How the small Scottish town of Moffat came to have Russian conferences – The first six years: 2012 -2017
How does anything start? There are immediate – proximate – causes, and more distant – ultimate – ones.
As co-founder of the Moffat Russian Conferences (MRC), now in their seventh year, I cannot remember what first aroused my interest in Russia. My father had a book in his library at the top of the house, ‘Woman of Berlin’, which I read in secret as a child because it contained accounts of rape as well as pillage by the Red Army. I had been at No 11 Downing Street in 1956 to greet Soviet Premiers Bulganin and Khrushchev when they arrived to meet the then Prime Minister. I was at No 11 because a family friend worked there for Harold Macmillan, who was then Chancellor of the Exchequer and soon after became Prime Minister. I asked to learn Russian in 1958 at my boarding or ‘public’ (in other words private) school, Benenden in Kent, where the only connection with Russia, we used to say, was that there was no barrier between us and bitter winds from Siberia in winter when we were on the lacrosse pitches.
The Headmistress of Benenden told my father that she regretted that Russian lessons could not be arranged, so he and I flew to Switzerland where an international English boarding school, St George’s near Montreux offered not only to teach me Russian but had far better food than Benenden. My Russian teacher was Irina Findlow nee Kaigorodov, whose grandfather had been botany teacher to Tsar Alexander III.
Her husband John Findlow was the Anglican incumbent at St John’s, Territet. He had been chaplain at our embassies in Rome and Greece, and spoke Italian and Greek as well as Russian. I lodged with the Findlow family (they had two daughters, Maria and Anna) during term time; we spoke Russian and – even more important – ate Russian at the little vicarage in Territet under the funicular railway which led up the mountain to Glion where all sorts of interesting people lived – Noel Coward and Elizabeth Thorneycroft, twin sister of another Chancellor of the Exchequer, John, as well as a colony of White Russians. The Findlow’s young home help was Gisela, a refugee ‘Balt’ – all this was an education.
The immediate cause of Moffat’s Russian conferences was my invitation in 2011 to an old Russian family friend and work colleague, the late and much-lamented Ekaterina Genieva, director of the State Library for Foreign Literature in Moscow, to stay for a few days in Moffat. I had moved there in 2010 from the house I had built in my spruce forest in south Lanarkshire. On that visit, she quickly became a familiar sight in this historic small (2,500 pop.) spa town. Apart from her many other gifts, she was a dedicated shopper and present-giver. She discovered a shop selling antique jewellery in Well St, and the irresistible Moffat Mill outlet, part of the Edinburgh Woollen Mill retail empire.
During that first visit, we discussed organising an international conference in Moffat, about a figure of mutual personal as well as public interest, the Russian Orthodox priest Father Alexander Men’. He had been Katya’s (Ekaterina’s) parish priest at his small country church at Novaya Derevnya northwest of Moscow and had baptised my elder daughter Abi at his church there at Easter 1990 when she was living with Katya and her family to complete the requirements of her Russian course at university. Men’ was murdered a few months after he baptised Abi, an incalculable loss to Russia and the world.
A Men’ conference committee was set up and met in Moffat, chaired by Dr Donald Smith, then director of the Church of Scotland’s John Knox House and Netherbow theatre (now The Scottish Story-Telling Centre http://www.tracscotland.org/scottish-storytelling-centre) in Edinburgh. The other members of the committee were: the Rev Dr Ann Shukman, a Russianist who lived locally like me – we had co-edited a book of Alexander Men’s work ‘Christianity for the Twenty-First Century’ for SCM Press; secretary Marilyn Elliot; the Rev Adam Dillon of St Andrew’s Church, Moffat, myself and a young woman event organiser based in Melrose. Ann and I sponsored the conference, which was held in September 2012 at the Moffat House hotel see http://www.transpositions.co.uk/the-alexander-men-conference-2012-14-17-september/www.alexandermenconference2012.com
The conference was a success, and Katya immediately suggested we put on another with a Russian theme in 2013. This one was to be on translation, and this time was held under the auspices of a Moffat Book Events SC042782 that I had co-founded with Marilyn Elliott, first as a ‘community group’, then as a formally-registered Scottish charity, when I first came to stay in Moffat in 2010.
Moffat Russian Conferences were therefore born, like the Clyde River, from the conjoining of two smaller streams, — in the case of the Clyde it is the Daer and Potrail Water, which rise in the hills above the valley in south Lanarkshire where they become the Clyde. A great megalith, known as ‘the crooked stone’ or ‘Crookedstane’ marks the spot.
After ‘Translation’ in 2013, MRC organised ‘Lermontov’ in 2014, ‘Tolstoy’ in 2015, ‘Poetry and Power’ in 2016 and this year ‘The Russian Phoenix – art and literature in the era of the 1905 and 1917 revolutions’.
‘Poetry and Power’ was the last conference that Katya was involved in before her premature death from pancreatic cancer in July that year. I told her that Tsar Nicholas I had stayed aged 20, when he was only a Grand Duke, on an ‘educational tour’ of Scotland, at the Annandale Arms hotel in Moffat. She immediately said that the 2016 conference should be about patronage – Nicholas had insisted on being Pushkin’s personal censor, and we all know about Stalin’s relationship with Pasternak and other artists.
The last time we met was in June 2016, in the early evening, at a Russian embassy flat in London, a rather spartanly-furnished place. She was clearly dying, and knew it, but she told me that I was the 11th meeting she had had that day. She worked at that intensity all the time I knew her. At one time, she employed two cars and two drivers round the clock to accommodate her fiendish work rate. She knew everyone from the Pope to the President of the USA, and was loved and respected by them all. Her staff had a notice board with photographs of her with a number of eminent men from Henry Kissinger to George Soros, all without exception looking at her the way men must have looked at Catherine the Great, drawn in by her charm and utterly bewitched.
Such people, of course, are extremely rare. I count myself lucky to have known her, and to have been privileged to see how she worked. She treated her staff like her family. She addressed people whatever their rank with strings of affectionate diminutives, as is only possible in Russian. No-one worked harder than she did, and under her the ship of the State Library for Foreign Literature sailed on majestically, with wind in her sails, magnificent to behold. She looked people in the eye when introduced, with her head slightly on one side. She was always immaculately turned out in appropriate suits or dresses, with some discreet jewellery, well-coiffed. She was also, vitally, a devout Orthodox Christian. The family icons were in the ‘red corner’ – the place of honour in a living room – first of their flat in a distant suburb then when she was made Director of the State Library of Foreign Literature, in a magnificent and spacious apartment directly opposite the Union of Writers, formerly the palace of the family which Tolstoy called ‘the Rostov’s’ in his ‘War and Peace’, where Natasha famously danced.
That, my friends, is a fraction of the story of how Moffat Russian Conferences (MRC) came to be born, and now flourish in their 7th year.
MRC 26-28 October 2018 will be on ‘Turgenev 1818-1883 – his life, work and times’. For video clips of our 2017 conference see one short video:
and one long one:
our website is www.moffatrussianconferences.com and see our Moffat Russian Conferences Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/moffatrussianconferences/
Elizabeth Roberts 17/11/17 © RussiaKnowledge