MY EYES ON RUSSIA
I stood guard by Dostoyesky’s bed. The River Neva was close to flooding his home. A bounty of words embraced my gaze. Frozen, I imagined a pattern of a million Monarch Butterflies escaping the deluge. Each fluttering wing carried dispatches from Fyodor: “Save my words, Save my legacy”. Dostoyevsky’s home was quickly a memory.
My eyes have seen more than my camera. But there is an indelible imprint on my brain that influences me while I travel for new experiences. The ghosts of Russia’s past: Babi Yar, Tzars and Tzarinas and whatever else I have encountered “Beyond the Pale”, live inside of me. Fortunately I have 100 stories I can tell, and 100 stories I shouldn’t tell.
Saint Petersburg is a city of ghosts. My driver (a former Dakar Rally participant) frequently showed off his skills on the snow swept streets. The fun was his, the thrill was mine.
We sped around corners and across avenues. I saw every hero and heroine in shades of ghosts, seemingly slink back into their temporary home in Novodevichy Cemetery. Though I had an intended agenda at hand I embraced every historical moment as if it was my present.
On this particular journey I was to photograph numerous cityscapes, and engage what seemed to be an arena of portraits. All of my moments have impacted me through the years, but some leave an impression that never escape my psyche.
I have always been intrigued by the former Soviet Union. Russia’s heaven and hell are like the poet John Donne’s twin compasses in “A Valediction Forbidding Mourning”: where one goes so does the other.
I walked into the Psychiatric Hospital led by a psychiatrist who cared for a patient he wanted me to meet. I was told that the artist Yakov Lev was committed in the 1960’s. Apparently he wandered the streets talking to himself?
It was imperative that I not speak english in the asylum, outsiders were forbidden. Most importantly I was not to speak in front of Yakov, because he hated Americans?
There were no sounds of footsteps or a living soul in any of the corridors. We walked silently surrounded by green walls and dimmed fluorescent lights. I felt as if this was my last light.
We entered the artist’s combined 10’x12’ bedroom and studio. He did not greet me when I entered. He was told that I did not speak Russian...
For two hours, the psychiatrist tried to coax the artist toward the easel. Yakov looked toward the easel several times as if he was trying to remember what it was for. My heart broke several times during this session.
The easel was seasoned with 30 years of paint mixed for another day. A canvas appeared atop the easel. A gesture with paint and brush addressed the canvas.
The psychiatrist seemed pleased. The artist seemed stifled. The photographer found the pose through the viewfinder. There were just a few moments left. The two men needed to rely on each other. I sat poised.
Later, I walked out of the asylum. Pieces of a man’s life died in my eyes.
I felt a bit empowered by the dread of what life might become for some. I was softly embraced by the ghosts past and present. What followed on this particular journey was extraordinary.