• History repeating in Russia and Ukraine

    On the day that Russia invaded Ukraine, I was halfway through In Memory of Memory by the Russian Jewish author Maria Stepanova.

    I was reading the letters that her relative Lyodik Gimmelfarb, a 19-year-old at the Siege of Leningrad, sent to his mother. They were matter-of-fact and uncomplaining. Shortly after his 20th birthday, he was killed.

    War. What’s it good for?

    The following chapters turn to another branch of her family, the Gurevichs, in particular Isaak Gurevich, a well-heeled businessman who opened an agricultural machinery factory in Kherson in the early 20th century.

    I had never heard of this southern Ukrainian city, and suddenly I was reading about it in the news, falling to Russian forces, as I simultaneously read about this successful Jewish family who built a fine mansion and owned the first English Vauxhall car in the region.

    In 1907, Isaak Gurevich had been there to welcome the railway to Kherson. He and his family had also witnessed the pogroms that swept across southern Ukraine in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, a reminder of the fact that the Nazis didn’t invent anti-Semitism.

    Brave new world

    With the Russian Revolution, Gurevich had his factory taken off him and given to the workers. Soon it wasn’t simply a case of losing your wealth, but losing any trace of ever having had wealth. ‘Social background’ had to be filled in on government forms, and a hint of bourgeois ancestry spelt trouble.

    At the conclusion of her family saga, Stepanova visits the Jewish New Cemetery on the outskirts of Kherson. It’s a desolate, windblown spot where the scrub is slowly reclaiming the gravestones. There are no Jews left to tend the cemetery.

    More serendipity? How about Afghanistan Then and Now

  • What makes cities so comfortable?

    The urban condition – that in-built terror of small town life that makes city folk twitch when they try a new life in the country – is sometimes thought of as a new disease. 

    Not so. 

    Listening to Anton Chekhov’s 1900 play Three Sisters, all about three sisters who once lived in Moscow and are now reduced to the desperation of life in a small provincial Russian town, the following line rang out:

    “In Moscow, you can sit in an enormous restaurant where you don’t know anybody and nobody knows you and yet you don’t feel like a stranger. But here, you know everybody and everybody knows you, and you’re a stranger.”

    Anton Chekhov, Three Sisters

    Oh, to be anonymous! 

    It’s a catch 22 that many will be familiar with – I want to feel connected to a community, but I don’t want everyone I meet to know all my business. I want an element of mystery. 

    The allure of the city – as I found when first living in London – is that despite having a close circle of friends, you can still walk out of your front door and simply disappear, for days on end, into a mass of humanity in which you are unknown. 

    There is clearly a certain liberation and freedom in this very act. Sitting in a busy pavement café, surrounded by life, watching everything go by, part of and yet apart from it. This is the great gift of urban life, one that all provincials like myself discover as such an unexpected delight. 

    Some existentialism with your coffee, monsieur?

    The trouble that lurks in every city since civilization began is alienation. The risk that in being able to move freely, and unmolested, among strangers, one loses all connection with a tribe, and becomes so adrift that life begins to lose all its meaning. 

    No doubt Chekhov grappled with this dilemma in Russia over a hundred years ago, as it ran breakneck into modern life. And it is still the great dilemma facing us today. To sit in that enormous restaurant, or to go home where everything is known and familiar…

    City life sounding a bit tough? What Would A Soft City Feel Like?

  • Same place, different century

    (Photo by Emma Francis)

    Stuck for a good read? Try two books about the same place from writers who were there a century apart. I’ve done it twice now, by chance. I recommend it. 

    First, I read Siberian Journey: Down the Amur to the Pacific, 1856-1857 by Perry McDonough Collins, an incredible account of his trip as the first American to travel the length of the Amur River on the border of China and Siberia. 

    I followed this up by reading Black Dragon River: A Journey down the Amur River at the Borderlands of Empires by Dominic Ziegler

    Collins travelled the Amur as Slavs from Russia were craving out territory for the Tsar. He envisaged a new America in the Far East, rolling back the primitive Chinese. Ziegler’s contemporary travels revealed gleaming Chinese cities looking across the Amur at impoverished Russian settlements. 

    From US Grant to Kerouac

    It happened again when I read the Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant – American civil war hero and president. He published them in 1885, just before his death. They largely recount the civil war years and the battles he was engaged in. 

    I followed this up with Jack Kerouac’s On The Road, published in 1957 and chronicling his road trips across the US in the late 40s and early 50s. I hadn’t intended them as comparison pieces, and yet they were. 

    Kerouac’s crazy drives from coast to coast, with almost no sleep, occasional fuel stops and bouts of drinking, happened to take him through both Vicksburg, Mississippi and the Shenandoah Valley in Virginia. Both were sites of major civil war battles Grant described. 

    A hundred years from now…

    I was struck by how these two men were treading the same ground less than a hundred years apart, yet one was bogged down in constant mud, trying to pull mule trains of munitions and bedraggled soldiers through the mire, hitting the major obstacle of rivers they couldn’t cross. 

    The other was crossing the entire American continent from coast to coast in a matter of days, in an automobile on bitumen roads. For one, the conditions were so harsh they imperiled life itself, for the other, it was a joyride.

    Same place, different reality. 

    More travel and books? Here’s how to spend a long haul flight