Being a closet Slavophile since 1975, my travelling to Russia in 2008 was a dream come true. I I first got interested in that very misunderstood continent through the suffering Christians, the dissident authors, and the underground artists.
I had become a spare-time, one-man protest band, on behalf of Soviet human rights. Letters to editors written; banners were painted for a protest march to the Soviet Embassy; poems about believer persecution written. One or two of these poems were published in religious rights magazines. Prayers were painfully uttered.
During this time, I created a bookshop window display for the Georgi Vins book, ‘Three Generations of Suffering’. It was about the KGB persecution of Soviet Baptists. Vins had been unjustly imprisoned for his faith. Apparently, attempts had been made to kill him in the prison, using liquid mercury.
For my window display, I used smashed mirror fragments to create a large Calvary cross. I hung this in the shop window. Beneath it, also made from mirror fragments, was a Soviet hammer and sickle. Along with multiple copies of the book was a bible quotation o an oblong banner that stated: “Living or dying, we follow the Lord.”
As I was crouched in the window, assembling this display, a May Day Trade Union 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 for the book.
Through reading Vins book and other accounts of Christian persecution, my life gained purpose, and was filled with this zealous energy. I immersed myself in those Slavic prison and persecution dramas. I avidly read many translated samizdat documents, detailing show-trials, unjust imprisonments, poems and sermons. I identified with those suffering Christians, as well as censored creatives, who went against the grain of Soviet society.
A Russian Romantic, 1975
Dr Zhivago’s revolutionary tale of hope and loss originally 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 horse hooves tamping frozen snow, as a sledge speeds, sliding homeward.
Overhead the star-field’s celebratory twinkling canopy smiles down a blessing. An ancient wooden church with bulbous onion dome is passed. The silence is showered with the poly-rhythmical sequence of tolling church bells. A steaming samovar of tea awaits this pilgrim at journey’s end. My feet walked Irish pavements but my soul was rooted in a Russia that probably never existed.
Russian Orthodox Liturgy heard
In 1982 I accidently won a national, Poetry Ireland award. In celebration at this unexpected breakthrough, I bought a Russian LP with a portion of the prize money. It was a live recording from the Monastery of Zagorsk.
The rumbling, dramatic mass choir portrayed pain and joyous resurrection echoes. The joyous bell ringing was ecstatic. They were ferverently rung. Such a contrast to our boring tin-pot mono-tone parish church bells. A Russian Pilgrimage, 2008
By 2008, it had taken me thirty years to visit my almost-adopted spiritual homeland. I travelled with an Irish Christian NGO work-team. We arrived by train to St. Petersburg via Helsinki, instead of flying direct to St. Petersburg. The reason for that was we were bringing (and leaving behind) DIY equipment. Apparently train passengers were less monitored from the west than plane passengers. Ridiculously high taxes were imposed on “imported goods”, even though our electrical implements were a gift! 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 soon discovered that I had to travel to separately from the rest of the Irish team. Apparently, this was to avoid possible police inspection of my insufficient paperwork. The other team members went to the country town by train. I travelled with the Russian team leader, Vera, in her car. If we were stopped and questioned, obviously Vera could explain circumstances in Russian.
This alteration of travel plans was to have interesting and creative long-term consequences. Firstly, 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, for the first time. She was a slightly melancholic only child. A few years later, that young woman-to-be would impact my literary life quite dramatically.
For two hot Russian summer weeks in 2008, I helped measure wood, used a chop-saw, and helped fill attic space with fibre glass wool. Quite 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 landscape. Abandoned farms dominated the countryside, their tidal seas of uncut grass swayed in the breeze. Nearby neighbours ate al fresco under their garden fruit trees. There were little signs of modernity, apart from the occasional passing car, or child cyclists. These Russian rural scenes could easily have been Wanderer art movement canvases.
Anxious to not draw attention to us “rich Westerners”, Vera confined us to the compound. We only met one or two few local people. 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 children took place, zig-zagging around the pothole pools. I let them win, most of the time.
Another day, I escaped the claustrophobic confines of our compound, for a cycle tour of the village town-lands. I cycled that gear-less bike past many barking guard dogs, chained behind rickety wooden fences. I had to cycle 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 and the oppressivily 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. It was 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 acrylic children’s hats. The rouble note in my wallet was 1,000 roubles. That poor babushka would not have had the change for that. My slow thinking and regrets at not being able to buy such a “souvenir” from her deeply pained me. That missed opportunity and sad circumstance 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 on Facebook and “friended” her. Katya, now in early twenties, was a post-Christian goth. She wanted to be a computer-graphics artist. A lot of our early email exchanges concerned her thesis presentation. It was on the life of Queen Elizabeth the First.
The year that she graduated from art college, I gave her my first commission. I hadn’t seen any of her art. I hadn’t a clue what she was capable of. A good photoshop execution was emailed to me shortly after. The small financial risk was worth that adventurous gamble.
My commission propositions accelerated after Katya illustrated my Russian rural poem, ‘Summer Pastoral Scene in Rural Russia’. In a small way I put her name on the internet art map.
Such was my awe for that above iconic image, I had it printed on a T-shirt, on a canvas and on a watch face. On her behalf, I also submitted this image to the annual Royal Hibernian Academy exhibition. Regardless of its high quality, it didn’t get past submission stage. I took the trouble to ask, had there been any other Russian images. No, there hadn’t been any. I asked a second question. Stylistically, had there been any images in this stained glass style. No, there had not been any…
Over time we established a productive working artistic friendship. She was to aptly capture many emotionally evocative images for my poems. Together we gained an expansive internet readership. In turn, my payments for her art helped her be financially independent.
Further Collaborative Projects
Katya and I then collaborated on many more poetry projects, too many to mention. One project was her cover design of my father’s textile memoir. The inside covers showed an advert, featuring two models snuggling under a mohair blanket. When she saw that photo, she described to me 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 and capture that in a poem. Based on her written images, I wrote an evocative poem for her in about half an hour. It was called ‘Stop the Clocks!’
She informed me that she cried on reading it. I was touched. No one had ever admitted such an open emotional reaction to my poetry before. I didn’t realise the powerful emotion that my writing was capable of stirring. 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 ended up being used as an extra feature on the Return to Zero, movie dvd, the first ever stillbirth movie ever made. In 2015 that video short was broadcast on religious TV in Germany. Holly, my “little grenade of hope” would later “explode” a blessing in many hearts and minds around the world.
Katya and I were trying to work on another project together which became 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 had no intention of changing Katya, as she sometimes supposed. I merely wished to encourage her art career. 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.”
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, due to the political atmosphere in Russian then.
Later Katya emerged from a period of silence. She made me a lovely Facebook video-short tribute, using images that we had collaborated on. I was very touched by this unexpected gestures. It was gratifying to read that her personal growth and faith in herself had increased, on account of our collaboration. Though 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 communications 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 and were influenced by opposite cultures.
It turned out that my many suggestions were not now welcome. It’s hard to get the balance between a biblical hope and naivety. I tried to capture aspects of my evangelical enthusiasm for her art in my poem I am Your Impossible Friend
I wondered would our collaborations now continue. I had just sent her some money, as 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…”
Our friendship had been very interesting and eventful, even if a bit tumultuous on both our parts, for very different reasons. I had thought and prayed about her life dilemmas and crises. She, in turn, 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 starkly 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
An Online Art Patron Reflects 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. Now 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 parents hand weaving in 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 the idea of 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. She deeply enriched me.
My fifty year encounter with Russia has waned in recent times, for many reasons. I have met other collaborators and my interest in spiritual matters 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/