To Russia, With Love

31 years ago today, I boarded an Aeroflot plane to Moscow, which was then still the capital city of the USSR. Over the next two weeks, I came to understand Russia, her people, history, culture & politics, far beyond the constraints of my Cold War-era preconceptions.

I’d grown up as a child of my time, watching American (and British) films which always seemed to depict “the Russkies” as ‘the bad guys’. I’d seen many news stories about this mysterious place and its lack of freedom and visibility in a world where technological advances were making everywhere else increasingly available. I’d watched sporting contests involving well-drilled, serious-looking athletes, all with ‘CCCP’ on their chests – except when they weren’t boycotting them for reasons I didn’t fully understand.

As a 9 year-old, I’d watched – horrified – ‘Protect and Survive’ (about the expected effects of a nuclear strike on British soil) the night that the BBC had transmitted it on prime time TV. I was so affected by it that, when the USSR beat England 2-0 at Wembley a year or so later, I’d concluded that it was probably for the best that we’d let them win. Out of fascination with this other-world, I’d bought ‘Nikita’ by Elton John – and then bought into the narrative of ‘Rocky IV’ that, despite the state-funded cheating of Ivan Drago’s boxing team, “If I can change…and you can change…everybody can change!

My 1991 trip was part of a Winstanley College student exchange programme – the second-ever British exchange of its type, we were told. I stayed with “Mike” in his family’s apartment in a Moscow suburb of neat apartment blocks and tree-lined public spaces. His mum was lovely. She must have queued for far longer than I’ll ever know to buy some Earl Grey tea for me, thinking it was what any English person would prefer (I’d never had it in my life and committed the cardinal sin of taking it with milk). His dad was quiet but kindly – looking back, both his parents would have been curious about the ways I, a “Westerner” would have challenged the preconceptions of their generation who’d grown up in Stalin’s Soviet Union. His sister was lovely and her husband gave me the jacket from his Russian army uniform.

Muscovite life was like that of any other city: bustling, energetic and fast-paced. More than anywhere else I’ve been, I found it a very physical place. People physically barged each other in crowds and you had to be most careful of little old women with sharp elbows – as I learned to my discomfort one afternoon. Like New Yorkers, Parisians and Londoners, they were both dismissive of their city’s iconic sites and proud to see the reactions they elicited in others.

We visited the Kremlin, Star City, Leningrad (as it was then), a cavalcade of churches and ‘Summer Residences’. We went to the Moscow State Circus (which, disturbingly, featured a 9-foot trained bear) and the Opera House (to see Gilbert & Sullivan’s ‘Iolanthe’). We stood in Red Square, marvelled at St. Basil’s Cathedral, wandered through the GUM shopping arcade, drove past the Bolshoi ballet, saw the queues around the square at McDonald’s and watched wedding photos at the point where the road rises above the Moscow river, opposite the 1980 Olympic stadium, with the cityscape in the background. In Leningrad, we visited the Hermitage, drove down Nevsky Prospect, crossed the Neva and admired the gleaming spire of the Peter and Paul Cathedral.

We were liberated teenagers in the land the world associated least with freedom: we had house parties, hotel room parties and sleeper train carriage parties. We bribed Leningrad hotel staff with small amounts of US dollars for whole cases of Russian champagne and stored the bottles in a bath, full of cold water. At the age of 17, it was a true rite-of-passage experience.

At the time, Gorbachev was still in power, firmly within the era of ‘glasnost’ and ‘perestroika’. Six months later, the old Union would crumble under the falling iron curtain and Boris Yeltsin would lead a new Russia into democracy – a change that will have scared many of the people I met, who’d grown up under the old certainties of life under communism. Sadly the transition also represented an opportunity for corruption that no stable democracy would ever tolerate and, with Yeltsin’s passing, a new generation of oligarchs (no-one ever mentions that the word is from the Latin for ‘few rulers’) had already claimed the vast resources of the Russian state.

At the centre of this web of deception was Putin, the ex-KGB bureaucrat who’d ingratiated his way into Yeltsin’s circle. He appropriated the ‘will of the people’, rigging elections, altering limits on constitutional powers, controlling the media and reverting Russia to totalitarian rule while being a democracy in name only. Only this was never about ideology: any kind of vision, however misguided, of how Russia should be; this was only about enrichment. Unimaginable self-enrichment, the rewarding of his tame oligarchs to maintain his own position, and the wholesale, industrial theft of the resources of the largest country in the world from its own people. And now, sadly, the same deluded actions of a ruthless dictator that we all thought we’d left in the past.

I think about Mike every day. His family, friends, the others I met in March 1991. Some will have been duped into supporting Putin, others will be quietly hoping for another revolution. I wish them all well – they’re all Putin’s victims, whether they know and accept it or not.

Five or six years ago, I was in a café in southern France and ordered a ‘thé au lait’. The waitress told me that they had no English breakfast tea left – but they did have Earl Grey. Remembering my personal connection, I ordered it – without the milk – and was instantly transported back over a quarter of a century and half a continent away to the last time I’d had it. I don’t have Earl Grey very often, but when I do, I’m always reminded of Mike’s welcoming home.

Today, I’m thinking about Mike’s mum and everyone else I met in Russia, wishing all those under Putin’s control the strength and happiness they deserve. Whether Russian, Ukrainian or Westerner, we’re all being plunged into the same fears and uncertainties of a time we’d all thought was locked in the past. Until Putin is removed and a new era of ‘glasnost’ is allowed, Russians will once again be denied the sight of two dozen British teens, drunk on ‘champansky’ – which doesn’t often sound like much of a loss but it was once a symptom of a much friendlier, more optimistic world.

I wish I could find the pictures I have of that visit – or the army jacket that was too small for me even then. I only have one, terrible photo of me in Red Square to prove that I was ever there, which you may have seen in my ‘Message to Russian Friends‘ post. I wish I could believe this is a short-term fracturing of the West’s relationship with Russia. I wish I was able to make plans to go back there one day. I wish I could offer Russians more support than this blogpost, clouded, as it is, by the grey mist of time and the red mist of anger.

Just know that I’m raising a cup of Earl Grey to you all. Спасибо.