A Russian rhapsody

Writer, playwright and Russophile Achala Moulik, awarded in Russia the Pushkin Medal, recalls falling in love with the country of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky.

When I, along with several other non-Russians specialising in Russian studies, received the prestigious Pushkin Medal from President Dmitry Medvedev in the picturesque town of Nizhni Novgorod in November last year, many persons asked me what evoked my interest in Russia.

Paradoxically, my introduction to Russia was through Rabindranath Tagore’s “Letters From Russia”which my mother gave me when I was seven to read as we were flying over the Atlantic Ocean on the way to Washington where my father was posted. I assumed that we were on our way to Russia. Why else should I have been given to read this rather difficult book? Much of Tagore’s wistful and prophetic travelogue was then beyond my understanding but I liked the description of Russia – of snow, forests and a brave people. While growing up in England and America, this mysterious land slumbered in my imagination and came alive when I, then a school girl in London, saw a lavish display of Russian culture.  

The cultural events to celebrate the fortieth anniversary of the Russian Revolution burst upon London with a splendour that provoked the undemonstrative Britons into raptures. My parents took us to these glittering performances where British audiences were dazzled by the display of colour, music, and vivacity of a people who were still an enigma in the West. Splendid performances by the Bolshoi Ballet, plays by the Moscow Arts Theatre and the Red Army Ensemble charmed and danced their way to peoples’ hearts. The universality of culture appeared to bring the two nations together.

It became a vogue in England to learn the Russian language; there was renewed interest in her old literature and a cautious curiosity about Soviet writers. There were long queues at cinema houses to see the screening of films based on Sholokhov’s famous novel of the revolution and civil war in Quiet Flows the Don andLavrenyov’s The Forty First. The formidable might of the Soviet Union was temporarily forgotten, the fear and suspicions generated by the Cold War thawed, and even briefly melted, in that premature spring.

My sister, my friends, and I were infatuated by Oleg Strizhenov who played the part of a Tsarist officer in the romantic tragedy “The Forty First” and the 15th century Russian traveller Afanasy Nikitin in the film Pardesi. We played truants from school several times to see these films over and over again. When at the university, we students flocked to see the poignant Russian films Ballad of a Soldier, and Cranes Are Flying which depicted the heroism of Russian people during the Second World War.

While preparing for school final examinations in London, I attended evening classes to learn Russian. The first one was at Pushkin Club where young and not so young people met to learn Russian, discuss Russian culture, drink the new espresso coffee and offer views on world events. Curious about this ambience, my parents came one evening to fetch me from my lessons. Upon seeing my large and elegant father, a bearded British youth with revolutionary pretensions observed that my father appeared to be part of the Establishment. But after seeing my beautiful gentle mother, he shrugged and muttered, “It is obvious she belongs to an oppressed class.”  That ended our blossoming friendship.

I began reading Russian literature and history and went to any concert that performed Russian music. Dreaming of specialising in Slavonic studies I began to lose interest in my GCE ‘A’ level exams. After graduating from London University in economics and related subjects, I entered the Indian Administrative Service, met and married a colleague, who though an economist and mathematician by training, shared my interest in Russian classics and the country’s history. It was at my husband’s suggestion that I wrote my first articles on Soviet Literature - Cherry Blossoms in Magnitagorsk and When the Weather Clears. I wrote my first book – Silhouettes of Russian Literature and later the play Pushkin’s Last Poem, which was performed in Moscow and Petersburg during the Year of India in Russia in 2009.

The Russian rhapsody passed on to our son who as a little boy was given to read a beautifully illustrated book, Tales from the Amber Sea, and was taken to see films like Pushkin’s Ruslan and Ludmila.

For many centuries Russia has fascinated people. Herodotus, The Greek historian-geographer, was attracted to Russia because she “stood at the terminus of Asia and Europe.” Indefatigable travellers like Ibn-Batuta and Ghillbert de Lannoy were awed by the vast terrestrial space of that country and the resilience of her people. Perhaps the fascination for Russia lies in its stark contrasts; long bleak winters and luminous summer nights, of a people who can be exuberant and taciturn by turn, who have combined political might with a mystical outlook. This duality – celebration of the phenomenal world and a quest for existentialist answers - can be seen in Tolstoy’s epic War and Peace and in Dostoevsky’s masterpiece ‘The Brothers Karamazov.’Herodotus’ observation that Russia straddles Asia and Europe is best exemplified in her architecture – both Byzantine and Italian Renaissance – and music that combines Western symphonic structure with melodies of the Orient. This assimilative talent has made Russian art, music and literature transcend national boundaries and acquire an epic, universal quality. 

President Dmitry Medvedev presenting Pushkin Medal to Achala Moulik. November 4, 2011.


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