Wednesday, 25 January 2012

Creative Places

Congratulations to Wigtown and Creetown on being named 'Creative Places' by Creative Scotland.

Moffat is also a creative place, so much so that it probably doesn't need an award (although awards are nice). Where would Moffat put an award of this sort?In the absence of a mayor's parlour, maybe a space could be found on the counter at Grieve's the newsagents in the High St.

A propos: there will be a distinguished Russian visitor in Moffat Feb 20-25, Dr Ekaterina Genieva, director of the Rudomino State Library in Moscow.

I have memories of Dr Ekaterina Genieva - ‘Katya’ - going back nearly 30 years. She had come to Britain with two other star Russian students of English language and literature some years before I met her, as a guest of the now defunct Great Britain-USSR Association which I had joined in 1962. I came to know both her companions too, in later years. One of them, the magnificent Georgy (pronounced Gay-org –ee) Andzhaparidze, became a publisher. He was introduced to John le Carre (David Cornwell) in the course of le Carre’s researches for his The Russia House. George – as he was known to his Engish-speaking friends - had a cameo role, playing himself, in the movie of The Russia House starring Michelle Pfeiffer and Sean Connery. While the highly extrovert and excitable George was compering the premier at a cinema in Moscow, he slipped and fell from the stage sustaining fatal injuries.

Katya was someone I visited every time I was in Moscow from 1983 onwards. She was a senior librarian at VGBIL the State Library for Foreign Literature, housed in a vast building in central Moscow with tentacles extending the length and breadth of the Soviet empire. Under various idiosyncratic Russian rulers, including Andropov, she got on quietly with being a librarian. In her flat there was a ‘holy corner’ with icons and photographs of her various spiritual mentors. She would speak of Father Alexander Men, her parish priest at the church of Novaya Derevnya (New Village) where she had a dacha. We often spent weekends at the dacha, in winter and summer but I did not meet Fr Alexander until just before Easter in 1990.

My elder daughter Abi had been living with Katya and her family while studying voice at the Moscow Conservatoire. Abi met Fr Alexander, and went to his many public lectures and decided to be baptized at Easter. Several months later, Fr Alexander was killed with a blow to his head from a sharp instrument ,widely believed to have been a sapper’s spade of the sort issued to the Soviet Special Forces, wielded expertly from behind him, while his attention was focused on something being shown to him that had required him to open his briefcase and take out his spectacles – in other words, a two-man professional job. Shortly after the murder, two young men, were reported to have boarded the ‘elektrichka’ suburban train Moscow-bound. They have never been traced.

After the murder, Dr Donald Smith of the Church of Scotland’s Scottish Story-Telling Centre had the brilliant idea of commissioning a play from myself and Moscow theatre director Mark Rozovsky to dramatise the story for a western secular audience at the Edinburgh Festival . Our chaplain at the British Embassy, Chad Coussmaker, suggested that we base the play on T S Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral.

Donald came out with me for the premiere of the play entitled ‘Murder in the Cathedral: A Russian Rehearsal’ at Mark’s theatre ‘At The Nikitsky Gates’. Donald and I flew in and were immediately informed that we were going to be part of a VIP delegation on a visit to Rostov on Don, a town on the southern borders of Russia in Cossack territory. Surprised but unable to resist, we flew to Rostov where Donald distinguished himself by singing a Scottish ballad at a reception on a replica of Peter the Great’s warship which is moored there.

On our return to Moscow, we saw the play, which was most effective and moving. Ironically, or perhaps aptly in light of Fr Alexander’s own ethnic origins, the Theatre at the Nikitsky Gates is predominantly a Jewish theatre, and the company tours their repertoire for the Russian-speaking Jewish diaspora in cities through the USA.

Sadly, the play cannot be performed in Britain because T S Eliot’s widow Valerie forbids any adaptations of his work.

After the death of her friend and mentor, Katya threw herself into work , using the library’s facilities to print pro-democratic bulletins in the tumultuous days of the fall of Communism. The printing works of the library were housed in the church of SS Cosma and Damian, now restored as a fully-functioning place of worship, pictured in a recent Facebook posting by Bishop Seraphim Sigrist. Katya became the director of her library, where she offered space to the BBC and many foreign cultural organisations and ran George Soros’s Open Society organization in Russia, supporting free speech and economic liberalism along the lines described by Friedrich von Hayek in The Road To Serfdom.

I owe Katya more than I can say: for making it possible on many visits over the years for me not only to see a great panorama of Russian places outside the two great cities of St Petersburg and Moscow from Archangel to Jaroslavl, Kolomna to Rostov on Don, but also to participate in a family life; for hosting the British Book Trust’s Children’s Books of the Year Exhibition and giving it a great send-off (by the British Ambassador Brian Fall) before the two identical sets of books went off to tour round Russia; for organizing a tour for me, my agent Rosemary Sandberg and my publisher at Piccadilly Books; but above all for making it possible for me to meet Fr Alexander a few fateful months before he was assassinated.

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