December 2005 - January 2006


Feeling frisky

By Robert Dessaix
Feeling frisky
Everywhere is anywhere when you travel these days, whether it's invasions or gardening shows.

The first thing I did in my Vladivostok hotel room while waiting for hot water to reach the seventh floor – which it never did, not in five days, although I understand they were wallowing in hot baths twice a day on the fourth – was to turn on the TV. Just a few minutes of commercials, soapies and the latest news in some exotic tongue, I find, and you know you’re somewhere thrillingly foreign. Actually you know you’re somewhere foreign, if not quite thrillingly, from the moment you board your Vladivostok Air flight in Seoul, despite the flat Australian voice telling you what to do, if you can be bothered, in the event of an emergency. For many foreigners, taking a Babyflot flight, as they’re called, is emergency enough in itself.

The image that first flashed onto the TV screen that evening was of Peter Cundall, the lovable talking garden gnome from Gardening Australia, throwing blood and bone about and enthusing as only he can about broad beans. I was aghast. CNN in Vladivostok is one thing; one expects CNN to appear on TV screens in hotel rooms wherever one is, except possibly in Pyongyang, but Peter Cundall was another matter entirely. I did not want to be whisked back to Tasmania the moment I arrived in Vladivostok.

After all, Vladivostok had been part of my dreaming, a key strand in my psychological make-up, since early childhood. The snaps my father showed me of Vladivostok – taken, I imagine, about 1918 – are the first photographs I can remember looking at. Small, square, yellowing photographs curling at the edges ... hills, old houses, ships at anchor. They planted a seed – several seeds – in my lush, childish mind. Over the years they burgeoned into the conviction that I must leave home and see the world like my father, and not just the places comfortably-off aunts sent us postcards from, not just London or Rome or, on some madly adventurous fling, Cairo and the pyramids, but forbidden places as well. (And Vladivostok, being a naval base, was forbidden territory until only a decade ago – officially, that is, “forbidden” being the actual Russian word that was used.) Those yellowing photographs – at least, I think they were yellowing, but then everything from one’s childhood is slightly sepia-tinted at my age – also implanted in me the desire to go to Russia. Irrationally, even foolishly, but they did.

And I went, many times, but never to Siberia or the Far East. And now there I was. The Bolshevik Revolution that had reached the Pacific a few years after my father sailed into Vladivostok’s Golden Horn inlet was reduced to a cluster of exhibits in the local museum; my father the merchant seaman was an increasingly fuzzy memory; and the little boy who had dreamt zigzaggingly of being adventurous was now a sedate middle-aged man. But there I was. In Vladivostok. Nowadays, I thought to myself, reaching over to switch off Peter Cundall, everywhere is just anywhere. Even Vladivostok. It takes a tremendous effort of the will now, it takes imagination and a ferreting knowledge of history, to turn what the eye sees into a richly layered, living city, to understand (and perhaps love) what the city surrounding you alludes to. Would I be up to the task?

The phone rang – goodness me, they were quick off the mark – and a silky female voice in cultured, almost 19thcentury Russian, enquired if I was desirous of spending time with some young ladies that evening. In the plural. I’m not sure how she ever managed to drum up any business at the Hotel Vladivostok over the telephone – there were garishly dressed young ladies trawling up and down the corridor outside my door all night. But “batting for the other team” was not an expression my caller seemed familiar with, so she tried again the next night, and the next night, and the night after that.

In fact, Vladivostok wasn’t just anywhere, I discovered. It’s not the Russian San Francisco, as Nikita Khrushchev declared it would be, although it is magnificently sited on a hilly peninsula between two vast bays, dotted with forested islands, and it has trams. It’s itself – a slightly down-at-heel provincial port at the end of the Trans-Siberian Railway, nine hours flying time from Moscow. And although its hills are these days covered in a post-Bauhaus nightmare of grim-faced apartment blocks, the centre of town, down beside the Golden Horn near the station, has a kind of smile on its face. It may have been painted on a little crookedly perhaps, but on a sunny morning in early autumn it had a certain charm.

The old buildings (well, not so very old: the peninsula was first settled by Russians in 1860) – the banks, hotels, offices and apartment blocks, now being carefully restored, as well as the magnificent terminus of the Trans-Siberian Railway – are elegant examples of 19th-century neoclassicism with some modernist touches. Cream, dove-blue, pale green, apricot, white. Strolling along the tree-lined streets past all the new cafes, upmarket clothing shops and computer outlets, I could almost have been (except for the computers) in some Mediterranean port city still waiting for its ship to come in, half a century ago.

It’s not the architecture or the lack of modern appurtenances that make me say “half a century ago”: it’s the mysterious sparseness of the downtown areas of many Russian provincial cities, and Vladivostok is no exception. It doesn’t feel like a city more than half the size of Brisbane. It feels more like Townsville. It does, however, have that slightly frisky edge that port cities have all over the world.

Its reputation is less for friskiness, though, than for outright corruption, violence and skulduggery on an unequalled scale in post-Soviet Russia – which is saying something. Is this why in the main bookshop in the town centre the biggest section is Crime? A bit of feng shui, a cookery book or two, a couple of shelves of American pulp fiction, and then acres of Crime. “You see nobody out there on the street?” my driver asked as we drove from the airport into town the first night. “That’s because they know better. Take a bus, take a taxi – don’t walk.” I walked. Late on a Sunday night I walked through the middle of the city with a couple of women friends and was attacked by no one more alarming than a gaggle of Scientologists, handing out pamphlets. It’s Dianetics now, apparently, not dialectical materialism. Still, to be fair, three slightly dowdy diners well past their prime were always unlikely to be a target for international smuggling rings. Serious muggers were probably loitering outside the many casinos and nightclubs. In any case, we’d just had dinner in an underground restaurant set up in an old NKVD torture chamber. Violence and skulduggery were nothing new in the Wild East.

The midnight Scientologists were no surprise. The New Age is coming into luxuriant flower all over Russia, I’m told. For decades Russians were forced to stick to the highways of scientific rationalism, and it was a pretty grim march, so people are understandably curious nowadays about all the intriguing byways of human thinking that were for so long closed off to them. There’s even a new curiosity about the old animist beliefs and rituals of the peoples who once lived beyond the Urals – and still do, although in dwindling numbers. As dotty as Dianetics, some might say, but shamanism is unquestionably venerable. The Japanese are still practising it with spellbinding panache in their Shinto shrines just across the water.

Not much else from the millennia before the Russians arrived seems to have survived. In the museums – and Russians love their museums, they love tidy tableaux of how it once was: a paleolithic campsite, a Tungus house, a governor’s ball – there are sometimes small displays of hunters hunting, say, or a tribal housewife, elaborately costumed, sitting vacantly in her tribal kitchen. But everyone I met seemed pretty vague about who and what was here before the Russians arrived. Just tribes.

Russians, like Australians in their own country until recently, still seem strangely comfortable with the idea of taking over Siberia and the Far Eastern territories. They have a word, appearing boldly on museum labels everywhere I went, to describe the process we might now call “invasion”. It’s osvoyenie and it means simply to make something your own, to master it – it might be a new DVD player or it might be Siberia. In fact, my Russian– English dictionary merrily translates osvoyenie krainego severa as “the opening up of the far north”. Who could object to a bit of opening up? The Cossacks, generals, explorers and traders who opened up this part of the world are still unequivocally heroes. That’s the trouble with the Chechens, you see, a friend explained to me beside the memorial to locals who had died in the war in Chechnya (Russians, not Chechens). Give them back their country and you never know where it will end. Next thing you know the Buryats, Yakuts and God knows who else will want their lands back too.

On my last day in Vladivostok I visited a little museum devoted to the life of a celebrated Far Eastern explorer, Vladimir Arsenyev. I looked at photographs, letters he’d written, the table he’d written them on, his typewriter, his gramophone, the tent he’d slept in on his expeditions around the Far East – the usual odds and ends you get in museums set up in the houses of famous people. Quite often he’d travel with a native companion, so I asked the guide if he spoke any of the local languages. “Oh, yes,” she said, without a trace of embarrassment, “he spoke all of them. They’re so primitive, you see – no problem at all for someone as brilliant as Arsenyev to master.”

“Tasmania – yes, I’ve been there.” My new friend was a slightly inebriated middle-aged man called Igor who had insisted I join him and his pal Boris at their table in the Cosy Cabin Bar on the fourth floor (the one with plenty of hot water). “I’m an ethnologist,” he went on, “so I’ve seen all those pygmies and crocodiles of yours in Tasmania – very interesting.” It was already a very Russian sort of conversation. “What do you do?”

“I’m a writer.”

“Do you have any great writers in Australia?”

“Well,” I said, “without wanting to get too postmodern about what ‘great’ means, yes, we have ... well, we had Patrick White, for instance.” I’d thought of mentioning David Malouf or Helen Garner but decided against it, under the circumstances.

“Never heard of him,” said Igor, quaffing an alarming amount of vodka from his glass in one gulp. “Have you, Borya?” Boris hadn’t heard of White either. “You see, the trouble with your country is that there are no great Australians. Can you name any great Australians?”

Donald Bradman clearly wouldn’t do. Nor would Kylie Minogue. “Well ...” I began, hoping a suitable name would pop into my head, but my mind was a blank. Surely someone in our history had been great.

“In Russia, on the other hand, we have lots of great writers, great poets, great scientists and great ethnographers. My grandfather was a prince, by the way. Do you have princes?”

“No,” I said, “not as such.” Should I mention Our Mary in Copenhagen?

“This used to be a great country,” Igor went on, with Boris nodding sagely on the sidelines. “A very great country. A mighty country. And now it’s all in ruins. Now I have to get a visa to visit my own brother in Kiev.”

At this point he fell sound asleep and slumped sideways at a dangerous angle in his chair. Boris pulled him upright, murmuring tenderly in his ear.

“The most powerful nation on earth,” Igor said suddenly, returning in a burst of lucidity directly to the fray.

“You can’t say that about Australia.”

“No, you can’t,” I agreed. “But do you think you’re happier now than before ...?”

“The collapse? No. What is there to feel happier about? We are no longer powerful and I have to get a visa to visit my own brother in Kiev.”

I was about to mention the now abundant supply of good food, the fashionable clothes available, the mobile phones, the affordable Japanese cars (traffic jams here are worse than in Rome), the trips to Japan and Korea (and theoretically to Tasmania), when Igor’s attention switched abruptly to the honey-coloured cleavage of the waitress bending over him with the bill. I murmured something apologetic and made a break for it.

“Mister!” he called out as I headed out the door. “Give me your email address. I want to stay in touch.”

Hastily scrawling [email protected] on a damp napkin, I made for the lift.

Like the waitress with the honey-coloured breasts, all the young women on the streets of Vladivostok are beautiful. It strikes you immediately. They all have shining hair and flawless complexions, they are all svelte, they are all dressed to kill. The Americans at the conference I was attending couldn’t believe their eyes. Where are all the dumpy ones, they kept asking, the sea cows in XXXL T-shirts? Where indeed were the merely plain? The young men, too – and almost everyone on the streets of Vladivostok is young – seemed to have stepped from the pages not so much of gq as some male sports magazine with a slight homoerotic whiff to it: shavenheaded, angular, wasp-waisted, perfect, like hard-hearted angels. They were almost bow-legged with virility.

And where for that matter were the crones and soursmelling old men in grubby overcoats of Soviet times? At home in the suburbs, mouldering away in those vast estates of high-rise flats? They certainly weren’t visible on the streets. I only ventured into the suburbs once, catching a bus to a shopping mall, but they weren’t there either. The mall looked like Fountain Gate.

Everyone in Vladivostok, without exception, was talking on a mobile phone. Even in Korea only half the population is talking on a mobile at any given moment, while here everybody had one clamped to his or her ear all the time. According to the statistics and judging by the state of the streets, grid-locked with traffic at peak hour, half the population also now has a car. (Japanese, of course. To drive a Russian car is to risk jeers and catcalls from other motorists.) The new status symbol, on sale, it seemed, in every second shop, is the laptop. Computers – well, who doesn’t have a computer? Yes, a new laptop might cost you half a year’s salary if you’re a teacher or civil servant on $4,000 a year, but anyone who’s anyone must have one. In terms of consumer technology, at least, Vladivostok could be ... well, anywhere.

“Veneer” is the word that comes to mind when I think about what I saw in Russia. I don’t say it with a sneer – it’s perfectly understandable. This word seemed particularly appropriate in Irkutsk, the old Paris of Siberia, 3,000 kilometres to the north-west of Vladivostok, close to the Mongolian border. Too close, some would hint darkly – all over town the abandoned factories and half-finished buildings were swarming, it seemed, with illegal immigrants from China, Vietnam and Mongolia, engaged mostly in nefarious activities better left unspecified.

From its beginnings as a wooden fortress on the Angara River in the mid-17th century, Irkutsk grew into an opulent hub of empire. It was in the handsome mansions and government offices of Irkutsk, not in distant St Petersburg, that the osvoyenie of the Pacific territories and ultimately Alaska – even the colonisation of California – was planned; it was in the lavish churches of Irkutsk that prayers for the success of these missions were offered; from Irkutsk that settlers spread out across the taiga to hunt, mine, trade and plough the land. In some ways Irkutsk became Russia’s Mexico City or Lima, the capital of the motherland’s far-flung dominions. The city’s coat-of-arms showed a running tiger with a sable in its mouth – “bloodthirsty, strong and ferocious”, as one chronicler proudly described it.

The veneer of modernity bamboozles the senses, though, blinding you to both the real Irkutsk of today and the dreamcity underpinning it. Wandering its streets and squares – only in the daylight, just to be on the safe side – I could barely make out the phantom Irkutsk, what Lawrence Durrell (writing about Alexandria) called “the spiritual city underlying the temporal one”. In the city centre, for instance, on the banks of the Angara, as you stroll along Karl Marx or Lenin Streets – there’s even still a Dzerzhinsky Street, named after the head of the secret police – the lethal traffic, the displays of plasma TV sets and Armani fashions, the advertisements for holidays in Thailand and the political activists pamphleteering on street corners dull the resonances we might have hoped to pick up of the old “capital” of the new territories. The neoclassical and Siberian baroque buildings, even a handful of churches, are still there but strangely mute. Avenues that might easily, in a soft light, have blossomed into a rue de la Paix or a boulevard des Italiens are merely cacophonous bazaars. The dream-city has become commonplace.

And in behind the elegant old banks and town-houses of the rich, before you get to the serried ranks of Sovietera apartment blocks, there is another, unvarnished Irkutsk: street after street of sunken, wooden houses, without running water or sewerage, inhabited, I presume, by those too old to be bothered moving or too poor to pay the astronomical post-Soviet rents. They’re oddly picturesque in a gloomy, Siberian sort of way, especially the ones with lace-like fretted woodwork around the windows. You can imagine gaunt political exiles, freed from labour in the mines, huddling around the stove in one of these lopsided houses a century and a half ago, eating watery soup. Europe in those days was two months away by post-chaise. It still feels a long way away.

Your better class of exile, such as the Decembrist, Prince Volkonsky, could call on wealthy relatives back in St Petersburg to build them something more befitting their station. His elegant wooden mansion on a backstreet near the river (which I finally got into after an altercation with a gang of urchins) became a glittering cultural hub in Irkutsk in the mid-19th century: soirees, masked balls, banquets, theatrical performances, concerts by visiting artists from France and Germany, all easily imagined as you stroll through the spacious, exquisitely furnished rooms – alone, in my case, as I always was in Irkutsk’s museums. Attendants followed me around turning out the lights as I passed from room to room. It was disconcerting.

An hour’s spectacular drive away, through red and gold forests of birch and larch, I sat by Lake Baikal reading a salacious French novel, lifting my eyes occasionally to contemplate the snow-capped mountains on the opposite shore and all that I had seen in Vladivostok and Irkutsk. It was neither summer, the season for boating and swimming, nor winter, when skiers arrive from all over Russia and beyond, so I was almost alone in the modern hotel above the lake. I was alone in the vast dining room that smelt strongly of fish and ice-cream, alone on my walks along the lake, and almost alone in the museum by the shore, where I inspected stuffed seals, wolves and wolverines as well as bizarre creatures from the lake swimming in glass tanks. Company was possible, but I left the note in my room suggesting I ring a certain number “to talk about having fun” for someone more adventurous to follow up on. Coming down in the lift on the last morning, the only other passenger, a young man with the regulation shaven skull, startled me by asking: “What are you so sad about?”

I didn’t actually feel sad. A little melancholy, perhaps, or wistful, but not sad. I did feel that something about Russia that I’d once loved, something remarkable, was fading away, like a muffled melody, drowned out by the familiar, the international everyday. It’s what we all wanted, of course, in the old days, all hoped for: Russia plus democracy and technology and shops with full shelves. But now it’s here, we don’t love it any more. Eros has fled. It’s tempting to see it as a shabby version of home. Somewhere has become anywhere.

It hasn’t really – I know that – and it never will. It is still a country where a stranger in a lift can suddenly say to you, “What are you so sad about?”, flinging you into a whirlpool of memories and half-remembered stories – tsars, battles, poems, novels, icons, cupolas, loves, madnesses – and kaleidoscopic conversations. One day I’ll make my way back there to unearth the “spiritual city” that lies – I know it does – beneath the commonplace.

Robert Dessaix
Robert Dessaix is a novelist, essayist and journalist. He is the author of A Mother’s Disgrace, Corfu and Twilight of Love.

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