Saturday, 31 March 2012

With glorious weather outside i made ready to depart, and wrote messages on a couple of postcards of the Blessed Pontiff i had, to be left with a reasonable amount of the honey i’d bought and yet more pryaniki biscuits. I was hoping to share some breakfast with these fellows and then be off, but when my host remembered that it was May day, and the next day would be a holiday, it transpired that in fact, no, it would be too complicated for me to leave that day, and i would have to stay for another night! Showing me his kitchen garden, i was prepared to accept his assertion that the dew on the grass meant it wouldn’t rain, but i remained sceptical about a claim he and his brother made the previous evening, that one can put a live crayfish in the freezer for two or three weeks and then revive it in the fridge! Meanwhile his younger brother and girlfriend and i were detailed to go into town to shop for a barbecue/picnic, at which time i spent at least a few minutes among the worshippers at an Orthodox Church dedicated to Our Lady. I noticed that the foundation date of Lubni was 988, the same year as the Baptism of Rus’. From our picnic site, shaded by trees on the bank of the beautiful river Sula, we could see the Mgarskiy Monastery in the distance, and i spotted a woodpecker as well as a kingfisher, though the reaction of my companions to these marvels was somewhat mixed.

   After an exhausting game of football we came home, and had a pleasant evening, following a similar pattern to the previous one. In the morning we had breakfast, then i was taken to a junction on the far side of town, and told to choose my route to Kharkiv; a country road via Mirgorod or the trunk road via Poltava. I was drawn to the former primarily because the name means ‘Peace Town’, so amid cheerful farewells i set off, in more dry and bright weather. I walked part of the way, but without hitch-hiking i also accepted first one then another kind offer of a lift, the second from an especially nice young couple who lived in Moscow.

   The action of Divine Providence which brought me to Mirgorod that day was so abundantly manifest, one might almost have seen it arranged by the very Hand which reaches down to Adam in the depiction by Michelangelo on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel; and a vote of thanks must also go to my Guardian Angel. I had arrived in the home town of the celebrated novelist Nikolai Gogol on the second Monday after Easter; ‘Radonitsa’, the Day of Rejoicing, when Orthodox Christians traditionally visit the gravesides of their deceased relatives. Gogol is best known for his comic masterpiece entitled Dead Souls. Next to a pond overhung with weeping willows, and near the fine Church of the Dormition, are a medley of delightful bronze statues, one of Gogol himself and the others a gallery of some of his often hilarious characters/caricatures. Reaching for my camera i was careful to include a duck house in the background of one of the photographs i took, because of its association with British politicians and their expenses fiddling, about which Gogol would have been absolutely ruthless. To give an idea of Gogol’s humour, the following excerpt is from The Nose, one of his satirical short stories about St Petersburg officialdom:

 “The Inspector [of Police] was a great patron of the arts and industry, but most of all he loved government banknotes. ‘There’s nothing finer than banknotes,’ he used to say. ‘They don’t need feeding, take up very little room and slip nicely into the pocket. And they don’t break if you drop them.’”

   Another short story of Gogol’s, set in Mirgorod itself, is the riotously funny How Ivan Ivanovich quarrelled with Ivan Nikiforovich; comedic titans of 19th century literature, who take pride of place among the statues, with a goose. That tale famously ends with the words; “It’s a depressing world, gentlemen”, but fundamentally, less so for having been sent up by Gogol. The only health warning must be that, in an age with a meagre understanding of racial stereotyping, he occasionally very crudely directed his satire against Jews – but Charles Dickens, for instance, was guilty of more or less the same offence.
   In mid afternoon i took my leave of Mirgorod, and later accepted another offer of a lift. After dark i found an abandoned windmill, offering a certain kudos in the accommodation stakes, but although one could get inside it, there was no space uncluttered enough to sleep on, so i gambled on dry weather and bedded down beside it. Next morning, the 3rd of May, dedicated to SS. Philip and James (the Less), sunny as ever, i arrived in pretty Velyki Sorochyntsi, Gogol’s birthplace, and made for the splendid Church of the Transfiguration in which he was baptised, though it was closed. At the museum, good on flora and fauna as well as local history up to and through the soviet period, i mustered my best Russian to put a message in the visitors’ book: “Remarkable! I never would have guessed that there could be such a beautiful, interesting museum in such a relatively with [sic] small village”, which was fine, except, and the lady in the museum was very clear on this point, “It’s a big village!”

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