As the Easter festival approaches, I’m reminded of a journey taken one April weekend more than two decades ago, from Moscow to St Petersburg, that city first introduced to many of us through Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment. It was a glorious if somewhat monotonous train ride, with snow laden pine and aspen forests slipping past the window hour after hour, but the rich diversity of the destination made these hours more than worthwhile. Although the Neva River was still thick with ice, the hopefulness of spring was visible amongst the Easter cakes which lay ready to be blessed in every church.
At the time, I was travelling once a month from London to oversee the setting up of an education programme at Moscow’s ‘Apothecary Garden’. Established in 1706 by Peter the Great the original purpose of the garden was to grow medicinal plants for the Russian Academy of Military Surgeons, but almost 300 years later, it had been all but abandoned. It had the irresistible allure of all such forgotten corners and despite being very close to one of the city’s main arterial roads, the gardens were a tranquil place where red squirrels danced through the overgrown arboretum and all manner of pond-life thrived in the abandoned pools. Palm trees continued to grow out through the roofs of the glasshouses, kept alive through the city’s fierce winters, thanks to Moscow’s district heating system which continued to pump warmth through the network of cast iron pipes. This micro-climate supported its own micro-economy and a handful of enterprising individuals tended the wild orchids that grew in these tropical conditions and harvested them for sale at the nearby Prospect Mira Metro station – a glorious Soviet-Baroque masterpiece.
The first time I encountered the gardens, the Botany Dept. of the University of Moscow had embarked on an ambitious plan to restore the site, and I was acting on behalf of BP, whose Moscow office had agreed to contribute to the effort. My job was to find an environmental scientist willing to lead the education programme for schools; to manage the terms of contract and to ensure that the money BP was contributing was spent exactly on what had been agreed.
Over the months that followed, I learnt a lot. First, that science education in Moscow, even that aimed at primary school kids, was far more rigorous than anything I had seen, either as a parent or as a Chair of Governors for an East London primary school. Second, I learnt that the concept of truth is entirely different in different societies. When agreeing the details of the contract, I asked our university partner to nominate a date for completion of the new school room at the garden. Within hours of signing, he told me it was likely to be completed much later in the year. Exasperated, I asked “Alexei, why didn’t you just tell me the truth?” Came the reply “I always prefer to tell you the truth Victoria, but it isn’t always possible.”
At the heart of Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment, is the question of whether, under certain circumstances, immoral action can be justified. We teach our children that it is morally wrong to lie, but what if telling the truth led to a far greater evil? My friends in Moscow had grown up in a system where being too liberal with the truth could lead to injustice, imprisonment or even death. It had made them circumspect with the truth in even the most anodyne situations; much better to tell people what they wanted to hear.
As we left the gardens and continued our discussion on the merit of truth versus lies, Alexei pointed up to the big red sign opposite the Metro which advertised the news agency PRAVDA. “Pravda means truth.” he explained, “It is one of two Russian news agencies. The other is called Novosti, which means news” “And?” I asked, somewhat confused. “And, we have a saying here in Russia. ‘There is no truth in the news, and no news in the truth’.”
Victoria Preston’s book ‘We are Pilgrims – Journeys in Search of Ourselves‘ will be published on April 9th – available by post from Waterstones, Amazon, Foyles etc.