What two Canadian Artists saw in Russia
Fred Varley and Eric Aldwinckle, whisked almost overnight from their Toronto studios to Moscow as guests of Soviet culture, were almost killed by zeal and generosity. The Russians gave them everything—except a chance to rest or to smile
IN THE SPRING of this year, chance inserted into the quiet lives of two eminent Canadian artists an incredible month. Fred Varley, 73, a foremost Canadian painter and a founder of the legendary Group of Seven, and Eric Aldwinckle, member of a younger generation of Canadian art ists, were whisked through a kaleidoscopic tour of Moscow, the semi-tropical Russia of Georgia and the Black Sea, and Leningrad. They were shown the treasures of the Kremlin; they quarrelled over the meaning of art with the men who dictate what Russians must appreciate. They returned exhausted in body and bewildered in mind.
The sketches Varley and Aldwinckle made in Russia, many of which are reproduced in these pages, are probably unique. Certainly they are the only Canadian artists ever to set up their easels at the very gates of the Kremlin and sketch for three hours without interference (albeit with surveillance).
Equally interesting are the impressions the two men brought back. It is unlikely that two such Westerners have roamed through Communism’s heartland in the era of the Iron Curtain and the Cold War. Varley, totally immersed in art for more than half a century, is an unworldly, puckish man with a keen eye and a sharp opinion in matters
More story, sketches next 4 pages
of form and design and color, but, by his own admission, almost totally uninterested in sociology and politics. Aldwinckle, somewhat more worldly, confesses an equal lack of interest in politics and describes himself as “active only in the creative arts and a strong believer that art is the universal language.”
The two artists, by their own account, went to Russia neit her as friends nor as enemies; they asked no penetrating questions about subjects outside of art, attached no predetermined or preconditioned significance to what they saw, heard and experienced. They feel that their reports on Russia are as unbiased as if they had been exploring an unknown planet.
“In fact,” Aldwinckle said, “after living among the
“Moscow was thousands of tiny black figures surging about”
Russians for a time, I began to feel I was in another world. It was impossible to conceive that these people were motivated by the same emotions, standards and ethics as we are. I know no more today about what goes on inside a Russian than I knew before I went.”
Amid the welter of Varley’s memories one extraordinary scene stands out . . . two Russian painters working on the same canvas, “painting under, around and over each other like a team of contortionists,” yet using techniques so identical that not even a veteran artist like Varley could tell where the work of one began and the other left off.
In a Leningrad art school where st udents are taught en masse, the standard of excellence amazed Varley.
“Never among all my hundreds of pupils have I seen work so fluent and competent,” said Varley, “yet their finished work is dead and meaningless because both their subject matter and their techniques are dictated from above.”
Aldwinckle observed the same incongruity. “I watched students making sketches for their paintings,” he said, “wonderfully free and eloquent heads, for example. But when t hose heads were transferred to the final canvas, all that was left was competence —the freedom and eloquence were gone.” Communism, Aldwinckle finally concluded after pondering the mystery at length, “forces good artists to do bad work.”
“The subway is a shrine and a palace of the Russian worker”
Both Varley and Aldwinckle share the recollection of living for nearly a month under a regimen planned to the last detail, of being inexorably taken to see people who didn’t particularly want to see them, of being inexorably taken to visit places they didn’t particularly want to visit, of sitting down to enormous preplanned meals t hree times a day whether t hey were hungry or not, of being with people who only rarely, for brief unguarded moments, became human beings as the Canadians understood the term, of being subjected to an endless round of close-fitting activities which finally put both to bed, ill and exhausted - and of returning home each with the thought, “I wouldn’t have missed it for the world.”
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“The Kremlin’s great golden domes above great towers of rose and yellow and emerald stone belong to the Arabian Nights more than to the hard, realistic Russian world”
The adventure began last March when the Canadian-Soviet Friendship Society—acting for VOKS, the Soviet Society for Cultural Relations with Foreign Countries—invited the artists to a rendezvous at a Honey Dew restaurant on Bloor Street West. Varley and Aldwinckle met there for the first time.
Aldwinckle was troubled by the fact that, although he had been told that at least fourteen were going, only three prospective travelers turned up. The conveners admitted that one by one the others had dropped out, giving as reasons ill health or inability to fit vacations into the trip.
A day or two later Aldwinckle became more concerned. He learned that yet another man had dropped out with “vacation trouble”; and he heard that one of the others who declined had done so because his business required him to visit the United States and he had heard that he would be barred if he went to Russia.
“That last part only annoyed me,” said Aldwinckle. “If the United States can control where a Canadian chooses to visit—well, I would just have to try to survive without visiting the United States. But I began to wonder if there were any other motives on the part of the sponsors than having Canadian artists meet Russian artists.”
Varley expressed himself as quite unconcerned over the petty details and possible political implications of the trip. But Aldwinckle wanted a couple of points clarified. He wrote to the Department of External Affairs at Ottawa asking for an official attitude toward the proposed trip, and he asked the Canadian-Soviet Friendship Society for assurance that he would not be expected to make speeches or grant interviews either in Russia or on his return to Canada. He received this assurance by letter.
From the office of the Under Secretary of State for External Affairs, Aldwinckle received a letter
which said in part: “The official attitude here is
entirely neutral. There are no government regulations of any kind which would prevent you from going, and as a Canadian citizen you would of course be readmissable to this country without question. There is no approval or disapproval of visits of this kind, but I do not think in your case you would be participating ‘in anything which might be against the wishes of the Canadian Government.’ ”
At Dorval Airport, Montreal, Varley and Aldwinckle were joined by Michelaine LeGendre, marionettist; Charles Lemoine, a young poet and radio critic; Pierre St. Germain, a newspaper writer, and his wife, Madeleine, a social worker.
“I gathered,” commented Aldwinckle, “that our Russian hosts were still expecting a dozen or fourteen writers, musicians, architects, painters, actors, dancers and the like.”
A Dutch KLM airliner flew the six Canadians behind the Iron Curtain to Prague, via Amsterdam and Brussels. They were met there by two representatives of VOKS who, early the next morning, put them on a little, much-used plane with a bleak farewell. Five and a half hours later the plane landed on a military airport at Minsk. As soon as the plane stopped rolling, five uniformed men piled aboard. Two rushed to the front of the plane, brushing roughly by the passengers in the narrow passageway. The other three soldiers barred the doorway. After an exchange with the pilot, one of the soldiers, apparently an officer, demanded the passengers’ passports. He examined them closely then returned them with a flourish.
At Moscow airport a very different reception awaited the Canadians. “For the first time,” remarked Varley, “we were treated like celebrities. There were flowers for the women, handshakes for everybody.” The head of the welcoming delegation
was no less a personage than Comrade Yakoflev, a metallurgist who is district head of VOKS. The visitors were ushered into cars for the twenty-five-mile drive to Moscow.
What Varley remembers of the drive into Moscow was the huge graveyard he passed, acres and acres of headstones crumbling in tall grass. The desolation would be wonderful to paint, he thought. But as the cemetery continued to flank the road as they drove he wondered if anyone could be left alive in Moscow.
Aldwinckle’s attention was taken by more animate things. He was witnessing for the first time the extraordinary Russian technique of driving an automobile. “The driver would speed up to about sixty,” he explained, “then shut off the engine and coast as far as he could. He kept doing this all the way into Moscow. Later I discovered that it was standard procedure to shut off the engine whenever possible. The Russians even do it while waiting for a stop light.”
The destination was the National Hotel, opposite ^e Kremlin. Varley climbed out of the car and had
“Moscow is a strange city with no pets, no laughter in the streets, and no couples holding hands in the parks”
his first look at that fabulous walled city-within-a-city; and found it an artist’s delight. “The Kremlin,” he later said, “belongs to the Arabian Nights more than it does to the hard realistic Russian world. Huge and ornate, its domes seem to reach the skygreat gold domes above great towers and pillars of rose and yellow and emerald stone.”
The two Canadian artists saw Moscow in terms of color and space. To Aldwinckle, Moscow was “soft pastel shades of creams, brick reds, orange and soft greens and greys, all heightened by thousands of tiny black figures surging about.” The wide streets and broad squares appeared even vaster than they were because of the comparative absence of automobiles. Cars, Aldwinckle calculated, were only about one tenth as dense in a given area as in Toronto, Montreal or other Canadian cities. Even more noticeable was the lack of bicycles. Aldwinckle reached the conclusion: “Automobiles are completely beyond the
reach of the average person—and bicycles are just beyond their reach.”
But light traffic did not mean orderly traffic. Perhaps because cars are fewer, pedestrians have no respect for them. “Moscow traffic is bedlam,” said Aldwinckle. “The Russian leaders certainly haven’t got around to telling the people to obey traffic lights. They stream across against the red as though it didn’t exist, which results in much squealing of brakes and honking of horns. That’s the background sound of Moscow—automobile horns every hour of the day . nd night.”
Jn their first night at the National Hotel Varley and Aldwinckle were introduced to Constantine Perevoshakov, who was to be their guide, interpreter and companion for most of their stay. Other interpreters were assigned to the French-speaking Canadians and, as their interests differed from those of the Toronto artists, their
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paths crossed only occasionally for the greater part of their stay in Russia.
Constantine was a capable patient man. Half bis chin had been shot off by shrapnel in the war but, instead of making him grotesque, the disfigurement made him look rather like a round-faced schoolboy in his teens. He was the only Russian with whom Varley and Aldwinckle got on any terms approaching intimacy. “Rut we never did get to know even Constantine,” said Aldwinckle. “Once or twice we thought he was going to break down and become a human being—but he never quite made it. He never showed us a sense of humor, but he may have had a grim Russian version of one. Often when the women of our party were present he used to sing tunelessly under his breath in Russian. I often wondered what the words were. T know he had good taste in one direction—his wife was a perfectly beautiful woman.”
That first night at the National Hotel, too, Varley and Aldwinckle were introduced to two of their hosts’ habits that were to exasperate them throughout their stay. The first was for VOKS representatives to ask them what they wanted to see and do, solemnly write their wishes in a notebook—and then add on some ideas of their own. The second was the rigorous serving of vast meals three times a day, course following course inexorably, regardless of Varley’s and Aldwinckle’s protests that they could not possibly eat so much. Their hosts became offended when the visitors turned aside yet another course, and enquired if they did not like the food.
Chicken Swimming in Soup
Varley particularly suffered from this insistence on showing the Canadians that there was plenty of food in Russia. Varley prefers to talk, sip his wine and eat sparingly at meals, but in Russia he had to run the gantlet of meals that lasted up to three hours, with untouched dishes placed before him, removed when they got cold, and replaced with new platefuls.
“We finally made them understand that we just couldn’t put down such quantities of food,” said Aldwinckle. “At least, we thought we had made them understand because they smiled and nodded—but next meal it would be the same thing over again.” Certainly, if the Russians erred in their hospitality, it was only in the very lavishness of it.
For breakfast the visitors were served yogurt first, followed by a cold-meat plate, then three eggs or an omelet and finally pancakes and jam. Lunch and dinner were much the same as each other: first there was smoked salmon
arid a salad of cold boiled beets, carrots and potatoes; then sliced ham and pickles; next came large platters of hors d’oeuvres, followed by plates holding half a pint of soup with a large piece of meat or a chicken leg swimming in it; but the main course
was to follow—meat and vegetables, topped off with a compote of plums or cherries and a glass of tea or coffee. The coffee was always weak, until the Canadians discovered they could get an approximation of an ordinary cup of coffee by ordering it “Turkish style.” No water was ever served at table, and the visitors found out why—it did not taste very good. Instead, four glasses flanked every plate, for Georgia mineral water, lemonade, beer, wines or vodka.
On the day of their arrival in Moscow the Canadian artists started on the practically endless round of activities that was to put them to hed, exhausted, before the trip was over. On the first day, April 11, they were tdken for a whirlwind tour of the city. Vifrley, with a keen eye for period, observed that the older buildings of Moscow were of early Italian architecture, but that more recent buildings harked back to Greek and Roman styles. “They are,” he added, “tearing down buildings which show Gothic influence. I wondered if that was because Gothic represents traditional church architecture and has a religious significance.”
In the afternoon the two artists went to tea at the Canadian Embassy, while their chauffeur waited outside. It was the first of many occasions on which chauffeurs sat in their cars for long hours waiting for them. Varley and Aldwinckle used to debate whether the chauffeurs—who claimed ignorance of English—were under orders to report what the visitors said when their interpreters were not along. One day when they were driving with one of the chauffeurs Aldwinckle said to Varley, “Look at the coloring of that building on the left.” Involuntarily the driver turned his head to look.
The artists’ visit to the Canadian Embassy was to be their last. When they were next in Moscow two weeks later the embassy was full and the staff was busy—the occupants of the Australian Embassy had moved in after relations were broken between the two countries over spy-ring revelations in Australia.
On their second day the Canadians were taken to see “Moscow’s pride” —the subway. Varley found it an artist’s nightmare of garish paint and plaster, improbable chandeliers and crude mosaics—but at least, he noted, there were no chewing-gum posters.
After visiting the subway Aldwinckle wrote in his diaryr “The Kiev Relt station looks like the hall of a palace. Between each arched entrance to the platform is a mosaic illustrating episodes in Russia’s revolutionary history. There is extravagant use of marble . . . it extends even to behind the trains across the tracks. In another station there are eight huge mosaics on the ceiling. In still another there isí a huge white sculpture of Stalin leading a group of children, covering the complete end wall of the subway station. At the other end is an enormous iron gate behind which is subtly concealed lighting that gives the effect that the gate leads to the wide open spaces and fresh air. Upon close inspection it proved to be the entrance to the cleaners’ broom closet.
“The whole effect of each station is one of extravagance little removed
from that of the palaces of old. The workers move through this opulence in great numbers, black and undecorative. The whole effect of these stations was to recall to my mind ‘I dreamt that I dwelt in marble halls.’ These tubes that take the masses to and from work have become a shrine, a palace, of the Russian worker. I was reminded of the gypsy caravans I used to see when I was a boy in England; I was always impressed by their attempt to live as kings and queens in their own gilded coaches.”
On the afternoon of the subway tour the two artists were taken to their first art museum, the former summer home of a nobleman and complete with art gallery, ballroom, theatre and chapel. There they encountered another Russian practice that was to annoy them on every visit to an art gallery or museum: the guide who has learned
her speech by heart and insists on reciting it word for word, each passage in its appropriate place, whether the visitor wants to be instructed or not.
The recital started as the visitors wore donning the big soft overshoes which are standard equipment in Russian galleries. In quick succession they learned that the summer palace had been built between 1792 and 1797 by 210,352 serfs, the property of Count Chekemtiev, and that the palace was now preserved as an example of capitalist decadence. All that was interesting.
“But then,” recalled Aldwinckle, “we had to listen to more statistics and a detailed hut rather incomprehensible speech about every porcelain fire pot, every piece of sculpture and every painting, as our lady guide moved slowly and volubly from place to place. Varley begged our interpreter to turn her off, but she wouldn’t be turned off, wouldn’t let us wander off to look for ourselves. I really believe that if she had missed a sentence in her set speech she would have become hopelessly muddled.”
That night the program called for attendance at a puppet theatre. Varley and Aldwinckle dutifully went along, although tired bodies cried out for early bedtime. They enjoyed the show, too. But next morning Varley revolted when the guides informed him he was to spend most of the day at the university observing Soviet education in action. “I came here to meet and talk to artists,” he insisted. The guide looked worried and went away. Presently he returned to say that a visit to one of Moscow’s foremost artists would be arranged for the afternoon, “but this morning . . .”
“This morning,” said Varley, “I am going sketching.” Aldwinckle backed him up and the two spent their first leisure hours in several days sketching on a river embankment while their car waited. After lunch they were escorted to their first encounter with a Russian artist in his own studio. They walked through an old courtyard in which dirty children played in the litter then into a strange old building that seemed like a cross between a barn and a castle. They climbed several flights of dark stone steps. The guide knocked on a high heavy oak door. It was opened by a huge man in his early seventies, who held out his hand with a one-word introduction: “Konchalovski.”
Konchalovski and his younger brother, also an artist, brought out huge canvases to show the visiting artists. The big studio was lined with racks to the ceiling which held hundreds of paintings up to five feet by seven feet, like records in an album. Varley examined the first paintings that were produced. He said later that they looked more like photo murals than works of art.
Varley turned to Konchalovski. “You
like that?” He pointed to one painting.—
Konchalovski wrinkled his nose and puckered his face to indicate that he wasn’t particularly proud of it. Then he brought out another canvas, and Varley’s eyes widened. “It was a lovely still life,” Varley now recalls. “It was like a Cezanne—but better than Cézanne, I honestly think. I told him ‘Bravo, it is perfect, you couldn’t change a line.’ He understood only a little English, but he knew what I said. Suddenly there was understanding, the rare joy of an artist who meets a kindred spirit. Soon we were going over that painting, discussing its rare color, its lovely modulation of line.”
Tears rolled down Konchalovski’s cheeks. He brought out cheese and wine. Varley and Aldwinckle sang “For he’s a jolly good fellow.” The interpreter became worried at this excessive fraternization. He pointed to the “Cézanne” and said: “This
is a stage in the development of the artist; he must paint roughly like this before he learns to paint well like that” —pointing to the despised photo-mural painting. The artists laughed at him and he became a little hysterical. Trying to get the visit back on a safe level he kept pointing to objects in Konchalovski’s other paintings and crying, “See, there is a lemon, here is a cup, this is a vase, this is meat.” But he could not win the attention of the artists who were thoroughly enjoying themselves.
Men Who Talked Like Parrots
Konchalovski told Varley and Aldwinckle that he painted what he liked. “Of course,” he added, “when the National Academy commissions a picture—they usually take three a year and pay me for those enough for me to live well I paint the way they want . . .” he waved to the photomurals . . . “but I can also paint for other museums or galleries, or for private persons who can afford to buy.”
Aldwinckle came to the conclusion that Konchalovski was a first-rale artist who could paint well, or with tongue in cheek; that he had no intention of asserting the freedom of the artist as long as a good living depended on a measure of conformin'. The visit, which turned into a men ' party, was to be the only really informal meeting with an artist during the Canadians’ stay in Russia.
A day or two later Varley had an encounter much the opposite to his pleasant meeting with Konchalovski. On one of the rare occasions when he had a free hour Varley went shopping with one of the girls in the Canadian party, accompanied by a French interpreter. Suddenly the interpreter appeared to become alarmed. “Mr. Varley,” she said, “we must hurry back. You have an appointment to meet some artists at 4.30.” It was then 4.15, and Varley had never heard of the meeting. But the girl interpreter led him at a fast pace back to the hotel, dodging sidewalk crowds by walking on the roadway.
Back at the hotel, Constantine, Varley’s regular interpreter, hurried him into a car. They drove a long distance to a big building where he was confronted by a group of unsmiling men around a large table. “They looked like bankers,” Varley recalled, “and I knew they certainly weren’t artists. The man who seemed to be in charge was called the Professor. 1 told them I had come to talk to artists, and asked them where the artists were. They kept answering, ‘They will come, they will come.’
There followed two nightmare h hours for Varley, during which tU Professor and some of the “banker ”
There is no sex appeal in billboards, movies or TV, and all styles are old
threw question arter question at him, and leaped on his answers with scorn. Constantine had disappeared and the men around the table had their own interpreter.
“I don’t remember the words,” said Varley, “but I remember that they kept asking me about my beliefs in art. And their favorite reaction to my answers was ‘that went out a hundred years ago’ or ‘all that was said twenty years ago; this is a new world now.’ 1 wouldn’t let them get me down. I answered all their questions and threw them some of my own: ‘What is the
Russian art philosophy?’ and ‘Do you believe that art must descend to the people, or will the people rise up to the art?’ They ignored my questions, or answered with their parrotlike: ‘All that was said twenty years ago.’ They brought tea, but only I was served. There was a huge ornate box of cigarettes on the big table.
“Excuse me, gentlemen, do you mind if I smoke?” 1 said.
“Certainly not. Help yourself.”
“1 pushed the cup of tea to one side, pulled out a tin of Players and smoked my own.
“The Professor blandly remarked: ‘You notice we do not smoke.’
“It was a strange, meaningless inquisition. Presently Constantine entered the room and walked around the table. I stood up, said I had an appointment, and held out my hand. Rut they remained dead pan and would only mutter ‘good-by.’
“On the way out a young man poked his head out of a door in the corridor and said: ‘Thank you, Mr. Varley.
I enjoyed your talk very much.’ Constantine seemed uneasy. He rode back to the hotel in the front seat, and would not talk.”
As the days went by the two Canadian artists had to accept the fact that they were entirely in the hands of VOKS, from early rising to late bedtime. They came, too, to realize that VOKS was a power in the land. After the theatre, ballet, opera and other functions to which they were taken, crowds overflowing from the building would snarl traffic into knots; hut their guide’s pronouncement, of the magic word VOKS would clear the way, bring their car, speed them on their way. Even when the program called for a visit to Lenin’s Tomb the utterance VOKS took them to the head of the long line-up without demur from the patient Russians.
By now the artists were becoming a little familiar with Moscow—-familiar enough to analyze the reasons for its pervading unfamiliarity. Said Aldwinckle: “I wondered why Moscow
seemed so strange a city, until it dawned on me that here was a place with no pets, no laughter in the streets.” “And,” added Varley, “no couples holding hands in the parks.”
Another difference between Toronto or Montreal and Moscow, which requires time for realization, is the fact that the Russian capital is aim OÍ t totally devoid of an ingredient familiar to everyday life in North America, something that might be called genteel sex provocation. Here fashions, billboards, movies, television, magazine illustrations and advertisements all utilize the feminine form as part of their stock-in-trade; in Russia such allure is seldom advertised, even by the individual owner. The women dress
in styles that are practically nostalgic to Western beholders, and eminently “respectable.”
After a week in Moscow, Varley and Aldwinckle were informed that they would be called for at 1.30 in the morning to be driven to the airport for a 1,500-mile flight to Tblisi in Georgia. “Perhaps it would be as well simply not to go to bed after you get hack from the circus,” suggested Constantine casually. The artists decided to pass up the circus.
Aldwinckle, with lost sleep piling up, hoped that the Georgians, being southerners, would be more relaxed than his energetic Moscow hosts. But they were met at Tblisi airport by Comrade Sjkente, an architect and vice-president of GOKS—the Georgian vSociety for Cultural Relations with Foreign Countries—and a delegation of society mer -hers who informed the visitors briskly that there wouldn’t be a dull moment during their stay. And there wasn’t.
Georgia proved to be beautiful, but damp. The Canadians were installed in a hotel with large rooms containing beds with lacy pillows and frilled bedspreads. The bed looked good but Aldwinckle was informed that he was due at a film showing in the basement of the headquarters of COKS—the Georgian equivalent of VOKS. “We sat,” said Aldwinckle, “in large padded armchairs which I could have sworn had previously been sprayed with water.” After dinner there was a ballet, at which Varley and Aldwinckle shocked their hosts by periodically nodding into sleep to the gentle music of Swan Lake. They were awakened, though, by a strange sound. During the applause for the first act, a large number in the audience gave vent, to distinct “boos.” It turned out, though, that “boo” is the Georgian equivale nt of “encore” or “bravo.”
Stalin Gazing Out to Sea
Something similar happened when t he artists visited the studio of Dzhaparidse, director of the Georgian Academy of Arts. Aldwinckle had with him several color transparencies of Canadian paintings, loaned to him by the Art Gallery of Toronto. One of them was Paul Peel’s canvas, After the Bath, and when the director saw it he uttered a hoarse “rrrhosh!” which sounded something like a Bronx cheer hut really was a Georgian term of approval.
The visit to Dzhaparidse’s studio was a much more dignified occasion than the soiree with Konchalovski in Moscow. The walls were adorned with sketches and drawings, many of which Varley and Aldwinckle liked. But on his easel, far too large to be ignored, was a heroic but photographic likeness of Stalin in military uniform, gazing out to sea. Aldwinckle asked politely if the portrait had been commissioned by the government. “No.” came the answer through the interpreter, “it is the result of inspiration.”
Varley, more bluntly, enquired if the artist was working from a photograph. “Yes, of course,” was the reply.
The combination of dampness, loas of sleep and a round of functions and visits that surpassed Moscow’s most relentless finally took toll of both Varley and Aldwinckle. Both took to their beds with bad colds and exhaustion. After he recovered par-
tially from his first encounter with Soviet medicine, Aldwinckle wrote in his diary:
At 9.30 a doctor arrived in my room with a retinue of two nurses, two men from GOKS and an interpreter. They talked Russian for a long time and then the interpreter said: “Do you cough?” Considering that I had been coughing in the interpreter's ear for three days at the rate of one cough per minute. I thought I showed admirable control when I answered “yes.”
There was another large volume of talk in Russian and then I \v;:s asked in English if I had something in my nose. I said yes. More talk. The doctor felt my wrist and there was a hushed silence in the room. After this there was a long consultation, ending with the verdict which was translated to me: “You have a cold.”
I agreed, and asked for some
throat lozenges. Instead the nurse pushed a thermometer into my mouth. When she took it out there was no announcement of my temperature. The doctor peered down my throat, held another consultation. and I received the second verdict: “You have a sore throat.”
I agreed, and asked for some
throat lozenges. The doctor wrote out two long prescriptions, told me I must stay indoors, and the nurse would look after me.
Constantine came into my room with his chess board. Every time he fears that a few minutes might hang heavy on my hands, he produces his chess board. As usual, he beat me. quietly and without show of elation. I never won a single game from him—and I consider myself a pretty fair chess player.
The Canadian visitors had baulked when told that they would be detoured on the return journey from Tblisi to Moscow to visit a collective farm near Msketa, on the Black Sea. But VOKS was adamant. “We came to the conclusion that this was the ‘demonstration’ farm which visitors must see at all costs,” said Aldwinckle.
At Msketa they were ushered into a bare farmhouse which contained a piece of furniture which Varley had come to hate -a board table. All their visits, be complained, began at a board table, which be considered the worst possible medium for discussions on art. So Varley went off and sat on an old leather sofa while the rest took their places at the table.
The farm director launched into an hour’s discourse on the organization of a collective farm, its philosophy and economy. Aldwinckle, still unwell from his cold and weariness, remembers only one thing about the manager’s performance: “His hands were soft and
white with manicured nails, and made mine look like a farmer’s.”
The party then drove to another farmhouse occupied by an elderly collective farm worker and his wife hut commandeered by the director to entertain the visitors. In the small main room was a table covered with food and drinks. Somehow forty or fifty people jammed into that room, including a sextet in Cossack uniforms and several women singers, dancers and instrumentalists. There were innumerable toasts anil after every toast the Cossacks sang. The rule was “bottoms up”; fortunately the wine was a fairly light vintage.
Finally came the big toast of the evening in which the farm director invoked “love, peace and harmony between all people.” Aldwinckle was nominated to represent the visitors, and was handed a huge silver-mounted cow horn (later presented to him as a souvenir) filled to the brim with wine. He was expected to match the director,
gulp for gulp, in emptying the horn.
“It was an ordeal,” said Aldwinckle, “but I just made it. A worse ordeal was to follow, though. Full of admiration for my feat, and filled with brotherly love, the director leaned across the table and kissed me heartily. It was the first time I had tasted a wine-soaked mustache. I thought, ‘the things I have done for Canada.’ ”
Back in Moscow the tireless VOKS immediately placed the Canadians once more on what Aldwinckle now called “the artistic belt line”—a new round of visits and entertainments. They
escaped on a midnight train bound for leningrad where they had been invited to meet the members of the Leningrad Academy Institute.
The meeting opened with everyone angry except Aldwinckle—the academy officials because the Canadians were late for their 10.30 appointment; Varley because he was once more confronted with a hated board table. “Aldwinckle saved the day,” said Varley later. “He could always find something to say in trying circumstances. One of the directors asked through the interpreter, ‘Why does Mr. Varley say nothing?’ I
answered: ‘How the devil can we talk with that table between us?” They got the point, and we drew up our chairs in civilized manner for a real talk.” Finally, the Leningrad visit turned out to be the most pleasant the Canadians experienced.
Back in Moscow the Canadians made a startling discovery. They were not by any means the only guests of VOKS on this cultural tour. An invitation awaited them to a farewell dinner in the banquet hall of the Kremlin, along with about two thousand persons who had been on similar tours of Russia,
none of whom the Canadians had encountered.
Aldwinckle was anxious to see some of the other buildings inside the Kremlin walls—particularly the interior of the colorful domed church which he and Varley had painted from the outside. A special invitation had to be obtained, passport and other documents produced and checked. Finally Aldwinckle received the necessary permission. Constantine asked to be allowed to take his wife along, since she had never been inside the Kremlin.
Aldwinckle’s diary entry of the visit tells the story:
We enter the domed church and I am astounded. It was lined inside with huge icons butted together, filling the entire lower walls all the way around. Above this another row of icons were butted, and above that yet another, making literally hundreds of ancient treasures of art. Above this and over the ceilings were magnificent frescoes. In the entire circular interior there was not a bit of wall or ceiling space not covered with icons, frescoes or paintings.
We had repeatedly been told that the Russian revolutionaries had never destroyed the property of the aristocrats they overthrew—only the aristocrats themselves, and this array seemed to indicate that the Soviets valued these religious treasures despite the official attitude toward religion. We passed into another chapel also jam packed with priceless objects.
Then we go into the palace itself, which is now the government’s headquarters, and here we are shown the accoutrements of the pomp and ceremony of former rulers—jeweled gifts from princes, kings and rajahs, beaten silver and gold, suits of armor, royal coaches, palace banquet ware. These things are preserved not so much for their intrinsic value, which is undoubtedly great, but as examples of the “disgusting extravagance” of departed royalty. But somehow these pieces of bric-a-brac make me recall the subway.
After his tour of the Kremlin buildings Aldwinckle made his way to the banquet hall where he joined representatives from Italy, Britain, France, West Germany, Mexico, Finland, India and South America. Rumor had it that high Russian officials were presiding at the head table—but the dining hall was apparently a quarter of a mile long and the Canadians could not see that far. Toasts were offered over loudspeakers to all countries, including the United States, although the Canadians saw no Americans. There was dancing afterward to a surprisingly good jazz band, but the Canadians left early. Their plane for home was to take off at 4.30 a.m.
As the undersized and ancient Russian plane winged its way toward Prague, Aldwinckle passed the time by sketching what he could see through a window: part of a battered oil-
stained engine cowl and a little white cloud beyond. Then he flipped the page and sketched the heads of two sleeping Czech passengers.
Presently the stewardess, dressed Russian style in a plain skirt and sweater, leaned over and said that making drawings was not permitted during flight . . . would he please hand over the book so she could show what he had been drawing to the plane’s commander?
Aldwinckle gave her the sketch book. She was a long time in the pilot’s compartment. Then she silently returned it. Later, when the Iron Curtain was far behind, Aldwinckle flipped through the pages. The careless drawing of the engine cowl of the ancient Russian plane, framed against a little cloud, was missing.