Being a closet Slavophile, my travelling to Russia in 2008 was a dream come true. I first got interested in that very misunderstood continent through the suffering Christians, the dissident authors, and the underground artists. I had read the journals and newsletters published by Keston College, an organisation dedicated to the study of religion and communist countries, founded in 1969 by Revd Canon Michael Bourdeaux.
I became a spare-time, one-man protest band, on behalf of Soviet human rights. Prayers were painfully uttered. Letters to editors were written; banners painted for a protest march to the Soviet Embassy; poems about believer persecution were written & published in religious rights magazines.
During this time, I worked in a religious bookshop. I created a window display for the book, ‘Three Generations of Suffering’. It was about the KGB persecution of Soviet Baptist, Georgi Vins, unjustly imprisoned for his faith and practice.
For my window display, I used smashed mirror fragments to create a large Calvary cross. Beneath it, also made from mirror fragments, hung a Soviet hammer and sickle. Along with multiple copies of the book was an oblong banner that stated: “Living or dying, we follow the Lord.”
As I crouched in the window, assembling this display, a May Day march was passing. A few dozen Communist Party members and students passed by. One marcher looked in my direction, saw the subverted Soviet symbols and the scripture. He gave me the F-off sign. I was delighted – but I’d have preferred that a brick had been thrown through the window. The Irish Times newspaper offices were next door. It would have made for great publicity.
Through reading the Vins book, and other accounts of Christian persecution, my life gained purpose. It was filled with a zealous energy and righteous anger. I immersed myself in those Slavic prison and persecution dramas. I read many samizdat documents, detailing show-trials, unjust imprisonments, poems and sermons. I identified with those suffering Christians and many state-censored creatives who went against the grain of Soviet society.
A Russian Romantic, 1975
Dr Zhivago’s revolutionary tale of hope and loss also beckoned me to this immense Slavic landscape. I longed to tramp Russia’s snow-forest landscape with the wandering Orthodox holy fools. Or, sit on a sledge, covered in furs, pulled by a troika of horses. Hear their hundred harness bells in major and minor tones, joyously ringing. Percussive hooves tamping frozen snow, as a sledge speeds, sliding ever homeward.
Overhead, the star-field’s celebratory twinkling canopy blesses. An ancient wooden church with bulbous onion dome passed. Taiga silence showered with the poly-rhythmical sequence of joyous-tolling church bells. At journey’s end a steaming samovar of tea awaits this pilgrim. By day I walked Irish pavements, by night my soul was in a Russia that probably never existed.
Come 1982, I bought my first LP of live Orthodox liturgy from the Monastery of Zagorsk.The rumbling, dramatic choir portrayed pain and joyous resurrection echoes. The bell ringing was ecstatic, fervently, rhythmically rung. Such a contrast to the boring mono-tone, tin-pot Anglican parish church bells.
A Russian Pilgrimage, 2008
By 2008, it had taken me thirty years to visit my spiritual homeland. I travelled with an Irish Christian NGO work-team. We arrived by train to St. Petersburg. Our task was to help turn a big old barn into a religious retreat centre. We were staying and working in Murmansky Verotta, near the town of Volhov, a few hours east of St Petersburg.
I had to travel to separately from the rest of the Irish team. This was to avoid possible police inspection of my apparently insufficient paperwork. Instead of travelling by train, I travelled with the Russian team leader, Vera, in her car. She could explain my circumstances in Russian to any questioning authorities. Vera brought me back to her 1930s-era apartment, to pick up some things. While there, I met her shy seventeen year old daughter, Katya, a slightly-melancholic only child. A few years later, that artistic young woman would impact my literary life quite dramatically.
For two hot summer weeks in 2008, I helped measure wood, used a chop-saw, and helped fill attic space with fibre glass wool. Unconfidently, I also climbed a home-made ladder to creosote high exterior barn timbers. From this high vantage point I looked out over the surrounding rural Russian landscape.
Abandoned farms dominated the countryside. Tidal seas of uncut grass swayed in the breeze. Nearby neighbours ate al fresco under their fruit trees. These Russian rural scenes could easily have been expositions from the Wanderer School art movement. There were little signs of modernity, apart from the occasional passing car.
Eager to not draw attention to “rich Westerners”, Vera confined us to the compound. I found this frustrating. As a life-long cyclist, I convinced Vera to let me try out her Soviet-era cast-iron bicycle. What a bone shaker that was! One or two races against local cyclist children took place, zig-zagging around the pothole pools. I let them win, most of the time.
One day, I escaped the claustrophobic confines of our compound for a cycle tour of the village town-lands of Murmansky Verotta. I cycled that gear-less bike past many barking guard dogs, chained behind rickety wooden fences. I swerved in figure-of-eights around huge potholes that pock-marked the sand-topped lanes. After my hour of freedom I reluctantly turned back to the host’s house, with its oppressively high compound walls.
On our last day in Russia we had a tourist trip around St. Petersburg. We took in the usual tourist traps of Peterhof, The Church of the Spilt Blood and the canal walks. On that day that I spied the pathetic sight of an old woman, in distressed clothing and battered boots.
Mutely she help up five gaudy-coloured children’s hats. The note in my wallet was worth 1,000 roubles. That poor babushka would not have had the change for that. My slow thinking prevented my buying a “souvenir” from her. That missed opportunity led me to write ‘Five Old Fashioned Home Made Hats”
A drab coat covered her plain pinafore,
her battered boots had seen better days
– unobtrusively, this old woman stood
on a St. Petersburg street corner,
silently holding up five crocheted hats.
She didn’t utter any plaintive, pleading pitch,
nor held any crude cardboard, Cyrillic sign,
advertising her five old-fashioned hats…
She showed no Soviet scowl,
nor naive hopeful smile.
Crushed by cruel Communism,
pauperised by the “promise”of Perestroika,
unwillingly conscripted into crony Capitalism…
No kindness offered from fellow citizens,
nor purchase made by this troubled tourist.
O, babushka! O, grandmother!
You waited on summer streets
offering gaudy-coloured hats in vain… . (excerpt)
A Young Female Russian Artist Befriended Online, 2010
Two years later I discovered Katya, Vera’s art-student daughter on Facebook. So I “friended” her. Now in her early twenties, Katya was a post-Christian goth. She wanted to work as a computer-graphics artist. The year she graduated from art college, I gave her my first commission. I had seen none of her art. I hadn’t a clue what she was capable of. A good photo shop execution was emailed to me shortly after. The small financial risk was worth that adventurous gamble.
My commission propositions sped up after Katya illustrated my Russian rural poem, ‘Summer Pastoral Scene in Rural Russia’. In a modest way, I helped put her name on the map.
Such was my awe for that above iconic image, I had it printed on a T-shirt, on a canvas and finally, on a watch face. Over time, we established a productive working artistic friendship. She was to later capture many evocative images for many of my poems. Together, we gained an expansive internet following. My payments for her art helped her be financially independent.
Further Collaborative Projects
One project was her cover design of my father’s textile memoir ‘The Friendliness of Total Strangers’. The inside covers showed an advert, featuring two female models snuggling under a mohair blanket.
When she saw that photo, she described how she and her friends used to snuggle under a blanket, listening to loud goth music, giggling, gossiping and drinking cups of tea.I sensed a poignancy in her telling and wanted to try to capture that in a poem. Based on her descriptions, I wrote an evocative poem for her in about half an hour. I called it ‘Stop the Clocks!’
She informed me she cried on reading it. That touched me. No one had ever admitted such an open emotional reaction to my poetry before. I didn’t realise the powerful emotion that my writing could stir. Her reaction gave me new confidence in my poetry.
Holly: A Video Short Project, about My Stillborn Daughter
In 2014, I asked Katya to help me commemorate the 21st anniversary of my daughter’s stillbirth. Regardless of having little empathy for children, she drew many stunning illustrations for the Goodbye, Au Revoir, Slan stillbirth project.
A section of our video was used as an dvd extra feature on the Return to Zero, the first stillbirth movie ever made. In 2015 that was broadcast on religious TV in Germany. Holly, my “little grenade of hope” would later “explode” blessings in many hearts and minds around the world.
Later, Katya and I were trying to work on another project which became a stop-start. I wished that I could wave a magic wand over all her self doubt and depression. Project delivery dates started slipping. I wanted to “press pause” for a while.
“…there’s a consistent pattern of finding an elevated rate of mood disorders in artists and writers….mood disorders may also confer a kind of creative advantage….(these) People tend to be more intense, more mercurial; they see the world differently…” Touched by Fire: Manic – Depressive Illness & the Artistic Temperament, Kay Redfield Jamison.
I wanted to introduce her to Irish artist friends. I suggested a visit to Ireland. Getting out of Russia for a short while. Perhaps meeting other creatives might send her back to Russia rejuvenated. That idea almost worked but she got cold feet, because of the political atmosphere in Russian then.
Later, Katya emerged from a period of email silence. She made me a lovely Facebook video tribute, using images that we had collaborated on. This unexpected gesture touched me. It was gratifying to read that her personal growth and faith in herself had increased, on account of our collaboration. She wished that I was more critical about her art, as she was herself. Anyway, I had proven to her that her pictures can speak eloquently to people’s hearts, even if she considered them nothing special.
We Decide to Press Pause with Our Online Exchanges
Suddenly, Katya asked for a break. She was tiring of my constant attention. My attempts at benevolent care, and her independent streak, were at odds against each other. We held different philosophical perspectives, were opposite genders, had very divergent ages, influenced by opposite cultures.
My many suggestions were not now welcome. I tried to capture aspects of my enthusiasm for her art in my poem I am Your Impossible Friend
Would our collaborations now continue? I had just sent her some money, as a down payment for another graphics commission. I told her to keep it, use it for counselling and a few relaxing massages. She replied: ”that’s a true act of care and I will spend that money the way you ask, because it’s what I really need…” It was a bonus that Katya trusted me. She stated that I “kept my word and had shown examples of how a parent could act.”
Our friendship had been very interesting and eventful, even if tumultuous on both our parts for very different reasons. I had thought and prayed about her life dilemmas. She gave me lots of great art and a few cultural challenges to consider. Her atheistic, goth outlook challenged my long-standing conservative Christian certainties. She introduced me to modern Goth-rock bands. Her brash and mythic deviantART preferences contrasted with my default of narrative art.
“….the best way to challenge our assumptions and prejudices, and develop new ways of looking at the world, is to surround ourselves with people whose views and lifestyles differ from our own. …..The challenge is to spread our conversational wings and spend time with those whose values and experiences contrast with our own….” – Roman Krznaric
Reflections on Age, Gender and Culture
What had I tried to be to Katya? An art patron? Yes, because Katya needed support and thrived on artistic opportunities. Should I have cared less? Should I have pulled back, as some suggested? Was I possibly hindering her from personal growth?
Our last big project was a collection of my poems that used her wonderful illustrations. I had promised her this publishing opportunity a few years previously. I had finally twelve poems, accompanied by twelve of her illustrations. I had wanted Katya to come to Dublin for the launch.
I was very keen to make this happen, but circumstances outside her control interrupted that grand plan. Katya kindly recorded me a personal video response to the booklet. To see and hear her again, after nine years of non-verbal, email only communication, was a deeply rewarding.
Over many years, we have had so many artistic, collaborative adventures together. We significantly helped each other in different ways. Katya’s images added extra depth to what my poems were attempting to convey. My poems brought her an audience beyond her friends.
Will I ever able to replace someone like her? I doubt it. Our last of many collaborations concluded recently. A series of images about my first night at boarding school. Another series of images about my parent’s hand weaving in the 1950s Donegal. And finally, the illustration for my piano poem ‘How to Make Stubborn Pianos Sing True’.
Over nine years Katya poured so much of her heart and soul into her illustrations for me. She was the one who perceptively “baptised” me with my being an “emotional nudist”. If my poems continue to convey such, and a measure of empathy in peoples’ lives, I will have fulfilled my mercy mission… Katya happily moves on with her life and her art.
I have met other collaborators, and my interest in Russian life has now become more nuanced. I gave Mother Russia much of my heart and I need now to look elsewhere for encouragements and inspirations…
Gallery of Katya’s images: https://louishemmings.com/gallery/katya/