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.
Many of our pleasures, on the other hand, came almost free. For a few roubles you could buy a year’s subscription to the local orchestra and opera house. And the town had its picturesque moments. The steep right bank of the River Voronezh was a warren of unpaved lanes and rickety wooden houses, built in haste after the second world war. The townspeople were ashamed of this rustic throwback, and assured me that it would soon be rebuilt. But I liked the little houses, the view of the river, the jumbled fruit trees and yards full of chickens. Above, on Revolution Avenue, a few 18th-century houses still stood, and the Bristol Hotel, built in 1905, still wore a faded art nouveau elegance. Wandering mapless about the town, I tried to imagine what it had been like before the revolution, and what kind of people had lived there. There was a melancholy pleasure in this process of imagination. Russians speak of it as tosk: a permanent longing for something vanished or unrealisable.
Halfway down Revolution Avenue was the House of Trade Unions, home to the Voronezh Amateur Symphony Orchestra, where I played at the back of the second violins. Mostly we did waltzes by the Soviet composer Dunayevsky, but occasionally a few of us stayed behind to play Bach. Among the cellists I befriended an old Spanish communist who had been exiled in Voronezh since the civil war, and with a viola player who had a passion for an English writer she called Golzvorti, author of The Forsyte Saga.
There was a theatre, too, at the end of the avenue. Once, in my capacity as that year’s “president of the capitalist students,” I presented a gift to a retiring actor. I gave him a volume of Shakespeare and a Dundee cake in a tin. As president I also stood on the podium on Lenin Square to view the 7th November parade. 1977 was the 60th anniversary of the revolution. For hours the portraits, banners and slogans marched by. It was bitterly cold, and every so often we were invited to slip into a tent behind the podium for a shot of vodka. At the dinner afterwards I made a hypocritical speech about international friendship.
Twenty-two years later, I found much of the city familiar. Lenin still stood in the square named after him, and most of the street names were unchanged. Alongside Karl Marx Street and Revolution Avenue, there was Dzerzhinsky Street, commemorating the founder of the infamous Cheka, precursor of the KGB. Many of the houses which lined these streets had simply grown shabbier over the decades. There were still soldiers and trucks, oily puddles, pie vendors; the smell of batter, petrol, Belomor cigarettes.
In other ways, however, the place was unrecognisable. Over the last ten years the words of the Abba song had come startlingly true. In Voronezh, as in Moscow, the drab uniformities of Brezhnev’s Russia had given way to striking contrasts of wealth and poverty. Attractive little shops had replaced the old state outlets. The bookshop on Revolution Avenue sold Beckett and Freud, and a revelatory biography of Lenin; Spice Girls diaries and calendars with fluffy dogs; books on marketing, astrology, gardening and human rights. And at night, Revolution Avenue was bright with bars and a new restaurant, The Pushkin, served dinner for the equivalent of a month’s pension—roughly $12. The old telegraph office, where I once waited for six hours to put a call through to England, now offered fax and e-mail services and an instant connection to Denmark, where I now live. You could phone for a taxi and book a train ticket by internet. You could even buy a map.
Most astonishing were the churches. Old pictures before the revolution show domes and bell towers filling the city’s skyline. By the 1970s, they lay in ruins, victims of the revolution or of the battle fought in Voronezh during the second world war. Now the view was bright again with turquoise, white and gold. On Liberation of Labour Street an entire monastery, barely visible in my day, had been lavishly restored, and on Sunday morning the town rang with church bells and the sound of the cathedral liturgy piped, by loudspeaker, to the surrounding streets. Meanwhile, flocks of beggars camped at the gateways.
The area by the river had not been razed. The little houses still stood, some tilting beyond rescue, others freshly painted. But dwarfing all these were the many new dwellings—incongruously huge, their windows barred, their locked gates hung with pictures of snarling dogs. These were the villas of the New Russians, or nuvo rishi. Some of them, with their inept turrets and flourishes, reminded me of the dacha dreamed up for Dr Zhivago in David Lean’s film: a wooden izba iced with the domes of St Basil. They were gestures of ignorance rather than tastelessness. What was a wealthy Russian house supposed to look like? The concept was being invented before our eyes.
These houses, I learned, are known as kott’ddzhi: the English word ”cottage,” with a Franco-Russian spin. All along Revolution Avenue I saw signs with similarly corrupted English words advertising courses in business?and English itself. A new school of English accepted children as young as four. Ambitious parents, the director told me, now aim to send their children to boarding schools in England.
Ordinary people, meanwhile, struggle to come to terms with this brave new world. Many of the basics—flats, heating, electricity—are more or less free, and people with a patch of earth can grow vegetables to supplement the food they buy. But life for many is hard. Masya Samoilovna, the aunt of a friend of mine in the US, is 80 years old and almost blind. She lives on the seventh floor of a decaying block, where the lift has been out of action for several years. Once a top engineer on the railways, she receives the highest pension: roughly $18 a month. She speaks with wonder of an elderly migrant cousin, who enjoys the New York theatre and takes holidays in Florida.
“I voted for the democrats,? she says,”but I’m afraid they’ve mismanaged everything.” Still, she adds staunchly: “I would never vote for the communists. It’s a terrible illusion that we were better off without freedom. All the old folks go on and on about the wonderful pensions they used to give us. They count up how many bananas we could have bought with a pension in those days. What bananas? There were no bananas! At least nowadays you can see a banana, even if you can’t buy it.”
Strange metaphysical consolation. I remembered trying to explain to my Russian grammar teacher, Aleksandr Aleksandrovich, the difference between empirical and a priori knowledge: he had asked me what kind of philosophy we studied at Oxford University.”We would know that a triangle has three sides,” I explained pompously, “even if we had never seen a triangle.” Its three-sidedness is contained in the very concept ”triangle.” That is a priori knowledge. Whereas empirical knowledge is based on experience?” Aleksandr Aleksandrovich became quite agitated, drawing triangles on the board to demonstrate how much our seeing things was part of knowing them. Perhaps that was what Masya Samoilovna was saying, too. But whereas, for the purposes of knowledge, seeing a triangle is strictly unnecessary, seeing a banana is surely insufficient. To know the meaning of a banana, you must have tasted one at least once.
Not everyone is so sanguine—as I discovered when I made my way back to Friedrich Engels Street. There was the rutted drive to number 10. Steps led up to the big brown door. Inside: the same dim hallway and fetid smell. The new Komendant of the hostel found me taking photographs of the building and accosted me with the suspicious look familiar from Soviet days. A map of the old USSR hung behind his desk; he had been in the military. Were things better or worse, I asked, than they used to be? “Of course things are worse. Who threw bombs in the old days?”
Masya Samoilovna?s grandchildren have grown up clever. Her granddaughter is doing a PhD in physics at the university, and receives a grant of $5 a month. When she finishes she will look for employment in the private sector—or abroad. “You’re lucky if you get paid anything to teach,” I was told.
The rector of the university, lvan Ivanovich Borisov, denied that there had been a significant brain drain, and was upbeat about the changes of the last ten years. In Soviet times the university, which has 60,000 students from all over the region, received money from Moscow. Now it has been left to fend for itself. Borisov sees this new independence as an opportunity. He spoke proudly of the university’s thriving publications, its library, its connections with 70 foreign countries and its new curriculum. Alongside computer science and business studies, once dishonoured subjects like philosophy and psychology have been introduced. I asked him what had happened to all the old professors of Marxism-Leninism. Some had retired, he said, others had successfully adapted. Had Marxists turned into Kantians overnight? Probably the story was more complex than that. Perhaps some of them, to misquote Chekhov, had had the Marxist squeezed out of them drop by drop. But others, no doubt, had privately adapted long before.
The rector admitted that the buildings and equipment could be improved, but spoke brightly of new methods of funding. These included admitting students who were prepared to pay their way to a degree. There was apparently no shortage of wealthy applicants who preferred this method to the usual bother with exams.
Notable in the rector, and in many of those I spoke to, was a desire to place Voronezh squarely on the European map. The director of the Yunost (“Youth”) cinema speaks of establishing a Voronezh centre of European cinema. She is a doughty woman of 50 or so who employs a staff of 38 to run the two-screen theatre. When I expressed astonishment at this figure, comparing it with the two permanent staff who run our local cinema in Denmark, she pointed out that this was a big reduction on the original 92. The Yunost staff, like the university faculty, live a good deal on enthusiasm. The cinema receives a derisory annual grant from the town, earning its main living by renting out its premises to companies. Unlike the Proletariat cinema, which—true to its name—serves popcorn and Hollywood to the masses, the Yunost sticks to art films. Much of the programme is retrospective: the regular seasons of Fellini, Tarkovsky, Saura and so on are drawn from the cinema’s own archive. There is no system for renting new films for exhibition, and little money to buy them.
The opera house and orchestra were still running, and a brand new theatre had opened next to the cathedral. The old theatre, I was told, was being restored, as was the art museum, but the former curator, Galina Makarova, doubted that it would re-open. An attractive, highly educated woman in her mid-forties, she had worked at the museum for 18 years, but had just left her job in favour of selling dictionaries for Oxford University Press.”I’m a widow with a mother and a son to support,” she told me, “and OUP pays me twice as much for half the work.”
Of all those I spoke to, the greatest enthusiast for the changes was my old supervisor at the university, Oleg Georgievich Lasunskii. A local patriot, Lasunskii had devoted his life to researching the lives of writers associated with the region, among them the poet Osip Mandelshtam, who was exiled to Voronezh in the 1930s; Ivan Bunin, the Nobel prize-winning writer who had lived in the city before eventually emigrating to France; and Andrei Platonov, one of the great writers of the 20th century, who was born on the outskirts of Voronezh and lived there for his first 27 years.
In 1977, when I first met Lasunskii, all these writers were ignored. Very little of their work had been published—at least in Russia. Mandelshtam had perished in the gulag; Bunin was a”white renegade”; Platonov, one of the most searing critics of the 1920s and 1930s in great novels such as Chevengur and The Foundation Pit, had been dismissed by Stalin as”scum” and was almost unknown. Now, 22 years later, it was a source of immense satisfaction to Lasunskii that all three writers were being celebrated in his own city.
It was Platonov’s centenary which had occasioned the conference to which I and 70 others from around the world had been invited; and it was Lasunksii—one of the organisers of the conference—who proudly took us on a tour of the city’s “Platonov places.” The phrase caused some mirth: in the old days, “taking a tour of Lenin places” was a euphemism for exploring somebody’s private parts. There was, perhaps, something faintly Soviet about the way Lasunskii escorted us around the holy sites, showing us where “our hero” had spent his days. The tour ended with a laying of flowers at the newly-erected monument to the writer, a huge golden figure striding,” la Lenin, in a rippling overcoat. The literary correspondent on a weekly called Moscow Railway Worker was especially enthusiastic. The railway workers’ union had helped to fund the monument, and indeed, had erected their own plaque at Voronezh station: “In memory of Andrei Platonov, who wrote much about railways.”
Later I talked to Lasunskii about the past. One of my jobs as his student had been to translate into Russian the regular letters he received from a fellow bibliophile in England, an Oxford scholar named George Simmons. For some reason Simmons always wrote to him in English, which Lasunskii didn’t understand, so one of my jobs as his student was to translate Simmons’ letters. Some of these letters were quite arcane: one contained the menu for a magnificent dinner Simmons had eaten at All Souls. This didn’t mean much to Lasunksii, but he was excited when Simmons sent him the diary of an English soldier named Newman, who had been imprisoned in Voronezh during the Crimean War. In due course I was set down to translate this, too. I remember finding Newman a kindred spirit: his picture of Voronezh was in many ways familiar. (The Simmons-Lasunskii correspondence, I discovered, continues to this day. As a pensioner, Lasunskii finds it hard to pay for the stamps, so his old friend sends him coupons. In the course of their 30-year acquaintance, the two men have never met.)
“There was much we didn’t know about our history in those days,” Lasunskii told me. “I was a member of the Party, and like most people I sincerely believed much of the propaganda. Yet we dimly sensed that there was something rotten in our Soviet kingdom, and we longed for contact with the outside world. That was what attracted us to the foreign students—they were a breath of fresh air. We wanted to do our best for you. And at the same time we feared coming under pressure from the KGB.”
An incident from one of our early meetings had stuck in my mind. One day, after my tutorial, Lasunskii had escorted me into the corridor and, glancing furtively from side to side, asked me if I could do him a favour. Next time I went to Moscow, could I look in one of the bookshops for foreigners and see if I could find a volume by the poet Nikolai Klyuev. I said I would try. Later I learned that Klyuev was a religious poet who had died in the gulag in 1937 and whose books, once banned, were now sold only in small editions—mainly to foreigners. At the time, however, his name meant nothing to me. It seemed to me unbearably humiliating that this professor, who evidently cared passionately about Klyuev, should be reduced to begging this book from an indifferent foreigner.
“I often used to ask foreigners to help me,” Lasunskii told me now. ”I remember one African student brought me Akhmatova from Paris. I’d seen the catalogue of a Russian bookshop there and I simply gasped: all these editions—Soviet editions—which we couldn’t buy. At that time—in the late 1970s, the early 1980s—we felt this desperate spiritual thirst, especially for the writers who’d been repressed.
“To the credit of the foreigners, they never tried to humiliate us. We did our best to work for our writers. It’s been a long struggle, especially for Mandelshtam. We held a conference on him five years ago, on the 60th anniversary of his exile. But we’re still struggling to get a street named after him—a little crooked street, such as he’d envisaged himself.”
Like the university rector, Lasunskii was eager that foreigners should visit Voronezh, and was apologetic that “material conditions in my day had not been the best.” I replied that—for us as for them—hardships had been less important than the lack of freedom, the sense of being watched. “We hated being stigmatised as capitalists,” I said. “And we hated the fact that our room-mates reported our every movement. We knew the authorities kept files on us.”
“Yes, well, all that is over now, thank God,” said Lasunskii awkwardly. There was something very sweet about having this conversation at last.
I had first seen my own file—shortly before leaving Voronezh in 1978. At the end of our stay, I and the other British students had organised a “Day of Great Britain” as a thank you to our hosts. With help from the embassy, we put on a film show, an exhibition, and even a cricket match with a bat carved from birch wood. One of the girls made cucumber sandwiches and a trifle out of a packet as examples of “English cuisine,” and we put on display a few English paperbacks and newspapers. Teachers and students of the English faculty were invited, along with the dean of foreign students.
I first realised something was amiss when the dean failed to appear at the closing concert. He sent, instead, a junior administrator called Sasha, who sat sneering in the front row while I and a girl called Angela sang The Streets of London to a guitar. True, the performance was dire, but we were hurt when Sasha abruptly got up and left without a word.
The following day I was summoned before a tribunal of seven men, including two known officials of the KGB, and accused of “provocation.”
“You know very well what we mean,” the dean said gravely. “It would be better to admit it now.”
Bewildered, I cast about. The cricket match? The trifle? Hotly, I denied the charge.
“We wanted to please you,” I said pathetically.
“And this?” The dean placed a file on the desk and drew from it a newspaper. It was an old copy of the Observer which a student had put on display at our exhibition. The front page, I now saw, had extracts from Goebbels’s diary, and featured twin portraits of Churchill and Hitler.
“Don’t you realise that the face of this man is anathema to the Soviet people?” the dean demanded. “How dare you present him alongside Churchill. You should be celebrating the Allied fight against fascism! What false history are you giving our students?”
I said I trusted that the students had been taught their history, and would know that Churchill was already fighting Hitler at a time when Stalin was still doing deals with him (“How dare you!” the dean interrupted furiously). As for the face of Hitler, they could see it any day down at the Proletariat cinema, portrayed by one of the Soviet Union’s finest actors.
“I insist on an apology.”
“I’ve got nothing to apologise for.”
While this unseemly argument was going on, my attention was riveted by the file on the desk. At the top, upside down, I saw my name. I wondered what else it contained. Evidently my room-mates had been doing their work conscientiously.
“I won’t deny that this material is interesting,” the dean now added, folding the newspaper away.”In fact l look forward to reading it myself. But our students are not prepared for this kind of provocation.”
“You should leave them to make up their own minds,” I said. The confrontation ended in stalemate. I refused to apologise, and the dean let me go. As I got up to leave, one of the KGB men jumped up and opened the door.”Molodets,” he whispered with a peculiar smile. “Good for you!”
Twenty-two years later, I wanted to see the inside of that file. The KGB no longer exists, but it has a successor, the FSB, or Federal Security Committee. I decided to go to the Voronezh branch. I was accompanied by a fellow conference delegate, the British translator Robert Chandler (editor of the excellent Portable Platonov). Three years before me, Robert had got into more serious trouble with the Voronezh KGB. In an effort to please a flighty French girlfriend, he had stolen three red flags as a May Day souvenir: the French girl planned to make them into a skirt. Robert was charged with “mocking the symbol of international socialism” and threatened with ten years in a labour camp. The KGB showed clemency and Robert returned to England a free man. But the incident had gone down in history: in an account of the KGB’s exploits, entitled Voronezh Chekisty Tell their Tales, it was recorded that an Englishman called Chandler had been surprised in the act of stealing flags and ripping them to pieces with especial frenzy.
On our last day in Voronezh, Robert and I rang the bell on the huge door of the Voronezh FSB. An officer in uniform asked us to wait. Presently a suave young man in a suit came forward and shook our hands. “Nikolai,” he introduced himself, leading us to his office.”Take a seat. What can I do for you?”
We explained that we had been students here in the 1970s. The KGB had kept files on us, and we wanted to see them.
“Back in the 1970s, eh? Don’t tell me you stayed at Hostel No. two! Well I never! And you thought the KGB kept files on you, did you?” laughed Nikolai.”That’s what all the foreigners imagined.?
“No, but in my case they certainly did,” said Robert. “My name even appears in a KGB history.” He told the story of the French girl and the flags.
Nikolai suggested that we compose a written declaration. He gave us two sheets of paper. “I, so-and-so, citizen—or is it subject—”of the United Kingdom.” Conscientiously, we did our dictation and handed it in. Nikolai asked us to ring back at 4pm.
When Robert rang, he learned there were no files. We had expected as much. “They’ve opened up the files from the 1930s and 1940s,” Lasunskii had told me, “but not the ones from more recent times. Too many of the people involved are still alive.”
I don’t doubt that the files exist somewhere. The KGB was extraordinarily conscientious about its archives, no matter how trivial. But it may take another 20 years before anyone will be allowed to see them.
After this visit, Robert and I sat for a while musing in a little park, on a bench by the monument to “the victims of the White Terror.” We had tried to revisit the past, and found it closed. But the door to the FSB had not been slammed in our faces. Nor was fear the emotion I had felt, sitting face to face, on a Monday morning, with a Russian secret policeman.
No doubt there are plenty of reasons to feel afraid in Russia. As I was leaving, the bombing of Chechnya had just begun. I was conscious, in casual conversations, of a new hostility—not to westerners, but to the people of the Caucasus, “the dark people,” or “the strangers in our midst.” I was dismayed to see the signs daubed on walls: a swastika-like symbol and the words “Respect Russia or Leave.” One day the market was closed because of a bomb scare. The bombs had given a focus to everyone’s fear, an excuse for nostalgia, a presentiment of chaos.
Nostalgia for the past—a now mythic past—is perhaps endemic in a country which has suffered so much violent change. It infects even foreigners: those who get beguiled and keep coming back. I had come in pursuit of my own mythic past, and had landed, instead, in the everyday present, in the complex ordinariness behind the headlines, where people shop, eat dinner, send e-mails, curse the government and worry about their children.
On the final evening, I visit several friends of friends. Among them Galina, the OUP woman; Svetlana, who teaches for a pittance at three different institutes; Nelly, a computer graphics designer; Sasha, a lawyer who specialises in company law; and Lena and Nadya from the Yunost cinema. In the presence of these people, my old tosk begins to evaporate. The reason is simple: my new friends live here. There is nothing mythical about the city for them. They have watched things change, revive, disintegrate. If they speak with nostalgia, it’s the simple nostalgia of middle age: we were younger in the old days than we are now. For all their own misgivings, they want us to like their changed, updated city.
I do like the city, but in unexpected ways. I like the fact that I no longer stand out. Twenty-two years ago, people stared at my shoes, at the plastic bag in my hand. Now I mix unidentified with the crowd. People stop and ask me the time. Until I open my mouth, they don’t know I’m a foreigner. The sky is much clearer than it used to be, for many of the factories are closed down, their chimneys dead. But everywhere there are signs of building. I like the hammering in the lanes, the swivel of cranes in the sky. Most of all I like the new courtesies of strangers. In the 1930s, Platonov wrote: “There will come a time when, for the most elementary decency, for the simplest pennyworth of kindness, people will be declared great souls and geniuses.”
Elementary decency, simple kindness—how lacking these things were in the public spaces of the old Soviet Union. How battered one felt by rudeness and indifference. Today, my heart is melted by the smiles of shopkeepers. I know they want my money. But 20 years ago no one bothered to smile for my roubles.
i?m going home. An old man enters my train at the station where Tolstoy died. We share a sleeper all the way to Moscow. He tells a familiar tale of the good old days. “There were mountains of butter and miles of sausage in Brezhnev’s time,” he tells me. “Surely there were queues, too, I venture, but he denies it. “After 1947,” he said,”We never queued again.”
But after we turn the lights out, he starts asking questions.”Tell me, daughter,” he says in the darkness, “What kind of trees do they have in America?” Do they have birch trees like we do, and maples?” “Yes,” I say,”I believe they do.” Long pause. The train rattles on. “Daughter, are you still awake?” “M?m.” ”What about palm trees?” “Yes, they have those too.”
That age-old Russian desire for contact—a glimpse beyond the frontier, news from abroad. I think of Lasunskii, still writing to George Simmons three decades on. I think of the rector, boasting of his university’s ties with 70 foreign countries. I think most of all of the people who invited me to their homes, thirsty for contact with friends not seen for years. The conversations remembered, the photos pulled out of drawers? Why, I wondered on the train back to Moscow, had it taken me so many years to come back? How easy, in the past, it had been to turn away. The phones didn’t work, the post was unreliable, the bureaucracy intractable. The place became unreachable, the people unreal: filed under the past, silted over with tosk. Now I had started opening the files. Life had tumbled out—jumbled, unpredictable, belonging to the future.
Back home in Denmark, I check my e-mails.
“Good day, dear, gentle, clever and unforgettable Sally. After your and Robert’s leaving Voronezh there was a sad. But we’ll never forget our dear meetings. It was the real happiness—Svetlana, Lena, Nadya.” Who but Russians could have written this? Wasn’t this, after all, why we went to Voronezh?