Dagestan, Game of Thrones, and a Gorbachev adviser: a Russian afternoon in London


Russia has its own Commonwealth, administered by the Rossotrudnichestvo state agency, with a UK office just off Kensington High Street.

Upstairs to the first floor, through a door and a group are registering with a young woman and a laptop. Through a glass wall is a small room of what looks an empty internet cafe, or rows of call centre workstations. Impressionist paintings on walls; books, brochures, magazines and newspapers, mostly in Russian, on tables.

The main reception hall. Thirty or so people sit in chairs before a lectern while the programme of events making up the Open Eurasian Literature Festival and Book Forum is explained. In a corner, a grand piano gleams in black.

A young man in a deep blue wide-checked suit, Anton, welcomes everyone to Rossotrudnichestvo, presumably where he works, before journalist and author Gulsifat Shahidi stands to introduce Crane, by Dagestan writer Abu Sufyan, and edited by David Parry.

It is a collection of children’s prose poems, fairy tales of animals and the natural world, but, much like Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Books, chilling meanings lurk within. A mare raises a foal alone, and is left abandoned and isolated; a child wanders into the den of a bear.

I have no idea when these stories were first written, in Russian, but the mother and father of the Boston Marathon bombers come to mind while scribbling shorthand notes. Dagestan is a republic in Russia’s Caucasus, next to Chechnya, and its reputation, sadly, is increasingly matching that of its neighbour.

Next: memoirs, of a sort, by one of Mikhail Gorbachev’s former advisers. Georgy Pryakhin‘s collection of stories, Seraglio ’55, is introduced by its editor Laura Hamilton. Very clever: anecdotes of a political, sensitive nature regarding the collapse of the USSR are rendered surreal, and perhaps even sharper, as dreams: soldiers in Grozny; Barbara Bush; even Stalin. Ms Hamilton suggests that with the current vogue for Swedish writers, there should one day be a platform for those from slightly further east.

The indigenous Khanty people of Kushevat, in Yamalo-Nenetskiy Autonomous Okrug, in the Arctic zone of western Siberia, are portrayed in Blue River, by journalist and film-maker Zinaida Longortova. The book is introduced by its editor, freelance journalist Stephen Bland, as a way of documenting the customs, language, culture, and close relationship to the land and its wildlife of the people, through the story of a family rescuing an injured elk calf. It sounds beautiful, and from a remote region about which even the internet struggles to find many photographs of, or English-language information.

A hulking Icelandic wrestler appears before us, and proclaims: “I am a poet in my heart.” This is somewhat unexpected. Sölvi Fannar, actor, athlete, writer, musician and agent of Hafþór Júlíus “Thor” Björnsson, better known as Gregor “The Mountain” Clegane in Game of Thrones, is clearly a man who can recognise toughness. With evident affection, he introduces Natalia Kharlampieva and her book of poems Foremother Asiathe first of any writing in the Yakutian language, also known as Sakha, to be translated into English. Mr Fannar, who visited the Sakha Republic to take part in a global wrestling contest, tells of a Yakutian legend of a Viking ship sailing up the region’s Lena river, and one of the European visitors with a native Turkic woman producing the first Yakut.

The poems she has written can be harsh, we are told by the book’s editor Mr Parry, and Mr Fannar tells that they offer a glimpse of life as a woman, and poet, in the patriarchal society of the Sakha Republic, in Russia’s far east. I begin to wonder what horrors, trials, and scarred recoveries are in the verses of the middle-aged grand dame sat beside the lectern.

One of her poems has been made into a song, and a projector shows a four-minute pop video of fur-clad warrior lads with swords, galloping around on horseback through forests. Stirring stuff, and you can imagine it doing rather well at the Eurovision Song Contest.

Ms Kharlampieva stands to read a poem, in Sakha. Rapid, percussive, melodic detonations, which resemble music, and with a mesmeric effect on the room. Afterwards, she plays the jaw harp, instantly redolent of sweeping plains and mountains, and which sounds similar to this. 

Throughout all of the above, excellent interpreting was provided to the assembled by Daria Antonovich.

Tomorrow promises to be equally interesting: a talk by that British ambassador, who introduced the idea of Uzbekistan’s government boiling its enemies alive to the international consciousness.

All titles are available through Hertfordshire Press, a publishing house that brings the writing of Eurasia to western readers.





About James Willsher

Newspaper and magazine reporter since 2004, has freelanced in Russia and Central Asia, and does local government PR. Likes green tea and interviewing people / places. Phil Garrett was a pen name. @JGWillsher jamesgwillsher@hotmail.co.uk
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