I think that during this first extended stay in Moscow I was less conscious of the political aspects of the reality that surrounded me – I was 22, and had spent a lot of my time studying the Russian literature and society of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The purported aim of my visit was, after all, to gather materials for my dissertation on the poet Annensky, who had died in 1909. So my view of my surroundings was inevitably affected by this distortion of time, and I tended to see the manifestations of the dissident world more as an observer rather than as an active participant. I think that in general this was also true of most of the British group – indeed, some of us were even mildly sympathetic to the Soviet system, I think, having naively brought with us the idea that it was somehow related to the “benign” face of Harold Wilson’s Labour Party. Most of these people were in for a rude shock, though there were some who persisted in their rose-tinted vision. Also, there was simply the difficulty of getting any research done at all, so huge were the segments of time expended on performing the most rudimentary tasks, such as shopping for food (the stolovaya diet soon became unbearable, or arranging essential interviews with one’s director of studies.
The strangeness and massiveness of the university environment and also of the urban environment in Moscow itself led to a certain degree of alienation, which in turn prompted many of us to withdraw into private rituals. After a morning and early afternoon session at the Library, for example, a few of us would often repair to one of the large hotels in the vicinity – usually the National or the Moskva – for “lunch”. I put the word in quotes, as it was really the Russian obed. For the equivalent of about six dollars, one could eat a perfectly decent four-course meal with Soviet champagne in the vast and almost deserted tourist restaurant of the National, looking out at the snowy square. In the restaurant it was warm and comfortable, and I think we saw it as a kind of escape from the travails of Zone V, where there weren’t even the basic prerequisites of comfort – not even a laundry that was anywhere within reasonable walking distance: clothes were generally washed in the shower, with soap powder brought from the embassy store. So there we sat, while the snow fell outside, and the light began to fail, and we passed the hours in pleasant conversation. It was really a kind of withdrawal.
Occasionally there were parties at the home of the assistant cultural attaché, which gave an illusion of being back in Britain again, and on Sundays, with a friend – she was also researching Russian literature - I sometimes visited the small social club run by the pastor at the American Embassy. This enthusiastic ecclesiastical worker was known as “the hippy priest”, and that was no exaggeration: at his gatherings one could easily have thought one was in Berkeley – and indeed, Viktor, with his two Finnish girlfriends, felt quite happily at home in those part-psychedelic, part-Hockneyesque surroundings, listening to the music of the Velvet Underground, Jimi Hendrix, the Beach Boys and the Beatles.
In order - we could only assume - to undermine the sense of group solidarity among the British contingent, in mid-November the "local" KGB on floors 8 and 9 of Zone V decided to launch a blackmail operation against our group's leader, or starosta. At around 2am one morning he was awoken by a group of Russian-speaking students who forced their way into his room and "compromised" him - i.e. stripped him naked, made him make obscene gestures, pose with another naked male, and took photographs which they threatened to send to his parents back in England. Next morning, after an urgent telephone consultation with the British cultural attache, which was no doubt tapped, he had to flee on foot to the British Embassy with his deputy, where he was instructed to remain for the next six weeks, before being quietly flown out of Moscow back to the U.K.
Another inconvenience was the sense of distance from home. Letters from Britain had to be addressed c/o the embassy on Maurice Thorez Embankment, and once every three days we took it in turns to call in there and pick up the mail for the group. Then it had to be distributed around the rooms, with one or two of us playing the role of “postman”. These letters were very important to us, I remember – and indeed, the letters I was getting from D., my girlfriend, who had now moved to Cambridge, began to make me feel I might want to return to see her sooner rather than later. By now it was December 1967.
(to be continued)
See also: Going Back