The British Artists Looking for ‘Real Russia’

PHOTO by Vladimir Smirnov / RIA Novosti
British artists share their impressions on travelling across Russia on the Trans-Siberian Railway

Writer Joe Dunthorne, Shakespeare expert Andrew Dickson, Gruff Rhys, lead singer of the rock band Super Furry Animals, and media artist Francesca Panetta were invited by the British Council to take a two week trip along the Trans-Siberian Railway. The party made stops in Kazan, Yekaterinburg, Novosibirsk and Krasnoyarsk to meet local people and get to know their culture. Upon arrival in Moscow, the group members shared their experiences of the artist-in-residence programme, which was organised as part of the UK-Russia Year of Language and Literature.

On Stereotypes

Joe Dunthorne: Before leaving for Russia I was thinking about the Russian circus, which is very popular in Britain. I watched a YouTube video with Valik and Valerik, two clowns from St. Petersburg. Now I've been in Russia for two weeks and haven’t seen a single clown.

Andrew Dickson: Although we did see a funny building in Kazan...

This isn’t my first visit to Russia. I have been here several times before. I don’t know whether it's due to the current political climate or a certain tension between our nations, but I thought Russians would be cold, self-confident and even hostile. Yet the people we met were very open and friendly, always eager to talk to us. They were interested in Shakespeare, Gruff’s music and Joe’s poems. It was just great – and there were lots of young people among the audience.

Francesca Panetta: I thought that after leaving Moscow we would see nothing but wild countryside, with only a few wooden houses and no civilization. But it wasn’t like that at all. We visited huge industrial cities, research centres, theatres and concert halls and met artists and writers everywhere. I had pictured a country idyll, and we did travel past those kind places on the train. But our city-stops were a far cry from what I had imagined before the trip.

Joe Dunthorne: We visited the idyllic Ovsyanka Village near Krasnoyarsk – it was everything I expected from a snow-covered Siberian village. The people were carrying water in buckets to their homes, with huskies running around them. It was so beautiful! And the Yenisei flowing into the Arctic Ocean …

Gruff Rhys: I thought Siberia was all tundra, a wild expanse with scattered villages rather than an urban landscape.

On Space

Gruff Rhys: Normally we have very little time to spare – we are always in a hurry somewhere. On the train, however, we had the luxury of reflecting on what we had seen. A train is a separate microcosm, a warm and safe space where you can walk about in your pyjamas as whole worlds are flashing past outside the window in a -20ºC(-4ºF) frost. That is a very powerful juxtaposition. I could have spent many more days, weeks or months on that train, losing all sense of time.

We found that all trains in Russia run on Moscow time, so at some points you can’t work out if you should be having breakfast or lunch. Once you start drinking vodka in the dining car, things get even more confusing. And the train rumbles on.

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Media artist Francesca Panetta

Francesca Panetta: The British Council’s intention was to facilitate a dialogue between British and Russian cultures. We shared our railway journey with a Russian writer (Alisa Ganieva – ed.) and a Russian literary critic (Konstantin Milchin – ed.). We spent a lot of time discussing everything from politics to culture to tongue-twisters. I had imagined we would be doing nothing on the train but looking poetically out of the window, but we spent all our time chatting.

Joe Dunthorne: It felt like a workshop, but without any end goal. We were travelling in different compartments in the same carriage, and the space itself encouraged spontaneous artistic collaborations.

On People

Gruff Rhys: We mainly stopped in cities, so it is difficult for us to make any judgements about people from villages. I was interested in the diverse cultures we saw here and found that the Tatar culture in Kazan really made an impression on me. Krasnoyarsk was another place with a colourful mix of cultures and languages. This diversity is inevitable in such a vast geographical area.

Francesca Panetta: The pace of life is different across the country. In the regions, we had to wait ages for our food in restaurants. But when we went out yesterday for our first dinner in Moscow, we were surprised when our food arrived in less than an hour. Moscow is really high-paced: in restaurants, for example, they serve you very quickly, getting you out of your table as quickly as possible so that the next customers can be seated. In the regions, however, the restaurants and bars were more laid-back and felt as if you could spend a whole day or night there.

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Shakespeare expert Andrew Dickson

Andrew Dickson: True. There is another stereotype, also shared by some people in Moscow, that Siberia is a provincial backwater. In actual fact, there are plenty of cultural events and artists there. In Krasnoyarsk, the former Lenin museum was converted into a museum of modern art. There are new original cultural projects and restaurants. A resident of Krasnoyarsk told me that his city enjoys a great population diversity due to various historical and geographical factors. Krasnoyarsk used to be a place of exile for criminals and political prisoners. These days there are lots researchers and musicians, so it's an interesting and unusual mix.

On Russian and British Mentalities

Joe Dunthorne: Russia is so vast that as we travelled from Moscow to Krasnoyarsk, we covered a substantial part of the globe. Everything that is done in Russia is done on a large scale, whether it be urban planning, statues or space exploration. You may not see the space programme and the size of the country as being linked, but I can recognise this connection.

Andrew Dickson: I have often though about the different stages of Russian history and the tension between the Moscow and the rest of the country. How can you control this enormous territory from a single centre? Britain doesn’t experience this problem as the country is so small that it can easily be governed from London. In Russia, on the contrary, there's an interesting tension. The regional authorities might claim that they follow Moscow’s orders when in fact they do as they please.

The collage of nationalities which Gruff mentioned as typical of Russia makes you ask yourself if Russia is indeed a single country or a collection of small countries. I am convinced that the size of the country has a powerful impact on the people’s mentality and their perception of the space around them. In Britain you can never really escape in the wild as you will be within ten miles of some large city wherever you go. This is not the case in Russia: we were told that Krasnoyarsk Krai is ten times the size of France.

Francesca Panetta: History is such a sensitive issue. What makes our trip so fascinating is that it can become a lead-in to dramatic elements of Russian history. One can gain many insights into the history of the 1990s by taking a tour of the gangster cemetery in Yekaterinburg or talking with artists who were active during the Soviet period. It may not be a linear narrative, but it enables you to create your own pictures from the different places you have visited and people you have met. I believe this type of knowledge can’t be obtained by reading books or watching documentaries. We were lucky to have had an opportunity to create our own collage from different fragments of Russian geography and history, to feel its depth, not just scratch the surface.

Andrew Dickson: I think there is an interesting parallel between Britain and Russia, which is particularly relevant given the current political tension. Both the Russian Federation and the UK are empires, or former empires. Both countries are strong in some senses and weak in some other. Both are trying to redefine their role in history and the modern, technology-driven, globalised world. As you see, Britain has complex relations with Europe, as confirmed by Brexit. The relations between Russia and Europe are just as complex (they all laugh and nod understandingly at each other). It isn’t clear if Russia wants to be part of Europe or to distance itself from it. Throughout our whole journey, I felt as if was looking at myself in the mirror, albeit somewhat distorted. Both Britons and Russians show complex national pride. We think similarly about our politicians. I have thought a lot about these multi-faceted connections on the train.

Gruff Rhys: I think of Brexit as a kind of post-colonial hangover. It’s like the phantom pain an amputee feels in a leg they no longer have. In my opinion, British nationalism and things like Brexit show that people still feel as if they are a colonial power, as if they still had the limbs that were amputated decades ago. The sense of space is often a mental designation rather than a physical one.

On Their Expectations of the Trip

Francesca Panetta: For me, our trip was about the people, not places. I wanted to understand how the people saw their place in the modern political and historical context. As a press worker, I feel that our understanding of the Russian people is very limited. I had supposed Russians would engage in black-and-white thinking (“one is either for or against Putin”), but the actual reality was never that clear. I realised the situation was both much more complex and much more positive than I used to think. The people are very open – I didn’t expect that. I had been looking forward to seeing interesting places, but it wasn’t the point.

Andrew Dickson: I wanted to experience the longest railway route in the world, to think about this immense geographical space. I had a naïve ambition to see real Russia (laughs). What I did see was a multitude of unreal Russias in various combinations.

We talked a lot about the relations with the Soviet past, which is understandable, given the vagaries of British history. Speaking of empires, I am amazed that the urge to face the past is stronger among Russians than among the British. You are more prepared to look at your history from a new angle, to play with it, analyse it. In some senses, the British simply deny their past. I think we have yet to confront our history, unlike Russians, who are much better at it.

Gruff Rhys: Coincidentally, shortly before receiving the invitation to take this journey, I was thinking of the futurists and anarchists who tried to establish their own republic in East Siberia and became some of the principal ideologists of the Bolshevik movement. The very next day, I was offered a place on this trip. I thought: “Wow, I will be able to see Siberia!” In the end though, we didn’t make it to East Siberia after all.

Joe Dunthorne: I was interested in the trains. I love trains, especially sleepers. The Russian trains didn’t let me down – they were amazing. The first one, a double-decker, was disappointingly hi-tech, but as we travelled further into Siberia, the trains got older and I got happier.

On the Climate

Joe Dunthorne: The longer we spent on the train, the colder it got outside: in Krasnoyarsk it was -17ºC (1.4ºF) at night.

Francesca Panetta: By contrast, all the buildings were overheated. It was boiling inside and freezing outdoors – really extreme!

Andrew Dickson: I don’t know how you can live like this! We kept feeling either overdressed or underdressed the whole time (laughs).

Submitted by Natalya Kochetkova