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.


SnoopyTheGoon said...

Mothers in law - yeah, there is that. And more. Mine, though, used to whip up a 7 course dinner from a potato, a carrot and a piece of old sausage. Chops-licking experience.

Gorilla Bananas said...

So the Belaruskies are Russian lapdogs, are they? I find than quite admirable in a way. It's like a man who isn't worried that people will think he's gay because he wears make-up. Your friend should have said he'd danced with Raisa.

Kevin Musgrove said...

Belarussia always puzzled us at school. We felt we should know Minsk, but not how or why, and couldn't get our heads round the fact that every part of the Russian empire bigger than a football pitch issued its own stamps in 1920 but Belorussia never got round to it.

We finally decided that CCCP invented Belorussia to make up the numbers in a cribbage tournament.

Gadjo Dilo said...

It's pathetic, I only knew about Minsk from Risk board game, and then from Alexei Sayle's rant "yeah, Alexei's a f*****g great name if you live in a suburb of Minsk, but not if you live in Anfield, Liverpool" (it goes on, hilariously, and I cannot do it justice....) Phonetically, it sounds a rather nice place.

Unknown said...

Can you rent mother-in-laws for social functions. I don't have one and they do sound both a bit spicy in their unexpected conversational highlights and handy in the kitchen department. That sounds just the ticket for my upcoming scrabble party

Anonymous said...

What do you get in a Belarussian submarine?

Five men and three parachutes.

Ms Scarlet said...

Kevin, sweetheart, you know about 'Minsk' because Minsk was a Womble.

I still stumble and fall over a lot, I've still got to learn how to glide . . .

M C Ward said...


(This is the Brazilian version of ha ha ha, signifying risos (titters)).

Alistair Coleman said...

Wendy: Take my mother-in-law. Please.

(Follows several hours of Mother-in-Law jokes with no apologies)

Mrs Boyo said...

Boyo is trying to fix Mossy, our car, who has started to make the sort of noise that elicits online petitions.

This process involves repairing to the Black Horse in Checkendon with "Geoff", a retired mechanic with a German accent, duelling scars, exaggerated reverence for your Queen and a detailed knowledge of wartime Warsaw.

In his absence I have decided to lay at least your minds to rest.

I am delighted, Mr Goon, that your mother-in-law rivals mine in her frugality and imagination. Mother of Boyo can take fresh, fragrant vegetables and herbs, firm tubers and succulent meats, and steam them until even a dog would fail to tell the difference from Pedigree Chum.

Messrs Bananas, Musgrove and Dilo: the Belarussians are the slow learners of the Slavonic family. We Little Russians understood many decades ago that the trick is to omit the -Russian suffix if you want people to think you're not Russian. We now call ourselves Ukrainians, and everyone thinks we're fine fellows.

::wendy:: - only Belarussians punctuate their names in such a manner. Are your of Grodnovian stock? It is pleasing to find a resident of Reading who is not somehow involved in computer-programming, intimate services or drink-related felony. I look forward to exchanging tips on shopping and deconstruction.

Scarlet. "Minsk was a Womble". Along with "Rhythm is a Dancer", I think that only makes sense as the parole of one of Europe's more inept security services. Explain, please.

Ms Scarlet said...

Erm . . . actually Minsk might not have been a Womble . . . but he should have been. Thomsk was definitely a womble.
Wombles are from Wimbledon and they collect litter. Wombles are named after cities and countries. The BBC made a documentary about them; Kevin's probably going to watch it this weekend.

Anonymous said...

Surpringly on-topic, for number of reasons: The difference in meaning between the Russian word "druzhina" and the Ukrainoian wod "druzhyna" (which is written the same in Cyrillic, but transliterated to Latin differently for the benefit of the "y" and "h" loving Ukrainians) has always entertained me somewhat

Can Bass 1 said...

I had one of them once; never again!

Mrs Pouncer said...

Boyo, I am a bit pissed, but may I speak?
I AM a mother-in-law. Where was I recently saying all this? Gadjo's? I have 3 sons-in-law (the Australian, the alcoholic and the Argentinian) and of all of them I would only shag the Argentinian and so would Daphne.
Hopefully this puts it all into perspective. Love you xxx

Unknown said...

Before my fathers Naturalisation incident his ethnic origin was Karjala, a wee bit north of Belarus. It explains many things.

I'm already involved in intimate drunken computer services by ay ofshopping online at home after a couple of real ales. I think I've avoided the programmed felony part, though, of course, its difficult to be quite sure.

I do love the smell of deconstruction in the morning, anything involving modern posts is quite fascinating. Lets do it!

Mrs Pouncer said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Mrs Pouncer said...

Sorry. Hammered. I withdraw and retract everything.

Ms Scarlet said...

Was 'The Wombles' on-topic? What is the topic?

SnoopyTheGoon said...

Off topic: Congratulations, NGB, with being profiled on Norm's place. And of course, to Mrs Boyo for keeping NGB nourished and warmed for the duration.

SnoopyTheGoon said...

Oh, and re Ilf and Petrov - cool. I usually don't even try to mention them to English-speakers.

xerxes said...

My own m-i-l claims to be Bessarabian, but is really Polish. I've never understood the point of that.

No Good Boyo said...

I amble off for a day of discussing exhausts and skull-types with an over-friendly neighbour and return to find ignorance, sloth, drunkeness and Madame Boyo running amok on my blogk.

Ven, you've picked up on one of the many causes of misunderstandings between the saintly Cossack nation and those trolls to the east.

Likewise, I'm always impressed by the fact that the Polish words for "remember" and "forget" are the opposite to the Russian ones.

The Communist-era Polish fashion magazine "Uroda" ("Beauty") was very popular in Russia, where it means "child deformed from birth".

Inkspot, welcome - and thanks for the introduction to your pithy web blog. Bessarabia is as much a state of mind as a place, and Poles tend to claim everything as their own. For geographical amusement set a Pole and a Georgian down together over a map of eastern Europe and ask them to draw their borders.

Snoop, many thanks. Being normblogged is, as you know, the Desert Island Discs of bloggening. Sweet. Madame Boyo is still laughing, by the way.

Ilf and Petrov would appeal to the English if they were translated and published properly. In the meantime there's the Mel Brooks version of Twelve Chairs. My parents-in-law like it, so it's passed the Politburo test.

Daphne Wayne-Bough said...

This is uncanny. Not only have I stumbled upon a bunch of bloggers in Reading, a town close to my heart for family reasons, but most of them have Eastern European connections, it is almost as if it was meant to be.

I visited Minsk, during the hot summer of 2001. I found it a sad place, with a marked absence of children. It was explained to me that because of Chernobyl nobody wanted to risk having a deformed child. The people were charming, if sadly undernourished. There was a spanking new bowling alley with expensive cars parked outside. We spent a whole afternoon bowling as there was nothing else to do. Only three restaurants safe to eat in, all owned by the mafia and next door to each other.

Warsaw in the early noughties was full of Belarussians, mostly market traders, or gardeners. I believe there are even more now, plumbers and carpenters and electricians, since the Polish talent has buggered off to places like Reading.

What goes around, comes around.

I once danced with the Nigerian presidential candidate who was later imprisoned and died in custody. I know how that mother in law feels.

No Good Boyo said...

Truly uncanny. Minsk has an odd, Moscow circa 1988 feel about it. People take the bus in from provincial towns to buy Minsk cakes. Gives you an idea of what the rest of the country is like.

Mrs Pouncer said...

Daphne, why is Reading close to your heart? Oh, please tell us! My beleaguered old grandparents arrived in this country from the Fatherland in the dark days, which admittedly doesn't make me as Eastern as most of the Berkshire contingent, but in the right direction. What are the chances? I mean, really?

Gadjo Dilo said...

I used to know a German chap in Reading, Mrs Pouncer: name of Matheus, tall, earns oodles of money in computer, and works out a bit too. Is he one of your family by any chance?

Mrs Pouncer said...

Gadjie, no, but ..... tall ..... rich ....... works out AND we share a common tongue? Got any contact details?