Mistaken for Jewish in cold, grand Moscow


Howard Willis stands on a bridge, in the background are Moscow River and the Kremlin. The large building on the right is the infamous House on the Embankment, where Stalin's elite lived and where the NKVD knocked on doors late of nights in 1937–8.There are always things nobody tells you about. Background things taken for granted, only noticed by strangers. I had never been to Europe before and so discovered over my first breakfast at Schmerlenbach that German pepper and salt shakers are the reverse of what I grew up with in Australia. Heavily peppered bacon and scrambled eggs.

There are things you don't see coming — only going, when the moment has passed.

I have had a beard for at least three decades, since I went bald in my mid-30s. Once ginger blond, now silver grey, I have usually worn it Ned Kelly, ZZ Top length. I suppose I keep it out of sheer laziness, inertia, but I have settled into it. Most of my acquaintances have never known me without it and I do believe that were I to take it off and wear a hat some people would not recognise me. I admit, I quite like that prospect. It has possibilities. Who is that unmasked man?

The beard identifies, classifies me: Bushy, Bikie, Santa Claus. Once, in North Perth, an elderly Greek lady, bless her, asked if I was a papas. I get the Santa thing every year as soon as those white-gloved, red-suited phonies set up their thrones and cameras in the suburban malls. The confused, slack-jawed toddlers mostly just stare at me striding by, but every so often one gets up to speed and says G'day to Mr Ho Ho. I can live with that.

When I announced that I intended to realise a long-standing wish to visit Russia, a few well-meaning flatterers told me I'd fit right in because I looked like Solzhenitsyn. There are no two ways about it — at a certain age, in certain photographs, I have a passing resemblance to Aleksandr Isayevich. Even some Russians thought so. A down-on-his-luck artist I met one morning in Borby Square beside the statue of Venedikt Erofeev's drunken commuter told me so.

The desire to visit Russia has hovered in me for as long as I can remember. Something I heard or saw as a young child must have slipped into my imagination and took root. Peter and the Wolf, perhaps. Anyway, so help me, I read Crime and Punishment and War and Peace when I was 16 — swallowed them whole. Then followed all the Dostoyevsky I could get my hands on, along with Lermontov, Turgenev, Gogol, Battleship Potemkin, Pasternak, a Russian girlfriend, the poets, the music and, yes, Solzhenitsyn.

It is pointless trying to explain this other universe. Let's just say there is a category of people who are fascinated by things Russian. We are called Russophiles.

Well read (in translation) I may have been, but that was no preparation for today's Moscow. It may be different out there at Krasnoyarsk, but in the metropolis there are not a lot of men with full beards strolling along Tverskoy Boulevard or around the grounds of the VDNKh. Muscovites took a second look at me and the box they ticked was 'Jew'. I did not imagine this. Some of them told me, mildly surprised that I was surprised.

It has to be said that circumstances sometimes reinforced their judgment. On being handed menus, my dear wife would immediately let it be known she did not want anything with pork in it: nyet svininy. That this aversion to the eating of pigs is life-long and non-religious was generally too complicated for translation. Meanwhile, that's me, the bearded prophet, spread out on the banquette asking for Borjomi mineral water.

There was also the fact that our apartment was a couple of hundred metres from the Chabad Lubavitch Synagogue on Bolshaya Bronnaya street, where bearded men in black coats and wide-brimmed fedoras are occasionally seen coming and going from the Metro stations up at Pushkin Square. That I wore a rain-jacket rather than a coat and was bareheaded did not seem to counter that more potent symbol of my identity.

And while we are brushing shoulders on the narrow pavement of Bolshaya Bronnaya, let me plainly state that anti-Semitism has spilt blood in modern Russia. Back in early 2006 a young neo-Nazi knifed eight people in the Chabad Lubavitch Synagogue.

In Oz I was only another old Santa, and so in Eastern Europe I did not see what was before me. My naiveté was bumped but not quite overturned the week before I went to Moscow. On a rainy day in south-eastern Poland, an elderly man made a show of walking out of a bakery as I entered. A complete stranger, whose sudden fury was open and unmistakable. I had never before experienced such impersonal hatred, such open contempt. It shocked me. But then, what to make of it? That old bastard in Debica could have been just a nutter, right?

In Moscow there were those who looked at me, to use Anya von Bremzen's phrase, with a scowl like frostbite. But you can misread it. One old girl approached me, her eyes glittering with apparent malice ... and politely, timidly asked directions. Muscovites have a legendary rep for brusqueness (talk to them, they melt), but over and above the background surliness, there were a few distinctly hostile stares.

On the seven or eight times I got into detailed discussions with strangers in Moscow a pattern emerged. Saying I was Australian generally prompted a polite request for clarification: 'Yes, but your ancestry?' The reply that I was fifth-generation Australian was treated as an evasion, although Erofeev's drinking companion immediately concluded, with delighted approval, that my ancestors must have been 'bandits'. That they were gold-seekers rather than convicts returned us to the question of whence they (and I) came.

Another man, who went out of his way to help me find Bulgakov's apartment, parted company with a final, cocked-head question: 'Are you really from Australia?'

Settling the matter of my origins usually led to 'the Jewish Question'. The version put to me by one of my more forthcoming interlocutors concerned those Jews who got out of the stagnating and collapsing USSR in the 1970s and '80s. These people, I was told, acquired assets in the West and then returned to fall like wolves upon poor, vulnerable Russia during the disgraceful and terrible times of Yeltsin.

History, of course, has many versions, cunning and contrived. Those Jews who forfeited virtually everything to get out of Brezhnev and co.'s Russia, to take passage with a one-way train ticket to Vienna and beyond — they have other versions. Most of them did not become wealthy and very few returned to Russia.

Russian history has many ironies, too, contrived or otherwise. Solzhenitsyn may not have chosen to go into exile, but to the West he did go and from there he returned in 1994 to Yeltsin's Russia, a relatively wealthy man.

The Russians, for good reasons, take collective memory and its manifestations very seriously. So they savour the stubborn fact that Solzhenitsyn and Lavrenty Beria are both buried at Moscow's Donskoy Monastery. Beria, who ran the State Security forces during the eight years the writer was in the camps, was shot at Khrushchev's behest in 1953. At Donskoy, Solzhenitsyn's meticulously maintained 2008 grave is within spitting distance of Beria's ashes in the mix of Communal Grave No 3.

Yes, times change; and the passage of history can bring troubling complications.

The immediate cause of Solzhenitsyn being put on a plane to Germany in early 1974 was the publication in Paris of The Gulag Archipelago. That book became one of the most influential of the late 20th century, but it should be recalled its author had already been awarded the Nobel Prize and that One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich was first published in Russia, in Khrushchev's Soviet Union.

Solzhenitsyn's last major work, Two Hundred Years Together, a two-volume history of Russian-Jewish relations, was also published in Russia, Putin's Russia, in 2001 and 2002. It has been translated into French and German, but only excerpts have appeared in English. Many reputable historians regard it as factually unreliable — as anti-Semitic, in fact. And yet ... in Russia, it sells.

I saw a handsome new edition in one of Moscow's largest bookshops. At only $20 for the pair of case-bound volumes, it must have had a substantial print run. I weighed up the novelty of owning a notorious book I would never manage to read against something worth a tussle with the dictionary. I came away with a couple of volumes by Alexei Remizov (1877-1957) and a biography of Andrei Platonov (1899-1951), two important writers not yet fully appreciated outside Russia. Look them up.

Pleased with my literary souvenirs, I walked back along Novy Arbat towards Nikitsky Boulevard. It was a cold afternoon and my beanie was pulled down over my ears. It was then that Moscow had its first flurry of snow for the season. It didn't settle, but it did dance in the air and momentarily rested on my sleeve. The traffic boomed and roared with happiness and the crowd on the broad sidewalk tramped on, head-down, regardless. For me, it was 'a moment', one of Moscow's casual, offhand gifts. I stood and looked around, taking in that grand city.

A middle-aged security guard, an Afghanistan vet perhaps, hands deep in his jacket pockets, regarded me from a nearby doorway. Apparently amused by my entrancement, the trace of a quizzical smile flitted across his broad, very Russian face. I nodded and greeted him in my wonky Russian. Shalom, he replied, clear as a bell, and looked up at the grey sky before turning away with a perfect Moscow shrug.

Howard Willis headshotHoward Willis is an Australian essayist, critic and editor.

Pictured: Moscow River and Kremlin. The large building on the right is the infamous House on the Embankment, where Stalin's elite lived and where the NKVD knocked on doors late of nights in 1937–8.

Topic tags: Howard Willis, Moscow, Russia, Stalin, Kremlin, Solzhenitsyn, Aleksandr Isayevich, Dostoyevsky



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Existing comments

Howard's adventures in Russia make great reading. I'm reminded of one of my favourite authors, Robert Dessaix, and his fondness for Russia. His book "Twilight of Love: Travels with Turgenev" is a moving account of his devotion to the great Russian writer. In the book Dessaix tells of re-visiting Russia after an absence of many years - mixed emotions for him as he retraces Turgenev's journeys in Russia, Germany and Paris. I highly recommend the book. Blagodaryu, Howard.
Pam | 18 February 2014

Glad you got back in one piece with so much prejudice - I take it that you could not or would not strip to give them the ultimate proof of your status.. Surprised to hear it is so blatant there. My best friends at high School were Jewish girls. Lovely piece of writing anyway. Hope you have thawed out by now. Lovely to hear from you. When I have a couple of hours to spend, I will ring. Thanks for letting me know I am not completely forgotten. Lt Bunbury is printed now so should not be too long. Jim had s been wonderful. PhylB
Phyl Barnes | 18 February 2014

Howard - you may find of interest chapter five of my new book which critically examines the history of the Judeo-Communist theory including Solzhenitsyn's latest book. See Jews and the Left: the rise and fall of a Political Alliance (Palgrave Macmillan UK, April 2014)
philip mendes | 19 February 2014

Mr. Willis, I am one of those Jews who forfeited almost everything and left alone in 1978 (family didn't get permission) on a one-way ticket to Vienna. No, I have not become "rich" nor have I ever been back or have any desire to or plans to go there. You see, unlike you, I am definitely not a Russophile, maybe because familiarity breeds contempt. But I have more than passing interest in Russia and so read on the subject. In view of your interest in all things Russian and recent in-country experience, I thought you might find the book "Travels in Siberia" by Ian Frazier interesting.
All-in-all, I am glad you made it out of there in one piece and with some volumes of Remizov and a biography of Platonov. In my days for Remizov you could conceivably "do time". Platonov was simply silenced and allowed to die in obscurity unable to earn money as a writer (although in late 70s there was a volume published). I am also glad that you chose to leave that pseudo-historical screed of "200 years together" squarely behind you.
Maria | 22 February 2014

Howard, What a superb piece of writing, showing your love of things Russian, and Russian history. My only experience is 2 days in the beautiful, historical sity St Petersburg, and my favourite movie of all time Doctor Zhivago (or was it being enchanted by Julie Christie?) Reference handed on by Marie Byrne.
Brendan Schollum | 23 February 2014

Thanks for the Moscow trip with the insight into Poland. My step father had a very poor view of Jews. I could never understand it. I think he was probably pushed around a bit at Hollywood High in California. But then, he had a lot of those backward, reactionary view about other 'races' as well. Seems that nearly the whole of the East is still mired in the anti-Semitism which was rampant in the days of feudalism, Tsars and the Russian Orthodox and Catholic Churches. As I said, I'll never understand it in any empathetic way; but your piece has made me appreciate its depth in those cultures. It has also made me understand more deeply the appeal Hitlerite propaganda must have had within the USSR as the Nazi war machine clanked through Poland, Ukraine and up to binocular range of Red Square in December, 1941.
Mike Ballard | 24 February 2014


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