‘Francis.’ Valery Khvostenko on Francis Greene [2017]

10 October 2017


by Valery Ivanovich Khvostenko

Source: Krasnoyarskie stolby 

Francis Greene

Francis Greene, a very interesting man. Son of the famous writer Graham Greene, he himself was a writer, although not as great a one as his papa. Here’s what I’ve read about him on the Internet: Screenwriter, director, photojournalist. He took his camera through the wars in Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia, and Israel. He found himself in mortal danger more than once. His unique photographs taken in hotspots brought him fame. He fell in love with Russia. Or rather, its people. 

I would add: He learned Russian by reading our great literature in the original. In his youth he walked the Georgian Military Highway and once, back before he had the language, rode the train from Moscow to Vladivostok.

Francis once let it slip that he and his papa had a complicated relationship. Nonetheless, he was a rich heir. And the royalties from Graham Greene reeditions are not insignificant. Francis had an estate in the south of England where there were the remains of a fourteenth-century chapel and deer in the park. 

“Francis, are you a lord?” I asked. Francis laughed, and I realized that my notions of the English aristocracy were a little naive. But I’m convinced that if he wasn’t a lord, he was definitely an aristocrat. Somehow we got to talking about wealth. “It’s a great responsibility and a headache,” Francis said. What does that mean? If you’re rich, then how do you spend the money “so you don’t agonize over the years you’ve squandered.” 

Francis was a major philanthropist. He founded and for ten years or so anonymously sponsored the Russian Booker—a prize for the best Russian-language work of literature, and he sponsored projects to save nature all over the world. It’s at this point that his two loves intersected: for Russia and for nature. He approached the problem very sensibly and pragmatically. In Russia, money has to be given intelligently or else it gets stolen. Francis went through people. He sought out zealots, defenders of nature, and found a way to support them materially, bypassing officials. That’s how he met a guy who was saving the cedar forest in Altai. In the Taymyr nature reserve he paid an annual provision for the game wardens. What searches led him to the Stolby nature reserve, I don’t know.

In Russia, the Muscovite Ira Osipova worked with him, finding places and people and taking care of all his travel logistics. He had plans for several years ahead. In 1992, Ira reached out to me through mutual Moscow acquaintances. She needed an excursion to Stolby. No problem! I came and Francis and I met. Before me stood a bespectacled botanist, disheveled, bearded, in clothing assembled for a Siberian winter. As soon as you got to know him better and took a closer look you noticed a steely glint in his trusting eyes. Stolbism [a kind of freestyle mountaineering and ecological movement] — was a revelation for Francis, and the Griffins made an indelible impression. 

About ten years passed, and I asked him to write an article for our English section on his Stolby impressions, and he said let’s do it in Russian, too. Francis wrote in English but requested a Russian version. My sister, a first-class translator in whom I have total confidence, did the translation. Francis approved it! 

So we spent some time at the Griffins. After a while an unusual proposal came from Moscow. Francis invited the entire Griffins brotherhood to a reception, paying for the plane tickets there and back. To us, this was real money; to him, peanuts. Kolya Moltyansky, Valera Laptenok, and I, and someone else, went. We had dinner at his apartment, had a good time, sang a little. Francis gave everyone souveniers: Swiss army knives, then still rare in Russia. Moreover, he himself had carved out a hollow in the body of each one and put in the image of his emblem—the head of a gryphon. But that wasn’t all. Besides us, he invited some people he’d helped in Russia. He said: “I want good people to get to know each other.” Among those who came was the cedar saver.

We kept up a sporadic correspondence, and Francis would send souvenirs and postcards. He went to Russia every year, but hadn’t made it to Krasnoyarsk. And now Ira again asked for help. This time we went rafting down the Mana. On that trip our crew was led by the nature reserve’s director himself, Aleksei Viktorovich Knorre. There’s a real taiga man for you, a hunter, a master! He knows every stream along the Mana. “Here’s where the wolves drive deer over the precipice. Here’s where the otter comes out. And clouds of butterflies fly to this cliff to die.” We floated splendidly to his stories.

A man of the future, Francis showed us his GPS, in those days a miracle. Francis: “And what’s that watery expanse there over the crest?” Knorre: “That’s the Krasnoyarsk Sea!” Fabulous.

Francis also had dramatic moments in Krasnoyarsk. He was planning to meet with someone who was fighting against the burial of nuclear waste and was caught by the special services, who took away his photo equipment. Ira told us in a whisper and with round eyes about the surveillance. Francis maintained an embarrassed silence.

I’m no stranger to the idea of introducing good people to each other, either. In England, I have a good friend, Mary McAuley, a political science professor and writer. We’ve been friends since 2001. She had been in Krasnoyarsk many times and had not missed my performance of “First Stolb.” I told her over and over about Francis and Francis about her. In my mind, they’re similar in some way. In their Russian language? Their Russophilism? Their combination of aristocratism and simplicity? Their energy? Their social activism? Their sense of humor?

Finally, they met in London. “Well, how did you like Mary?” I asked proudly. “Smart and unpretentious,” Francis replied. I wish someone would say that about me.

I was lucky to meet Francis, a real human being, an emissary from the greater world.

Translated by Marian Schwartz

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