It’s a late Saturday morning in May, the temperature is in the high 20s and it’s my first full day in Russia. I am being driven through the streets of Tula by my host, Iosif, accompanied by his 18-year-old daughter. We are on our way to meet up with the rest of my group – English people of a certain age with an interest in all things Russian. Our friend, Natasha, who has organised our trip is married to an Englishman and lives in the UK, but was born and brought up here in Tula.
Iosif is driving a Zhiguli with regulation sticking door. I’ve noticed on my many trips to other parts of eastern Europe that cars have either a door that won’t open properly or an ominously large crack on the windscreen.
To be honest, I am in full-blown culture shock. For over 35 years I have been learning Russian, speaking Russian, reading Russian Literature and history, listening to Russian music, singing Russian folk songs, drinking Russian vodka and imagining what Russia is like. But now I am actually here for the very first time, as a 50th birthday present from my darling wife, totally immersed in the country with a family that doesn’t speak English. My brain is on overload and my ear has not yet got used to the speed of normal Russian speech.
Our party meets outside the Palace of Pioneers (Dvorets pionyerov) and makes its way over to the red brick walled Tula Kremlin. Today is the feast day of SS Cyril and Methodius, celebrated in Soviet times as the Day of Literacy, the formulators of the Cyrillic alphabet based on Greek. A small group of young people in peasant costumes are performing folk dances and small stalls sell craft items, books and pryaniki (honey and spice biscuits – a particular speciality of Tula). I’m attracted to a display of old artefacts: butter churns; an ancient Tula samovar (Tula is famed for the manufacture of these characteristically Russian items) studded with little medals showing all the fairs where it has been exhibited; and a pre-Revolution school textbook for teaching Church Slavonic, the liturgical language of the Russian Orthodox Church.
The land inside the Kremlin is an expanse of grass. At the Revolution the Bolsheviks destroyed the old churches and flattened the old cemetery, replacing it with a football pitch. The building that dominates the Kremlin is the Cathedral of the Dormition which dates back to the second half of the eighteenth century. In the Soviet era it was used as a warehouse and the huge icons on the walls and columns painted over. Slowly the painstaking process of restoration is taking place and the inside is full of scaffolding. The iconostasis apparently used to have so much gilding on it that it looked as if it were on fire.
I am stunned to see an icon of the Imperial family murdered by the Bolsheviks with a single candle in front of it. Dressed in medieval costumes they hold candles and have saints’ haloes round their heads; the Russian Orthodox Church has canonised them as ‘passion bearers’, martyrs who died in Christian humility, the lowest rung of sainthood.
Outside it’s so fiercely hot that I have to keep moving from shady patch to shady patch to keep cool. A concert is in progress, with music performed by the Yasnaya Polyana Ensemble, named after Tolstoy’s estate not 14 miles away. It’s a mix of light classics and Russian folk songs performed by baritone and soprano with surprisingly strong voices. People are just wondering round, sitting down to listen to the music and then moving on as the fancy takes them.
Back at the Palace of Pioneers we have a small welcoming party with songs and dances performed by enthusiastic children and even English poetry learnt by heart (“My heart is in the Highlands…”) performed by star students.
Outside whilst waiting for Iosif to pick me up, I cross the road to get a better view of the Palace and to take a photograph. It’s then that I see the year under pediment over the entrance: ‘1937’.
A chill runs through me on this hot spring day. This is the year that Stalin’s Great Terror reached its height. Under Yezhov, head of the NKVD (predecessor of the KGB) the purges cut a swathe through all levels of Soviet society and cowered the whole population. Millions of lives were rubbed out on a whim of a dictator, his gang of thugs and the party apparatus that kept it in power. Families of the condemned were split up and sent to the camps or the children placed in orphanages, becoming outcasts in their own society. The numbers involved in this state-imposed madness are almost incomprehensible, the suffering hard to imagine.
Today has been quite an introduction to the reality of this land of my dreams.