Updated: Feb 3, 2019
This is about detail and secrecy.
I have a strong memory of one of my first ever holidays to the South of France. I suppose I must have been around five years old. It’s evening and the first thing my memory conjures up from all the grainy rag-bag of scenes and senses – is the smell – the smell of Provence in the early sixties – at least to me; lavender and nougat – rosemary and warm earth.
And the sound. There's just one sound. The sound of a myriad Cicadas; chattering, chirruping.
I’m about 5 years old, holding my father’s hand, and we’re both standing, gazing along an arrow -straight road melting into the soft, unfamiliar, light of a beautiful Mediterranean twilight. And there are the mountains. Not the old hills of South Wales which had featured so large in my young life but big, rugged mountains – Middle Earth and Hobbit-like.
“The Alps, Nick; highest mountains in Europe.” My father says “We should be there tomorrow if the car keeps going.”
Ah yes, the car, the British racing green Ford Cortina in which my sister and I had sweated and rowed all the way from the UK as we motored (it was proper motoring in those days) to a campsite near St Tropez. I stare and say a silent prayer to the God of Slightly Dodgy Brakes. Turning to go back inside the inn that we’d stopped at for the night, to face whatever strange piece of animal was being served up for dinner, I see my father on his hands and knees, face a few inches from the road surface.
“It’s different. French road metalling is different to ours.”
Detail – my father the engineer was a man for detail. Not for him the magic of the night sky brushed with the creamy mystery of the Milky Way, he found wonder in the workings of a spark-plug and God in the eye of a kitten.
Thoughts of my father and his love of the little were very much with me as I walked over Bolshoy Moskvoretskiy Bridge towards Red Square the other day. There aren’t many better views in the world. There is the Kremlin itself of course, and St Basil’s Cathedral – big, ‘foreign’ looking monuments to the abiding spirit of this remarkable place.
And there’s newer stuff; Gum – a shopping ‘mall’ second -to-none. At the end of the 19th Century, it was the largest shopping centre in Europe. Before the 1917 Revolution it contained a staggering 1,200 stores. Post-Perestroika it was restored – beautifully. Little Brown and I go and sit in it sometimes, and very occasionally might buy something, queue-jumping along with the wives of Men-With-Mysterious-Means-And-Endless-Wealth.
But on this morning, it wasn’t any of these which took my eye. It was something small – a detail – a drain cover – about 6 inches square; easy to miss altogether because after all when you’re being towered over by the massive heart of an empire you don’t tend to look down at your feet.
Things like these -these little things – drain covers, door numbers, wrought ironwork, incredible art-nouveau tiling in the bathroom of a decrepit downtown bar etc, etc, etc, are everywhere here. Detail after pleasing detail – beautiful things. But (and here’s the point) they seem to be hidden in plain sight. They don’t in any sense seek to draw attention to themselves. And perhaps that’s the very idea. Perhaps these anonymous artists and long-dead artisans intended that their work, often exquisite and beautifully made, would pass un-noticed because if there’s one thing that I’ve learnt in Moscow, it’s that it’s always a safer option to blend into the background.
Of course, there are Objet D’Arts by the thousand all of which would appear to confound my notion that Russians like to afford the fine things they create and make, a level of secrecy. Those little objects of eternal desire – Fabergé Eggs – are almost vulgar in their need to be noticed. But I think they merely confirm the paradox. The glorious magnificence of the shell – the superb enamelling and filigree – so often hide the real treasure. They delight in their gaudy esotericism.
The First Hen egg or Jewelled Hen egg is a Tsar Imperial Fabergé egg. The two halves of the outer shell open to reveal the egg's first ‘surprise’, a round ‘yolk’ of gold. This yolk itself opens to reveal a gold hen set with ruby eyes. The hen is hinged on the tail feathers which allows it to also open up to reveal still two further surprises, a gold and diamond replica of the imperial crown and a tiny ruby pendant that was suspended within it on a chain. Hidden, beautiful – A MYSTERY.
It seems (and this is an entirely personal observation) that Russians both by habit and inclination cherish and celebrate secrecy and cherish mystery. Churchill, who wasn’t particularly well-known for having cross-cultural empathy, famously described Russia as "a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma," and his words in 1939 tapped into to the Western sense of Moscow as the "other" - an inscrutable and menacing land that plays by its own rules, usually to the detriment of those who choose more open regulations. For me he tapped into something deeper. The enigma isn’t Russia itself. It’s the people and consciously and unconsciously they cultivate the Enigma. And even when they are ( as they so often are) passionate, exuberant, brutally direct, warm and outgoing there’s always a whiff of smoke and mirrors. Shops are hidden, faces are masked and no one meets your eye on the metro. Russia and Russians have a famously mysterious ‘Soul’.
My increasing suspicion is that the wonder of it is that it remains a total mystery even to those who possess it – the complex, inscrutable Muscovites I meet every day.
They can be forgiven if there is a tendency to throw up a constant fog. The lack of eye contact on the Moscow Metro speaks eloquently of all the dangerous decades when to be noticed – to draw the attention of fellow travellers might, just might, lead to something more sinister. It’s even apparent in the culture of business and the business of politics here. It’s wise to be ‘little’ – it’s good to ‘hide’. “Yes sir (normally a sir) I’m rather hoping you haven’t noticed me but of course ‘l’ll do just exactly as you say as long as it’s in writing (and you, sir, will be the one for the chop in all events).”
To me this cocktail, that contains a reticence to put a head above a parapet, a genius for dissimulation as well as a powerful instinct for beauty all wrapped in mystery, is a fascinating riddle.
I know this is all very tenuous and subjective but two completely random things lend weight to my musings. Sherlock, the BBC Wales production has just shown here in Russia. It was a phenomenal success and indeed Conan Doyle’s detective has an enduring popularity here – bizarrely extending to the commissioning of a set of bronze statues of Holmes and Watson in 2007! Russians love a mystery – they're a people born to crypticism.
Secondly - there’s a word in Russian – ‘Tajna’. It means secret, mystery, secrecy, confidentiality, privacy, Arcanum.
I wondered how it might actually be used, and so I asked some Russians, and now I’m even more confused than ever … “something like /secret/ ...with a possible curse attached..”
“It means a secret. But it is more than a secret. It's a bigger event that is a secret to many. i.e. the fact that your friend went on a date with another guy would be a secret. But the fact that the company is planning to shut operations - that could be тайна for the company's employees and outside stakeholders.”
So there we have it (or not, as the case may be) and the Devil is in the (beautiful) detail (or possibly not). Never expect to understand it. It’s all very interesting and as that archetypal Russian Sherlock Holmes suggested:
“My mind,” he said, “rebels at stagnation. Give me problems, give me work, give me the most abstruse cryptogram or the most intricate analysis, and I am in my own proper atmosphere. I abhor the dull routine of existence. I crave for mental exaltation. That is why I have chosen my own particular profession,—or rather created it, for I am the only one in the world.”
For a puzzle-addict, living here is better than completing the Times Crossword in less that a minute (I wish!).
A satellite photograph of Moscow by night caught my attention recently. Quite distinctive. The famous, distinctive 'Ring' layout of the city is immediately apparent. Not unique, but certainly quite unlike the grids of New York or the ramshackle network of villages in London. It's a stunning photograph and it struck me that despite the beauty of the detail here in the city, the most impressive and beautiful design of all might just be Moscow itself.
It took me a while to work out what the image put me in mind of. When I realised, it actually made the hairs stand up on the back of my neck.
Because it looks for all the world like a giant spider's web. Gossamer gold and glowing, intricate fine threads spinning out from the heart of the web itself - the heart of the city - the heart of Russia. And there at the very centre sits - The Ancient Kremlin - crucible of an empire - soul of people - a soul of light and shade that can never know itself.
“He (Moriarty) is the Napoleon of crime, Watson........He is a genius, a philosopher, an abstract thinker. He has a brain of the first order. He sits motionless, like a spider in the center of its web, but that web has a thousand radiations, and he knows well every quiver of each of them. He does little himself. He only plans.”
These details, little things, secrets, Tajna....Russians.