A Russian visitor to the English court in Virginia Woolf’s novel Orlando, which is set during the reign of the first Elizabeth, sits down at a royal banquet and asks disbelievingly, “Is that figure of fun at the end of the table with her hair rigged up like a Maypole really the Queen?”
If the English royal family seemed comically outdated half a millennium ago, then it’s hardly surprising in our modern democratic age that some of today’s Russians find the pomp and ceremony of the reign of Queen Elizabeth II, who celebrates her Diamond Jubilee this week, a little bewildering to say the least.
Tourism demands that the UK pageant never stops. Last year the set piece at the centre of the processions and parades, with all its horse-drawn carriages and uniformed guards, its liveried footmen and bemedalled courtiers, and the fancifully quaint titles of the aristocratic nomenclature, was a royal wedding. Yet in this age of Hello-magazine matrimonial photospreads, the images of Will and Kate kissing like a couple of celebs on the balcony at Buckingham Palace made perfect sense to everybody.
The Diamond Jubilee, on the other hand, celebrates the institution of the monarchy itself, and its longevity, something less obviously connected to the rest of modern life.
Ten years ago, I was living in Moscow at the time of the Queen’s Golden Jubilee and watched some of the coverage on the Russian TV, with a group of friends who had grown up in the Soviet Union, with a different kind of nomenklatura.
One of them, a sixty-year-old woman by the name of Tamara, took delight in collapsing any difference between the Queen of England and the Queen of Hearts, in Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. “Off with their heads!” Tamara chuckled whenever the face of Her Majesty appeared onscreen.
Just as there is no answer to the Mad Hatter’s riddle, the success of the UK monarchy is a mystery, a kind of fairy tale that most of my Russian friends seldom encounter outside of Oscar-winning films like The King’s Speech and The Queen.
The Hollywood-style popularity of the UK monarchy sometimes gives rise to confusion among Russian movie fans. Last year, in Siberia, I was asked if the royal stammer was really a kind of noblesse oblige. Once, in the cafeteria of Moscow’s Lenin Library, I had a long conversation with a bibliophile who felt strongly that it was unwise for an elderly Queen to go rescuing red deer from gun-toting stalkers in the Scottish Highlands.
On the other hand, of course, it’s worth pointing out that the British royal family is not so very alien from Russian life and history, by virtue of its unhappy links to the Romanov dynasty: King George V was a cousin of Nicholas II, after all, which explains why one of the present Queen’s nephews, Prince Michael of Kent looks like a doppelganger of the dead tsar.
Once I was standing in front of Petersburg’s Cathedral of St. Peter and St. Paul as Prince Michael emerged into the courtyard from the sepulchral gloom, prompting momentary panic on the faces of a group of Orthodox pilgrims who were unprepared for the second coming of the last emperor.
Some Russians find Queen Elizabeth rather dowdy. But then so do some Brits – and, in a way, that is part of her charm. Recently I was asked to escort some Russian oligarchs around London’s tourist sites. I had the whole day planned out, Big Ben, the Tower of London etc, but in fact all they wanted to see was the Abbey Road zebra crossing and Madame Tussaud’s. Buckingham Palace was dismissed out of hand because the Queen was not sufficiently bling. “She’s worn the same coat for 10 years,” the oligarch’s wife said with a look of horror.
On another occasion, as a tourist rather than a tour-guide, I found myself at the Buddhist temple of Ivolginsk in the Siberian republic of Buryatia, on a cold February day when the flags were out to celebrate lunar New Year.
On the porch of the temple, with its Buddhist carvings, the deer of Benares, the Wheel of the Law, the chief priest Bayir looked surprised to see me as he took a lungful of minus-30-degree air.
“I’ve never been to England,” he told me. “I was born here in Buryatia and would never leave. But I know from books that it rains in England every day and then you have your Elizabeth, your Queen of Hearts!” he added, deliberately confusing the two looking-glass worlds of Lewis Carroll and the British monarchy across a vast distance of geography and time.