of our national icon, to the tune of $11 million last year. It's not for those enjoying fashionable haute cuisine in the capital, which offers a costly cosmopolitan cacophony of French, Italian, Georgian, Indian, Uzbek, Japanese, and even nineteenth century Siberian-Russian, complete with buxom blonde babes in velvet bustiers, waterwheels and wild berry potions. But it has baulked at crossing the Rubicon into bush tucker.
Our roo ends up as no-name sausage meat somewhere round Vladivostok, and there are intimations of consumer backlash, maybe even revolution, if the truth gets out.
This all goes to show that the blunt knife of cultural chauvinism can always cut both ways.
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