Rutherfurd on Rutherfurd


Q. In your second book, Russka, you told the story of Russia. Why did you choose that subject?

A. My grandfather, though English, lived abroad, including a period in Russia during Tsarist times. My oldest aunt spoke quite fluent Russian. Some of the first music I ever remember was the Russian music, especially Prince Igor, that my father liked to play. Russian music, it seems to me, from liturgical chant to Prokofiev, has a special sense of space that one doesn't find elsewhere. As a boy, it was always a haunting subject in my imagination.

Q. You were retracing your grandfather's footsteps?

A. Yes.

Q. In researching the book you travelled to Russia. Were you able to move about freely?

A. Fairly. This was the Gorbachev era. A few of my travel requests were refused, but not many. I made about six trips, on average a month each, travelling alone but usually with an Intourist guide. As well as the obvious places, they let me visit the Golden Ring of ancient cities round Moscow and took me out to Riazan. Also the Baltic, Novgorod, the Ukraine, the Crimea and even Samarkand. There were visits to the houses of Tolstoy, Pushkin, Chekhov, Tchaikovsky, the artist Repin, and the monastery of Optina Pustyn, the setting for part of The Brothers Karamasov. One of my visits to St. Petersburg was during the magical 'White Nights', when it doesn't get dark.

Q. You spoke Russian?

A. Not nearly as well as I'd like, but enough to get by. Russian is a beautiful but difficult language. A writer's language.

Q. Did you read the literary classics like Tolstoy in Russian?

A. In English translation. But passages, and short stories I'd read in Russian, sometimes with an old Russian emigre who coached me. In New York, one could also go to the Russian Orthodox services. The liturgy is beautiful and very moving.

Q. Going round Russia, did you sense that the Soviet Empire was falling apart?

A. The total and sudden collapse was a surprise. But Russia was like what used to be called a 'Potemkin Village' - a big facade behind which lay a very poor and disorganised country. In many ways, even in people's attitudes, as soon as you got past the facade you were in the Tsarist nineteenth century. Even in major provincial cities, people were still getting water from a pump.

Q. Did people talk to you, and what did they say?

A. Some of the more sophisticated ones were astonishingly frank in private. "You realise," one said, "that nobody actually believes in socialism." But the most striking thing was the young. They wanted me to tell them about their history. All the old stalinist history books had been thrown out, but the replacements had not been written. They were uninformed but hugely curious; it was touching. I had some strange adventures in Russia.

Q. I have heard you say that it was hard not to get depressed writing Russka. Why was that?

A. Some aspects of Russia's historic culture are morbid. The book downplays the domestic violence, for instance. When you immerse yourself in a culture and try to live through your characters, whether the story derives from the dark days of Ivan the Terrible or the morbid intensity of Maxim Gorky's childhood, these things can get to you. The great tragedies of Russian history, especially of the Stalinist era, are profoundly moving. Russka took three and a half years to write; by the final chapter I was fairly drained.

Q. You had difficulty finishing the book, I believe.

A. It would have been longer, to be precise, but my US editor then, Betty Prashker, said I had to close it down. I would have gone on for another hundred pages. She'd been a good editor and is a friend. She'd even come out to Russia with me for a week in preparation for the editing. So at the end, she just turned up at our apartment, lay on the sofa, and told my wife and I that she wasn't leaving until I finished. She had to stay there for days!

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