“It’s been a difficult year to be a Russian here in the UK, yes?” I opened. “Not really. Always like this for quite a few years,” retorts Ilyia.
We are at Russia-Fest, or Russian Camp, a biannual throng of Russian ex-pats living in the UK. They call this sort of gathering a “slyot”. A field on a farm hidden down a labyrinth of back lanes of rural Suffolk is where this Fahrenheit 451-like community of emigre intelligentsia protects, nurtures and passes on the Russian language and best bits of old Soviet life to the next generation. A sociologist farmer, a fellow emigre, but from Germany, lets the Russians use this field; he likes the spirit of the occasion and comes to sit around the camp fire with his wife when the singing begins. An ostentation of peacocks preside, imperiously, over the whole farmyard, and their ‘Mow’ cry punctuates the early evening and morning air. There is a magical feel to the place.
My daughter will be brought up with this event. Like her, the other kids here flip between Russian language and English with accent-less ease. They are all bilingual. They play with each other in English but switch without noticing to Russian when they speak with their families. Their parents speak English with an accent, some heavy, some slight. To a man and woman they all chose to come and live in the UK. There are about a hundred of them, each with their own story and each with their own reason for emigrating. They gather here, in this bucolic setting, to enjoy the simple pleasures that characterised their youth as the last generation brought up in the Soviet Union. When I asked one of them, a history teacher and a psychologist, if she missed the Soviet Union, she pondered and said: “I miss my childhood”. They have been recreating their childhood for 16 years now.
A Soviet childhood sounds to have been a sort of Swallows and Amazons like experience, but with algebra and physics thrown in. It was outdoorsy. A good part of the three month long summer holidays were spent at camps in the forests and by the lakes. Apart from swimming and trekking and games, there were science classes, maths taught as fun, nature trails. There was music and campfires and cooking outside. And for adults, getting into the wilds was a chance to be away from the normal strictures of life; camping meant freedom, a place to let your hair down. And for the intelligentsia, it was a place you could talk as well as sing.
As with any camping field, the cars and tents are ranged around the perimeter. There are only very basic facilities but here are many tents which could double as marquees. This is professional camping. All the kit. Not itty-bitty, single-serve stuff you get at Cotswold Outdoor or Mountain Warehouse; this is equipment of industrial proportions – great big Kazan, specialist gas burners, effortlessly assembled with Kalashnikov precision in the semi-darkness. There is a communal area, in the middle of the field. In the late afternoon, as we arrive, there are a few people there. They are mainly involved in the cooking. The fire burns to grey ash and in the ashes the plov cooks. And cooks. The mutton meat fatty, as it needs to be to impart proper flavour to the rice and bouillon. The promise of a bowlful of plov, good company and song attracts more people to the fireside. By dark, each of the families gathered has had its fill and made its way to the communal fire. Chairs are gathered in. Children slide between the seats to toast marshmallows or curl up in vacated chairs. Some have ukuleles – they will sing later, when the adults’ guitars have a rest.
As it grows darker, the chairs are pulled in tighter to be nearer the warmth. (Russians hate the cold – they wrap up; our desire to wear shorts come rain or shine is a mystery to them.) Done with its cooking duties, the fire is stoked with thick logs collected from the meadows around the farmstead. People bring their guitars and the singing begins. It rarely stops. A fiddler accompanies them, picking up the tune and then, sensitively, unobtrusively, adding another level of tone to the melody. The songs were not the songs I had expected. If you had asked me beforehand, I would have expected tales of Norse myth – songs of heroism and derring do. These songs are not like those. These are songs called up from this generation’s common past – Mary Poppins (the Russian version, not the Julie Andrews one we all know here), a cartoon animation of the Musicians of Bremmen. A comic song about a man cooking and messing it all up, another about a self-deluded opera singer who cannot sing which gets gales of laughter from the now capacity crowd. Everyone – everyone – knew the words. The melancholy songs are sung staring into the fire with trance-like expressions of remembered yesterdays. There are songs about gypsies and pirates. Russians seem to love gypsy songs – maybe there is something about the music which is wild and free and dancers reeling around the sparking flames of a bonfire in the night that animates the Russian character. It is deep within them.
There are male and female voices and most songs are led by five or so of the crowd with others chipping in and singing along, filling in the gaps where a phrase or part of a line is forgotten. The mood of the camp lifts and quiets with the lilt of the lyrics. And all the while I watch the glowing faces and the stars above. It is a clear, moon-filled night. There is a meteorite that appears from the heavens and shoots straight for us; there is the faint reflection from a satellite traversing above – is it a Russian one come to join in or an American one keeping an eye on this gathering of aliens in the British countryside?
It is the children’s turn. Nervously they keep counting in to a song which never starts – every time one of them gets to 1,2…they collapse in a hesitation of self-doubt. Eventually, an adult helps to get them started. They sing in English. Then in Russian – a home made composition sung to the tune ‘Don’t worry, be happy’ about life in lock down. It is charming and witty and each child – from the youngest to the eldest – is perfectly cast for their solo. The children’s singing is a lovely boost of contemporariness. This is a living thing; it is not pickled in decreasingly relevant nostalgic aspic. There is a balance of the modern and the old, the lyrics of the old country mingled with the melodies of the adopted home – the only home the next generation have ever known.
The singing and the mulled wine go on into the small hours. Children drift off to their sleeping bags or nuzzle in their parents’ softness by the fire. Two days and two nights twice a year, in sympathy with the pagan timetable of the seasons, these families from far afield come together to share their common heritage. To speak their mother tongue live to another native speaker. To abide by their own cultural norms rather than those of their adopted country – no need for small talk, no circuitous conversational niceties, plain speaking, common reference points. A veneration for education – Russians of this ilk share an obsessive love of learning. These are not your everyday Russians. They are academics, economists, teachers, musicians, artists, scientists. The average IQ in this field is far north of normal. They are the intelligentsia – a nomenclature we have no equivalent for in Britain. (In fact, when you Google the word ‘intelligentsia’ it says “a distrust of the intelligentsia and of theoretical learning”, which just about sums up the view of Brits to intellectuals – or ‘experts’.) The intelligentsia in this field are not pompous academics or self-promoting business types; they are not stereotypes recognisable to Brits. They love learning and invest everything into helping their children get into grammar schools, learn musical instruments, speak several languages, paint, draw, dance, excel in their studies; but they are also tethered to the ground. They have a taste for participating and contributing rather than spectating and paying to be entertained, for being connected to nature rather than protected from it, for company rather than comfort, for singing rather than shopping. They congregate far from the madding crowd because here they can be themselves. This is the real Russia I experience. I wish you could be a firefly on the wall around the camp, as I am; you would see a very different view from that shown on the news every night on your TV screen.