Kiwi writers explore the Russian experience

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Russia’s decision to sanction 32 more Kiwis this week does not reflect the long-standing relationship between the two countries. The use of sanctions against individuals on this scale – New Zealand has hundreds on its list of banned Russians – is a relatively new diplomatic tool.

The mayors, columnists and others on the latest list were not members of the diplomatic corps, civil service or government, as is usually the case; they had supported or criticized Russia’s February 24 invasion of Ukraine.

It is a new twist with historical ties which, in the 20e century began with the formation of the Communist Party of New Zealand in 1921 following the Bolshevik Revolution. It was initially part of the Australian Party and became an autonomous branch of the Comintern in 1928.

While party ideology and membership remained a minority faction in the labor movement and academia, its political influence was enough for the wartime Labor government to open a legation in Moscow in 1943.

It was one of the few overseas posts in the fledgling Foreign Service, of which there were three in the United States, including one at the UN in New York. Moscow’s presence did not survive the onset of the Cold War, with the national government closing it in 1950, only for Labor to reinstate it as an embassy in 1973.

Mindovsky House, built in 1903, was the New Zealand Embassy in Moscow from 1973 to 2015.

Public interest in the Soviet Union from the 1930s had overcome the “Russophobic” invasion fears that were a feature of the late 19e century. But – with no economic relationship except for a brief Ladas-for-butter deal – ties were limited to “friendship” societies and cultural events.

New Zealand diplomat Gerald McGhie, a former ambassador to Russia, noted that the Foreign Office had learned little from its 40 years of running the Moscow post. (His account is included in an authoritative collection of essays listed in recommended reading below.)

Radical change

The post-Soviet era of the 1990s produced sea change, with Russia opening its borders to foreign travelers and the promise of economic prosperity bringing democratic reforms. This has proven elusive, at least for Russia and most parts of the former Soviet Union except those closest to Europe.

Last week, as a warm-up for a daunting new 850-page biography of Vladimir Putin, I turned to insights from two New Zealand novelists who set stories in the Soviet Union and Russia.

Sarah Quigley in Berlin.

by Sarah Quigley The driver (2011) is a fictional account of an event that has spawned a dozen or more books, including two recent non-fiction titles. This is the work of composer Dmitri Shostakovich Seventh Symphonywhich it began during the siege of Leningrad which lasted from 1941 to 1944, and which was performed there on August 9, 1942, as a moral reminder and a symbol of defiance against the Nazi invaders.

The microfilmed score was also smuggled to the West where it was performed in New York a few weeks earlier for the same purpose. At the time, Shostakovich was considered one of the world’s greatest living composers. At 75 minutes, and Shostakovich was finicky in his instructions to conductors, the symphony was also one of the longest.

Quigley, who lives in Berlin and has published five other novels, focuses his attention on a small group from the Leningrad musical fraternity. The title refers to the conductor of the second string of the city radio, who remained in the besieged city after the relocation of the Philharmonic to Siberia.

“The conductor” Karl Eliasberg at the concert in Leningrad on August 9, 1942.

Midway through composition and several months after the siege, Shostakovich and his family were evacuated from Leningrad to the safety of Kuibyshev (now Samara), where the symphony was first performed on March 5, 1942.

Varied interpretations

Its importance in the history of music has long been debated, with interpretations ranging from Stalin’s own view to its reception in the West. Although Quigley provides the reader with some technical details, it is his vivid characterizations, his descriptions of the siege’s human toll, and the desperation of its emaciated citizens that stand out.

I will spare readers the terrible conditions under which the Radio Orchestra prepared its concert, which was broadcast live and also heard from loudspeakers all over the city. Clever conversations occur throughout the novel, like a musician noting the paradoxes and contradictions affecting the lives of all Russians, including Shostakovich himself.

“Think of the music that would never have been written if he hadn’t been willing to compromise. Taking cover when needed, strutting when commanded, and holding the line of demarcation between integrity and common sense.

As the city was battered daily by German bombers and food was reduced to soggy bread made from wheat found dumped in the water, Shostakovich continued his work.

“Anything composed in response to such extreme circumstances is a complex thing… It’s miraculous to compose a symphonic work of this magnitude in the midst of such an ordeal,” says another colleague.

Reading this today, you can’t help but think of the defeated Ukraine and the irony of the Russians behind it.

Rosetta Allan in St. Petersburg during her writer’s residency.

by Rosetta Allan Unreliable people (2019) is also based on real events, although the story and characters are fictional.

It is set in three time periods, the first being 1937, when thousands of ethnic Koreans were deported from Eastern Siberia to Central Asia, where they were ordered to continue their rice cultivation in arid lands.

Work ethic

Faced with the expansion of the Japanese empire, Stalin was wary of these “unreliable people”, because the Koryo saram (Koreans) were known. But their work ethic enabled the survivors of the “ghost trains” – so called because of the deaths involved – to build thriving communities of some 500,000 people, which today are spread across seven of the former Soviet republics.

The second period is 1974, when a child Koryo saram is abducted from her home in Kazakhstan and taken by train to Vladivostok. But the kidnapper, who turns out to be his aunt, changes his mind along the way and sends the child back.

The last period is the mid-1990s, when the girl is an arts academy student immersed in the post-perestroika era of Russian youth exploiting their freedoms like their Western counterparts. This includes experimentation in artistic expression as well as in their private lives.

Allan weaves his small cast of characters into a story with embellishments that are the hallmark of modern creative writing classes. These include ancient Korean legends and dances, sex trafficking and radiation-warped baby orphanages, nonconformist art installations, and a non-binary person who claims to be the result of a sibling merger. -sister in the womb.

Unlike Quigley’s linear narrative, with dialogue between conventional quotes, Allan writes in reported speech, laden with descriptive similes that add little to an intriguing narrative that overcomes its reliance on coincidence.

These flourishes are based on extensive research, including the author’s three weeks in Russia as New Zealand’s first writer at the St Petersburg Art Residence, which is in a building that also houses the Center for Nonconformist Art.

Her time did not include the ability to master the language, although it inspired her to write poetry. You’ll learn a lot about the layout and features of the town that Quigley can afford to ignore. Allan wrote separately that she planned to return. It is a hope that must remain in suspense, not only for Allan but for all the others for whom Russia exerts a strong fascination.

Disclosure: Nevil Gibson traveled to Moscow and Vladivostok for a week as a government guest reporter in September 1990. The following year, Mikhail Gorbachev announced the dissolution of the Soviet Union.

The driverby Sarah Quigley (Vintage).
Unreliable peopleby Rosetta Allan (Penguin).

Recommended reading:
Lenin’s Legacy Down Under: The Cold War in New Zealandedited by Alexander Trapeznik and Aaron Fox (Otago University Press, 2004).
Leningrad: siege and symphonyBrian Moynahan (2014).
Symphony for the City of the DeadM. T. Anderson (2017).


Nevil Gibson is a former editor for NBR. He has contributed film and book reviews to various publications.

This is content provided and not paid for by NBR.

Contact the author: [email protected]

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