On Friday, I caught a brief report by the BBC’s Russian Correspondent, Sarah Rainsford, in which she took a nostalgic look back at visits to Moscow. I was momentarily transported from a wet drive home to my own five months undergraduate placement to Voronezh in 1992.
300 miles south of Moscow, Voronezh State University was where I had elected to spend five months perfecting my Russian. Sarah Rainsford’s descriptions of Russia in the 1990s (old ladies or babushki selling their wares at railway stations and along roadsides while the shops remained empty; cheap flights all over the former Soviet Union with people standing in the isles and various livestock on board; Hollywood films with strange Russian voice-overs) all felt very familiar and I’m now keen to reread my own diary. If I can find it …
Funnily enough, I have just started trying to brush up my Russian (almost exactly 25 years after arriving in Voronezh on a snowy January day). We have some visitors from the state heritage institute coming over in May. Keen to at least say a few works in their native tongue, I dug out my old Russian grammar books. I’m enjoying it so far, although I doubt I will master much heritage-related vocabulary. I hope I might just about manage a ‘hello, pleased to meet you’.
In another strange coincidence this week, I bumped into someone from my school Russian class. Much like Sarah Rainsford, I had chosen to study Russian at A-Level because I liked languages and it was exotic. We were a rather select group however and so when Richard arrived at Grosvenor Gardens for an event I was hosting, I recognised him fairly quickly. Richard had also been in my German class, as had his colleague Oliver, who had done much of the excellent research into the plight of the Treffurt Courthouse, under threat from demolition and the subject of the evening’s event.
SAVE Europe’s Heritage were launching their campaign to raise awareness of – and ultimately prevent – the proposed demolition of a 500-year old courthouse in Thuringia. The Hessischer Hof stands at the top of the picturesque German town of Treffurt. A magnificent four-storey timber-framed structure dating from the 1520s, it is however threatened with demolition. Thus SAVE used the gathering on 1 March to put forward their plan to rescue, revive and reuse this wonderful place.
I have every confidence that the team will be successful. They have a solid case and some good local support. (If you have any contacts who might be interested, do please contact us for further information.) In their presentation, the SAVE team reminded us all of their role in securing Calke Abbey and Tyntesfield, both now cared for by the National Trust. They were also, as I have mentioned before, responsible for saving our much loved neighbour, Northington Grange from demolition in the 1970s. “No house in England more dramatically portrays how close many great country houses came to complete destruction. Hundreds of houses were not so lucky” says Marcus Binney CBE, Executive President of SAVE.
An especially interesting evening, full of reminisces and a tremendous long chat with Lady Angela Stansfield Smith, mother of aforementioned Oliver and widow of celebrated architect Sir Colin Stansfield Smith. A truly delightful and lion-hearted lady.
Lastly, I continued my Russian odyssey at the Royal Academy’s latest exhibition, Revolution: Russian Art 1917–1932 on Saturday. An extraordinary and brutal glimpse into the art which initially celebrated the 100-year old revolution. 15 years on however, as the seeds of optimism and hope withered, so did the art. At the end of the exhibition in a small black theatre, mugshots of people – famous and ordinary, writers, secretaries, collective farm workers – flashed up, one after another. People who had lost their lives in Stalin’s purges. Moving and exhausting. But in the company of good friends I had met when I got my first job in London back in 1997 (another anniversary to celebrate this year!), a real treat and pleasure.
Moreover, the exhibition was packed. And the queue for non-ticket holders over an hour long. A resurgence in interest in Russia? A sign of the times?