To Russia, With Love...
Thus began the children's novel 'Chuk and Gek' written by the Soviet writer Arkady Gaidar. I read it long ago, in a Malayalam translation published from Moscow -those were times when the Soviets were 'our' best friends,. Here is an English translation: http://www.vidyaonline.net/arvindgupta/13r.pdf
Chuk and Gek and Mother undertake an eventful train journey - which goes on for "a thousand kilometers, then another thousand" and then travel a hundred kilometers in a sleigh thru the 'taiga' - with bears and wolves lurking around... When they reach the Blue Mountain camp, Father is mysteriously absent....
The book had plenty of lovely monochrome illustrations by one Dubinsky and their subtle shades of grey unravelled, to our Keralan eyes, the bleak wintry beauty of the steppes and the taiga ... (the above online source does not have these).
Much later in life, I happened to read this bit by Paul Theroux:
"AFTERWARDS, whenever I thought of the Trans-Siberian Express, I saw
... a clear sight from the window of our green and black steam locomotive. From Skovorodino onward, its eruptions of steamy smoke diffused the sunlight and drifted into the forest so that the birches smoldered and the magpies made for the sky. I saw the gold-tipped pines at sunset and the snow, lying softly around clumps of brown grass, like cream poured over the ground; the yachtlike snowplows at Zima; the ocherous flare of the floodlit factory chimneys at Irkutsk; Marinsk in early morning, black cranes and black buildings and escaping figures casting long shadows on the tracks as they ran toward the lighted station. I thought of the ice chest of frost between the cars....."
For all the rich prose, there probably was not too much *love* lost between Theroux and Russia, for that matter between Theroux and *anything*...
And last week, thanks to Vitthal, we watched David Lean's 'Doctor Zhivago'(*) - although not quite a great film, it certainly has been made with a certain affectionate love for detail...
The highlight of the movie is a journey made by the doctor and family from Moscow to the Urals and beyond in an abject cattle train, in the severest winter. And this 10 minute portion has a *density* of beautifully composed shots, the like of which I have hardly ever seen in any other movie; the doctor opening a tiny crack-like window - braving a sharp blast of chilly air - to catch flashy glimpses of the icy landscape appearing through the dense clouds of 'steamy smoke' from the engine, the train clanging over an iron bridge across a frozen river, a sunset on the Taiga ...
Although it was filmed in Spain/Canada/Finland, I am pretty sure the Ruskis would have been much pleased by this visual tribute to their vast country.
Well, to reveal the ending of Chuk and Gek's adventures, there is a happy family reunion at the Blue Mountain camp and they celebrate New Year with Father's colleagues.
Here is the conclusion of the novel:
"Now sit down, everybody," said Father, glancing at his watch. "The main part of the programme is about to begin." He switched on the radio.They all sat down and waited in silence.At first it was very quiet. Then they heard a noise, and the sound of motorcars honking their horns. Then there was a sort of scraping and hissing, and from far awaycame a melodious tinkle.Big and little bells were ringing a refrain like this:
Teer-lil-lilli-dong!Teer-lil-lilli-dong! Chuk and Gek looked at each other. They knew what that was. It was the golden Kremlin chimes pealing out beneath the red star of the Spassky Tower in faraway Moscow.And those chimes—on the eve of New Year—were heard by people everywhere—in town and hillside, in steppe and taiga, and on the blue seas.And, of course, the preoccupied commander of the armoured train, the one who waited so vigilantly for Voroshilov's(**) orders—he also heard the chimes. Everybody stood up. All wished one another a Happy New Year. And lots ofhappiness. Each understood the meaning of happiness in his own way. But one and all knew and understood that they must live honourably, work hard, and love and cherish the vast, happy land known as the Soviet Union."
I still remember myself wondering a generation ago: "Why such a hyper-strong dose of patriotism?"
The answer can be pieced together now, thanks to Wikipedia.
Arkady Gaidar, a staunch communist, wrote this story in 1939, when the threat of war hung over the entire world.
Here is another sample from the book. Gek has a nightmare:
"an ogre mean Stood spitting spit that burned and seared
And swung an iron fist and sneered.
Past raging fires, o'er trampled snow!
The soldiers goose-stepped row on row.
They dragged along the vilest dross
A Fascist flag with a crooked Cross"
This demonizing of Naziism was a bit of an anachronism. In 1939, the year when Gaidar wrote the book, Nazi Germany, though not a friend, signed a non-aggression pact with the Soviets (and Stalin collaborated with Hitler in a very cruel conquest and partition of Poland); and 'Barbarossa', the invasion of Russia did not happen for another two years. Maybe this terrifying vision was inserted into a later edition of the novel ...
And when Hitler did invade Russia in 1941, Gaidar, though he was probably medically unfit for military service (he had been injured during an earlier operation against the 'whites' in the Russin Civil War), joined a group of partisans and fought as a machine gunner - and died in action in October 1941, just 3 months into what would develop into the most horrible military campaign in history, the only happy thing about it being the final defeat of Naziism.
And a couple of generations down the line, his grandson Yegor Gaidar would complete an ideological loop by joining the (post-Communist) Yeltsin regime and later founding 'The Union of Right Forces', "considered ... to be one of Russia's parties that support western-style capitalism ... socio-politically conservative..."
'Chuk and Gek' is part of the most cherished childhood memories for a whole generation of folks, especially in Malluland. Here is another bit from blogosphere written by another Mallu:
"I could almost smell the fir trees, feel the deep snow under my feet, glimpse the bears and wolves far off and see the long stream of steam trailing behind the train as it snaked thru the crystal clear Taiga morning."
The source: http://ramgvallath.blogspot.com/2008/09/chuck-and-geck-down-memory-lane-again.html
(*) - Talking about Zhivago, I sensed a certain resemblance (not a very strong one but ...) between the face of actor Omar Sharif and that of Roger Federer. Folks I asked about it did not really agree. Perhaps I am imagining things and my face-matching is a bit screwed up. Indeed for quite some time I have felt that Ricky Ponting resembles George Bush II; I did not find anyone who agreed with me until someone wrote on 'cricinfo' last year: "Ponting was not only looking like George Bush but acting like him!"
(**) A rather unflattering portrait of Marshal Voroshilov can be read at Wikipedia. And yes, the Mallu translation does not mention him at all and simply says: "...commander of the armoured train, the one who waited so vigilantly for orders"