Vodka, Kasha and the Russian Chapter

Two Babushka Dolls given to me by two Russian doctors almost fifty years apart, one is a peasant, the other a bit of a hussy!

Two Babushka Dolls given to me by two Russian doctors almost fifty years apart, one is a peasant, the other a bit of a hussy!

Imagine my delight  

Writing a book was a lot harder than I imagined.  I have a new-found admiration for anyone who gets their work onto the shelves.  My first memoir of two years I spent in Hong Kong got bogged down at the beginning when I wrote about my journey East from England on the Trans-Siberian railway.  I struggled, my words totally inadequate against the Russian front.

Then right in the middle of my epic battle with the Russian chapter, I hosted a Russian, an Associate Professor from Siberia.

I pestered him with questions, he looked disconcerted.  His Siberia was a vibrant spot, he enjoyed living there.

My Farewell Invitation

The months flew and it was time for his farewell.  I sent round the invitations.  We’d send the Professor off in Russian style: drink vodka, eat kasha and sing the Volga Boat Song.

The Professor came to me.  He had printed off my email.  “Vodka?  I prefer Australian white wine.”

“That’s OK,” I said brightly, “I’ll get wine.”  Me and the bottle of Vodka would have our own party, I thought.

“You can cook kasha?” he said doubtfully, “Do you want me to buy the cream?”

Why would I want him to buy the cream?  My kasha was from a The Pauper’s Cookbook by Jocasta Innes, and sure had no cream.  (It upset Mike when I bought that book at a time when we were financially challenged.  He had a Scarlett O’Hara moment, “As God is my witness, we’ll never be poor again … I don’t want to eat like a pauper.”)

I said to the Professor, “No, no, it’s fine, my recipe does not have cream.” 

He looked doubtful.  

Then we had an discussion

His finger moved to the last item, “What is this Vulgar Boat Song?” 

“No, Volga.  You know, ‘Yo heave ho.  Ay-da, da, ay-da.’”

“No, I don’t know this song.”

“Yes you do!”

“No I don’t!”

Thank God for You Tube

So I found the Red Army Choir on YouTube singing the Volga Boat Song.  Since every second and third line is Yo, heave ho, I thought my earlier rendition should have sufficed.

“Oh, this is a very old song.  This is about slaves!”

It was a good party nevertheless

So, the kasha was as the Professor had never tasted it, Australian wine flowed and the Professor led us through some strange song, a romantic lament of cold and snow.  It is always winter in Siberia.

A lesson in Russian history

The professor said how much he had enjoyed staying.  He was a little embarrassed at not being able to answer all my questions about Russia.  He’d attended high-school, just after the collapse of communism and the dissolution of the Soviet Union.  The Russian history curriculum was suddenly redundant and it took time to pump out a new one. 

Just as well he was going.  If only I’d known, I’d have rectified that!   What a golden opportunity wasted. 

And the Babushka?

Yes, the Prof gave me a very shiny Babushka doll.  I was truly delighted because in 1968 on the Trans-Siberian Express, another Russian doctor had given me a Babushka doll.  That doctor had liked his Vodka - very much - and I'm sure from memory, we together gave a splendid rendition of the Volga Boat Song.  Yo heave ho.

Fabergé’s Very Unusual Egg

The Fabergé Trans-Siberian Egg   Easter 1900

The Fabergé Trans-Siberian Egg   Easter 1900

It's nearly Easter for some of us

I live in Sydney and it's nearly Easter.  In Orthodox Russia, it'll be another month before they celebrate and exchange their eggs.  It was the same gap in the calendar in 1894 when young Nicholas, destined to be the last Russian Tsar, was visiting Germany, and couldn't join the earlier festivities.  He wrote in his diary:  "It is not very convenient to keep Lent abroad and I had to refuse many things." 

A short-lived tradition

The most famous Easter eggs of all time were those first ordered by Nicholas's father, Tsar Alexander III, from the court jeweller, Carl Fabergé.  The first order, in 1885, established an imperial tradition that lasted only thirty-two years, yet, a century on,  Fabergé’s eggs still captivate our imagination with their decadence, extravagant charm and ingenuity.

The Imperial Eggs

When Nicholas succeeded his father, he continued to order eggs each year from Fabergé, one for his wife and one for his mother.  Each told a story revealed by a surprise nested within.

A secret ...

Fabergé conceived and developed his designs in secret, not even disclosing his patterns to the Tsar.

Perhaps not ...

But perhaps in the year 1900, Tsar Nicholas II had had an inkling of what Fabergé had in store for his wife, Tsarina Alexandra Fyodorovna, when he took delivery of the Trans-Siberian Railway Egg. 

Easter fell on the 9th April and a week later, came the opening of the Paris Exposition Universelle with countries from around the world displaying their art and inventions.  The Russian Pavillion’s pièce de résistance was a display of carriages from the new Trans-Siberian Railway line, inaugurating an era of luxury passenger service that would revolutionise travel from Europe to the Far East and symbolised the growing industrial power of Russia. 

Poster from the Paris Exposition Universelle promoting the Trans-Siberian                                             

Poster from the Paris Exposition Universelle promoting the Trans-Siberian                                             

A present for the Tsarina, but was it really to impress the Tsar?

Fabergé’s Trans-Siberian Egg was crowned with the Romanov eagle asserting the Tsar’s special connection with the railway project he had grown up with.  His first official position was as President of the Trans-Siberian Railroad and as a young man returning from a grand world tour, he had laid the foundation stone of the track’s eastern terminus
in Vladivostock.

The miniature locomotive and its golden carriages

The miniature locomotive and its golden carriages

The egg was a masterpiece. 

Engraved on the silver shell was a route map of the track, each station marked with a jewel. The enameled lid opened to reveal a miniature train.  Its locomotive, made of platinum, had diamond headlights and a ruby lantern and pulled five golden coaches. Each coach unique, ‘mail’, ‘for ladies only’, ‘smoking, ‘non-smoking’, and a chapel with miniature bells.  And if that were not surprise enough, the tiny model was clockwork, wound-up with a gold key.

The Trans-Siberian Egg                                                       Photo Credit: Kremlin Museum

The Trans-Siberian Egg                                                       Photo Credit: Kremlin Museum

Why, to me, the Trans-Siberian Egg stands out from all the rest

I'll admit bias right now.   I have been writing a book that describes my own journey on the Trans-Siberian Express.  That journey was nearly fifty years ago and sixty years after the last imperial egg, but the heavy velvet curtains, polished wood and green lamp shades of the First Class carriage suggested imperial Russia was not so far away.

Threads run through all our lives and sometimes it is left to a biographer to see them.  The Trans-Siberian ran relentlessly through the Tsar's life right to his untimely death.   

The design of the Trans-Siberian Egg epitomises an era where technology and art flourished hand in hand and it signified a period of Russian hope and prosperity. 

And it also smacks of a bizarre excess of questionable taste and a wanton squandering on baubles!  A Russian court completely out of touch with reality.

Ultimately of course...

Tsar Nicholas II missed the brief window of opportunity for constitutional change. Delusion, denial and dreadful decisions made revolution inevitable.  As Easter 1917 approached, the Tsar was forced to abdicate.  Work on that year’s egg had already been abandoned. Carl Fabergé fled Russia and escaped to Switzerland but nothing could save the Tsar.





More Information:

The Trans-Siberian Egg is displayed in the Kremlin Armoury, Moscow

I highly recommend a fascinating book - Fabergé’s Eggs by Toby Faber published by PAN

The Fabergé Museum in St Petersburg, Russia was set up by Viktor Vekselberg, a Russian businessman, who is the single largest owner of Fabergé eggs.

There is also a Fabergé Museum in Baden-Baden, Germany


A Detour to the Amazing Paris Expo of 1900

To write waylaid by curiosity is a better thing than
closing the chapter

Robert Louis Stevenson wrote “… to travel hopefully is a better thing than to arrive”.  Now that I write, I’ve found a parallel; settled at my desk, curiosity drives me deeper than my story requires.  It’s seductive; the manuscript makes slow progress, but the quest uncovers destinations and kindred spirits that make it all worthwhile.

Paris Spring in 1900

Last week I paused in April 1900 for the Paris Exposition Universelle - a grand celebration of the achievements of the closing century where art and design showcased seamlessly with the mechanisms of the future; diesel engines, talking films, escalators, and the telegraphone - the first form of magnetic recording, forerunner to video, audio tape and computer hard drives, to name a few.  Fifty million people visited the exhibition.  Fifty million!

Flamboyant Stage-Set under the Eiffel Tower

Under the shadow of the Eiffel Tower, National pavilions sprung up, flaunting cultural myth, art and innovation.  Art Nouveau in vogue, the hard mechanics of new-age infrastructure were softened with flowing natural forms.  Moving sidewalks carried visitors past mock castles and pagodas and a square rigged caravel.  The Belgians recreated their Gothic Oudenaarde Town Hall.  Flamboyance and optimism heralded the new millennium.

Paris to Peking, via Moscow

In truth I never got past the Kremlin-styled Russian Pavilion, for here was exhibited the Trans-Siberian express - Moscow to Peking.  A journey time of months by sea and overland, reduced to days.  An extraordinary achievement.  To court the business traveller and wealthy voyageur, real carriages were rolled into the Pavilion. 


"... one was decorated with white lacquered limewood mirrored walls, ceiling frescoed with figures from mythology and embroidered curtains, another was in the style of Louis XVI with bulging furniture of gold embellished oak and a third as French Empire and a fourth imperial Chinese".  


The world's longest railway line and
the world's longest painting

Visitors could eat in the train’s restaurant car while canvas scenery scrolled past the carriage windows.   All the atmosphere of travelling from the Volga River east across Siberia evoked by the painted panels of pastoral life complete with changing weather.  

The young Tsar, Nicholas II, patron of the Trans-Siberian Railway, had commissioned the Russian artist, Dr Pavel Pyasetsky, to paint the panorama.  Pyasetsky travelled by train, cart and bicycle, sketching bridges and fords, hamlets and villages, railway stations and halts, working teams and depots.  He condensed the 10,000 kilometer journey onto three rolls 850 meters long.*  

Train Connections with Russian Dolls

The Trans-Siberian held me in thrall but at the Russian Pavilion was another product launch right at the opposite end of the scale.  It was the first time babushka dolls were exhibited. The designer, Sergey Malyutin, a folk artist, inspired by Japanese nesting dolls, characterised them with Russian fairytales.

Finding both the Trans-Siberian Express and the babushka dolls at the Russian Pavillion, took my writer’s dream-time to a physical shiver. 

My fascination with the Trans-Siberian began when I travelled the line in 1968 on my way out to a job in Hong Kong and the souvenir that I have of that journey is a babushka doll given to me by a Russian passenger on the train.  He bought it at a wayside station and I gave him Nivea Creme for his wife - a simple exchange of gifts - after a week of shared laughter laced with copious amounts of vodka as we rolled across the Siberian steppes.  

The carriages, Hard Class, were not quite as elaborate as the Tsar envisaged, but then a lot had happened in sixty-eight years.


* After a hundred years of being rolled up, the canvas scrolls have been restored and are now at the Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg.


Google the Paris Expo of 1900 - it is a lot of fun!

Go get the gone days

I was twelve when I saw the photo

The photo was of my maternal grand-mother, Mamie.  She was sitting at a dinner table, laughing out loud, her head thrown back a little.  The meal is over,  napkins careless on the table.  The laughing woman adds joie de vivre.  My mother looked at it for a moment and said, “Mamie gave wonderful dinners.  She was the heart and soul of the party.” 

My grandmother as a party animal was totally unexpected.   I’ve described Mamie recently in my memoir as a thrifty, tall and vitreous stick of a woman.

I was not a favoured grandchild  

Mamie seemed never pleased to see me and I steered clear of her.  So I saw an opportunity.

“Mamie’s in the garden; I’ll show her, the photo,” I said.

“NO, no.  Don’t do that, you will upset her.”


Mum tried to explain. The past was a place adults didn't like to visit for the present
didn't measure up.  

Years later when I was twenty-one and just about to leave for Hong Kong, Mum uncharacteristically snapped at me for endlessly crooning the hit song Those Were the Days

Russian folksong goes down well in Russia

Days after that exchange with Mum, I was rolling across the starry steppes of Siberia, singing the song with great gusto to Russians on the Trans-Siberian Railway.  They loved it because they were drunk as Tsars and because it was originally a Russian folk-song.

Recently, and now in my sixties, when I started
to write memoir

I thought of my mother, my grandmother, that photo and that song.  Revisiting the mopey, self-indulgent lyrics of Those Were the Days, I have to wonder what were we thinking!   But I also thought about messages that the past was a place to visit with trepidation.

Bullshit, my friends

Like life itself, the past is what we make it.  How we imagine the future is seldom objective, how we remember the past isn't either.  With hindsight we can use perspective and examine life and celebrate our success, for survival is success; warts and all!   My generation has even earned the right to sing that silly song, unlike Mary Hopkin when she first sang aged eighteen!

Are you reticent about looking back?   
Does it make you melancholy? 

Sophia's Easter Treat

Ilya Repin's 19th C portrait of Princess Sophia in Novodevichy Convent- Look out that window!  She lived from 1657 to 1704

Ilya Repin's 19th C portrait of Princess Sophia in Novodevichy Convent- Look out that window!  She lived from 1657 to 1704

The fortified convent of Novodevichy

I was in Moscow in 1968 to catch the Trans-Siberian Express on my way to Hong Kong.  Although I visited Red Square - I missed Lenin - he was on holiday to see his embalmers - but from the walls of the Kremlin, we rattled off to the Moskva River and the 16th Century fortified convent of Novodevichy.

It was a visit I never forgot...

For there lingered the smoldering wrath of the incarcerated Sophia, half-sister to Peter the Great.  Her last succession plot had failed and she was compelled to take the veil and kept in seclusion at the convent; there was no other way to keep her from scheming.  

Her Royal blood saved her from the fate of her fellow conspirators who were hung.  To make the point, their bodies were strung up outside her bedroom…

“Where they hung, blackened and rigid,
turning idly in the wind,
all winter long,
their frozen boots tapping
against the windows…”

Quote from Lesley Blanch in Journey into the Mind’s Eye 

Sophia was immured in the convent for the rest of her life.  Only once a year, at Easter, was she allowed to join the other nuns in worship at Smolensky Cathedral.  This brief interlude offered little consolation to the large and formidable figure, once a patron of the convent and the first woman to rule Russia, who found herself hostage to the church that her brother, Peter, controlled and derided.   

All the magic of a Russian Easter

Sophia joined the congregation on Easter night when the cathedral’s dark interior was lit by guttering candles and a choral litany reverberated over row upon row of nuns prostrated in prayer before one miraculous icon after another.  Chill draughts wrestled with wafts of warm incense and anticipation built hour after hour, as the time for the resurrection
drew near.  

Before the midnight bell tolled

Tapers were lit and fresh incense set to smoulder on burning charcoal.  At midnight, crosses and icons were borne aloft and from the Cathedral's inner sanctuary emerged the bearded priests in ivory-white vestments heavy with gold embroidery.  As clouds of holy smoke billowed from swinging censers, the solemn procession began down the aisle of the Cathedral and led the congregation out into the starlit night.

Thrice round the cathedral under a frosted moon

Three times, the procession circled the Cathedral.  Its magnificent golden cupola gleamed above, while a river of reflected candlelight traced a path along the stone walls.   The Priest halted at the open door and waited to hush his mustered flock.  They held their breath as he walked forward, craning his neck to look inside the empty cavern of the darkened cathedral and symbolically discovered anew Christ’s empty tomb,

“Khristos Voskres!” his cry resounded out the triumphant chord. “Christ is risen!” 

A wave of adulation and celebration
swept through the throng
and condemned
Sophia to another year of solitude.

Novodevichy Convent on the banks of the Moskva Ruver

Novodevichy Convent on the banks of the Moskva Ruver

I threw the Russian chapter to the wolves

I wanted to write

I enrolled for Travel Memoir at the Australian Writers’ Centre with Claire Scobie.   She focused me and she cut to the chase.  She told me I was already a writer.  All I had to do was to write

I walked on air, and then, for long weary months through fog, snowstorms and mud. 

There is a children's book called The Bear Hunt.  Can’t go over it, can’t go under it, got to go through it

Every budding author should read The Bear Hunt.  Because for many of us, the start is like the bear hunt... got to go through it.    Five starts and I was heartily sick of being a writer.  Never could I get further than the Russian chapter.  I got completely bogged down in Russia.   Of course, I knew my history, Russia did that.  

My book was about Hong Kong - I'd travelled there on the Trans-Siberian railway and I needed a Russian chapter

I got off the track altogether when I started to read about magical shaman who wore deer antlers and, at a whim, shapeshifted to travel the sky like geese or ride on airborne goats and rams.   When their bums got sore from all that flock-flying, they slid along rainbows to visit the spirit world and grazed magic mushrooms. 

Maybe I was easily diverted by spirited Russia, but Russia can serve an enormous range of distraction; the largest military battle in history, one of the largest museums in the world, the deepest lake on earth and of course the longest railway line.  It is impossible to pick up any book on Russia and not be sidetracked.  Siberian brown bears, man-eating wolves and reindeer migrations.  See?  Quite impossible and we haven't even started on the Tsars, Tolstoy or Laika, the first dog in space.  Notice too the Reds have not yet had a mention.

I put it all into my back-pack

I was still working on the chapter when Dale and I went to Europe in late 2013.   I spun her interminable tales of Russia.  I moved from mystics to statistics about the Trans-Siberian, from Imperial Russia to revolution.  A bleak and bloody tale. 

Her eyes glazed and eventually she said, “Mum, enough of Russia.  Stop researching.  You are doing my head in.” 

I knew she was right!

I put my books and notebook away.  I couldn't complain.  We were in Tuscany to visit Dale’s friends.  Their company arranged wine tours by Fiat 500.  Each tiny car identical except for the paintwork; blue, red, green, cream and yellow.  We drove the countryside in single file and paused at a glorious renaissance villa for lunch. 

The next day, Dale and I went to Florence.  Walking by the Palazzo Strozzi we stopped in our tracks.  The current exhibition was The Russian Avant-garde, Siberia and the East.  Dale rolled her eyes with a laugh, while mine twinkled.  Fait accompli.  

Wolves by Night

An 1912 oil painting by Alexei Stapanov, Wolves by Night, greeted us in the first exhibition room.    A century ago this dude was troubled by the spread of urbanisation.  He warned against man’s intrusion into Russia’s fabled and primitive wilderness.  His wolves are bewildered by marks in the snow; parallel tracks like those of the iron road of the Trans-Siberian.  

No escape from the Russian Chapter

The wolves were right to be nervous, Alexei Stapanov was right to be troubled.

Dale was troubled too.  Was there no escaping the Russian chapter?    

Wolves by Night was like a talisman for me.  I didn't have to hunt the bears, just to throw ninety percent of what I had written to the wolves.


Fun in Florence with Fiats and the Russian chapter

Fun in Florence with Fiats and the Russian chapter