Since the mid-1970s I have been a closet Slav. I learned all about Russia through human rights and travel books, mainly. In 2008 I got the opportunity to visit that huge troubled country. On my last day there I stumbled on a ‘babushka’ selling gaudy coloured, acrylic knitted 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 promising Perestroika
– 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 for sale…
I entered the Spilt Blood Church
where heaven-haunted old icons
glowed gold, heaven-blue and blood-red,
depicting Byzantine biblical characters
who entreated us to remember eternity:
parables reprimanded the rich.
At the church shop, assistants refused
to change my large rouble note.
O, babushka! I bought an unwanted beer
to brake my note and buy from you
a baby hat that I certainly did not need.
O, babushka! I re-traced my journey
in the vain hope of making you smile.
O, babushka! Now apparently absent…
until suddenly, I spied your ghost
selling foil-wrapped garden flowers:
mere daisies, clovers and ferns.
I bought the second last bunch
and departed before change offered.
Again I spied your ghost, closing-up
a well-travelled, stained suitcase,
filled with a blizzard of paper icons.
I prayed for you in pain, as I pressed
hope into your grubby-lined palm:
an act of inadequate atonement…
Who can I send to St. Petersburg?
Who can buy me five home-made hats?
Sing, minor-chord Orthodox mass-choirs!
O bell sequence riotously ring!
O gold-robed priest, let incense-censer swing!
Pained prayers ascend candle-lit icons.
O weeping widow – prostrate, praying
before the altar of the Everlasting
– do you now smile at the Saviour’s touch?
Are you succoured by His abundant care?
Did He open “heaven’s windows” for you?
“Heaven’s windows” is a reference to Malachi 3: 10: ‘I will open the windows of heaven for you. I will pour out a blessing so great you won’t have enough room to take it in….’