Wednesday, October 01, 2008
I danced with the Tsar
Fellow-sufferers Gyppo Byard and Gadjo Dilo have recounted the horrors that mothers-in-law can always surprise you with, and I'm sure they have far more in store. I will recall the first meeting with my own mother-in-law, Bela, at a later date. Here I present the true story of Mikhas', quondam editor of Belarus magazine.
I spent a delightful couple of years prior to the collapse of the Soviet Union shuttling between London and Minsk in a quest to make money out of Belarus. "Guid tank country" was my Caledonian colleague "Shuggy" MacLeod's laconic account of that country, a radioactive swamp dotted with dazed peasants who bumble about in ill-fitting clothes and gas-fuelled buses waiting for the Russians to come back and make them miss the Poles all over again.
I frittered away the funds of my then employers while enjoying the company of ballerinas, models, artists and war veterans. Among the many random people whose homes I cuckooed in at uncertain hours of the evening was Mikhas'.
Soviet-era Belarus was as much of an enigma wrapped up in a waste of time as it is now. My then boss still gasps at the Belarusian Tourism Board's plan to market not their own malarial parade-ground but rather 1980s Cambodia as a holiday destination, with flights via Minsk's impenetrable airport. "Sun, sea and genocide?!?" he had yelled at the officials as I translated. "So, but perhaps not the last element," responded a turtle-faced berry-picker in a cardboard suit.
One evening we had dinner at home with Mikhas'. His wife Lyuda was an official interpreter, and between them they made up the entire Belarusian pro-Gorbachev camp. Most other intellectuals did nothing to counter one historian's remark that the entire Belarusian national movement in 1920 could have fitted on one modest sofa. The only change since that was that the latest generation of patriots could barely stay upright on any item of furniture for long enough to make their point.
Mikhas' edited Belarus, a magazine doomed from the start by being published in Belarusian - the cheeriest but least-spoken tongue in the whole country. It's difficult not to love a language that calls the railways "chyhunka", birds "ptushki" and your good lady wife a "zhonka".
The magazine was twice cursed by trying to promote the Third Way of Soviet reform in a country that either liked being kicked in the head while being lectured about The (Second) Great Patriotic War or else wanted to be an independent mini-Poland and top of the European Rickets League.
Mikhas' had just come back from a conference in Moscow, during which he had been received at the Kremlin by President Gorbachev himself. The Heir to Lenin was clearly a micro-manager, as he had found time to assure Mikhas' that his 60 unread monthly pages of articles about bison grass and how all the famous Poles were really just shy Belarusians was the key to promoting prudent financial management, local democracy and general sobriety on the western borders of the Unbreakable Union of Free Republics.
Our host was recounting this to our general bemusement when his mother-in-law walked in. She had been ferrying bowls of cabbage from the stove for half-an-hour with the eerie glide that old ladies perfect. Mikhas' decided she ought not to miss out on his good news, and declared "Did you hear that, Mama? I met the president yesterday!"
"That's very nice, Misha," she replied, bearing a tureen of spent offal back into the kitchen. "But then I danced with the Tsar."
We spent a good 10 minutes watching Mikhas's crest fall before the good lady rejoined us with a tray of traditional gunpowder nuts and turpentine schapps. She sat down and told us the story.
"I was a debutante in Mogilev in 1916, and we were all excited that the Tsar was coming to our New Year Ball. His military train had been based nearby for much of the War. He arrived, as promised, and I nearly fainted when he cut in and asked me to dance. I remember that his eyes were pale blue, watery and kind, and his beard smelled very strongly of tobacco. " He said nothing. At the end of the dance he bowed with a smile, and walked off."
Into history. Within weeks the February Revolution had cost Tsar Nicholas his throne, and in little over a year he and his family were murdered by their Bolshevik captors.
Mikhas's mother-in-law had kept her genteel origins quiet, and somehow survived civil war, Stalin, starvation and Hitler. Mikhas' may have felt upstaged, but her readiness to tell the story that evening was a tribute to the efforts that he and other Gorbachevians had made to let some light into the dank cellar of Soviet society.
And, like all mothers-in-law, she had the last word.