Friday, January 28, 2005

Going Back - IV

The drive through northern Romania, Hungary and Austria, back through West Germany to Ostend and the United Kingdom, was fairly uneventful. We didn’t go down to Bucharest, but stayed in the foothills of the Carpathians, where we were treated almost like royalty by the staff of the local tourist office in Suceava, the first town over the border, which didn’t appear to have seen many British tourists in a long while. We tried on local national costumes, let the tourist office director’s twelve year-old cowherd son drive our right-hand drive Morris Minor round a field, much to the boy’s delight, experimented with speaking Romanian, had our photographs taken, drank fruit cordial, had our palms read by the local gypsies, ate in a really nice restaurant, and in general had a pleasant time. It all seemed light years away from the Soviet Union – more like being in France or Italy. Moving on westward the landscape soon become rather more industrial and sombre, and when we entered Hungary there was something of the Soviet ‘feel’ again, especially along the shore of Lake Balaton, with its organized groups of vacationers and their mostly Soviet-made cars. In Budapest I remember the blackness of the uncleaned buildings, and the bullet scars from 1956, which still lay everywhere on the street facades and masonry. Also the incredibly dense and tall barbed-wire fortifications on the Hungarian-Austrian border, just after Sopron. After a morning crossing of the border, which took almost until noon, we visited Eisenstadt, where I’d attended a Russian language course the year before. The Esterhazy Castle was closed, and so we just drove to Vienna, where we stayed in the University hostel. This also had a slightly odd feeling, as we were staying in the same place we’d stayed three years earlier, on a month’s German language course at the Summer University (Sommerhochschule). It became almost impossible to believe that we really had just driven all that way from Leningrad – the memory of the Soviet reality – or what little we’d just experienced of it – had already receded, and the feel of the “West” was all around us, familiar and comforting again, though also strangely bright and brash, in a way I’d never noticed before.

Back in Edinburgh, it was time to prepare for more changes. Having got my master’s degree, I was now to get started with my dissertation. My girlfriend had already started hers, in mathematics, and had also got the promise of a postgraduate fellowship to Cambridge, where she was going to move the following autumn. I’d applied for a British Council scholarship to visit Moscow in order to do some library and archive research. But this autumn we spent in Italy, at a cottage in Tuscany, and did some preliminary work on our dissertations. In the daytime we worked, sometimes taking walks along the shore near Portoferraio, in the evenings read, by the light of kerosene lamps (there was no electricity on the hillside), and made fires of pear and olive logs. Sometimes we’d go up the hill to visit our neighbour, who owned the land, a Polish artist who had emigrated to Scotland and now spent half of the year with his wife in his house and studio in Tuscany, on an olive farm he had bought. In addition to the poems of Annensky, I was also reading a lot of Russian symbolist poetry, prose and aesthetics, as well as philosophy (Solovyov, Rozanov, Shestov and Vyacheslav Ivanov) and fiction (Dostoyevsky). Our neighbour had also read some of these things, and occasionally we sat and discussed Russian modernism and the ways in which it differed from Polish modernism.

In January, I had an interview in London with the British Council, in connection with the Moscow visit I was planning to make. The British Council’s offices on Davies Street seemed quite unassuming, and very British, with cups of tea and copies of the Times. One was therefore slightly unprepared for the rather East European nature of the interviewing panel, which consisted of a row of dark-suited personnel, some academic but others very definitely from the Foreign Office, who fired questions at one about one’s plans, intentions and reasons for visiting the Soviet Union. Some weeks later, I received a letter telling me that I’d been accepted as a postgraduate exchange student. Later, there was a briefing session, where all the accepted candidates were gathered together in a room at Davies Street. We were given demonstrations of bugging devices that had been found in university, diplomatic and business premises in the Soviet Union, and then received an illustrated lecture on the workings of two-way mirrors, with a real “live” two-way mirror. We were sworn to secrecy, and told that we must not on any account divulge anything of what w'd seen and heard to the press, or in writing of any kind. Somewhat taken aback, and slightly amused, at the end of the session we emerged on to the street, wondering if this had been a rehearsal for some spy drama. Still later, we each received a cheque to cover the cost of a warm overcoat, and were given the address of a firm of specialist London locksmiths who provided the so-called “cylinder blocking key” (R. sobachka), to reinforce the security of our rooms in the Moscow, Leningrad, or other university hostels.

In early September, armed with what seemed like rather too much heavy luggage (it was mostly books and papers, plus the warm overcoat), I found myself at Tilbury Docks again, this time without my girlfriend – it was the first time we’d been separated for quite a while, and we both had mixed feelings about this. We were planning to be apart for six months, and would meet again in Cambridge, not Edinburgh. There were many unknowns ahead. That afternoon, with two other students from Edinburgh, I boarded the Soviet ship Baltika, and in the main saloon we found the whole British Council group, which consisted of some twenty students, and were soon making friends. That evening the ship sailed, and we were bound for Leningrad. It was September 5, 1967.

(to be continued)

see also:
Going Back
Going Back-II
Going Back-III

1 comment:

mpc said...

This whole series of posts are just fascinating!