New life for smuggled Siberian stories
Political prisoners, intrepid smugglers and a boy’s coming of age in a magical and monumental landscape – writer Sara Harris explores the context for Siberia landing on our doorstep.
A vibrant and original theatrical experience The House of the Siberian Seasons is being staged in St Leonards from 19–23 August. Timed to coincide with the 25th anniversary of the Moscow coup d’état that prompted the beginning of the end of the Soviet regime in 1991, the production is a magical, sensory interpretation of a book by a little-known Soviet writer.
Early 1980s Britain was a time of huge contrasts and tensions. Unemployment soared beyond two million while, thanks to a new little policy called right to buy, council house tenants ventured into property ownership. In the city money flowed, while south of the river, Brixton blazed as racial tensions erupted. The cold war cast its nuclear shadow across the country prompting women to leave their homes and set up camp around a certain Berkshire air force base. The Clash and The Specials reflected the bleak mood of the disaffected while working class girls and boys escaped from reality in a Bowie-inspired pseudo-romantic club world.
While Britain was going through its own turbulence, on the other side of Europe a different, and arguably far more dangerous, set of tensions existed. In the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, political activists and writers campaigning for freedom of expression were enduring a sixth decade of censorship and suppression. Those who spoke out against the political regime – writers, poets, journalists, artists – were imprisoned and often expelled.
Writer Alexander Solzhenitsyn may have been the poster boy for Soviet dissonance in the West but there were other lesser-known USSR writers who were creating equally valuable work under similar restrictive and often life-threatening circumstances.
One such writer was Leonid Borodin
Born in Irkutsk, Siberia in 1939, Leonid Ivanovich Borodin was a Russian Orthodox Christian. He joined the anti-Communist All-Russian Social-Christian Union for the Liberation of the People in the 1960s and in 1967 was arrested and imprisoned in Camp 17, one of hundreds of forced labour camps scattered across the USSR.
These camps were operated by the Gulag – the acronym for a government agency the Main Administration of Corrective Labour Camps. Instigated in 1919, the number of Gulag camps surged during the Stalinist era fuelled by a strategy of agricultural collectivisation. The people who were sent to the camps, however, were the victims of Stalin’s purges – resistant peasants, out of favour communist party members, suspected saboteurs and traitors and dissident intellectuals – along with ordinary criminals and during World War II, German and other prisoners of war. It is estimated that at their height, the camps housed around five million people.
Life in a Gulag camp was exceptionally harsh. For up to 14 hours a day, prisoners were forced to undertake exhausting work in often extreme and inhospitable conditions – felling trees with handsaws and axes, digging at the frozen ground with primitive pick-axes to build roads and canals or mining copper or gold, also by hand. Exhausted and barely fed, the prisoners suffered illness and disease and many died. Inevitably, the numbers are sketchy but through to 1956 it is estimated that anything between 15 and 30 million died in the camps.
Following Stalin’s death, camp numbers dwindled and many were dismantled. But still they continued, through the 1960s, 70s and early 1980s, to be used to isolate and punish those, like Borodin, who simply wanted their voice to be heard.
During Borodin’s imprisonment in Camp 17 he penned a story. The story he wrote was discovered by the Gulag authorities and was duly confiscated and destroyed. Following his release from the camp in 1973 Borodin moved into a mountain hut in the heart of Siberia. There he lived a simple solitary life, absorbing himself in the surrounding landscape and changing seasons. And during his time in the hut Borodin wrote, once more, the story that had previously been destroyed.
The story Borodin re-created was an ode to his Siberian birthplace and an allegory of his time in the Gulag camps. Siberia may conjure up notions of wilderness, isolation, the biting cold, a lonely and harsh existence and for their millions who suffered within the Gulag camps this was a very real experience.
However, in Borodin’s story, Siberia is revealed as a very different world. An astonishing world of beauty, mystery, myth and legend. A world of spring meadows and summer light, autumn warmth and winter magic. A place where fragrant wild rosemary and cedars cling to the mountains erupting from glacial Lake Baikal, the oldest lake in the world. Borodin’s tale follows a boy as he explores and discovers this world, making friends and discoveries along the way. It is a coming of age story, blurring adventure with fairy-tale, myth with reality. Swallows and Amazons in a monumental and magical landscape setting. The writing is lyrical, poetical and mesmerising.
Borodin had his story. But, in the pre-internet age and under a paralysing regime, the question remained, how could his story reach an audience? Across Europe, a loose network of organisations and alliances opposed to the Soviet region had developed. Spear-headed by émigré intellectuals who had either escaped from or been exiled from their homeland, their cause attracted political activists – from liberal Christians and artists fighting for religious and artistic freedoms to anti-communists attempting to topple the Soviet state from without. The motives of the members of this loose collective may have varied hugely but the mix of Christians, atheists, left, right, Soviets and Westerners combined to create an organisation whose aim was to ensure the words of Borodin, Solzhenitsyn and their contemporaries were not left languishing, hidden in boxes and draws behind the Iron Curtain.
While the borders of the Soviet Union at the time were heavily marshalled, certain Westerners were allowed to travel to the region. And it was under the guise of student excursions and business trips that members of the underground support network entered Russia. Once in the country, they secretly made contact with dissident groups. They handed over uncensored mail and anti-Communist literature and were passed stories, articles and poems written by the dissidents. Once in the clutches of the courier, the works were smuggled out of the country. The operations were dangerous and those who undertook them did so at great personal risk.
It was through such a smuggling operation that Leonid Borodin’s ode to Siberia made its way to Frankfurt. Here the printers Possev–Verlag published it in 1981 as God Chuda I Pechali. Copies of the book were distributed through the network and, crucially, smuggled once more by the brave and ingenious couriers, back into the USSR for onward distribution.
Borodin’s story had finally reached an audience
Back in Britain, in a seemingly ordinary house on a seemingly ordinary South London street a family went about their seemingly ordinary day to day lives. But behind closed doors, their lives were anything but ordinary. Russian émigrés Boris and Kira Miller were members of the network of groups and alliances who supported writers such as Borodin. Boris worked full-time for the Counter-revolutionary National Alliance of Russian Solidarists and the family helped orchestrate book smuggling in and out of Russia. They recruited couriers and their house became a distribution point for the smuggled works, its rooms filled floor to ceiling with towers of censored Russian books, including Borodin’s Siberian story.
In 1982 Borodin was arrested again on charges of ‘anti-Soviet propaganda’. This time he was sent to the ITK6 camp in Perm-36 in the forested Ural Mountains close to the Siberian border. The camp comprised 4 barracks holding 1000 prisoners, a special treatment detention block, outhouses and a headquarters building. Borodin was sentenced to ten years in the camp with five years in exile to follow. The special treatment detention block was a notorious camp used to house political prisoners and it was here that Borodin remained, locked up with just an hour’s fresh air in the iron-clad small courtyard outside. In later life Borodin said ‘Even if I had survived in the cell during the ten years, I would have died in exile for sure. Political criminals were sent to such awful places. In 1985 I was sitting in one cell with the outstanding Ukrainian poet Vasil Stus. Soon he was transferred into an individual cell where he died. Details of his death are not known up until now. But I know for sure that it was in exile after the first term that Vasil’s health was undermined. So I was doomed to die.’
Borodin had first written his ode to Siberia during his first incarceration in the Camp 17 labour camp. In 1984, while Borodin was a year into his second prison term, this time in ITK6 camp, that same story was translated into English by Jennifer Bradshaw and published as The Year of Miracle and Grief by London-based independent Quartet Books.
It was the transformational period in the Soviet Union of the late 1980s known as ‘perestroika’ or reformation and an accompanying amnesty introduced for political prisoners by Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev that resulted in Borodin’s early release from the Gulag camp in 1987. Gorbachev’s perestroika had been prompted by economic challenges and the recognition that a new forward-thinking economic and political system was needed. The parallel rise of popular fronts such as Poland’s Solidarity earlier in the decade and nationalist movements across states from Latvia to Armenia contributed to the timing of this mammoth political shift. Gorbachev survived an attempted coup d’état between 19th and 21st August 1991 which instigated the rapid dissolution of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. On the 24th August Moldova was the first state to gain independence and over the next four months others followed.
After his early release in 1987 Borodin and his wife were given permission to travel to the West. They headed to London and once there made their way to the home of a seemingly ordinary family in a seemingly ordinary house on a seemingly ordinary South London street.
Composer, conductor and musician Vladimir Miller, Boris and Kira Miller’s son, smiles as he remembers his first encounter with Borodin. ‘Bizarrely, I was the person who first introduced Leonid to a Chinese takeaway.’
On the 26th December 1991 the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics officially ceased to exist and freedoms to protest, to criticise, to worship and, crucially, to write were fully restored.
And so to 2016…
Twenty-five years after the dissolution of the USSR, St Leonards-based arts collective Explore the Arch are celebrating the cultural liberation of the former Soviet block countries through a magical theatrical interpretation of Leonid Borodin’s Siberian ode The Year of Miracle and Grief.
The House of the Siberian Seasons is being staged at Archer Lodge, a beautiful Victorian villa on a residential road. Audiences will be invited into a unique, relaxed and welcoming domestic setting – very different to the environment of a conventional theatre or gallery.
Entering through a reimagining of Borodin’s Siberian mountain hut the audience will then step inside the house – and straight into the pages of the story Borodin penned in that hut.
Reflecting the steep mountainsides rising from Lake Baikal, actors will nimbly scale the interior walls of the house. The boy of the story and the friends he made, will be brought to life by puppets fashioned from ribbons of text. The rooms, corridors, nooks and crannies of the house will be transformed with giant floor to ceiling pages of text. And original soundscapes – composed and performed by Vladimir Miller in what will be a hugely personal project given his family’s direct connection with Borodin – will reflect the landscape, drama, lyricism and rhythm of the book.
In such an intimate space, the obvious terrifying question arises. Will audiences be called to ‘participate’ in the production?
‘No!’ says actor Fiona Hardy. ‘We encourage our audiences to respond to the work – but this simply involves, for example, quietly writing thoughts on walls or adding to an installation. It’s not obligatory and it’s not something people have to do overtly or publicly. They are invited to volunteer, if they feel like it, their personal reflections and perspectives on what they see, hear, feel and are inspired by during their experience.’
Unlike events in the previous Explore the Arch season where audiences freely wandered around the space, dipping in and out of different performances and installations, The House of the Siberian Seasons will be a led experience of around an hour. Theatre maker Gail Borrow says the format will change little in the performer/viewer relationship. ‘Given The House of the Siberian Seasons is a based on a single story with a beginning, middle and end, it makes sense to guide the audience in this instance. But that guidance will be relaxed and informal and will allow people to pause, explore and absorb the diverse range of work at a leisurely pace.’
Gail readily recognises the inherent problems with celebrating this historical cultural liberation in the present day. ‘Current relations with Russia are obviously strained and mainstream media reporting in the county is often patchy or confusing. The cold war period has been superseded by a different set of concerns over conflict and the end of communism may not be viewed by all in or outside the former Soviet Union as a positive move. At Explore the Arch we’re drawn to exploring cultural themes which have challenges attached. It makes the work more interesting and prompts dialogue, discussion and debate.’
ExploreTheArch’s April production of The House of St George – an embracing and diverse reclamation of English culture – is another example of this willingness of the collective to tackle often uncomfortable and fluid themes. Just three months after the production, in a post-Brexit world, their artistic and literary perspective on Englishness takes on a different meaning and poignancy.
The House of the Siberian Seasons is part of an ExploreTheArch Hidden Books season celebrating censured, often little-known or forgotten 20th century writers and their work.
Gail says, ‘We are extremely excited about the forthcoming season and can’t wait for the first production. What’s great is that The House of the Siberian Seasons will work on all sorts of levels. So whether you’re interested in Russian culture, literature or social history or looking for an imaginative and entertaining way to amuse the kids amused this summer, it will be an exciting and fascinating experience for all’.
The House of the Siberian Seasons runs from 19–23 August at 14.30 and 19.30
at Archer Lodge, Charles Road, St Leonards-on-Sea TN38 0QX.
Tickets are £10 per person and children go free.
To order a copy of The Year of Miracle and Grief visit quartetbooks or purchase a copy at the event.
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