The age-old Russian desire for contact with foreigners is as powerful now as it was in the Brezhnev eraby Sally Laird / June 20, 2000 / Leave a comment
Published in June 2000 issue of Prospect Magazine
Last autumn I was invited to a literary conference in the town of Voronezh, about 500 km south of Moscow in the heart of Russia’s Black Earth region. My ten-year-old daughter begged me not to go. She sees the news: apartment blocks blown up, the war in Chechnya, gangsters. ”Why did you have to make Russia your special country?” she nagged me. ”Why not Sweden or Switzerland?” The question isn’t easy to answer. I started learning Russian 30 years ago, and have been visiting the country, off and on, for a quarter of a century. Now and then I manage to brush it off, like an impossible lover. Then it calls me back.
This time the call was irresistible. In 1977, in the depths of the Brezhnev era, I had spent ten months as a student in Voronezh. The name set off a faded film reel in my head: red banners, slogans, songs to a guitar, kisses on stairways, sprats in tins. I was overwhelmed with curiosity. How true were my memories of this lost place? And how much had changed?
In 1977 I lived in a student hostel at 10 Friedrich Engels Street. It was a bleak, four-storey building where we lived four to a room, waking, working and dancing to the thud of Abba: “Money, money, money—in the rich man’s world.” To this tune Tanya, my room-mate from Tambov, got engaged to Tolya from Lipetsk. I have no idea how their lives turned out. After I realised that Tanya was meant to report my every movement, it was hard to befriend her.
The words of the Abba song seemed incongruous at the time. Voronezh in those days was unbelievably drab; even if you were rich there was little to buy. The state shops were dismal places, their windows dressed in pyramids of canned fish, ugly plastic goods and the works of Brezhnev. On the rare occasions when a consignment of luxury goods arrived—bananas, or toilet paper, or coffee—long queues would form in the streets, the shoppers jostling for advantage. Travel was difficult: you needed a visa to leave the town, and nothing short of an official invitation (“Student urgently required for consultation at British embassy in Moscow”) would get you one. You could not even buy a town map. The authorities believed that we had no business knowing where we were.