David Manicom has lived briefly in British Columbia. His fourth collection of poetry, The Burning Eaves (Oolichan, 2003), was short-listed for the Governor General’s Literary Awards in 2004. He grew up in rural Toronto and has also lived in Toronto, Montreal, Moscow, Islamabad and Beijing. He currently lives with his family in Quebec. He is a the of a collection of short stories which won the Prix Parizeau, as well as non-fiction memoirs that include Progeny of Ghosts: Travels In Russia and The Old Empire.
Desert Rose, Butterfly Storm (Oolichan, 2009)
Theology of Swallows (Oolichan) 0-88982-109-7
The Older Graces (Oolichan) 0-88982-164-X
Progeny of Ghosts: Travels in Russia and the Old Empire (Oolichan) 0-88982-168-2
The Burning Leaves (Oolichan, 2003)
The School At Chartres (Oolichan, 2005) 0-88982-222-0
Progeny of Ghosts: Travels in Russia and the Old Empire (Oolichan $19.95)
David Manicom arrived in Moscow with his young family in August of 1991, one week after a failed coup attempt. In Progeny of Ghosts: Travels in Russia and the Old Empire (Oolichan $19.95), he describes the ‘fascinating if wrackingly difficult era’ during which the Soviet Union disintegrated into 15 states and Russia reverted to micro-markets on the streets.
“All verities were overthrown,” he says. “A rough parallel to what Soviet and post-Soviet citizens endured week after week would be to wake up in your Canadian suburban home to find frost on the sheets because the power had been off all night, flip on the radio only to hear the CBC announcer reciting solemnly from Mein Kampf...
“...and go out to get the paper by climbing over three weeks of uncollected garbage that the neighbour’s kids are going through looking for something to sell for food, discover the corner store had been firebombed in the night but that an enterprising entrepreneur is selling newspapers in the burned-out shell...
“Mind you the Globe & Mail has gone out of business overnight and Le Devoir has started carrying grainy black-and-white porno on the front page.”
During his first two years with the Canadian embassy, Manicom was interviewing prospective emigrants to Canada. Then he was assigned to reporting on migration issues. This allowed him to travel extensively.
• In Kazakhstan he visits punishment cells inside a turf-covered bunker. The cells are the length and width of a large desk, with ceilings high enough only to permit a school child to stand erect. He crouches inside for 30 seconds; German and Japanese prisoners lived in the cells for years.
• In St. Petersburg, the famous Nevsky Prospeckt boulevard is described as a dirty, cold, ill-lit place. The highlight of his visit is the miraculous purchase of fresh cinammon buns for his family.
• In Minsk, the capital of the new country of Belarus, where 55 per cent of the people want the Soviet Union revived, it’s zero degrees. Thanks to Hitler and Stalin, the number of synagogues has been reduced from over 100 to just one.
In Yekaterinburg, a city the size of Vancouver in western Siberia, he encounters anti-Semites who are belligerent members of the Cossack Army of the Urals.
• In Kiev (pronounced Keev by locals), unable to return home to Moscow, he is told that nobody in their right mind would attempt to buy a train ticket at the ticket office.
• In the 700-year-old streets of Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania, he reflects on Lithuanian nationalism and is thrilled to discover a student coffeehouse so warm that people were actually taking off their coats.
• In the architecturally rich Georgian capital of Tblisi, he hears a burst of machine gun fire and finds the local hotels full of refugees from Abkhazia. A walk-through metal detector has been installed at the main entrance of the best hotel.
“Just beyond, an elegantly scripted little sign on an aluminum stand reads Guests are kindly requested to check their firearms. New arrivals cause loud beeping, and once through the guantlet dutifully hand in their weapons at the coat check. Nevertheless, over drinks in the lobby, one local tough advises a colleague to always have protection, and pats a conspicuous bulge in his suit. But, wonders the tablemate, how do you get past the metal detector? No problem, is the reply. I always carry two. One to hand over, one to keep.”
• In Moscow he visits Pasternak’s grave, goes to the opera where a Coke at intermission costs five times the price of two good seats, and he attends a reception with hockey players Paul Henderson and Russian players Tretiak, Yakushev, Shedrin and Mikhailov.
David Manicom first wrote about Russia for B.C. BookWorld in the spring of 1992. “Since then I tried to write about what I knew. About the people I met, how they lived and survived on a daily basis.”
Despite his diplomatic background, Manicom isn’t averse to making unflattering observations. He notes, for instance, that Russians consult mirrors more than anyone on earth. Martin Walker, a former Moscow correspondent for The Guardian, once described that city as ‘tough as nails, and deeply sentimental’. Manicom calls it a one-star city with five-star prices.
“One attempts to define Russianness at great peril,” he writes, “but the unique mingling of formality, sentimentality and ferocity is surely part of it.”
Under Gorbatchev Russians had lots of money and nothing to buy; under Yeltsin they gained lots to buy but don’t have enough money. According to Manicom, the recent ‘rouble crisis’ is nonetheless a repeat of the currency meltown in ’92—when the rouble crashed through the 200-per-dollar barrier—in terms of how Russians must survive by their wits.
“They don’t keep their money,” he explains. “Instead they’ll run out and buy something. They’ll buy staples that they can use. If they can’t buy staples, they’ll go into stores and buy coats and shoes that don’t fit. Then they’ll sit outside with a box and try to sell it. These days a lot of urban people are also spending a lot more time in the country, tending their vegetables. People have to find alternate sources of food.”
Russia has become an extremely dangerous place to live. Personal security for westerners is deteriorating. Military discipline is crumbling badly. Russian soldiers in Chechnya were militarily ineffective and brutal, out of control, and the return of ‘law ‘n’ order’ isn’t imminent. Increasingly the government cannot afford to pay salaries for the army. But Progeny of Ghosts doesn’t kindle any hopes for turning back the clock.
“The Soviet Union dissolved in an eye-blink in 1991,” Manicom says, “and its death was richly deserved.” 0-88982-168-2
[BCBW WINTER 1998]