The songs of the Griffun

Francis Greene

I have been asked to write a few serious words for a serious publication about my visit to the Griffin in 1992, but I find the task difficult. How can one write dispassionately of an event which evoked strong and various passions, and of which the memory has so little relation to everyday reality, is so improbable and dreamlike?

The Griffin is a natural rock fissure which has been transformed into something between a cave and an izba. It is at the summit of one of the curious rock pinnacles, the "Stolby", which can be ascended only by skilled specialist climbers. I am not such a one and I was taken up there as a piece of luggage. I was in good hands, but for me, with no sense of balance and no head for heights, the prospect of such a journey (for snow still clung to the glassy rock) was indeed alarming. Perhaps the last few feet of the ascent were the worst. The drawbridge or "doorlock" to this eyrie is a thin wooden spar spanning an abyss: when removed the route is barred to any but a very exceptional "stolbist". I remember well the elation I experienced on arriving at my destination after successfully crossing its drawbridge, damped only by the realisation that to fulfill any call of nature I would have to find my way all the way back down to the bottom!

But, as I was soon to learn, the Griffin stands for much more than a physical challenge - a physical challenge which is, almost like ballet, also a form of art. I am one of the least distinguished (as well as one of the most timorous) of the guests to have been taken there. The Griffin, it transpires, is an international cultural meeting centre (and I hope the small Union Jack which I had brought with me is still hanging among many other flags on its wall). Most eminent of its guests have been the "bards" - those poet composers who kept the soul of Russia alive through dismal repressive times of forced conformity. The great Yuli Kim has been here and has sung here, so has the fine (albeit lesser) poet-singer Shcherbakov and another singer of world renown, Elena Kambourova.

I was soon to discover that this lofty (in all senses) tradition is maintained. I was treated to what can truly be described as the most exclusive concert performance in the most inaccessible concert hall in all the world. Here I heard not only the classic 20th century guitar masterpieces - of Okudzhava, Kim and others - but many `author's songs', fine in themselves and performed by their composers with exceptional virtuosity. One male voice had a purity and power which forced the very rock to resonate in sympathy.

To return to earth - how can the Griffin be designated? As a rockclimber's idyll? No doubt it is so, but for me that is far from the greatest of its charms. As a historic monument to the resistance of individualism to state power? There are remarkable accounts, yet to be fully chronicled, of Soviet military helicopter attacks on the high nests of the Stolbisty. No. The Griffin symbolises another sort of originality, the one that is exemplified by any and every tight-knit group of exceptionally talented people - a distinctiveness of the sort that has given rise to scores of descriptive terms ending in "-ism", each referring to the blazing of a trail in some new and spontaneous direction for literature, poetry, art or music. Here on a snowy spire of rock above the Krasnoyarsk taiga I was moved almost to tears by a blend of poetry and music brilliantly performed by its poet-musicians - all of whom were also skilled rock-climbers. I have met experiences of this sort elsewhere in Russia but never with greater intensity. This then is what the Griffin has come to mean for me, and it has been well named: the griffin of mythology, offspring of a lion and an eagle and dedicated to the sun, was made the guardian of hidden and sacred treasures.


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