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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If the English royal family seemed comically outdated half a millennium ago, then it’s hardly surprising in our modern democratic age that some of today’s Russians find the pomp and ceremony of the reign of Queen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.

If Winter Comes

In the Russian soul it’s always winter, as the saying goes. Much of Russian literature too exists in a state of hibernation. It’s a survival strategy, as in nature, a way of adapting to adverse weather conditions. But the good news from the bookshelves is that the desolation of winter doesn’t have to be depressing. The Russian winter can be long and lustrous, a kind of deity, as Prince Vyazemsky claimed in “The Russian God” (1828), which is a poem about blizzards.

Nobody reads Vyazemsky these days but his best friend Alexander Pushkin alluded to that poem in chapter ten of Eugene Onegin, where he notes that a survival strategy can work not just for individuals but for the nation as a whole. “The storm of the year 1812 happened. Who helped us then?” asks Pushkin. “Winter or the Russian God,” whose freezing blizzards reduced Napoleon’s Grand Armée from an original force of 700,000 troops advancing on Moscow in the summer of that year to approximately 15,000 by December when they crossed the river Nieman back into Lithuania. Another of Vyazemsky’s winter caricatures, “First Snow”, furnishes the epigraph (“To live it hurries and to feel it hastens”) to Onegin, which is not only the greatest work in Russian literature but also contains the most beautiful lines about ice, snow and frost. Its heroine personifies a state of hibernation:

Tatiana (being Russian in her soul,
And not knowing why)
Loved the Russian winter
With its cold beauty.

Her pre-Freudian dream of being swept away by Onegin in the form of a bear that emerges from a snowdrift recalls the star-crossed lovers of Pushkin’s most romantic story, “The Blizzard”, in which a perfect storm stands in plotwise for the Friar and sleeping draught of Romeo and Juliet. It has a happier (or weirder) ending, though, and a good translation by Ronald Wilks can be found in The Tales of Belkin and Other Prose Writings (Penguin).

The Russian god of 1812 is the backdrop for Tolstoy’s famous account, in War and Peace, of Count Pierre Bezukhov stalking Napoleon through Moscow and off again into the harsh winter. The novel’s counterpart in the twentieth century, Life and Fate by Vasily Grossman (in a brilliant translation by Robert Chandler, recently dramatized on BBC Radio Four), actually contains superior descriptions of a foreign invasion coming to grief on a winter battlefield.

It’s hard to forget Grossman’s journalistic sketch of snow falling not on cedars, but on the ears of dead men at Stalingrad. “It was as though flakes of silence were falling on the still Volga, on the dead city, on the skeletons of horses. It was snowing everywhere, on earth and on the stars; the whole universe was full of snow…This soft, white snow settling over the carnage of the city was time itself; the present was turning into the past, and there was no future.”

Perhaps that memorability owes something to the fact that Grossman, unlike Tolstoy, was writing with a first-hand knowledge of Stalingrad, as a former war correspondent for the Red Army newspaper, Krasnaya Zvezda.

The dream sequence in Onegin always comes to mind when I think of poor Yuri Zhivago in Boris Pasternak’s novel hallucinating in the Siberian taiga and imagining that he sees his beloved Lara’s arms in the outstretched branches of a snow-laden bush. In the white landscape his void is a blackness so deep and frozen that a reader senses it will never thaw.

On a lighter note, it might be worth saying that the best joke about the Russian winter occurs in an American film. In Groundhog Day, Bill Murray’s weatherman kills time (literally) by sermonizing to the good people of Punxsutawney. “When Chekhov saw the long winter, he saw a winter bleak and dark and bereft of hope,” he says one time around.

That’s funny, of course, but it’s not strictly true. For Chekhov, the Russian winter was always full of hope, not least because the promise of spring is almost the main imaginative theme of Chekhov’s plays. If we can only find snowboots thick enough, his characters seem to be saying, if we can only hold out until it comes!

In the short story “Misery”, which is modeled on “The Blizzard”, a sledgedriver is buried alive in the snow, “all white, like a ghost, with snow-plastered eyelashes,” like the clowns blown away in a Buryat blizzard in Angela Carter’s astonishing Nights at the Circus.

As Irina says to Olga in Chekhov’s Three Sisters: “The time will come, and everyone will know the meaning of all this, why there is all this suffering, and there won’t be any mysteries, but meanwhile, we must go on living. It’s already autumn, soon it will be winter, the snow will fall, but I will go on working.” Here the joke is the same as in Vyazemsky’s “First Snow”. The odd thing about the Russian winter is that it starts in the autumn.

Reproduced with permission of the Moscow Times