Slippery Fish


Emma and I had been in Saint Petersburg just short of a month when the incidents I am about to describe occurred. I was working on my biography of K———, talking to his friends and enemies, digging up documents in the archives, observing him in his natural setting. Emma was handling the photographics: candids in the studio, close-ups at rehearsal, scenics around the city. We were living in a squat, concrete-and-tile hotel from the Soviet era, and being charged a pittance—the theatre rate, I was told—which the front desk demanded, in cash roubles, daily in advance. The hotel’s worn carpets, its barely functional bathrooms with their chipped sinks and mould-crusted shower-seals, its ill-illuminated dining room with its scowling, bow-tied guardians at the door, might not have held any particular appeal to the tourists who were beginning to trickle in—this was a year or so after perestroika began to take effect—but it was perfectly adequate for us. We had a rough desk to work at, there was a flickering little black and white TV if we needed it, and best of all the hotel was only a short walk along the canal to the theatre, whose management had made the hotel arrangements (the better, perhaps, to monitor our activities), and where we had access to rehearsals, performances and archives, and to a controlled extent people.

One of the main reasons we were here was because I wanted to check things out for myself. Biography is made up of past events, and we try our best to get them straight, but as any historian knows, memory is notoriously unstable. Six billion versions of life experience walk the planet. Spend time in any courtroom to observe how perception colours recollection. It’s the Rashomon principle: any experience, any event, can have as many remembered versions as it has participants. So the documentary evidence becomes an important primary source (though documents can be just as compromised, particularly in Russia, where inconvenient individuals can disappear even from photographs). Goodness knows, I’d love to set down a detached narrative of everything that happened, was said, was thought, every detail. But the historian, the biographer and the critic (I have worn all those hats) are forced to be selective in what they choose to write about. Real-time detail is impractical, so what emerges is one individual’s understanding of what went on, inevitably incomplete and imperfect and quite frequently inaccurate. You become as much constructor as chronicler. You just do your best to get things as right as you can.

An added challenge when you’re writing the biography of someone who is still alive is to keep the subject on-side, even if it’s not an “authorized” version, while making sure you get as close to the real-life story as you can get. The last thing you want to produce is a hagiography, however much you might admire what the subject has achieved. So you need to retain control of your material. If they suspect that what you’re collecting is less than flattering there’s a danger they will use their influence to cut you off. In this particular case, influence was how the world worked. K——— was the god you paid obeisance to. Like it or not, and there were plenty of secret grumbles backstage, if you wanted to get on—from dancing better roles to getting a job in the costume shop—his was the favour you curried.

For someone doing what I was trying to do, there was also the delicate matter of the cultural barrier. Glasnost may mean openness, but one new statement of policy, however revolutionary (yes, I know, but it was), doesn’t wipe away a millennium of suspicion of outsiders. Genuine paranoia, like genuine love, never really dies. The people I spoke to were polite enough, and cooperative in their fashion, and on the occasions when I could get them to loosen up and talk “off the record” (but what is ever off the record when you’re talking to a writer?) they could deliver some useful perspectives and tell the occasional revealing story. But I could see the unspoken questions behind their frowning eyes. Why? And why you?

Why? Well, that was evident enough. K———- had been in the top job at the ballet company for two decades, a period that stretched back deep into the Cold War. His story, for better or for worse, was the story of the company in the final decades of the twentieth century, and the company’s story—the way it had survived the cataclysm of the break-up of the old order—was the story of present-day Russia in microcosm. I had the opportunity to shine a light on history from the unusual angle of an individual’s life in the professional performing arts.

K———–, his critics complained, was not much of a choreographer, and an autocratic administrator. That’s as may be. But he inherited a company that was, frankly, in a mess, both artistically and financially. Without his wily guidance and political connections the entire enterprise might have simply shut up shop, as so many other artistic enterprises had. Perhaps worse, it might have been turned into just another propaganda mouthpiece for whatever interests held the political reins, churning out the modern equivalent of the boy-meets-tractor socialist realism ballets that were so much in favour in the decades following the revolution. Instead it became one of the most visible symbols of a people’s defiant cultural heritage. Art above politics, that was going to be my story. Art at the service of the people. Art triumphant over brute despair. And despair, well, there was plenty of that to go around. There always is.

Why me? I had paid my dues, I suppose. The books I’d written, the contacts I’d made, the teaching I’d done, the conferences I’d attended—it all accumulates. It helps to be able to show the potential subject that you have walked the talk. Plus there was Emma, whose international magazine portfolio was a calling-card that opened many doors.

Emma and I had quickly fallen into a pattern of work on those cool fall days. We would make our way to the theatre in the late morning, the mist still lingering over the canals, perhaps watch the company class (Emma did a lot of that, camera at the ready), dig into the archives, maybe do a lunch interview with a dancer or one of the coaches in the cafeteria. Walking to the theatre along those stone boulevards, it was hard not to be moved by the stern classicism of the city’s architecture, the spires against the water, the statuary, the bridges, the calmly proportioned streets and squares with their pastel-coloured buildings, the aqua and lemon and cerulean washes: the city’s theatricality, you might almost say, its strict and noble splendour. But you couldn’t avoid the undercurrent of human unhappiness that trickled like sewer gas through these streets, seeping out of the cracks between the ancient sidewalk slabs, puddling in the squares. That gypsy woman in her colourful rags and headscarf, surrounded by her urchins near the statue of Pushkin in Arts Square, she stretched her hand, but her gesture of supplication was belied by her scornful eyes. Not everyone had benefitted equally from the new Russia, and the theatre itself seemed a metaphor for the country. All the parts on public view were refurbished and gleaming. Its elegant classical frontage was the backdrop for many a tourist snapshot. But backstage the fingers of poverty reached into every cranny. Broken plumbing in the dressing-rooms went unrepaired, the toilets stank, the corridors were littered with rubbish. The cafeteria was so poorly stocked dancers brought their own sugar for their tea or they went without.

K———– was deep in the final preparations for the opening of the season, and most of the time too busy to talk, so Emma and I spent as much time at the company school as we did at the theatre. The school was where many of the people who knew the story best were to be found: historians, critics, coaches, teachers, retired dancers, they used it like a club. The academy building takes up one long side of Architect Rossi Street, the former Theatre Street, a street whose very symmetry (it is exactly as wide as its buildings are tall) frames the humane and noble harmonies that are striven for here. All the legendary Russian names had their beginnings here, generations of dancers who embodied what we think of now as the St. Petersburg style of ballet—elegantly accomplished, effortlessly harmonious, a style that sets physical precision and strength at the service of lyricism and expressiveness. In the girls’ beginners’ class—a high pink room, ivory linoleum, double barres around the mirrored walls, arched windows letting in the autumn light and the muffled noises of the street below—we‘d watch a teacher push a child off balance, hug another close from behind as she prodded at the top of her thighs, lightly smack the bottom of third, preparing green limbs for the demands on their skeletal alignment that this precise and particular style of dancing would make in their future. As the pianist played, say, the adagio from the second act pas de deux from Swan Lake, the teacher twisted feet, wrenched legs high. The children wore white cotton leotards, with white lace bands holding their hair back, white ankle-socks inside ballet slippers. Their shiny floral wraps were vivid splashes of colour, hanging by the tall green door.

Like the theatre it served, the academy’s interior was shabby and run down. The spigot of government money, which had been so crucial to the school over the years, had been ratcheted down to a trickle and the school was being forced to trim its activities. Everyone was wondering who would stay, who would go, what those who went would do. Here in this studio, meanwhile, the painstaking preparation went on.

The man with the task of trying to maintain a positive view of the future of the academy was the school’s artistic director, Igor Belsky. He had begun in smaller companies as a dancer and choreographer in the old dram-balet style, a mix of melodrama and ballet that was popular with the Soviet authorities. He had directed the company itself for a tough four years, but defections and a suspicious suicide by one of the best-regarded principals brought him down in 1977. He was sent off to head the ballet company in Cairo (perhaps this was meant to be the ballet equivalent of the Siberian gulag, though Belsky went, said those who knew him at the time, with pleasure). After a year of Egyptian servitude he was brought back and a few years later the wheel turned once more and he was given charge of the academy on Architect Rossi street.

He maintained in these later years of his life a courtliness of manner that harked back to an earlier age. He always wore a tweed jacket and tie, and Emma loved his teasing, twinkling gallantry—holding doors for her, apologising for the inadequacy of his hospitality, kissing her fingers each time they met. His study, as he called it, was high in the rafters of the academy. Its low, slanted ceiling and dark draperies gave it an eerie, Dickensian feel that was reinforced by glimmering lights that revealed a treasury of glowing icons and dance and ballet memorabilia. The dark mahogany desk, he said, had been used by Peter the Great. Hanging opposite the desk was a reproduction of The Ninth Wave, a celebrated canvas by the nineteenth century seascape painter, Ivan Alvazovsky. The ninth wave, according to old sailors’ tales, is always the most dangerous. In the painting, a cluster of shipwrecked men cling to a spar as the ocean lurches and crashes around them: the human spirit in mortal combat. Belsky smiled without saying anything when he saw me examining the image. He had melancholy eyes.

“I try to teach with honesty and respect for tradition,” he said. “It is not for myself, you understand: it should not be for any of us, not personally. It is for the art itself. Of course, to do this you must be strict, perhaps even fearsome. Unfortunately, fearsome I am not.” He seemed to us to be the living link between then and now, the conscious protector of a tradition that was centuries long. He took us under his wing.

One day he took us to the top of St. Isaac’s “to enlarge your perspective”—made us climb all 262 steps up the inside of the tower and across the roof to the colonnade that encircles the dome. We were all a little puffy when we reached the top, and we stood silent for several minutes, Emma clicking away at the view that spanned two or three square kilometres of the city’s heart. The fall sunshine freshened the gold of the domes and glossed the greens of the parks. From that vantage point it was possible to see the city’s interlocking congruence, a web of constant motion laid over the pinned grid of architecture and canals. “This is the city that Peter gave us,” he said. “It is also the city that Pushkin and Gogol created. It is a cold city, beautiful and cruel. A magical place also. Tchaikovsky called it a city of living shadows.”

Another day he took us on what he called “a little outing to visit some friends.” It was meant to be a surprise, he said. He hooked Emma’s arm into his and led us to Nevsky Prospekt, where we boarded the no. 22 trolleybus. We travelled the length of the great boulevard, Belsky pointing out this and that along the way—the elegant frontages; the spaciousness of the street’s design; the historic stores; the cathedral that the Soviets turned into a museum of atheism; the brick-red caryatids holding up the Beloselsky-Belozersky Palace; the triumphant rearing horses on the Anichkov bridge (“one of them has Napoleon’s face where its cock should be,” he said. “We are a rude people”)—and at last we disembarked in the small plaza at the gates of the Alexander Nevsky monastery. He smiled and gestured at the cemetery walls. “Here,” he said. “Here are my friends. They may not say much, but they will have plenty to tell you if you let them.”

Souvenir kiosks lined the narrow lane between the two halves of the cemetery. Women in greasy headscarves muttered and crossed themselves; ancient men in bent felt hats and pee-stained pants made trembling cups of their hands. Belsky bought tickets, ushered us past the grim babushka in her booth, and entered the Tikhvin side. “Follow me,” said Belsky. “I want to show you something interesting. Almost all the graves here are of musicians, though it is here that you will also find Dostoyevsky, always the anomaly. He begged his wife not to bury him with his rival writers across the alley, so he ended up here with the musicians. They were the people he liked most anyway.”

He hurried us across the graveyard to St. Petersburg’s “mighty handful,” the Famous Five: Balakirev, Cui, Borodin, Mussorgsky, Rimsky-Korsakov. The morning sun was muted, not only by the high and close-set trees, the shrubbery, the dark, embracing walls. So much of old Russia’s musical glory was buried here that the place seemed veiled in a permanent, protective sorrow. “These are some of the living shadows,” said Belsky. “In their music you find the essence of Russia’s nature, its spirit, its soul. I am happy to call them my friends. They still have much to say. All you need do is listen.”

Belsky guided us to another memorial nearby, close to the wall. “Tchaikovsky,” he said. “Yes, the purists have their problems with his music, but there will always be elitists.” On the monument an angel spreads wide its big wings, lifting a great crucifix above the composer’s head. Below, another angel sits at rest, reading a musical score. Someone had tossed fresh flowers inside the low railing around the gravesite. Flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.

“The nationalist Five were bitter about his Westernisms, his musical eclecticism,” said Belsky. “That is why he is buried a little apart from them. But he is still one of our most celebrated adopted sons. Was it an accident that he contracted cholera from that unguarded glass of water or was it suicide? If some contemporary digger of dirt were to lift a trace of his DNA from beneath these stone angels, could we work it out? Would it make a difference? Wouldn’t you like to ask him?”

Emma looked up over her camera, caught my eye, raised an eyebrow. I gave her an almost imperceptible shrug. A lot of Russians of that era have an oddly touching mystical credulity that we in the West would consider almost naïve. He smiled and shook his head. “Anyway,” he said, “this is not the most interesting part. Come with me.”

We backtracked along narrow paths through the shaded glades to a more modest marker. No ornate carvings here, no flights of angels, no golden sheets of music. Only a restrained, classically-proportioned headstone with a plinth, set in grass, on which the simple details were inscribed. The plinth was surmounted by a platform bearing a marble pillar on top of which was a small urn.

            Marius Ivanovich Petipa. Balletmaster. And his dates: 1818-1910.

Marius Ivanovich Petipa, a Frenchman who never spoke much Russian, though he lived here for more than 60 years and became, well, to call him a ballet master hardly does the trick, even though we know that the Russian usage connotes far more creativity than the bland descriptor carries in English. Marius Ivanovich Petipa, one of the acknowledged fathers of “classical” ballet as the world knows it today: Sleeping Beauty, Swan Lake, La Bayadère, Don Quixote, Raymonda and the dozens of lesser-known things he did, things we rarely see, or only see fragments of.

“This man is part of the reason we are here,” I said.

“It gladdens my heart that you know that,” said Belsky.

Our visit to St. Petersburg had been deliberately timed to overlap with the opening of the season. K————- made sure Emma and I had seats for the full roster of ballet and opera openings in the front row of what was generally referred to as the royal box. (It wasn’t the royal box, I discovered later, but they were still the best seats in the house, in a splendid loge that rose three levels high in the centre of the auditorium’s great horseshoe.) I always took the seat closest to the left arch. If I ever caught myself drifting off—which did happen during some of the longer Russian operas, I confess—I would run a finger under the ledge and jab it against a little protruding nail that had not been hammered fully home when the pale blue velvet had been installed. Everyone in the audience wore their best clothes and the rouble equivalent of a dollar bought you the caviar and champagne special at the intermission bar. Emma and I got to know the bar-ladies well. As soon as the curtain fell we would scamper up the stairs and by the time we reached the top our glasses and little plates would be waiting.

It was late evening, at the end of a particularly successful performance of Raymonda by Yelena Z————-: a standing ovation from the whole house, rhythmic clapping for a dozen minutes, cascades of flowers, the usual, and all of it more than justified. The girl was a glory. I joined Belsky and K————- and a few others in her tiny dressing-room to congratulate her—more flowers, champagne, the exhausted, happy girl flopped in her loosened bodice on a stool with her back to the mirror, a puddle of grimy water from the dripping sink on the floor. Before I could help myself, I was on my knees before her, unlacing the ribbons at her ankles, easing her pointe shoes, still warm and damp, from her feet. She giggled. I blushed. Emma recorded the moment.

“Magnificent,” was all I could say. She smiled, reached into the bouquet beside her, plucked a blossom, pushed it into my lapel. “A souvenir,” she said.

“But that will fade,” said K————–, who was standing watching, his arms folded. His tone was dismissive. “Give him a shoe. That will be something to keep the memory fresh.” She wrinkled her nose as she picked up one of her shoes from the counter where I had placed it. The flat toe was torn and dirty from its contact with the stage. “You want this, really?” she said. “It will smell.”

“But I have had the privilege of watching you make magic in it on the stage,” I said. “It will always remind me of this night.”

She shrugged and handed the shoe to me. I stuffed it into my jacket pocket and kissed her hand in thanks. By now, more admirers were crowding into the tiny room clamouring for their fifteen seconds with the star of the moment. Belsky gave the girl a courteous farewell and made for the door. He beckoned for me to follow him. She gave me a smile over someone’s shoulder as I backed away.

“You are a romantic,” Belsky said. He turned to Emma, “Is he not a romantic? I have suspected as much. Come. Some friends and I are having a party. I think you will enjoy yourselves. Come.”

He led us through the labyrinth of wooden stairways and narrow passages below the backstage area. We passed one or two bundled-up costume folk and stage-hands as we hurried out of the theatre, but otherwise no one was about. The night air was cold and fresh. We hurried along the darkened streets—“I think I smell snow coming,” said Belsky—and I gripped Emma’s hand tightly as we turned into the familiar formal symmetries of Architect Rossi Street.

The academy building was dark. No light shone from the big studio windows and we heard no sounds of festivities. “You are having a party, here?” I asked, as Belsky unlocked the narrow wooden door.

“Patience,” he said. He ushered us up the worn stairs and along the darkened corridors to his study. Aha! I thought. Now I understand. He has invited some friends back to his private lair for a drink and a talk. Russians like these late-night get-togethers, solving the problems of the world over a bottle of vodka and a plate of pickled garlic. I had been at one or two myself.

But no. The room was dark and quiet. He turned on a pair of small lights, just enough to emphasize the salon’s sense of hushed antiquity. I could see from the antique clock under its glass crown on Peter’s desk that the time was late.

“I’m not sure I understand,” I said.

“Patience,” he said again. His tone was gentle, almost playful. “Here, come. A treat.” He stepped to the back of the room and put his hand on the latch of a heavy oak door that I had not noticed on our previous visit.

“One thing before we go.” He gestured at Emma’s camera, slung in its customary place over her shoulder. “No pictures. You can leave it here. It will be safe.”

I glanced at Emma. Her expression, a mix of nervousness and excitement, was one that I recognized as her response to the challenge of the unexpected. What it said about bravery and inquisitiveness overcoming reticence and doubt was part of why I cherished my time with her. She made us both bold. I could see her wanting to make a protest; I could also see her recognizing the need to acquiesce. At last she set her camera on a low marquetry table and straightened her shoulders as if to say very well, I accept your terms and I am ready.

Belsky nodded. “Now,” he repeated, beckoning. “Come and meet my friends.” We stepped to his side and he opened the door and ushered us through. Immediately we were enveloped in light and music. We were in an airy salon whose decoration proclaimed calm, prosperous elegance. At the centre of the room was a piano on whose polished ebony top rested a pair of candelabra. At the piano was a tall man with expressive eyes and a mid-size walrus moustache. He was playing a melody I thought I recognized. Several other men in semi-formal, old-fashioned dress stood around or leaned on the piano, listening in various states of attention. Three or four women in evening gowns were gathered at one side, gossiping in a low murmur. Wine was flowing. They all ignored us.

I looked at Emma. Emma looked at me. Where were we? Was this some kind of elaborate costume party? Belsky touched me on the arm.

“I told you I would take you to meet my friends,” he said. “And here they are.”

“But … I mean … it’s wonderfully done,” I stammered. “Masterful. And …”

“I can’t imagine the work that must have gone into the detail,” said Emma. “You must have some great costume people. And the actors …”

Belsky turned his sad grey eyes on hers.

“Ah, the actors,” he said. “My dear girl, go to the window. Look out. Tell me what you see. This is where the trolleybus took us only yesterday.”

Emma took my hand and we went to the casement, pushed aside the brocade curtain. Nevsky Prospekt: we recognized it easily enough—we were looking out from three floors above the street, up and along toward the great cathedral. But where were the traffic lights? Where were the trolley wires? Where were the trolleys, for that matter, and the cars, the hooting traffic? Wouldn’t those carts and carriages get in the way? And why was everyone dressed so … oddly?

It was altogether a triumph. “I have to compliment you on the trouble you’ve taken over all this,” I told Belsky when we rejoined him. “Do you perform it often? The sets—they must be expensive to maintain, or are they projections? I couldn’t tell.”

Belsky gave me a cool, appraising look. “Hmm,” he said. “Projections, you say.” He stroked his cheek. “Very well,” he said. “Come.”

He led us across the room. “Let me introduce you to Borodin. One of the kindest, most generous men you will ever encounter. A musician, yes, of course. But a scientist, too, a famous chemist. That is how he prefers to be thought of.” As we reached the small group he raised his voice: “Isn’t that so, Alexander Porfiryevich?”

The man at the piano turned to Belsky with a broad smile.

“Isn’t what so, my dear Igor?” he said.

“That you spend altogether too much time with your scientist friends and not enough time with us,” he said. “When do you find time to compose?”

Borodin laughed. There was a touch of the Asiatic about his features. “Not often enough,” he said. “For me, music is a relaxation. Some people go to the park on Sundays and paint. I go to my piano and compose. But what I really love, it is true, is science and what it can tell us. I also love the people it lets me meet. Respectable people do not write music.” He was teasing, the smile revealing rows of even, gleaming teeth and crinkling the corners of his eyes.

He turned suddenly to Emma and myself. “My apologies for my disgraceful lapse of hospitality,” he said. “You are the distinguished guests of our dear Igor Dmitrievich. Allow me to introduce my friends.” We did the circle of introductions—Cui! Balakirev! Rimsky-Korsakov! Mussorgsky! They were all there. I felt as if I’d been dealt an unassailable hand at poker—all five of the Might Handful! Of course! I was a stranger in paradise—that was the tune we’d been hearing! Belsky and his friends certainly knew how to give nuance to their elaborate joke.

Borodin turned to a dark-haired woman who had come up beside him. Her strong brow was partly obscured by her straight, falling locks. “And this is my beloved,” he said. “My dearest Ekaterina. We were brought together by fate.”

“You could almost call it Kismet,” I murmured. I was enjoying myself. This was the most splendid kind of immersive, interactive theatre. Ekaterina gave me a faint smile. Emma nudged me in the ribs.

“Ekaterina is one of the New Women,” Borodin said. “She believes in education for women, and we are going to set up a medical school for women. Then we shall see who is more equal.”

“This equality is all nonsense,” said the man who had been introduced as Mussorgsky. He had a red nose and a puffy face, with a straggly beard and uncombed reddish hair. The troupe obviously had a great hair and make-up team. He was holding a glass and swaying a little. “Women and men …” His words drifted off. People were trying to ignore him, the way people do when they are embarrassed by their friends.

“So what is this I hear of your latest discoveries?” the man who had been introduced as Rimsky-Korsakov asked Borodin. He had a substantial chin-beard but no side-whiskers, and wore wire-rimmed glasses. “We are in danger of eating ourselves to death?”

“We are in danger of that in any event,” said Borodin. “You are a naval man, you know how much food the human animal can stow away. But my group has discovered that there is a substance in the fat that collects around our hearts that we did not expect to be there. We call it cholesterol—a waxy substance that in moderation is we believe necessary for the body to function. But too much of it can clog the heart as effectively as clay can clog a drainpipe. This is something very useful to know.”

“And if we eat the wrong things we accumulate too much of it?”

“It certainly seems that way. But whether this discovery is of any importance, who can tell?”

Mussorgsky swept an arm theatrically around the room. “Music is what is important,” he said. “I too have had my fling with science. Even you and I, Alexander Porfiryevich, worked together in our youth at the military hospital.” He paused to take a long pull from his wineglass. “Yet today, all I do is write music. This room is filled with people who spend their lives writing music. Are we not respectable?”

“You save me from having to prove my point,” said Borodin. There was general laughter around the group, and the man who had been introduced as Balakirev, a man with what seemed like a permanent frown, turned to Belsky and muttered: “Mussorgsky is such a fool. He will drink himself to death if we’re not careful.”

“That melody you were playing,” said Rimsky-Korsakov. “What is it from?”

“It is from my new opera. The dance of the Polovtsian maidens.”

“Very charming,” said Rimsky-Korsakov. A crooked smile was unbalancing his long, thin face. “Very Asian. It is like a picture: I can see the young women of the village. Maybe I will write a picture of the bumblebees that flit around them …”

“Pah!” spluttered Mussorgsky. “You are all Sunday amateurs. Art is not for painting pictures or imitating bumblebees. Art should be a way to have a conversation with other members of the human race.” He held his glass out for more wine.

Borodin was serious for a moment. “You are right, my dear Modest Petrovich. I sometimes despair of those fashionable ones, sitting at the front of the boxes displaying their baubles, bangles and beads, just listening for the tunes. I wonder what they really experience.”

“People say your music speaks to them of the essence of Russia,” said Cui. He had a spade-like beard, big mutton-chop whiskers and wore a silver-buttoned military uniform. “Our folk tradition and the melodies of the East.”

Mussorgsky stirred again. “My nanny gave me a deep understanding of Russian tales. I have a great feeling for the soul of the common man. You can hear that in my music, everyone says so.”

“But that is precisely what I am trying to do with my opera.” Borodin’s tone was indulgent, warm. “Prince Igor, is he not the ideal Russian hero, someone we should remember and whose example we should follow?”

“How should we know?” said Rimsky-Korsakov. His deep, baritone voice had a calm, commanding quality. “Who can tell? You say you are writing this opera, but how many years has it been now, and how far along are you? I know people who have been born, grown up and married in the time you have been writing it.”

Borodin laughed. Nothing seemed to shake his good nature. “One day, God willing, it will be finished,” he said. “If not by me, then by someone else. Maybe even you, Nikolai Andreyevich. What do you say to that?”

Rimsky-Korsakov laughed. “God forbid that you should leave us before the work is complete,” he said. “But if you do, be sure to leave me enough of a foundation to build on.”

Abruptly Mussorgsky snatched at a bottle, drained whatever was left in it in a single draught, and threw it against the wall. People ducked as shards of glass scattered about the room. “This is not a laughing matter!” he bellowed. “You have an obligation to the people. To Russia. To our art …”

His rant soon descended into incomprehensibility, and the group began to break up. Belsky took my arm and moved Emma and me back toward the door through which we had entered.

“It is a shame,” he said. “But what can we do? He will go off to some tavern and drink until he is unconscious. He is a dear man, and sincere in what he believes, but his friends despair of ever getting him back. It is best if we go now.”

We nodded our uncertain farewells to the gathering and made our way back into Belsky’s glimmering study. He closed the door and gestured for us to sit on the big, maroon sofa. He took a high, upholstered armchair for himself; it made him look like the leader of a college tutorial.

“I don’t know how to thank you for that,” I said. “It was …”

“And please,” interrupted Emma, “thank the performers. They were quite brilliant. The way they managed to stay in character. I wish I had been able to take my camera with me …”

Belsky laughed. “I told you I would take you to meet my friends, and I did. Do you really think that was a show, a performance you could photograph?”

I had just noticed that the hands on the clock on his desk had not moved. Perhaps—I was still clinging desperately to the straw of reason—it was broken, or needed winding. I was flummoxed.

“But how do you explain …” I asked.

Belsky shook his head. “It is not something to be explained. On the other side of that door is another world—the old world, if you like. The world as it was. The memory of the world. Isn’t that what you are looking for? It is all there, if you pay attention.”

Emma caught my eye, gave me a little secret grimace, as if to say, in her bright and amused way, oops, what on earth have we managed to get ourselves into this time? But before we had a chance to make our excuses and leave, Belsky had opened the door again and we were … well, we were somewhere quite else in the St. Petersburg past.

In retrospect, of course, the whole experience seems like a dream. We went back through that door many times that night. Time seemed to collapse into itself. It was like living in a three-dimensional chess cube—you could be on a series of different planes at the same moment: wherever you wanted to be, you could be. Everything happened simultaneously, in the same instant, yet that instant stretched and inflated to seem like days, even weeks, even years long. Belsky was offering us carte blanche to be everywhere at once in a living pageant of the story of dance, music and literature in St. Petersburg. “I want you to see the old glories,” he said. “I want you to understand where it all came from. This is our past. We did things differently then.”

This did not mean that we were to be mere observers. He encouraged us to be fully in the moment. We listened and talked and argued and suggested, and the more we saw the bolder we became. The birth of The Nutcracker: yes, we were there; yes, we made a contribution—you remember the battling mice? That was Emma. Well, these things were easy for us, because with the benefit of foresight, everything is possible. And no, whatever you might be thinking, the Butterfly Effect didn’t apply. We didn’t change existing outcomes by our actions and suggestions, because the things we were involved with were things that were happening for the very first time. It was just that we already knew what they were going to look like.

Take something as minor as the name for the Nevsky Pickwickians. This was a group of precocious young school-friends who used to gather at the family apartment of one of their number, usually Alexander Benois, to lecture each other gravely, as only idealistic schoolboys can, on matters of philosophy and art. The evening we dropped in on them pride of place in the room was taken by a steaming samovar on a handsome oak stand. Distributed around in varying stages of languor and repose were a dozen young men in their late teens. They had a bit of the dandy about them, I thought. They looked like a smoking group in a university combination room, putting on aesthetic airs, doing their best to look nobly degenerate.

Standing at their centre was a hunched young man. He was peering around the room in a short-sighted way and tapping a small, brass bell for attention. Belsky nudged me: “Brilliant fellow,” he whispered. “Alexander Benois. Barely twenty, knows everything and everyone.”

“So we have all heard our friend Dima’s paper,” he said, nodding to the sallow, emaciated youth beside him. (“Dmitri Filosofov,” whispered Belsky. “Very young still, but a smart thinker.”) “The role of the artist in society—entertainer or educator? A rich topic, as he has shown. So who will start us? What do we think is our role as young artists of Russia? Do we have a responsibility to humanity? Or are we just a troupe of itinerant clowns?”

“The task of the young is to blaze new paths and destroy what went before,” someone said, revolutionary fervour in his voice. “That is true,” someone responded. “But before we can do that we must know what it is that we are destroying. Otherwise we shall simply repeat it.”

“That also is true,” said Benois. “But the trick, it seems to me, is to understand and respect the past, and at the same time explore new ground. I think of the music of Tchaikovsky, that exquisite new Queen of Spades we have all been so excited to hear—does he not preserve in sound the glories of old Russia, even more so of old Petersburg, yet at the same time make those glories new?”

“And yet,” said another, “what good is it only to us?” His apple-cheeked good health and sprightly demeanour contrasted oddly with the skinny pallor of the others in the room, “We are at a time in the story of nations where we should share our abundant riches—show the world what our artists have to say, and show our artists what else is happening in the world. This is the way of human progress and harmony.”

(“Serge Diaghilev,” whispered Belsky. “Filosofov’s cousin, which is probably why he’s here. Just up from the provinces, raw but very promising. Benois seems to be  taking him in hand, at least in terms of his aesthetic education. I don’t think such appreciation comes naturally to him, but he is learning fast.”)

“Quite so,” said Benois. “Always remembering, of course, that the primacy lies with our great and noble city, the city where shadows live. This is the mystery that Pushkin explores in his story, the mystery that Tchaikovsky understands with his whole soul. The world awaits, but what remains in the first rank is Petersburg—Petersburg über alles.”

A murmur of assent came from the gathering. It was all quite charming. Eagerness and sincerity rose from them in a perfumed cloud. They had so much about them that evoked Dickens at his most jovial and compassionate that I blurted out: “You sound like Mr. Pickwick and his friends.”

Benois turned to me with an inquiring look. “From Charles Dickens, you mean? The Englishman?”

“Precisely,” I said. “A group of inquisitive and good-humoured friends, eager to discover more about the habits and peculiarities of their world, who agree to go exploring and return to their beloved home share their discoveries.”

“The Pickwick Club,” said Benois. “The Pickwick papers. I know them. We have all read them. They locate the present in the past very charmingly.”

“We could call ourselves the Nevsky Pickwickians,” said Diaghilev.

“We already have a name,” Benois reminded him. “We are the Society for Self-Education.”

“Then we shall be the Society for Self-Education of Nevsky Pickwickians,” said Diaghilev. “Do I hear any objections?” He looked around the room. No one spoke. “Then it is settled,” he said. “We are the Nevsky Pickwickians. I like the sound of that.”

“The thing about Seryozha,” murmured Belsky beside me, “is that he doesn’t know much about art, but he knows how to organize.” He smiled. “When Benois has finished with him he is going to go far.”

“Indeed,” I said.

Backward and forward we went through that magic cube of history on that enchanted night and each encounter was as astonishing as the first. On one occasion, we found ourselves in a large, windowless salon, ornately gilded in the manner of Versailles and bathed in light and merriment. Men in late-Victorian evening dress or smart military attire were sipping champagne; women in silken gowns and extravagant coiffures were drinking tea, nibbling pink-iced cupcakes. Waitresses proffered little Limoges bowls of ice-cream laced with tiny berries. The walls were crowded with paintings and drawings of cityscapes and the pastoral countryside.

At the centre of it all was a small group gathered around …. but surely it couldn’t be? I swivelled my astonished gaze to Belsky. He nodded at my unspoken question. “Yes,” he whispered. “The tsar himself. This is his private salon at the theatre. Through there”—he indicated a curtained doorway—“is his private box beside the stage. Come and say hello.”

Hello? To the tsar of all the Russias? I grasped Emma’s hand and let Belsky steer us through the crowd. He waited patiently for the conversational lull that would let us in, then did the introductions.

“So,” said the tsar, “a writer, how splendid. Perhaps we can learn something. So tell us, how have you enjoyed this evening’s performance? A lot of steps this Frenchman gives us, did you not think?” He was whiskery and bluff and glittered with medals.

My stomach, already in turmoil, was trying to do handstands. I knew who the Frenchman was likely to have been, but what performance? I swallowed and spoke. “Indeed, your highness, a large number of steps. You could not be more perceptive. However …”

“I thought as much,” said the tsar, with evident satisfaction. “I do know my ballet, I will say that for myself. Now if you would just excuse me, I see our guest of honour is arriving. The star of the evening. I must greet her or she will think I am snubbing her.” He swept away, a couple of uniformed flunkeys in tow.

“Mathilda Kschessinska,” said  Belsky. “This is what you would call her fan club. You could even call it a club for her old lovers. A couple of grand dukes, some lesser noblemen, even the tsar, though that was some time ago. Of course, we can see even some genuine dance enthusiasts—those, that is, who have not already gone backstage in search of girls of their own.”

Kschessinska was not what someone from our era would immediately pick out as a star ballerina. She was plump, busty, short, almost dumpy. I thought she might even be a little bit pregnant. That would have accounted for the excessive protectiveness of one of the heavily decorated military men, though probably wouldn’t have done much for the impression she made on the stage. She had black, cunning eyes and she trained them exclusively on the eyes of whoever she was speaking to, as if that person were all that mattered to her in the world. It was a useful trick; men are so desperate for undivided female attention. Perhaps it was that, along with the promise of her voluptuousness, that drew admirers around her so thickly.

A small commotion was happening in a corner of the room. A jovial individual in a frock coat covered with medals and braid was brandishing a pair of champagne bottles and another in similar attire was waving a pair of ballet slippers above the assembled company. “We shall drink a toast to our beloved ballerina to show her our devotion,” brayed one. “We shall drink it from her very shoes.”

“The aristocracy can be very tiresome,” Belsky murmured beside me. “But it is important that you see them in their natural habitat. This is a ritual. Indeed, I think our guest of honour has come to expect it. Grown men, drinking champagne from her filthy shoe, imagine!”

Imagination was hardly necessary. The grand duke, or whoever he was, was going round the room with his bottles and pouring the wine into the shoes, and all the men were gamely sipping at the bubbles, keeping a wary eye alert to make sure the guest of honour noticed their obeisance.

Kschessinska watched the ritual with an appreciative simper on her face. The grand duke, a fresh bottle in hand, reached our small group. “I see you have brought your own receptacle,” he said, indicating the ballet slipper in my pocket. I had totally forgotten it was there. My precious moment after Raymonda in the theatre dressing-room was an age and a world away.

He tugged the pink ribbon, grasped the heel as the shoe emerged from my pocket and began to pour champagne into it. But before more than a few drops had left the bottle he stopped pouring and peered more closely at the shoe. He had a puzzled look.

The satin covering the front of the shoe’s squared toe-box was torn and grimy from the treatment it had been put through on the theatre stage only an hour or so previously, but that wasn’t what intrigued him. It was the shoe itself, with its leather sole and the stiff, unbending toe-box of layered glue, paper and plastic.

“Amazing,” he said, more to himself than to me. “I have never seen such an elegant finish, nor such materials. Where did you find this?”

I began to stammer, but Belsky jumped in quickly. “In the school we are experimenting with our shoes,” he said. “The more demands that our ballet masters put on our dancers the more their shoes must bear. This is one of a number of new designs we are testing.”

He took the shoe back and pushed it back into my pocket. “Certainly, it is not a fit vessel for your excellent champagne,” he said. “But if you could find us glasses, we would be more than happy to join the festivities.”

The grand duke moved away. Belsky drew me aside. “Perhaps it would be well for us to move along,” he said. And before the glasses could arrive the scene changed and we were in a dark, smoky cellar. Groups of men and women were sitting at small tables, drinking and smoking under the grimy brick vaults. The clientele was mixed, some wearing elegant evening dress, some casual and raffish. A pinch-faced man with gleaming hair and a multicoloured embroidered waistcoat was making loud, discordant noises on a piano, and people were having to shout to make themselves heard. Scattered here and there were people in a variety of disguises—a man in a top hat and the costume of a banana, a woman wedged into a box shaped like a coffin, a man entirely engulfed in a giant tuba. Three men in jester costumes were wheeling a trolley bearing a huge painted cardboard cake toward the centre of the room. Behind them came a balding, open-faced man in his mid-30s.

“Ah,” said Belsky, with a fond smile. “You never know what to expect at the Stray Dog. That’s Michel Fokine. He’s a playful fellow. I wonder what he has for us tonight.”

The prancing, posturing crowds around the tables parted and the trolley and its burden came to rest. Fokine stepped forward and raised his hand for quiet. ”Gentlemen, ladies, pharmacists and futurists, we present …”

“Not another Dying Swan!” someone shouted. There were cheers and indulgent laughter.

“Never again The Dying Swan,” cried Fokine. “That belongs to one alone. Tonight, we bring you its companion from the same menagerie, The Tortoise!”

One of the jesters put a match to a firework at the front of the cake, and in a cascade of coloured sparks the other two broke open the structure to reveal a tall, lithe dancer wearing a body-fitting costume in chequered brown and grey. There was a quick liveliness about her eyes. Her face, framed by dark curls, was open and alert.

“Karsavina, by all that’s holy!” breathed Belsky. “That should give the pharmacists their money’s-worth.” I still didn’t understand the references to pharmacists, but this was not the time to ask for an explanation.

The pianist, who had stopped his raucous clangour when Fokine arrived, now began to play a very different tune—a much-slowed-down version of the famous can-can—and Karsavina began to writhe and posture in syncopated slow motion timed to the thudding dirge. She was smiling, sometimes almost grimacing, as she danced, as if to say yes, this is me, but please don’t take us seriously, this is just a little bit of fun. The crowd screamed and laughed its approval, though one or two of the quieter, better-dressed observers tried to hush them into silence. By the time the music was over Karsavina had wiggled herself into a curled-up position on the floor. The jesters covered her with the remnants of the cardboard cake and solemnly wheeled the trolley out of the cellar to delighted applause and blasts from the tuba.

“I think we would have called that a happening, back in the day,” said Emma. She giggled. “Back in the day, indeed. Whatever next?”

Belsky nodded in the direction of the cellar stairway. Down it came a striking couple—a man in a handsome long coat and cravat, a woman whose severely short black hair emphasized the uncompromising directness of her thin, severe face. I thought she looked like the portraits I’d seen of Virginia Woolf.

“Anna Akhmatova,” murmured Belsky. “And her husband, Gumilov. She is often here, though I think she feels she is visiting the slums when she comes down those stairs. We are getting our treats tonight.”

Akhmatova and Gumilov were immediately the focus of the gathering and a space was quickly cleared for a small table for the couple. “Tell me,” I asked Belsky. “What is this place exactly—The Stray Dog, did you call it?”

“They say this is the place where every stray dog can have a home,” he said. “It is the place where revolutionaries in all the arts can be comfortable letting their imaginations fly free.”

“And the pharmacists, who are they?”

“T hey are the paying customers, the people who are not artists but who are curious to know what is at the forefront. Artists and writers get in for nothing. The pharmacists pay. They’re the ones who provide the wine. A small price for being at the centre of things, no?”

By now, Akhmatova had taken up a spot beneath a light at the centre of the room and the place was silent, I’d even say spellbound, as she began to recite a poem. I can’t possibly quote it now, but it had to do with how unhappy everyone was, how this “dungeon” was filled with “revellers and tarts” (I remember that phrase) heedlessly dancing our way to an unimaginable future.

Not much dancing seemed to be going on, and I wasn’t sure she was right about people’s unhappiness, either. Any sorrows seemed to be being drowned in a sea of wine and vodka and high spirits. But when she stopped briefly at our table to say hello to Belsky she was still pursuing her gloomy theme.

“I fear for Petersburg,” she said. “I fear for all Russia. I fear for this fragile new century. Soon the changes will come, and the war will be something we cannot imagine. Oh, what I would give, how I would be glad to suffer. I would even give up this precious gift of poetry, I would, if I could create the storm that would blow all this away.” Her dark eyes shone in her pale face.

I tried to reassure her, unconvincingly—I did know, after all, what was coming, more or less—but she would have none of it. “Mark my words,” she said. “You will hear thunder and remember me.” “And I will remember that she wanted storms,” I said. She examined my eyes carefully, seemed satisfied with what she saw, and turned away.

Belsky took us to lots more parties and receptions and artistic salons—partly, he explained, because that was where so much creative networking was done. He was particularly keen for us to drop in on one of the Friday night gatherings of young modernists at the apartment of a rich businessman, Lefky Zheverzheyev. He was a businessman, yes, said Belsky, one who had made his fortune in church vestments, but he was at heart an enthusiast for the theatrical avant garde and a collector of all things to do with modernism. The rooms above Grafsky Alley were a treasure-trove and—the researcher’s instincts getting the better of me—I was soon poring through his displays of theatre arcana and rare first editions and admiring his collection of paintings and posters.

It was here that we had one of the most intriguing of our encounters. During a reading of some poems that I found quite incomprehensible (“Khlebnikov,” whispered Belsky. “A lot of people think he’s just a dilettante, playing games with language. but the futurists think very highly of him”) I noticed that Emma was being eyed from across the room by a sad-eyed young man, maybe 20 or so. He seemed to be trying hard to look like a Romantic poet, though his habit of sniffing, which revealed his front teeth, detracted from the effect. “Be careful,” whispered Belsky. “They called him The Rat at the school, and not only because of those teeth. He’s very keen on the ladies.”

I raised my eyebrows. Frankly, he didn’t look the sort. “That lovely girl over there?” said Belsky. He indicated a young woman seated in a wing chair by the fireplace. “She was 15 when he married her, already a beautiful dancer. He was 18. Just a year ago. Her father’s the one who runs these salons. There, look, by the window, the tall one with the long hair and the side parting. The Rat does his hair the same way, do you notice?’

As he was speaking, the man he called The Rat was making his way across the room toward us. Emma was his target. He took her hand in his, kissed her fingertips. “I am Georges,” he said. “From Georgia. I study ballet and adore the body beautiful. Ballet is woman. Woman is the world. Man is … well, I must think about that. Maybe we could discuss it together. You could teach me many secret things. I would like to get to know you better.”

Emma giggled.

“I’m sure you would,” I said, pushing myself into a more prominent position beside her. “But she’s with me. And we’re from a place where we do these things differently.” I might have sounded more huffy than I meant to be. Having your wife propositioned by the young George Balanchine didn’t happen every day.

“With you, with me, with someone else, who cares?” he said, giving me a contemptuous look. “No one owns anyone, I don’t care who you are.”

He turned again to Emma. “If you want,” he said, “I’ll be exquisitely tender, not a man but a cloud in trousers.”

Emma’s renewed giggle was perhaps not what he had expected. “A cloud in trousers,” she spluttered. “Now there’s an interesting image.”

Belsky leaned to whisper in my ear. “He’s quoting Mayakovsky. He’s crazy about him, like so many of our young folk. They’ll grow out of it. But they think his words work a magic spell on the girls.”

Plainly it wasn’t having the desired effect on Emma. Discomfited by her laughter, The Rat made a low bow, kissed her fingers again and left us, turning his back on me with a flourish as he did so. “He’s quite talented, actually,” said Belsky. “Dancer, pianist … he even runs an odd sort of orchestra, using kitchen utensils for instruments. He orchestrated the overture of Carmen to be played on combs. This gang”—he gestured at the assembled company—“adore him.”

The last place we visited was, for me, perhaps the most memorable. We were back with Benois and Diaghilev, but the year was much later than when we had first met. Benois seemed already to have become an old man before his time, bald, bearded, hunched over the table, steel-rimmed spectacles across his nose. Diaghilev had blossomed. He was only a couple of years younger than his mentor, but they could have come from different generations. He was a hale and booming presence.

They were looking over some of Benois’ illustrations for their new magazine, The World of Art. Several others were at the table with them. It looked like the kind of editorial board meeting I had attended in my early days as a journalist, though here the centre of the table was dominated not by a speaker-phone but by a tray of drinks of various kinds. Everyone had a glass on the go. It seemed to be the Russian style.

Benois was insisting that it was their duty to restore the image of his beloved St. Petersburg by filling the magazine with illustrated articles on the beauty and grace of the city’s architecture and learned discourses from the leading intellectuals on its history and unique significance. Gogol and Dostoevsky had cast the city in a misleading light, all gloom and foreboding. It was time to establish an understanding of Petersburg as the true fountainhead of Russian culture. Only then could the magazine fulfil its potential and become the influential, nay essential means of documenting and advancing the Russian arts—“painting, writing, theatre, music, the ballet, yes, but equally the applied arts: ceramics, porcelain, book design …”

“And so it should be, exactly, yes,” said an excited, slim man with paint-stained fingers. His dark eyes seemed incandescent in his ruddy face. “We will print designs for our craftsmen to follow …”

(“Leon Bakst,” murmured Belsky. “Very involved in the magazine—drew the design that goes on every cover, very attached to Diaghilev—this is a close team.”)

Diaghilev was agreeing with Benois—“and we will support these articles with wonderful art displays in galleries”—but arguing at the same time (and Benois was nodding vigorously as he spoke) for a broader vision for the magazine that included examination of the work of the leading artists and thinkers of Europe. “We must help the artists of Russia break free of our Russian constraints,” he said. “We are at the turn of the century, and Europe is alive with fresh thought, it is a revolution almost. I have seen it for myself. The academy is in flight! Klimt in Vienna, Gauguin in France, the writings of Nietsche, the great operas of Wagner that knit music and drama and design into a mighty new form … oh, Shura, we have so much to listen to and look at and learn from and tell our people about. The world is in tumult, and the artists—our artists, the world’s artists—are showing the way to a new tomorrow that will establish the creative mind at the forefront of the world’s societies. We are no longer the decorators of life; we are the makers and builders.” And on he went in like vein and full flood, until others at the table—I recognized the mild and balding Fokine from the Stray Dog—began to cough and look at their hands.

It was fascinating to see how Diaghilev’s thinking had thrived and expanded under Benois’ tutoring. One theme that kept floating to the surface of his non-stop outpouring was the need to “share Russia’s riches with the world, just as we in Russia share the world’s riches.” It reminded me of his attitudes when we had first encountered him as a bumptious, up-from-the-country unsophisticate.

“What you say makes great sense,” said a slim, even skinny woman at the table. She was dressed entirely in white. Her long blonde hair fell far below her shoulders. She had been examining Benois’ illustrations through an ostentatious lorgnette, turning the glass occasionally on those around her. “You will recall that my husband has been calling for the same thing.” She favoured the room with an enigmatic smile.

(“Zinaida Gippius,” whispered Belsky. “Poet, poseuse. She and her husband run a very influential late-night salon for the decadents.”)

“He has made it more than clear,” said Benois. He was irritated. “We should be aping the modernists of France. Personally I am also entirely in favour of new approaches to making art, but we must be judicious in our choice of influence. Merely because someone’s work is branded avant garde does not mean that it is of lasting value.”

“Even so,” she responded calmly, “it is sometimes worth rocking the ship to tip whatever is insecure and unstable overboard.”

This barbed little exchange seemed to enliven the group considerably and Diaghilev took the opportunity to return to his argument that some kind of meaningful two-way exchange needed to be instituted. “I am a charlatan and an ignoramus, that I know,” he said. “Everyone in this room”—he glanced in our direction and gave a shrug—“is a greater artist than me. I have few principles and I will take advantage of anyone if it suits my purposes. But I also believe in doing all in my power to support the artists I believe in. In return”—he turned to Bakst, a fond smile on his big lips—“your duty is to astonish me. And in that way we will together astonish the world.”

“And so you shall,” said Emma. It came out before she had a chance to think about it, and it earned her curious looks. “What I mean is …” Emma caught my eye. She straightened up, cleared her throat, earned a little time to collect her thoughts. “Perhaps you should show some Russian art abroad,” she said. “Paris, perhaps. It is a city of great influence. You are such experts, you would know exactly what to take to make the greatest impression.” It was a good recovery. Buttering up the uncertain; it gives them confidence.

“This is a thought I have been coming to myself,” said Diaghilev. “I have never felt that my talents were being best used at the imperial theatres”—(“Translation: he was fired,” whispered Belsky)—“and am more and more attracted to the idea of sending a selection of new Russian art to the capitals of Europe, a selection of my own devising, entirely free of the interfering fingers of bureaucracy and favouritism.”

“Of our own devising,” said Benois. “Though I sometimes wonder how much freedom we can expect to have. We will take modernist Russia to Europe, and Europe will be amazed, but we will know in our hearts that the choices—the directions, the inclinations, the aesthetics—will be made not by us but by our city, the stern and glorious Petersburg. Petersburg über alles.”

“So in that case tell me,” said Gippius, turning her green, shining eyes on Benois. “Will we be emissaries or emigrés?” He did not answer. She looked around the table triumphantly, rose to her commanding height, and swept from the room.


I will always be grateful to Belsky for taking us back to old St. Petersburg that night, if that was what he did. He never spoke about the experience. It was as if none of it had ever happened. When we went to his study to say goodbye on the day we left St. Petersburg to come home, the wall in which the doorway had been was covered by a large mahogany bookcase. And since he died in 1999, at the age of 74, it is unfortunately impossible for an independent investigator to verify with him the details of the story I have told.

But certain things are certifiably true. Borodin and his colleagues are credited with being among the first members of the medical profession to link cholesterol and heart disease. Borodin’s music was used as the inspiration for parts of the musical Kismet and his name was included in the list of creators when the show won a Tony award in 1954, though Borodin, who died in 1887, was not awarded a Tony himself. Mussorgsky did drink himself to death. You can see the madness and defiance in his eyes in the portrait Ilya Repin painted of him a few days before he died. (For some strange reason the Russian authorities put that portrait on Mussorgsky’s commemorative postage stamp, perhaps to show that the artistic community, while tolerated and even superficially venerated, is intrinsically discreditable.) The Tortoise section from Saint-Saens’ Carnival of the Animals does feature the famous can-can music, the galop infernal from Offenbach’s Orpheus in the Underworld, but it is taken at the speed of a funeral march. Serge Diaghilev did institute a Russian season in Paris, which led to the creation of the Ballets Russes and some of the twentieth century’s most influential innovations in the fields of music, dance and the visual arts. The Nevsky Pickwickians did exist, as did the Stray Dog Cafe. Mayakovsky wrote a much-quoted poem called The Cloud in Trousers.

Beyond these easily verifiable facts, I don’t judge you for mocking me. We live in a sceptical and ironic age. But faith in something that cannot be verified by what we call reality can be profoundly enriching. Even the concept we call time can collapse on itself. How often have we, wanting to prolong a pleasure, bewailed its passing (o temps, suspends ton vol), or, wishing away a physical or emotional wound, lamented time’s slow progression? Yet it is the same. We didn’t invent time, but we did invent ways to measure it, and now we are stuck with them. But time functions in more forms than the simple linear fashion we are familiar with.

From the standpoint of the professional biographer, of course, it is hard to evaluate these experiences and encounters, and even harder to incorporate them into the work I do. Did they give me a more profound understanding of the essence of what I was writing about? Belsky obviously believed they would. I certainly became more sympathetic to my topic—sympathetic in the sense of understanding more of the human dynamics involved and (this is important) the influence both of the city itself and of the social conditions of the time on people and events. We (by which I mean biographers, historians, critics) all try to bring that kind of insight into the approach we take to our topics, as if putting on someone else’s abandoned overcoat will let us understand what they felt when they got caught in the rain. But that has limits: the limits of our imaginations, and the limits of what we actually know about the conditions in which they wore the overcoat. Being there, under whatever improbable circumstance, bestows immediacy. Whether that is enough is an interesting question. Where does knowledge make the jump into wisdom? Is it in fact necessary not to be present in order to understand properly what went on?

As to the question of being able as a biographer to incorporate what Belsky showed us into my story, this I am pretty sure about. Primary research is a sacred thing, and not only in the world of the academy. Even journalists acknowledge the need for at least two independent sources before they will print what they know. And there is no way in the world, no way at all, that our story could hope to be accepted as primary research. Yes, we have two witnesses—Emma and myself—who might be prepared to swear to the veracity of the claims. But (a) they are related, which effectively reduces them to a single witness, (b) they have not a scrap of verifiable evidence to support their story (the ballet shoe, which sits on a shelf in my bookcase, is only evidence of my possible presence at a performance), and (c) what on earth were they smoking/drinking/thinking at the alleged time? In a court of law in any country, and even more certainly in the court of the academy, any claims to veracity—even in the age of internet gossip—would be dismissed out of hand for lack of corroboration.

In the end we—Emma and I, I mean—are left with what we know. And what we know is that nothing is ever entirely what it seems. Many great works of art would be quite different today if there had been only the slightest modification in the artist’s approach: the blink of an eye, a slight turn in a conversation, the unheeding word of a critic or a friend, a change in the light. Better or worse, these alternative works, who can say? We should enjoy them for what they seem to be to us now. They are living things, slippery fish.

© MAX WYMAN 2016


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