It’s hard now, in retrospect, to recreate or even re-invoke the atmosphere of those years. At home, in Britain, there was a sense of social change, the dropping of old certainties and taboos and also a degree of willingness to experiment with new lifestyles and patterns of living. This was accompanied by the burgeoning pop culture, the new cults of fashion, drugs and sex, the advent of rock music, the Beatles and the Stones, and the Wilson government with its slightly tongue-in-cheek, but none the less real commitment to the “white-hot technological revolution”. It all had an air of adventure, but at the same an innocence whose essence is hard to recapture or understand nowadays. In some ways, as students (our official designation was that of “scholars”) travelling on British Council stipends and the recipients of a Foreign Office briefing, we were, I guess, meant to be representatives of the New Britain, carrying the Western way of life into the heart of the Soviet monolith, in the hope – entertained by some – that some of it would rub off and act as diplomatic grease for the rather rusty state of British-Soviet relations at the time (strangely, perhaps, the installation of a Labour government at Westminster and Whitehall had led to more, not less tension between London and Moscow).
As we sailed in our Soviet ship across the North Sea towards Denmark, we began to take stock of our fellow passengers, who represented a fair cross-section of British society: businessmen, middle-aged couples, young tourists bound for the bars and nightclubs of Copenhagen, a large group of Nigerian students returning from vacation, somewhat unwillingly, for the continuation of their studies at the Patrice Lumumba University in Moscow. And then there was us – a fairly homogeneous bunch of “intellectuals”, male and female, charged with our academic and diplomatic status as bearers and harbingers of free inquiry. Mostly on that sea-voyage I think the intellectual component got quite forgotten – my principal memories are of evenings – especially the last evening before we docked in Leningrad – when with energetic concentration most of the group, myself included, danced the Twist to deafeningly amplified music with the Nigerian students, while the ship’s purser Yevgeny wandered around keeping an eye on us all, a sad, contented smile on his face. Apart from the Russian crew, we saw no Russians: we were told that they were “below deck”. This had also been true during the voyage on the Mariya Ulyanova I’d made the year before.
At Leningrad we disembarked slowly. Getting through customs and passport controls took a very long time – suitcases were opened, books and papers removed and read, then replaced, sometimes confiscated. The students were divided into groups, depending on destination, the whole operation supervised by the assistant British cultural attaché, who had come up from Moscow. The Moscow group, to which I belonged, rode to Moskovsky Vokzal (Moscow Station) in a chartered bus. By now it was dark, and I remember the glimpses of St Isaac’s, floodlit, from the bus window. At Moskovsky Vokzal we boarded the Krasnaya Strela (Red Arrow) night sleeper to Moscow. The walls of the sleeping compartments were made of deep brown wood, and all the fittings were of good old-fashioned brass. There was a great deal of red plush everywhere.
(to be continued)
See also Going Back