The Demon’s eyes in the Russian night

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The Tretyakov Gallery
 

It’s Friday and today has been an emotionally draining time.  Later in the day I discover the train tickets are still not ready and I ask him to send them to my couchsurfing host’s apartment directly.  I’m glad I’ve already been talking to Alisha for a couple of weeks about my visit, so this is no problem.  It does add to my worries; without those tickets, this is going to be a very strange journey in Russia.  The thing that’s really twisting my mind is a painting I saw in the Tretyakov gallery this morning.  The gallery is awesome and I had already seen a number of the paintings before, but there’s nothing like the real thing.  I can’t find a good picture on the internet of the painting that is haunting me and I suspect no picture can capture it.  You just have to be there.

It’s called ‘The Demon Prostrate’ and is kind of a picture of Satan just after his exile from heaven.  And it kinda isn’t.  The body in the picture is angular and beautiful, with dark skin; but it takes a while to be able to notice that, because the entire picture lives in the eyes.  Betrayal, fury, disappointment, confusion – like a child punished savagely for someone else’s crime.  These eyes beg for sympathy, but warn of a purely malevolent intent.  They draw you closer to empathy, but reject you with spite at the same time.  There is pure animal madness in them as well as the savage pure discipline of a conquering hero.  I’ve never felt anything like the flow of emotions this picture draws from me effortlessly.  You’re left feeling somehow robbed and richer at the same time.

My guide tells me Vrubel produced this piece of mad genius when he was on the verge of the massive nervous breakdown that heralded the end of his career and soon life.  Already driven by his own demon, it seems Vrubel tried to take control back by overthrowing him and instead captures the moments before it claims him entirely.  He repainted the eyes in this picture over forty times.  Even after it had been exhibited to some acclaim, he continued to change them until they reached this final state.  Probably exacerbated by third stage syphilis, this was the beginning of the end of the artist’s mind and provides a dark and complete insight into his internal struggle.  If you’re passing by Moscow, I’d highly recommend a visit.

On the street in Arbat

I still feel like my insides have been rearranged with a cricket bat when I meet Ludmilla at the entrance to the Metro station near the café.  I just want the demon’s eyes out of my head.  The place is certainly very new, modern and belongs more in Europe than Moscow.  Ludmilla’s English is not conversational, but still so much better than my Russian, so we chat in stilted fashion while we peruse the menu.  Alexander arrives just after our drinks and this helps conversation a lot.  He asks me to call him Sasha, so I should take a moment to explain Russian names.  Everybody has at least three or four.  Your first name and family name are pretty set, but there are standard shortenings for first names that everyone uses with friends.  Alexander and Alexandra both get shortened to Sasha, but Vladimir is Volodya, Dimitry is Dima, Nataliya becomes Natasha and Anastasia becomes Nastya.  To further confuse this there is not a huge variety of first names in Russia, so it’s quite normal to have two or three people with the same name at any gathering.  To add to this you also have a patronymic name which is derived from your father’s name.  It has male and female versions so you can always tell someone’s sex from their patronymic name.  Lenin’s father’s name was Ilya, which is why he is Vladimir Ilyich Lenin.  Volodya to his mates.  So in the interests of identifying this confusing array of Russians with the same name, I’ll add my own epithet to their short name.  So anyway, it turns out that Sasha the Siberian had been a top English graduate in his hometown of Novosibirsk, the capital of Siberia.  We all chat much more freely as more people arrive and soon we have a group of eight or so Couchsurfers, including the Dutch guy, Hanspeter, and Tanya, one of the locals from Tuesday night.  Tanya is short for Tatiana by the way.

During dessert Ludmilla and the other locals discuss our itinerary before we gather together and leave.  What follows is an incredible trek across the city to discover places that were full, weren’t open yet or were too expensive for some of the group to want to pay to get in.  We see a lot of the streetlife at night and not so much of the nightclubs.  I’m amused to see large black vans filled with beautiful women parked next to the entrance of a casino.  I ask what they were doing and my hosts diplomatically explain it’s for rich men to have some fun.  We end up getting beers at pavement shops twice during the mission and drink them on the way to the next place.  On the way I find myself explaining the Australian love of shortening words to Sasha the Siberian.
“Anything with three syllables is going to be pinched, even two is a little long.  A heavy Australian accent is made unique by the way words are shortened and slid together into an endless stream of whiny noise.”
“Yes, we like to shorten words too…everybody’s name, places…it’s common to not say the whole thing”, he says.
“True? I suspect all languages do it to some degree, but one of my favourites is un-fucking-believable.”
He laughs at hearing the sausage word created,
“But that’s longer!”
“True, but it’s spelled u-n-f-k-n-b-l-v-b-l”
He bursts out laughing and we toast with the beers we’re carrying as he says the letters over and over again.
“But it’s not the best one, the best Australian saying is ‘No wuckers’.  It was originally ‘No worries’.”
“Yes, I’ve heard that before”, he says, nodding.
“Somewhere it became ‘No fucking worries’, then ‘No wucking furries’…Until someone realised that’s too damn long and made it ‘No wuckers’.” 
He laughs with each variation and his eyes shine with the amusement of learning the final part.
“You don’t get that one so much in cities, I’ve heard it more in the country”, I add.
“So Australian changes around the country?”
“The accent certainly does, words do as well, but you can normally understand it everywhere.”
“Russian doesn’t really change across the country, we speak the same language everywhere.”
“Really? Over such a big country I’d expect so many more variations!”
“Not really, the Trans-Siberian line connects everyone and we all move around doing national service too.  So the culture might be different, but not so much the language”. 
I make a note to see if I can pick different accents as I cross the country.

Beery goodness from St Pete’s

Actually the beer stops introduce me to another curious part of the Russian psyche, when in a group; everyone likes to wait for someone else to take responsibility for leading.  It doesn’t seem to be for politeness, more that nobody wants the burden.  We stop to pick up the beers and then ten minutes later we’re still standing around sipping them and finishing second cigarettes. 
“What are we were waiting for?”, I ask.
“Nothing.”
“Well…Davai davai”, I chant, trying to move everyone.  This is followed by more of the same as all the foreigners present agree they also thought we were waiting for something or someone.  The locals agree that indeed we aren’t waiting for anything and we stand sipping beer for a while longer.  I’m not sure who moves first, but a few of us start walking saying,
“Davai davai”. 
They point in the right direction and we surge onwards.  After a little while it occurs to the two of us at the head of the group that we have no idea where we are or where we’re going; but somehow we’re leading everyone.  We pause and wait for a couple of our local group members to stroll by and start following them.  After a short time, they realise we aren’t quite heading in the right direction and cross the road and curve back slightly in the direction we had come.

By the second stop I’d figured out this would probably happen again and keep up the pressure to keep moving.  The only other explanation of these pauses is that it is technically illegal to be walking down the street drinking beer, but everyone does it.  So if we finish beers near the shops, we’re less likely to be hassled.
“When was the last time any of you have been bothered about this law?”, I ask. 
They look thoughtful and generally agree it’s been a long time.  All it really takes is someone prepared to say, ‘Davai davai’ and everyone will follow pretty directly – just as Ayuna had done yesterday.  Finally, we resolve to head to a place called ‘Soup’ to actually sit down for a while.  The walk across the city has stretched into a three hour tour and we all just want to sit down anywhere.  Well….anywhere with a beer.

We’re led to a table and I’m forced to order a beer and two shots of vodka.  Sasha the Siberian smiles and does the same.  Some of the others order soup, apparently it really is well known for the soups they make here.  This is apparently a common format for Russian clubs; you enter in a group, are seated and enjoy table service.  You could head for a dancefloor, if it has one, but this one has more of a café style atmosphere.  I enjoy sitting down more than anything and learn some new Russian toasts.  Most of the Moscow locals were horrified at the thought of saying ‘Ha zdorovie’, a traditional Slavic toast meaning ‘to your health’.  It’s probably the first toast any foreigner learns and I discovered I had to find some new ones to be really Russian.  To make it more difficult, when I ask for another one that was the equivalent of ‘cheers’, their faces cloud over and then they say, ‘there’s too many’.  I laugh and demand they pick one.  Sasha the Siberian tells me the Russian word that effectively means ‘to our future’ and we drink our first shot together.  A while later he tells me another one of his favourites, which means ‘Let’s do it’, so we can finish the second one.

Thus armed against the cool night air and regenerating our tired legs we make for Krisis Zhanre.  Apparently the live music only gets started there about midnight and when we enter the first band is only a couple of songs into their set.  The clubs name in Russian glows on the wall and the place is packed and vibrant.  Sasha the Siberian and I stash our coats in the coatroom I find hidden at the back of the dancefloor and he volunteers to find some beers while I wait with the rest of the group.  We finish them quickly and all of us launch ourselves onto the dancefloor with mad abandon.  The band finishes, we don’t, but the DJ keeps us going as they setup for the next band.

This new drug called ‘B’ will explode your mind

Dancing, beers, vodka and shouted happiness prevail for a few hours.  At one point all the Couchsurfers join together in a circle with arms around each other and keep dancing together.  This only lasts a minute thanks to some filthy looks from bouncers, we have to break it up.  I’m baffled as to what was so bad.  Konstantin, one of the locals, leads me to a back area for a cigarette.  We travel past the end of the bar, finding ourselves in a group of tables and then open French windows that lead to a small outdoor location designed for smoking.  The back ‘wall’ of this area is a canvas tent that conceals a building site.  Konstantin produces a cigarette which I then drop on the floor almost instantly.  As I bend over to retrieve it, he looks appalled at the idea and stomps on it whilst producing another.  I can’t picture anyone in Australia doing that; a single cigarette is worth up to seventy five cents.  However, in Russia a whole packet costs the same; which would help to explain why almost everyone smokes, everywhere.  Konstantin leans forward after lighting up and explains the bouncer’s reaction to our mini-mosh.  Apparently the worst thing you can do is to be moving together in a big group like that, it’s banned in every pub, club and venue.  Moshing is strictly forbidden thanks to the bad reputation it has for causing unforeseen injuries as the mass hysteria takes over and everyone in the room is heaving together as one.  People have been suffocated, trampled and generally damaged.  Which is probably why I love the mosh so much, I’ve already been in many good ones and loved every minute of it.  The surge of energy I get from moving both together with the crowd and by myself within it is spectacular and invigorating.  

Somehow we get talking to a pair of Mexicans who are visiting Moscow and I discover this club is a huge hangout for ex-pats in general.  I’m more than happy to throw myself into the night and see where we all land. For most of the next few hours I find myself drinking beers and returning to the smoking area to enjoy random conversations with Mexicans, Americans, Germans, Serbians and a host of Muscovites.  I meet an extraordinarily drunk local who gives me his card so we can go out drinking again tomorrow night.  He’s out with his girlfriend and an old mate who’s in town for the weekend.  All three of them are at the level of drunkenness that would get them removed from an Australian pub with vigour, but none of them seem to have a problem finding another round.  I pass Tania on the dancefloor and she leans in close to be heard,
“Are you coming back with us all to my place after this?”
“Definitely! When are we going?”
She shrugs and says,
“Soon maybe.”

One of the rarer effects of drinking too much Russian Vodka

It’s while talking to an American journalist about where the country is going under Putin that I realise I have no real idea where I am in the city.  We walked here after the monster trek, leaving me with no orientation for a Metro station and I’m not entirely confident about organising a Russian people’s taxi with my poor language skills.  The idea of being alone and lost in the middle of Moscow makes me feel suddenly vulnerable, so I move to return to the group.  To my horror they have disappeared.  I look in every corner of the club and can’t find anyone.  I retrieve my jacket and begin to work through my options on finding my way home.  It’s just after six in the morning and I’m floating on a sea of beer inspired warm comfort.  I think if I can get directions to the Metro I can navigate myself home safely without a problem.  So when I walk into four members of the group standing together outside, I give a little cheer.  They look up at me and smile.
“I thought you’d gone home already!”, I accuse them.
“You’re still going!”, the chorus of voices chime.
“I couldn’t go, I have no idea where I am right now.”
They laugh and Hanspeter says,
“Moscow!”
“Really? I thought I was in Africa somewhere!  How the hell did I get here?!?!…..What happened to Tania? One minute she’s saying we’re all going there and now she’s disappeared with her friend.”
“Oh they left half an hour ago, I think they were looking for you, but you’d disappeared.”
“I was out the back in the smoking tent talking to drunk Russians”

 
And that’s what Moscow really looks like
 

They laugh as we meander to the Metro station.  As we separate at the circle line station I wonder when exactly the best time to send a message to Victoria is.  I opt for an SMS five minutes before I arrive back and follow with a phonecall when I get there.  She buzzes me in the building and ushers me inside the apartment with a tired smile.
“Good night?”
“Was extensive and great fun; good people, good music, good conversations, what more is there to cram into an evening?” 
She smiles evilly and adds,
“Oh maybe one or two things, but you can’t have everything.” 
I laugh on my way to the shower.  By the time I return she’s already sound asleep again, so I stretch out onto my mattress setup on the floor and blissfully follow the trend for unconsciousness.

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