Possibility springs in Russian winter


View of forest at Yaroslavl. Photo by Ben ColeridgeMy Renaissance history lecturer tells the story of her difficulty as a student when she was deciding in which area of history she would undertake further study. Her professor obligingly introduced her to a famous scholar of Renaissance history who looked at her and exclaimed, 'If you study the Renaissance, the stones of Florence will speak to you!'

It is an enlivening prospect, the possibility of a place coming alive through books, of feeling with your senses the human stories embedded in it. During the Russian winter, in the small city of Yaroslavl, far away from Florence, my collection of books began to speak to me; their words and descriptions began to wander through my head every time I walked into the frozen street.

Yaroslavl, a small industrial city, sits at the point where the great Volga meets one of its tributary rivers. Ancient silver domed Orthodox churches and classical mansions line the river banks and behind them the skyline is clouded by smoke stacks. In the streets, buses throw up mud as their engines stutter in the cold; old women, bent over and covered in blankets, beg for coins outside the city's churches; young people stroll arm in arm.

Winter there is cold and sometimes hard, as it has been in the wake of the Global Financial Crisis. Many people are continually underemployed or underpaid, and the GFC led to factories closing and rising unemployment. The much discussed 'contract' between Russia's elite and ordinary Russians, whereby the latter sacrifice their civil and political rights for economic wellbeing, is not delivering.

People in places like Yaroslavl are beginning to find themselves without civil and political rights or economic wellbeing — not free but held fast, imprisoned by restrictive circumstances, unable to move to seek opportunity elsewhere. The streets in the late afternoon are silent and ice covers the ground.

In the silence, Simone Weil's words stood out. She wrote that freedom, personal and political, is a vital need of the soul, that harm is being done to men and women whenever they cry out inwardly: 'why am I being hurt?' Although people may be mistaken as to who is inflicting suffering or why, 'the cry itself is infallible'. The streets of Yaroslavl are quiet, but the quietness feels like the 'infallible cry' of hardship.

In Yaroslavl, the experience of political disenfranchisement spreads a culture of disempowerment to every corner of people's lives. One evening, a friend explained to me that to have 'a successful relationship' with a girlfriend cost around 3600 roubles (the cost of several dates over a few weeks) whereas to have 'a successful relationship' with a prostitute cost 2000 roubles for one hour.

Perhaps it was because he wasn't free, because possibility was denied to him, that he understood 'relationship' in those terms. Already, at the age of 24, he described feeling the same despair that Maxim Gorky described in My Childhood: 'It was as though I had been filled up with something very heavy and for a long time I lived at the bottom of a deep and dark pit, without sight or hearing.'

Then, in the midst of gloom, a person in Yaroslavl will wake up to a bright winter morning with freshly fallen snow, clear blue skies and sun. It is the kind of morning which Pushkin described ecstatically and his verses spring to mind as people emerge from apartment doors and wade through snow drifts: 'sunlight and frost, a matchless blend!' Children haul out their skis and laughter rings across the yard; everybody suddenly seems gripped by the very same ecstasy that gripped Pushkin, the same desire to be out in the sunlit snow.

Leaving Pushkin in the yard with the children, I found different words in the forest outside the city. I walked down a small track in the late afternoon and everything was silent, no birds and no noises, no wind, just birch and fir trees blanketed by snow. The only sound was the occasional thump as snow fell off an over-burdened branch.

Maxim Gorky loved the forest; he used to run away there to escape from the depravities of his 19th century village. It was for him a kind of mystical place, where quietness and his imagination drew him away from the misery of life. Vasily Grossman also felt moved by the quietness of the forest: 'The forest seemed silent. The many layers of branches kept off the light; instead of tinkling and gurgling, it was like a soft cloak swathed round the earth.'

Reading these lines was the strangest experience. While I walked in the forest I described it silently in my mind. And then, back in my room in our small apartment, I recognised my own quiet words in the descriptions of Gorky and Grossman. The forest had drawn out of us the same inner words, the same soft, calm, quiet feeling.

This is not to be presumptuous; it is to say something about the power of writing, along with the power of place. Heartfelt writing imprints a soul on the page, and in the writer's soul we recognise our own murmurings. In the forest I thought of Gorky and Grossman; in the muddy streets and factory yards Simone Weil prodded and prompted me; and on sunlit mornings, Pushkin expressed everyone's happiness.

Even as I left Yaroslavl at the beginning of spring, Grossman spoke of my own sadness at departing, as if he had written a book about me: 'It was the past that slept under the snow, beneath this cool half light — the joy of lovers' meetings, the hesitant chatter of April birds.'

Ben ColeridgeBen Coleridge studies Arts at the University of Melbourne. Photo by Ben Coleridge

Topic tags: Ben Coleridge, Yaroslavl, Russian winter, Volga, Simone Weil, Maxim Gorky, Pushkin, Vasily Grossman



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Existing comments

Lovely piece, Ben. You have something of a Russian soul! My happiest memories of my years in Moscow (I was a junior diplomat at the Australian Embassy there in 1969-71) were of getting out of the grey depressed city on sunny winter weekend days, to cross-country ski in the surrounding forests and open fields. Every such ski trip was a journey into old Russia, and even now, 40 years later, I can close my eyes and remember the stillness and beauty of those Russian winter landscapes, with their wooden villages and farmhouses, and the occasional church spires and country palaces off in the distance.

tony kevin | 22 April 2010  

most enjoyable and evocative piece.

peter roebuck | 22 April 2010  

Thanks for the kind words Tony, I'm glad it prompted some happy memories for you!

Ben Coleridge | 23 April 2010  

This reminiscence reminds me of roaming around the country towns of China removed from the culture of the mega-cities designed to absorb the 1.3 billion people who are not as important as the economic development.

Ray O'Donoghue | 25 April 2010  

Another enjoyable read for me!!! I am looking forward to the next Ben Coleridge article.

I want to go to Russia!

Thomas Gorrie | 28 April 2010  

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