A few years ago I had the dubious pleasure of putting on a musical in Moscow, in fact I have already written a rather jaunty account of what turned out to be something of a debacle. There was one particular experience that, at the time, I left out of that account for no other reason that it was slightly out of kilter with the day to day absurdities of that production.
The musical in question was being promoted locally by a rather desperate character and things were fairly chaotic but we were fortunate in having most of our dealings with an experienced Muscovite production manager, Yuri, who spoke good English. However these qualities were not enough to protect us from the appalling workmanship of the local scenery contractors, the taciturn idleness of the local crew and the open hostility of the venue management. In the best Brit tradition we plodded stoically on and I did my best not to lose my temper, as day after day, scenery would fail to be delivered and even when it did arrive was of questionable quality.
One particular set, consisting of a pair of large gates flanked on either side by a length of crumbling wall, the whole stretching across the full width of the stage, gave me particular pause. In pure construction terms what had been delivered bore some resemblance to the drawings that we had supplied but the paint finish, a sunny ochre stucco, ideal for a ‘Figaro’ or ‘Barber of Seville’, was not remotely appropriate for the 21st century post-modern parable that we were engaged on. Grey concrete mottled with lichen and spattered with pigeon shit was what we were after, so I called over Yuri and explained what had to done and needless to say he shrugged and said that there was no time for a repaint. I suggested an overnighter and he turned to the painters who were standing nearby. There were three of them, the boss, Sergei, was tall and gloomy, there was a spotty youth whose name I never learnt and there was Irina. Irina was extremely fat, extremely old and mostly drunk but I had noticed in passing that while her work rate was nothing special she, of the three, was the only one with any real skill as a scenic artist. Yuri asked if they fancied the overtime call and was refused, then he demanded that they take the call and finally he pleaded with them to do it. The men walked away but Irina gave me a sarcastic smile and said “How I know what to do?” Yes, Irina spoke a certain amount of English.
“I’ll be here” I said “I’ll tell you what to do”
“All night?” she asked.
“OK I do it.” She said and gave me a drunken leer. At this point I started to have doubts about the wisdom of the enterprise because when I say that Irina was mostly drunk in fact she was always drunk. She was forever shuffling off into the wings and taking a swig from a bottle in her vast handbag. She wore a thick paint splashed skirt, layers of ragged pullovers and heavy work boots. If you stood close to her the smell of unwashed woman pickled in vodka was not unlike that of standing next to a bucket of paint stripper. In short I had just decided to spend all night working on stage with a bag-lady.
Before the normal evening shift finished I made sure that the set we needed to paint was pushed onto the centre of the stage, that the electricians left us sufficient light to work in and that we had the theatre’s one rickety step ladder handy. Irina and I had already worked out a division of labour, I was to knock the whole set in dark grey and she would follow on behind me splattering and glazing to give the appropriately weathered look. As the rest of the crew left to do whatever Muscovite stage crews do after hours we made a start. I began to slosh grey paint around with great abandon and Irina huffed and puffed around mixing colour washes and glazes. We started to talk, Irina’s English was not great but we managed to get by with the occasional use of the tiny Russian Dictionary in my briefcase. In the cause of clarity I have tidied up her English in order to make this account of our night together readable.
I was curious to know her age but was too gallant to ask. She could have been a raddled fifty year old ravaged by years of hard drinking or a surprising seventy year old, surviving despite years of hard drinking but as she told me a little about her life it appeared that even my high estimate was probably on the low side. She had painted backcloths for the legendary designer Fedorovsky at the Bolshoi in the sixties and had worked at Lyubimov’s Taganka Theatre in the eighties. In fact as she stumped around the stage she mentioned a couple of dozen other theatres or companies unknown to me and I started to suspect that in a country where jobs are often for life her speckled career path might have something to do with the amount that she drank. At about 2.00am she stopped talking about herself and asked.
“Hey. You want me to tell you something about this theatre?”
All I knew so far was that the theatre, the Estrada, had been built in the 1930s as part of an apartment complex that was designed to accommodate Party bigwigs from the Kremlin a mere Kalashnikov shot away.
“Stalin built this and all the apartments for his buddies” she waved a brush around her head liberally spattering the floor with yellow ochre. “They were the most luxurious apartments in Moscow at that time but I tell you something about these apartments. During the Terror not one of them escaped a visit from the NKVD or KGB.. They would come in the night. Sometimes, if they were lucky, the residents would end up in the Gulag, or they might just be killed in the corridors, their bodies left as a warning to others. The unlucky ones were taken to be tortured, to watch their family being tortured, to see their children hanging on meat hooks. I tell you Englishman you have no idea what went on here”. She had dropped her earlier bantering tone and was suddenly speaking with great intensity.
“I tell you something else about this theatre Englishman. The night they arrested the murderer Beria, you know who I mean, Beria, the monster who thought he would take over from Stalin?”
“Yes I know who Beria was.” I replied. He was almost beyond evil even by the high standards set by Stalin’s Russia.
“The night that Krushchev had Beria arrested he sent his men down here, they knew that a gang of Beria’s guys were in watching the show. They locked all the doors and dragged them out one by one and shot them in the Foyer, they say the blood was ankle deep”.
“Christ I didn’t know!” I said thinking of the chilly impersonal marble foyer that existed just beyond the doors at the back of the auditorium.
There was silence for a while then she said “I danced here then.”
“What here? On this stage?”
“Yes I was a dancer then. I was sixteen”
“I was sixteen. My father played the fiddle. He sat over there and played, I danced. We were what you call a special. Is special the right word?”
“Maybe you mean novelty. You were a novelty act” I said
“Yeah maybe a novelty act.” She sniffed and then wiped her nose on the sleeve of her jumper. After a moment she went upstage behind the set that we were painting. I carried on with the grey, making the most of her absence to grab the stepladder and get to some top bits of the wall. I saw her come back out of the corner of my eye. She walked straight downstage to where the light was brightest. I turned to look and nearly fell off the ladder. Apart from her boots and socks she was completely naked and it wasn’t the sagging flesh, the puckered thighs or the vast breasts that she wanted to show me, it was every inch of her body from neck to ankle that was special because every inch was tattooed and what tattoos! These days tattoos are fashionable, the stuff of coffee table books and Sunday supplement articles and I would guess not many between the ages of twenty and thirty don’t have one, but not tattoos like these. Whoever had worked on Irina was a true artist, there were Tartar princes, scimitar wielding warriors, unicorns, wolves, waterfalls, icy mountains, forests, sailing ships, giants and dwarves.
I stood on the step ladder with a brush in one hand and a can of paint in the other with my mouth open, not sure what to say. “My what nice tattoos you have.” didn’t seem right for the situation. Instead I said “Turn round.”
She did and a medieval army was marshalled at the base of her spine, an eagle clutching a bleeding serpent in its talons on one shoulder, a crescent moon rising over a silvery lake on the other, a princess was entwined with a dragon on her right thigh. The level of detail was extraordinary and the composition spectacular.
“It’s amazing. It’s beautiful. You’re beautiful.” I said
“Yeah yeah OK” she dropped back into her normal ironic manner and she went back upstage, returning fully clothed a few minutes later.
“Who did the tattoos?” I asked.
“My uncle. He was the finest tattooist in the Caucasus, maybe in all Russia. We were a circus family from Georgia, my mother was a trapeze artist, her sister had an act with horses and my father was a musician. I was a disappointment to them, I didn’t have the knack for the trapeze and I hated horses so the family decided that I should become a tattooed lady.”
“Did you mind?”
“How could I mind? In my family everybody had to earn their keep, I had to do something, so, no, I didn’t mind”.
She reclaimed the ladder from me and starting glazing the wall.
“In those days there was a sort of unofficial cabaret circuit in Russia. Most city or district Party committees ran some sort of late night event. Maybe once a month. My father and I travelled all over Russia, we did OK, we were looked after. One day we got a message to come to Moscow, to this theatre. This was a big step up for us. We normally played tractor factory canteens and so on, so we were very nervous. The act was simple, my father played a jolly country tune on his accordion, I took my clothes off and then posed for a bit to show off the tattoos. That was all, the tattoos did it. Oh and I was a very pretty girl then.” She laughed and the stepladder rattled and squeaked as she did.
“After our third night two men came into our dressing room. They didn’t knock, they just walked in and said “Come with us”. I was only wearing a dressing gown and my father protested but they just grabbed us and took us down the stairs, out of the stage door and into a car. We passed people on the corridor as we went and they looked away, they knew that we were going to be killed. In the car they put hoods over our heads and told us to be quiet, even so I could hear my father muttering prayers and I had never heard a single religious word come out of his mouth until then. I just thought this is not fair, we’ve done nothing and I started to cry. One of the men told me to shut up but then said “Don’t worry everything’s OK” and I thought maybe they’re not going to kill us after all. We drove for a long time, maybe two hours, Eventually we stopped and there were conversations that we couldn’t quite make out but we could hear gates opening and then we could hear that we were on gravel . When the car finally stopped they whipped the hoods off and we could see that we were outside the front doors of a big house and that there were lights on in the hall. A tall man in a black suit came down the steps and poked his head in the window and he said ‘Good you’re here, better late than never. Come with me”. We got out of the car and followed him into the house and I noticed that one of the men that had brought us had taken my father’s fiddle out of the trunk of the car, then I knew that we weren’t going to be killed we were going to perform.
In the hall the tall man, who was a butler or something, looked at me and then turned to the man carrying the violin and said “You didn’t bring her clothes?” and when the man shook his head the butler raised his eyes to heaven and took me by the hand, through a door and down some stairs into the kitchens. He told the two women working there to bring a hair brush, a mirror and some make-up. “You have ten minutes so do the best you can” he said to me and patted my shoulder. When I was ready we went back upstairs and my father and I were ushered into a small sitting room, .in the corner was an old man with a blanket over his knees. The butler indicated a chair to my father and then using another chair he helped me get up on to a table in the middle of the room. I thought ‘Who is this old man and why are we performing here’ then I recognised him and I nearly fainted. You have already guessed I’m sure, but it was Stalin himself, his skin was yellow, his hair white and his moustache, that famous moustache, was wispy and thin”
“So you danced for Stalin?” I said. I was staggered.
“Yes.I was shocked because of course we were fed propaganda images of the Great Leader from ten years earlier, we were never shown this old man on our weekly newsreels. Anyway, I looked at my father, who was petrified, he obviously knew who we were playing for, and I gave him the signal to start. I did the best I could with just my dressing gown and was down to just the tattoos pretty quickly but it was OK,I could see the old man start to smile and tap his foot in time to the music, he was a Georgian too you know. At the end of the routine he beckoned me to come to him and examined my tattoos very closely, he made the butler bring one of the table lamps closer so that he could see better. He was amazed, he shook his head in wonderment, he didn’t touch me, but he traced some of the images with his finger just a millimetre or two from my skin. Then he waved us away and slumped back in the chair and it was all over. The butler helped me into my dressing gown and in a moment my father and I were back in the hall where everyone was happy, they were relieved that we had done well because, perhaps, their lives depended on it. The guys who had driven us from Moscow slapped us on the back as they led us back to the car and they were really apologetic when they put the hoods back on. We were about to drive away when we heard the butler come back and talk for a couple of minutes to our escorts. We couldn’t make out what he said but the mood suddenly became more serious.
They took us back to the apartment where we were staying and once the hoods were off the one who wasn’t driving turned to us and said that he had been instructed to tell us that under no circumstances were we to continue performing our routine or to exhibit my tattoos in any way. We would receive instructions on what we were to do in the next few days.
This was a catastrophe for us and we couldn’t believe it after our success with the Great Leader but then two days later my father got a letter informing him that he was to take a senior musical position with a Georgian folk dance troupe in Tblisi. On the same day I also received a letter instructing me to report to the scene painting department of the Bolshoi Theatre here in Moscow where I was to be an apprentice, a much sought after position, though I didn’t know that the time”.
“So the reason that you are here with me tonight is because Stalin arranged it” I said
“Yes, because I danced naked on a table for Josef Stalin. I could have been dancing for my life you know, in a way that’s what everyone in Russia did in those days, they danced for their lives naked on Stalin’s table. I was lucky and here I am with you Englishman, you and this fucking wall”.