Apologies if I scared anyone after my last post, but paranoia has become a part of my life since I had watched the September 11th on the tv in a local gym in Amsterdam, while living in that beautiful city.
I was quite surprised that classes in the gym continued despite witnessing the end of the world and on autopilot I joined my class in step-aerobics to run out of the room, the gym and vomit on the street five minutes after the start of the class. I thought that everything was finished, everything in this earth and I don’t remember how I managed to fall asleep that night and even drag myself to my place of work at MoneyCare the next day, to see whether anyone else was able to continue living.
To my greatest surprise most of my colleagues and my boss showed up at our job, albeit everyone looked shattered, sad and disillusioned.
My boss was running in panic from one corner of the room to the next, trying to keep us somehow optimistic. His eyes were red from obvious crying, and he kept on saying that we had to keep going. Salaries needed to be paid, pension funds needed our advice and he even managed to crack some kind of a joke by saying to us:
“Can you imagine? For some people it’s an opportunity to make money!”
MoneyCare in this respect was almost a non-profit organisation. We all were paid more or less the same salary and our working system was transparent and based in strong ethical values. Each client had the same access to the system and the format of writing news analyses was clear and to the point. I was the inventor of the new writing system, btw.
We could only talk about September 11th on that day. We had an American colleague working with us and we were glued to the news.
Still it was the day when I put a Belgian bank, called Dexia on big plus in our cluster of analysts of banks and wrote a smashing uplifting report about the bank, because the bank was Belgian (and I loved Belgium), it was in the European Union that I admired for the initial principle of its creation, and the bank was supported by the Belgian state. Having grown up in the Soviet Russia I knew with certainty one thing: the State has to control the basics, such as natural resources, infrastructure, medical system, internet and banks, to avoid such catastrophic occurrences, as the collapse of the Soviet Union, Invasion of Iraq, September 11th and now, Brexit.
But I probably bored you to death with finances and will switch to something more uplifting in my next post.
And so, It was in 1976 that I was born into one of the households living in the 9-y micro-district of Teplii Stan, on the tenth of July to be precise, and of course, I don’t remember anything of that day, but can only rely on what I was told by my family. Apparently I was born right in the centre of Moscow, in the birth-centre on the New Arbat Eve, called ‘Roddom Grauermana’ where several famous Russian people were born. Andrey Mironov, the actor, loved by the whole nation, was born there in 1941, as well as the renown poet, Bulat Okudghava, in 1924. The birth house was popular among the elite. It was right at the central street, situated in a beautiful building, where rooms were spacious and medical care was better than anywhere else. One needed good connections to end up there, and those, born in Roddom Grauermana’, usually belonged to some sort of upper class, albeit under the socialism, classes didn’t exist. But of course, some lived better than others, and connections, or what is known in the Russian language as ‘blat’ (a word that really has no direct translation in English, but can be understood as nepotism) was extremely prevalent during the whole existence of the Soviet Union, and still is, although judging from the readings of the Russian literature, ‘blat’ is just a part of the Russian psyche. Gogol wrote extensively about it, but so did Tolstoy and other prominent classical Russian writers.
It happened that I was born into a more or less elite family, by the standards of that time. The family was very intellectual as a whole. My grand-dad, who during the second world war, was a sapper, attached to special forces, received several medals, including Order of the Red Star, and upon his return from the war, became a renowned and extremely popular professor of geology at the People’s Friendship University, situated not far from the ‘Jugo-Zapadnaya’ underground station. Due to his position he received a three-room apartment in one of the new buildings at the 9-y micro-district of Teplii Stan, and the whole family, consisting of the grand-dad, grand-mum, their daughter and her husband, moved for a while there, before my mum and my dad received their own apartment, in the same block of flats, but their apartment was only two rooms, and situated right on the sixteenth floor. I remember that once I started to have some conscious memories, every time I would end up on the balcony, the view would take my breath away. It was so high, and so impressive, because one could see for a while almost the whole of 9-y micro-district of Teplii Stan, before other, similar buildings were built all around, but it still gave the illusion of some space, even if it totally lacked in any cosiness. The apartment was awful, and remained so, until it was sold in the middle of the nineties to someone else, with some difficulties. It had always the atmosphere that it was chased by the spirits, or some similar, mystical creatures. Strange insects would appear, or weird noises at night with irregular intervals. Families ending up in this apartment, had arguments, and tough time.
My parents, however, ended up relatively well in the beginning, because, most of the time they stayed at my grand-dad place. There, it was always cosy, and always warm. My grand-mum, who worked only part-time as an administrator at one of the theatre companies, retired relatively early, because my grand-dad, as a geologist, would often be sent away on a project to different places, such as Afghanistan or China, where they would sometimes stay up to two years at a time. She loved cooking, and the house always had the delicious smell of some stew or a pie in preparation. Because my grand-dad was very popular among his students, lots of them, mostly the PhD students, would often come to the house, for a dinner or a drink. They all came from different countries, friendly to the Soviet Union’s ideology, and it was always full of laughter, deep philosophical discussions, and delicious food. My mum and my dad, also ended up working at the same university, albeit at different faculties, would mostly live in their own apartment when I was born, but the main life and activity remained in the house of my grand-parents. It was where that everyone stayed, and my memories of the apartment of my parents don’t come to me until I was seven years old. All glimpses of family time together go back to the house of my grand-dad, Sergei, a truly remarkable man, who was adored by everyone who had the chance to meet him. He was extremely kind, and extremely intelligent. His work was his passion and it was something that he would pass to my mum, an adored child, who was born rather late (my grand-mum was thirty-four when she gave birth), and who chose mathematics as her field, and soon was working on her PhD, right when I was born.
When I was one, my grand-parents had to go to Kabul for a year at least, on one of the geology missions of my grand-dad, my mum was still working on her PhD, my dad was busy building his career as a lecturer in chemistry, and therefore, a nanny had to be hired to look after me. However, my other grand-mum, the mum of my dad, who was at that time in Moscow on a visit, offered to look after me, and after lengthy discussions, and uncertainty in taking such a drastic decision, it was decided at the end that it could be a good idea, and I was taken for two years to the Eastern Ukraine, to a small place near the town called Krasnadon, to be raised and looked after by my other grand-parents. It was where that I would end up spending also all my summers when I returned to Moscow, alternating between Krasnadon and a Cossack farm of my grand-parents, thirty minutes’ drive from Krasnadon, but which was situated in Russia (not that borders counted then), and thus, my upbringing was marked by being a born Moscovite from an elite family, but with love and longing for a quiet countryside at a beautiful farm and Ukraine, where people were friendlier, where life was simpler, and where everything tasted better and fresher.
In the summer of 1976, which proved to be uncharacteristically hot, Moscow stood still in its stability and relative quietness. Later, under the reign of Gorbatchev, this period would become known as the ‘’era of stagnation’’ but if you looked at people living in 1976, you certainly wouldn’t notice that something was terribly amiss. The shops, while with impressive queues outside, had most needed groceries, festive tables were full of food and vodka, and everyone had the right to free education, medical care, and nice pension. People were nicely dressed, modestly but with style, with men wearing suits and women walking about in pretty colourful dresses. Trousers and let alone, jeans, were not yet on the radar of women’s fashion, and so they would differentiate themselves through colours. If one looks at the pictures of Moscow in the summer 1976, one can see lots of pink, green and red variations among female dresses. The winter fashion was, however, awful, due to a lack of choices, but let’s stay for a moment in summer 1976, and stroll to the region of Jugo-Zapadnaya, translated with some difficulty as ‘’South-West’’, even if it didn’t incorporate the geographical area per se (although it was definitely situated at the south-west of Moscow) but was one of the most-sought after region located around an underground station of the same name. It was known as one of the dormitory areas, due to its architecture, with new buildings of sixteen floors that became popular at that time. The apartments were more spacious than tiny, grotesque constructions built under the earlier area of Krutchev, and their raison d’etre was a better thought enterprise than the buildings which had seen the light in the years fifties, resulting in weird spaces and suffocated corridors. The typical buildings of this awful construction had usually three bedrooms, but one of the bedrooms was, as a rule, at the end of the living room, hardly even separated from it, and those who slept there, had to wait for the whole household to be ready to sleep. The rooms were also small, and often didn’t make any sense.
However, in the sixties, there came a new wave of constructions that aimed at some modernization and a more careful consideration for people who would eventually end up living there, and huge buildings spread across sixteen floors started to see the light, mostly at the uptown area of Moscow. The underground station Jugo-Zapandaya was created in 1963, and shortly after, shiny but quite ugly blocks of the apartments followed. If one notices them now, while visiting Moscow, one might become shocked by the absence of any consideration for beauty: the building are truly ugly, but as a result, quite impressive in their simple dare to exist. They stand the matter of time, and are quite still popular among middle class, among all those who can’t afford any new apartments, but still want to live in the proximity of a more or less comfortable life. Not that the newly built buildings are any better. The perimeter of Moscow once outside of the centre, represents an absolutely awful sight nowadays, a true fruit of the new capitalistic ideology, where new constructions of stores much higher than sixteen, are spread all around, without any well-though plan behind.
The Jugo-Zapadnaya region soon became extremely fashionable among the citizens of Moscow, and was renown as one of the best areas to live. It takes forty minutes sharp to arrive to the closest underground station in the centre of Moscow, called ‘Park Kyltyri’, which is relatively nothing for the size of Moscow as a whole. If you live in Moscow, a drive of two hours each day to work and back, is the cumbersome reality that most Moscovites experience. It is huge, it is difficult to understand, and one has to be born there in order to enjoy a relatively nice life.
Jugo-Zapadnaya also had all nice facilities. Several universities were situated in its proximity, it had more green spaces than the rest of the city, shops were built around, and if one had a ‘dacha’, some sort of residential house, when it was also strategically located next to the highway. But the most prominent future of Jugo-Zapadnaya was that it had the illusion of space in the otherwise quite busy and suffocated city, and one could enjoy relative quietness and a feeling of rest if living there.
Several sixteen-floor buildings were built twenty minutes away by bus, and it soon became an area on its own, called 9-y micro district of Teplii Stan, translated as the region number 9 of Warm Camp, attached, however, officially to the bigger area of Jugo-Zapadnaya, because of the nearest underground station. This small area became a little gem of the Jugo-Zapadnaya perimeter, where Moscovites tried to get an apartment. Despite the ugliness of the sixteen-store buildings, the apartments were relatively spacious in comparison to what else was available, and the whole little area contained everything one needed for a good life. Several schools opened their doors, big grocery shop was created, and a park, known as ‘area of rest’ got built around a lake. Those who lived in the district, and it was especially popular among families, would stroll to the ‘area of rest’ at weekends. One could hire a boat to sail on the lake, and children could even swim in designated spots. All in all it was comfy and nice, a sort of a small village (albeit with tall buildings) in the middle of Moscow.
I was born there on 10th of July 1976
Both ‘Taxi-Blues’ and ‘The Island’ movies (refer to my post on holy-foolishness here, here, here, and here) acquire an additional meaning when one learns about the life of the main actor who played Lyosha and Anatoly, as one can rightly argue that in both movies the actor played himself.
As the character of the movies, Pyotr Mamonov had and has an unusual life, marked by extravagancy, creativity, unusual and weird behaviour, and a deep spiritual search for meaning and for Christian faith.
He was born in Moscow in 1951, and was expelled twice from a secondary school because he was constantly organising ‘a circus’. He loved dancing, music, and was showing quite remarkable talent in the way he danced. He came across some Western music, including the Beatles, and it marked him profoundly, pushing him to explore different musical genres and performance. While being considered a hippy, he used to distance himself from the group and would often find himself in a conflict or even a fight. In one of such fights he was very badly wounded by a knife, and almost died, but was saved by the doctors and recovered after spending days in a coma.
His behaviour was exuberant and bizarre, he could sometimes walk around with a handle from the toilette seat, or pretend that he would run at full speed and collude with a wall, just to lie down and watch people assembling around him.
His professional path was also very unusual, where in a matter of ten years he changed numerous jobs, and attended a university but without finishing it. He worked as a typist, as a corrector in a journal ‘Pioner’, as a massage therapist, elevator operator, moving man, as well as a translator of poetry from English, Danish, Norwegian, and Swedish languages. He experienced moments of desperation and loneliness, when he would be without any job or any money. During sad periods of his life, he would write his own poetry, and would later use it for his songs.
In the 1983 Pyotr launched his music group, called ‘Zvuki Mu’, which immediately attracted controversy due to unusual, and often absurd lyrics, playfulness, and quite dramatic presence on the stage by Pyotr. He would dance, make weird gestures, exhibit eccentric, artistic behaviour. The fact that many of his songs seemed to reflect the absurdity of that times, the total chaos at the political and economic levels, only attracted more attention to the group. For instance, in his song and video clip ‘Coyz pechat’, Mamonov clearly makes fun of the political uncertainty then, but in a subtle, provocative way. He tells us about going to ‘Kiosk’, which could refer to both a small shop selling newspapers, but also to small shops which started to appear at that time, reflecting the ideological switch from socialism to capitalism, selling everything from Mars chocolate bars to cigarettes and spirits. He sings with a background of Saint Vasilii The Blessed Cathedral, as a sign of trying to find new meaning among instability and uncertainty of the years which preceded the collapse of the Soviet Union and immediately after. Interestingly enough, Mamonov, by positioning himself in the background of the most notorious Russian Orthodox Cathedral dedicated to the most famous Russian Holy Fool, foresaw how he would be perceived later in his life, where he is often referred to in Russia as a ‘holy fool’ (Ruvinsky, 2011).
In 1988 Mamonov made his first appearance in movies by playing a drug lord in ‘The Needle’ (Igla), which became a cult Soviet film. In 1990 he played Lyosha, the saxophonist in Taxi-Blues, where some parallels can be drawn with Mamonov’s real life. It was a turbulent period for former Soviet Union and its people, and ordinary people struggled to find meaning in the chaos of that time. As Mamonov, his character is unpredictable, slightly ‘mad’, talented, artistic and eccentric.
Following the dismantling of his music band, Mamonov had a long period of depression, which he managed to overcome by turning to Christianity and by finding an absolute faith in Jesus. He moved with his wife to a remote village in Moscow region, where he would spend his days on farming and praying, making only very rare appearance at public. He had to be convinced several times to appear as Anatoly in ‘The Island’, where, as it is commonly agreed, he played himself.
Whether we can call Pyotr Mamonov a ‘Holy Fool’ is, of course, embedded in the current discourse on madness and at how we look at eccentricity. Many Russian Orthodox sites themselves refer to him as a true representative of Russian holy-foolishness. Mamonov is a devoted Christian, who had a highly unusual life. As holy-fools in the past, he also battled with madness, having spent some time in a psychiatric hospital, due to his problems with alcohol. He had periods of deprivation, and sadness, and where, ultimately he turned to Christian faith to find his own personal meaning in life.
Mamonov, when he makes his rare public appearances, remains a controversial figure. When he talks about faith, he often uses the same lyrical language he used in his songs. When he received the Russia’s award for best actor following his role as Anatoly, the Christian hermit in ‘The Island’, he came to the ceremony dressed in jeans, an odd cardigan, and sneakers, and proceeded to tell the public that it failed to address real problems in Russia:
“Do you expect Putin to solve these problems? Putin is a wimp, an intelligence officer, what can he do? We should do it ourselves.” (Ruvinsky, 2011).
Understanding Mamonov as a modern holy fool requires understanding of the Russian culture, and its long tradition of the unique phenomenon of holy-foolishness. Russia always looked at manifestations of weirdness and eccentricity as an obligatory trait of national character. Russian culture always had a penchant for the grotesque, for the unusual, embedded in the history which has never been linear, but characterised by changes of regimes, revolution, political and economic uncertainty. Russian people tried to find answers in searching for the meaning, where laughter and weirdness provided a respite from daily problems, gave hope and a new perspective. Ivan the Fool, positioned in Russian folklore, is one of such characters, giving us hope, but also making us laugh, but also Holy Fools, real personalities in Russian history, gave people the possibility of a different interpretation of reality, by using bizarre behaviour and talk in order to highlight the problems of the society and ruling class. The resurrection of Christian faith in Russia following the collapse of the Soviet Union, gave a new justification and reverence for the phenomenon of the Holy Fool.
Mamonov is very popular in Russia today because he is a typical example of someone who overcame the difficulties of the change in regime and political ideology. As many other Russian people, he had difficult moments in his life, where he also experienced deprivation and periods of total hopelessness. He resorted to Christian faith as many other Russian people, to find new meaning and hope, and uses his popularity and fame in order to tell others about God, while also using his influence to point to the short-coming of the government.
In this respect, we can argue that holy-foolishness is embedded In Russian character and culture, where it is a recognised Christian phenomenon, positioned outside the mental health discourse on madness. Mamonov could be considered as ‘mad’, but because he is Russian, where ‘madness’ is accepted as eccentricity, he managed to channel his eccentricity into a higher purpose, where his madness is used to cherish artistic talent, and educate others about faith.
As Mamonov tells us himself:
“We all choose byways. In this respect, I am a very good example; I often choose the longest way round. Thanks to God, He led me to the right spring….” (Ruvinsky, 2011).
Different ways of lives, different languages and cultures appeal to me from an early age.
I remember while being still small in Russia I was walking together with my mother towards the bus station. I can’t recall what was the reason of taking the bus but I clearly remember my state of mind during the march to the bus station
I was out of this world, engrossed totally in my own inner imaginative sphere and I was asking questions in my own head: why is the sky blue? Why should we assume that only the physical manifestations is what the world is about? The road, the bus station visible at a distance, people walking towards it from our Soviet style building where with my family we lived on the 16th floor.
Why are we rushing always towards perfection, my seven years old mind was asking God knows whom. Why do people get angry sometimes and why is the moon moving in cycles?
This sort of questions invaded my head from an early age and I applied a mode of ‘check out of reality’ to deal with all that. Life, according to me as a child, was supposed to be a constant stream of big celebrations: friends around to play and to talk, presents not reserved to just an event such as a birthday or New Year Eve. Cakes everyday, even if in small quantities, people singing on the streets. Children laughing, everywhere and always.
But instead I was confronted with a gruesome picture. Unhappy people queuing for the bus, sleep deprived children going to school, and everyone around playing some kind of normality. You behave, you follow the rules, you obey the existing structure.
My ‘check out’ technique helped me to process the grim reality by presenting me with a more colourful vision. In it lived a magician high in the sky, angels sung, and people danced. I had names for them, burrowed from numerous books I was always busy reading. Christian was a king of the birds, Olanda was a fire queen, while Patrick was a light keeper.
It was while living in the Netherlands that I found a better, much stronger version of a language to address my dilemma as to ‘why’. The Russian version ‘почему’ was too soft, more like a whisper rather than a question asking for an immediate answer. The French ‘pourquoi’ left the possibility of a reply with another question rather than an answer one seeks. To the French ‘Pourquoi’ there is always an option to answer ‘pourquoi pas’. It’s like talking in riddles while your questions still hang in your head.
But the Dutch language gifted me with a perfect word for what I am trying to describe in this post. It is Waarom- strict, precise and powerful sound pronunciation that in English can be spelled as ‘vaaroum’. A single word but holding in itself massive power. I even noticed that when someone asks me ‘Waarom’, I try to still provide some sort of answer even when I have absolutely no clue.
And so now, while I march in my daily reality I start my questions in my head with this powerful Dutch world:
Waarom have we so much poverty still?
Waarom did we have September 11?
Waarom there is still so much misery in our beautiful world?
Waarom there is so much sadness where I can hear so much crying?
And most importantly, waarom asking too many questions about humanity and the world we are living in, is considered as being too weird.
Waarom do we accept the ‘normality’ of this world where people mostly march with neglect and indifference to what’s happening in our beautiful planet, such as hunger in some countries, poverty in almost all countries, so much anger, so much disappointment, tears and sadness?