Robert Skidelsky takes part in an unusual academic conference on the edge of Siberia. He visits Stalin's last gulag and hears Shirley Williams singby Robert Skidelsky / June 20, 1998 / Leave a comment
Published in June 1998 issue of Prospect Magazine
Friday 27th March
Edward (my son) and I board the flight to Moscow at Terminal 4, Heathrow. I am to take part in a conference at Perm, organised by the Moscow School of Political Studies. Perm is on the edge of Siberia; a city of more than 1m people with a cultural past (Diaghilev was born there) and a depressed industrial present. “Experts” are being assembled to advise regional officials and politicians on how to make the most of self-government-an important topic in view of the paralysis of the centre. My most prized possession is a bath plug. I remember from past excursions that outside the western circuit bath plugs are unobtainable.
Sheremetevo airport in Moscow is much more traveller-friendly than it used to be. We get through immigration and customs very quickly. We are met by Misha, a political science student who works part-time for the school. He is a romantic royalist. There is a growing cult of the last tsar. Misha tells us that many believe that Lenin had the tsar’s head cut off and kept in a jar in his study. He tells us that an advance party of experts, which includes Shirley Williams, has already left Moscow for Perm by train.
We are driven to the Ukraine Hotel, one of Stalin’s seven monsters. The signs of Europeanisation in the lobby-boutiques, a bar with English-speaking bartenders-have not reached the rooms. Mine is heavy with the odour of generations of Intourist groups; and the tiny bathroom works according to the rules of old Soviet plumbing. Like all public buildings of the Soviet era, the Ukraine combines bombastic public spaces with cramped private quarters.
At drinks before dinner Misha, Edward and I swap New Russian jokes. The surgeon who says to a New Russian businessman: “I’m sorry, but I’ll have to cut you open again.” “Why?” “I left my rubber gloves in your stomach.” “Will $100 cover them?” asks the businessman. Or the New Russian mother who wants her daughter to study a foreign language. “What shall I teach her?” asks the tutor. “The most foreign” replies the New Russian mum. The second joke is more to the point.