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Pole to Pole

Day 29: Leningrad

Michael Palin - Pole to PoleThe afternoon is almost as bizarre. I spend it in the company of Edward Bersudsky, who works in a small studio making what he calls his 'kinematic sculptures'. These are intricate machines, assembled in Heath Robinson style, which turn, whirr and animate in an hour-long performance.

One is called 'The Great Idea' and features a wooden Karl Marx in a loincloth, turning an old-fashioned handle to set in motion a manic scrapheap of cogs and pulleys, springs, levers and flywheels. Another construction, called somewhat forbiddingly 'An Autumn Walk during the Epoch of Perestroika', brings to life a suitcase from which appears a skeletal hand, a pair of automatically walking army boots on a red bentwood chair, an accordion which plays itself, a German helmet complete with lavatory chain, and a rocket which springs erect and with a loud pop discharges a tiny ball, very slowly. Edward sees his machines as a symbol of order rather than disorder. He wants to show that we are all at the mercy of the circle of life and death and paradise and hell. Everything moves but remains in place. The Hindus call it Sansara. He calls it 'Soviet Absurd'.

We end up drinking tea in a friendly, cluttered kitchen behind the studio. The tablecloth is a Soviet map of the world, but Edward has never been out of the country. He's Jewish, one of the 'nationalities' for whom travel is difficult. He is about to go abroad for the first time, to show his work at the Glasgow Festival, but his passport will still make specific mention of the fact that he is Jewish. As a soft sunlight warms the room I feel for a moment as if I'm back at home on one of those Sunday afternoons when time slows down and people drop in and the talk goes round like one of Edward's machines. I find Edward and his helpers very sympathetic. Kindred souls, I suppose. He laughs a lot. He says the Russians all do. They couldn't survive without laughter.

'And politics?' I ask.

He makes a face. 'We're sick of politics! . . . We've had politics for the last seventy years!'
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PALIN'S GUIDES

  • Series: Pole to Pole
  • Day: 29
  • Country/sea: USSR
  • Place: Leningrad
  • Book page no: 65

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