Diaspora Is Draining Russia

There was kharcho and borshch and solyanka on the menu; pickled vegetables, herrings, pelmeni and khinkali. The proprietor's mother made a delicious flaky cake to go with the Armenian coffee. And the scary-looking guys with the mobile phones at the next table sent over a couple of bottles of 20-year-old Moldovan cabernet sauvignon, before standing up to drink our health.

After dinner, full and happy, we crammed into a taxi and drove to the north of the city, to where the great clown Slava Polunin lives in a sprawling commune. There were painters, academics; writers, broadcasters, musicians and installation artists there. Children ran everywhere; they even stayed up for the fireworks. And Boris Grebenshchikov, the guitarist-poet, sang his soft melodic songs by candlelight after the fireworks as we waited for the historian Edik Radzinsky to appear.

It was one of those great, maundering, fuggy, intense, drunken Russian evenings, in which real life is suspended and there seems nothing important beyond the intimacy of the moment. The trouble was that it took place not in Moscow or St. Petersburg, but in London, where old Russia -- the best of Russia -- seems to have recreated itself in exile. It was Grebenshchikov's birthday. It was time for a celebration.

One of the ironies of life these days in Moscow and St. Petersburg is that what's being bought and built here (for the most part) are service industries that peddle Western culture as the expression of ultimate value. If you want to have an echt Russian evening-out in either of these cities (and not scare yourself to death in the process), it's actually rather hard to do. In London, on the other hand, there are safe Russian restaurants (like Nova's on Westbourne Grove); regular Russian band nights in various clubs and venues, and concert performances by everyone from the comedian Mikhail Zhvanetsky to the romance-singer Sasha Podbolotov. There's a Russian film club, a Russian newspaper. There are Russian dentists and doctors. The Russian community in London has the feel of the old Moscow and St. Petersburg networks under Communism, fed by gossip and friendship, by connection and exchange.

The downside of all of this is that some of the most talented Russian artists now live, not in Moscow or St. Petersburg (as I can't help feeling they should), but in London and elsewhere in Britain (supported in some cases by precisely the people who are importing the West to Russia and then exporting the money they make back again in the form of houses and bank accounts and compensatory Russians in exile). Others spend as much time there as they can, like front-line soldiers taking R and R. Grebenshchikov and his family, for example, have been sojourning in the north of England for a while, not far from where Nautilus Pompilius have been making a record. In Glasgow, there's Edvard Bersudsky and his Sharmanka Theater. Lev Dodin's Maly Theatre in St. Petersburg has to travel to the West just to earn the money to keep it going. And Radzinsky has to finance his forays into the Russian archives with advances from foreign publishers.

Edik didn't make Boris' birthday party. He was being harried by journalists at the time, he said, and desperately needed sleep. Still, I'd already introduced them the day before over dinner. And though they seemed a truly unlikely pair -- Boris tall and courteous, Buddhist, with distant music in his head; and Edik compact and scatter-gun, full of stories and anecdotes, with the delivery of a stand-up comedian -- they hit it off.

Boris seemed pleased with the songs he's been writing in England. And Edik -- whose book "The Last Tsar" was a big success in the West and whose series on Stalin begins on Russian television next month -- was positively cock-a-hoop with his recent discovery of "lost" letters between "the mad monk" Rasputin and the Tsarina Alexandra, as well as depositions given to a tribunal on Rasputin set up by the Provisional Government in 1917.

Both men were strangely (for them) pessimistic about the outlook for Russia. Boris talked about a besetting sense of sin here, which only the young would ever be able to exorcise. And Edik, as always, drew historical parallels: "Theft, lawlessness, the gap between rich and poor, the contempt of the bourgeois for the peasant: It's like a re-run of the pre-Revolutionary period, and I have to say I am not so optimistic."

I began to worry that night that they too might ultimately bleed away into a "real" Russia that's now being created overseas, the Russia of a second gathering diaspora.