Friday, February 04, 2005

Going Back - XI


And so, towards the latter part of December, with somewhat mixed feelings, I decided to cut short my visit (I’d originally planned to stay for six months) and head back to England. A visit to L.P.’s office brought a sympathetic reaction from her, and an official piece of paper signed by her that said I was ending my stazhirovka (study trip) early po semeynym prichinam ("for domestic reasons").

It may seem from what I’ve written in this series of posts that these were months of unrelieved gloom – but that wasn’t the case at all. In many cases, the effort of adapting to the new and unfamiliar surroundings acted as a stimulus, and there was a definite thrill in actually managing to navigate the often labyrinthine complexities of Soviet bureaucracy and Soviet byt, or everyday life. There were also definite perks in being a student at MGU – for one thing, one got free or heavily discounted tickets for music recitals and concerts at the Bolshoi Zal (Main Hall) of the Moscow Conservatoire, and during those months I attended some remarkable recitals, including one by the great pianist Stanislav Neuhaus (the son of Heinrich Neuhaus), and another by Mstislav Rostropovich, with whom a Scottish cellist friend, also on a British Council scholarship, was studying.

It was also possible to build a large collection of classical discs featuring Russian performers by visiting the Melodiya store, where one could buy a very wide range of monaural recordings for next to nothing. The procedure was to buy the records, and then ship them home to Britain, a process that was usually rather time-consuming and involved having the discs specially packed in hardboard cases that were secured with metal tacks. While it was sad to note the indifference felt by most Soviet students to these recordings – what most of them wanted, understandably, was Western rock music, then almost unobtainable, and a top black market item – I felt some satisfaction as I put together a collection of Soviet classical recordings that would be hard to replicate back home in Britain. I also managed to purchase a large amount of classical sheet music of works almost impossible to obtain in England at that time: they included a beautifully edited two-volume collection of Medtner’s early piano music, as well as his Sonatnaya triada, and violin works by Prokofiev, Myaskovsky, and other 20th century Soviet composers.

In addition, I was able to build up my library of classical Russian literature, in the first instance by visiting the Mezhdunarodnaya Kniga bookstore in town, which from time to time had sales of small-tirazh Soviet editions of works by 19th century authors – one had to get an inside “tip-off” as to when the tirazh would be put on sale, then dash down to the bookstore and get into the queue: sometimes the books were sold out almost instantly, for normally the bookstore stocked only row after row of works on diamat (“dialectical materialism”), the works of Marx and Lenin, and so on. Apart from Mezhdunarodnaya Kniga, there were the bukinisty, or second-hand bookstores, and I also managed to arrange a private exchange of Western books for rare pre-revolutionary editions of books by Russian symbolist and post-symbolist poets like Balmont and Kuzmin. It was illegal to take these books out of the Soviet Union without a special certificate, but I managed to smuggle them through the customs without incident.

I’d met quite a few Russians during my stay – in particular, there were Tolya and Aida: they had links with dissident painters and sculptors, whose studios we visited. I was always struck by the intensity and passion with which Russians discussed art and literature – it was quite unlike anything I had ever come across in the West. There was a genuine hunger for information about life in the West – even “dissident” Russians had many strange preconceptions about it, which was inevitable given the almost total block on such factual matter in the official media, and the lack of knowledge of West European languages: most Russians we met knew practically no English, for example. The British Council, in conjunction with the BBC Russian Service, published a monthly magazine in the Russian language (as far as I remember, it was called "Angliya") about aspects of life in the U.K., and we were encouraged to give copies of this publication to Russian friends and contacts, who invariably thought that it was “just more propaganda” (though this was really a polite way of telling us that they’d get into trouble for reading and possessing such things). In general, the political climate in the Soviet Union climate at that time was such that it was almost impossible to strike up real and lasting friendships with ordinary Soviet citizens. The degree of suspicion and fear was palpable: even on an informal night out, there was always the possibility of being followed and spied on, and I witnessed this on several occasions. It was also generally impossible to discuss Soviet politics, even with those Russians who considered themselves “freethinking”: the reality of eavesdropping and surveillance was everywhere. Only in the more than slightly Dostoyevskian atmosphere of Viktor’s room back at MGU did I ever witness political discussions that were completely uninhibited: but then the participants were often working hand-in-hand with the authorities, and “provocation” was the watchword of the hour.

A small group of colleagues accompanied three of us - another two of the British students were also going home for Christmas – to Belorussky Vokzal, where we boarded the train to Ostend: I remember the snowy expanses sliding past for a seeming eternity in the dark, the wide-gauge carriage with its provodnitsa and samovar, the whole of the early part of that journey reminiscent of something out of Tolstoy or Turgenev. Later, after the gauge-change, and the interminable Soviet customs examination at the Polish border, the stretch towards East and West Berlin began, the modern world started to return, the Soviet “commercial delegates” returned to their compartments, drawing the blinds and curtains, and the scene outside the windows took on a bright, familiar look that was comforting and reassuring. I had to admit that I was glad to be back in the West again.

In a future series, I’d like to discuss the second study visit I made to Moscow in 1969-70. It was a rather different experience altogether, for reasons that I’ll try to outline.

See also: Going Back
Going Back-II
Going Back-III
Going Back-IV
Going Back-V
Going Back-VI
Going Back-VII
Going Back-VIII
Going Back-IX
Going Back-X

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