Edward Skidelsky shuttles between two contending realities in the new Russiaby Edward Skidelsky / February 20, 1997 / Leave a comment
Living abroad in general, and in Russia in particular, raises the question: who is one to trust? The problem is no longer, as it used to be, one of knowing who is lying and who is not. Russians are no longer directed by their government to lie to foreigners. The problem now is a more complex one: whose interpretation of reality can I rely upon, who is to be my touchstone for distinguishing true from false, real from illusory?
After leaving university, I decided to live for six months in Moscow. During that stay I was torn between two mutually contradictory versions of reality, and I am still unable to say which one was closer to the truth. My home was a room in a once grand pre-revolutionary flat in central Moscow. But in this flat a spirit of decay had taken residence. Everything was collapsing slowly into itself. Dust piled up on the parquet floor; paint peeled off the panels on the wall; the corners were filled with old toys, broken clocks and other junk which had sat there for so long that no one noticed its existence any more. My hosts, a couple of ageing geologists called Irene and Volodya, occasionally did battle with the spirit of decay. The television aerial, a fantastic construction of wires and tubes, required constant care, as did the telephones. But struggle was useless, since my hosts themselves were inhabited by the same corrosive spirit. Continually tired and sick and short of money, they reconciled themselves to its inevitable victory. The agent of reconciliation was vodka. After four glasses our conversation would soar high above the dilapidation of our visible environment, and dwell on art, history and philosophy. Volodya and Irene would become young and animated again. “To drink or not to drink: that is the question,” Volodya would say. In Russian, “to drink,” peet, rhymes with “to be,” beet. For Volodya this was more than a mere play on words; it was a metaphysical truth. To drink is to be alive. Thus he and Irene outwitted the spirit of decay.
But in the morning, recovering from my hangover, I would go to work and encounter a different reality. I was employed by something called the Moscow School of Political Studies, a western-funded group, set up to provide young Russian politicians with a schooling in democracy. To this end we would organise large…