A Russian perspective
BY IRINA MALENKO
My very first memory of Ireland is of TV images of running people, screams of pain and anger and the sound of gun shots in the background. It was an image almost like from another planet, as the place where I grew up was so peaceful and quiet that every day looked just exactly like the previous one. The pictures were of Derry's Bloody Sunday in 1972, and I was a five-year-old Soviet girl.
The disturbing images of the suffering of the Irish people on my TV screen continued almost daily as I grew up. I couldn't imagine what it was like to be an Irish Catholic and to live in a place like the Six Counties. So I started to read all the books that I could find about Ireland - in Russian, of course, mainly translated from English children's books. I remember how I was deeply impressed by Walter Macken's ``The Flight of the Doves''. The Russian translator thought that we wouldn't fully understand the story without knowing at least something of tragic Irish history - and of course, he was right.
So, from the foreword to the Russian edition of this book I received my first lesson in Irish history. I found out about the ancient Celtic chieftains and monks and the cruelty of Oliver Cromwell, about the Great Famine and emigration, about songs like ``Four Green Fields'' and about the IRA. But I also learned about the warm friendliness of the Irish people which, I thought then, I would probably never experience in person, since it was nearly impossible for us to travel abroad. ``Another planet'', would always stay as such.
I was 14 when Bobby Sands went to eternity after being on hunger strike. In the Soviet Union, in all our mass media, he was always called ``Robert Sands'', as our officials thought it was impolite to call an adult man - and a hero! - by his short name. We collected signatures at school for his case - we, Soviet kids, were demanding that Margaret Thatcher fulfill his demands and save his life. I remember the day he died as if it was yesterday.
Our newspapers and TV programs were always full of reports from the Six Counties, and of course, the IRA were the freedom fighters, the modern revolutionaries. That was also when I heard the name Sinn Féin for the first time.
There was not so much for our media to report about from the pre-Celtic Tiger South at that time, except for general things typical for a capitalist society: poverty, inflation, unemployment and, of course, periodical workers' strikes.
Never did I dream then that just 17 years later I would come to Ireland myself, for good. Nor did I think that my own country would disappear and the cold ``wind of change'' would bring all this stuff ``from another planet'' to us: poverty, closing factories, derelict buildings and decrepit buses, hunger, unemployment, evictions, the humiliation of women, ethnic hatred, wars, crime, drugs, and worse - disrespect for fellow human beings and fear of what will happen tomorrow.
My first Irish experience dates from 1996, and I fell in love with this country immediately when I saw how Dubliners were running across the road on a red light! It might seem strange that such a thing could attract somebody to come to live in a country - but I just felt immediately like I was at home!
After well-organized and boring continental Europe, where people worry so much about little things that it makes their lives an absolute misery, to be in Ireland and to feel this chaotic but warm and alive atmosphere was such a relief! Another thing that amazed me was how easy it was to come in contact with other people - and the fact that they still managed to keep some sense of community in this crazy modern world. I wanted to be part of that community. I wanted to have a feeling that I belonged somewhere. That this is home. Especially since my own country didn't exist anymore - and I felt an intense grief about this. So then I decided that if I wanted to allow myself to be myself, Ireland was the place to be! But it took me another two very hard and painful years before I was actually able to fulfill my dream and to come to work and live in Dublin, the best decision I have ever made.
My first visit to the Six Counties took place much later, almost a year after I moved to Dublin. This was mainly because my new Irish friends were warning me how horrible and dangerous this place was (even though most of them had never actually been there). I found it very strange that some of them seemed unwilling to have their own country re-united.
Finally, I was convinced to go to the North by my mother ,who came to pay me a visit. ``I will not go home until I see Belfast with my own eyes,'' she said to me. I have been a frequent visitor since.
I was amazed, and pleased, to discover that in many ways places like the Falls or the Bogside reminded me of my own childhood in the 1970s and of my own community back at home: hard working, decent, caring working class people who never complained about the hardships of life and always had a joke to tell. A community where everybody knew everybody. Where kids could play on the streets. Where you could still see the posters with ``No to foreign imperialism!'' and Ché Guevara on the walls. A guide in Derry told me proudly that when he was growing up, Lenin was his big hero, just like Bobby Sands was for me.
When I went home to Russia on holidays, Drumcree was on TV there, just like Derry when I was five. ``Oh my God! Is it THAT where you live?'' asked my granny, with a touch of horror in her voice. I had to calm her down, but when I started listening to what the Russian reporter was saying, I had to pinch myself several times. It was a shocking experience, to see how the mass media of the modern, capitalist Russia portrays what is going on in Ireland. Gerry Adams was described as an Irish terrorist leader. I could not believe my ears!
The most depressing thing was to see on a Russian television the RUC attack on a peaceful protest on Belfast's Lower Ormeau Road last summer, a road I used to pass along almost every weekend. The pictures showed the police beating unarmed peaceful people and at the same time the Russian commentator was telling his audience that these brave police were fighting with those awful terrorists and hooligans.
After this, I started reading Russian newspaper coverage of Irish matters, just to find out that not only does Russia no longer have a correspondent in this country anymore and is therefore limited in its coverage by what the British would write/film, but also that Russian media outlets no longer try to analyse events in any depth.
I felt a deep injustice at this bias, so I started writing about Irish events in a Russian newspaper, Pravda. I want people back home to know what is going on over here. I want them to know more about Ireland than ``it is a land of Guinness and terrorists''.
Because there is so much more to it. Because maybe there is something we could learn from the Irish, starting with how to be proud of your country and your culture and how not to give up under difficult circumstances. How to manage to stay strong but remain human, kind and open. I believe that we Russians really need this at this stage in our history.