After the initial period of settling in was over, we began to approach the official purpose of our visit – scholarly research. In order to get started with this, it was necessary to visit Zone A, and the so-called Inotdel (an abbreviation of Inostrannyi otdel, or Foreign Department) of the University, and make an appointment to see the supervisor, a youngish woman called Lidiya Prokofyevna. Lidiya Prokofyevna, or “L.P.” as we soon began to call her, was in charge of all the foreign "philology" (arts and humanities) students in the building and its environs. Her office was therefore often very busy, and the time spent waiting outside it for one’s appointment, which was sometimes delayed by up to two hours or more, could be considerable. When one did gain access to the inner sanctum, one began to realize why these delays occurred. To begin with, L.P. would fix you with her somewhat steely, but none the less friendly gaze, through thick glasses, and ask you questions about your zayavlenie, or application for research and archive facilities. When she had learned what she wanted to know, she would pick up the telephone and call the relevant authorities – however, the people at the other end of the line usually seemed to be busy or absent: the phone would go and ringing and ringing, and L.P. would sit there looking at you through her glasses. She might then briefly change the subject to the questions of how you were faring in Zone V, or who your group leader was, or some such topic, but would then revert to silent waiting, as the phone at the other end of the line continued to ring and ring. Sometimes this process of waiting went on for ten minutes or more – then she would call another number, with the same result, and so on. Eventually the required information would come through, and L.P. would issue instructions about the appointment with the archive director, librarian or other official. I think most of us found these sessions in L.P.’s office something of a Kafkaesque joke – and what made the joke even funnier was that L.P. seemed to share an awareness of the absurdity of the situation. Eventually one day, the leader (or starosta) of our group and his deputy brought her flowers and chocolates, which finally seemed to break the ice.
Like several others, I finally arranged to do my research in the First Reading Room (Pervyi zal) of the Lenin Library, and made an application to use the archives at TsGALI (Central State Archive of Literature and Art). Each morning we would set off on the trolleybus from the main entrance to the Leninskie Gory Metro station, put our 5-copeck coin in the slot and pass through the turnstile, descending the moving staircase to the trains below. In some ways, this felt not unlike using the London Tube, except for the absence of commercial advertising, and the constant presence of political slogans. The trip was quite a quick one, and had only four stops – Sportivnaya, Frunzenskaya, Park Kultury and Biblioteka Lenina (Lenin Library) itself.
At the library, it was necessary to leave one’s topcoat and briefcase at the garderob (cloakroom), and woe betide anyone whose coat didn’t have a strong, unbroken cloth tab for hanging up – the cloakroom attendants would refuse to accept it. The First Reading Room was reserved for high Party officials and foreign scholars, Thinking about it, we soon realized that this was probably a deliberate strategy on the part of the authorities, in order to give a decent impression to foreign visitors. For the Second Reading Room and the General Reading Room were not nearly as quiet and spacious, and the scramble for books at the issue desk looked like something out of Gogol’s plays. In the First Reading Room, one was likely to spot the aged Vyacheslav Mikhailovich Molotov, who seemed to spend quite a lot of time there. There were lesser Party officials, too – and us, the foreign students, who must have seemed rather out of place.
I spent the days researching aspects of Silver Age literature, with the original issues of Apollon, Vesy and other literary journals of the early 20th century. Such publications were carefully kept for use by Soviet academics and foreign scholars – they were not listed in the general catalogue, but only in the special catalogue housed in the First Reading Room. There was a sense of incongruity, which increased with time, as one studied these pre-revolutionary editions, with their beautiful hand-crafted bindings and illustrations, and from time to time glanced out at the unmistakably Soviet reality of the roof- and streetscape that lay beyond the windows.
(to be continued)
See also: Going Back