Friday, June 17, 2005

Going Back Again - V


My wife and I were the only married couple in the Moscow British student group that year, and so we got the largest room. Bare and spartan it might be, but it did have plenty of space, and we’d tried to make it a little more liveable – record player, some Klee and Kandinsky posters on the walls, and so on. Then after about six weeks we got the idea of holding a sort of "house-warming" party for the group and assorted Soviet guests. I think this was partly because, as I mentioned before, there was much less of a sense of group solidarity and cohesion than I’d noticed in 1967, and the embassy seemed now to be taking a rather lower profile in terms of social functions and get-togethers that involved postgraduates. This may have been connected with pressure from the Soviet authorities, though there was no way of knowing for certain.

At all events, we held the party one weekend – I remember it started around 9pm on the Saturday night, and was a moderately uninhibited affair, with a lot of dancing and drinking. It was interesting mainly because it attracted some non-Western guests, not all of whom turned out to be members of the local komsomol group, and not all of whom were even Russian: there was the son of a Yugoslav diplomat, who had been invited by one member of the British group who had met him at another party earlier in the semester, and there were also a couple of Estonians. Mary had invited the poet Mikhail Yeryomin, a friend and associate of Brodsky, to the evening, and we had an interesting chat, in the course of which I began to get involved in plans for a trip to Leningrad. The Yugoslav diplomat’s son gave a flamboyant speech about his visit as a student to Moscow, including some intentionally “controversial” statements about freedom of speech and assembly which caused a mild ripple of interest among some of the Russian guests. The Estonians looked on with distaste, I thought, and one of them told me that he didn’t approve of the Yugoslav and thought he might be some kind of KGB provocateur or informer. Most people went back to their rooms at around 3am, except for one or two of the Russian guests, who stayed on to drink. I distinctly remember one of them telling me how he was going to take me back to his village in Siberia to show me “the real Russia”.

A few days later, we had a visit from Jaak, one of the Estonians who had been at the party. Jaak was a friend of Michael, who lived in the other room in the block, and also of Mary. We talked for a while, and Jaak told us that was a teacher in Tallinn, married with two children, and had come to Moscow to get an education diploma. He was tall and anxious-looking, but friendly, with a sense of humour, and apparently open about himself. He said he was personally acquainted with one or two Estonian poets, including the well-known P.E. Rummo, and had a book of Russian translations of Rummo’s poetry, from which he liked to read aloud, and he suggested that I might like to work on translating some of the poems. This was my first contact with Estonian poetry. Difficulties arose, however, when the talk turned to the subject of Brodsky, and to Soviet dissidents in general. The first time this happened, Jaak rose to his feet, looking pale, put his hands on my shoulders and those of my wife, and asked us to come out into the corridor with him. There he informed us that our room was bugged. He didn’t know where the bugging device was hidden, and said it might even be concealed behind the wallpaper or plaster, but he was quite certain there was at least one microphone in the room. Although we had been warned of this by the British Council back in London, it came as something of a shock to us, and at first we couldn’t take it seriously. My wife assumed that Jaak was merely suffering from stress, and tried to reassure him that it was all right to talk freely in the room, but he insisted that it wasn't – and from then on, whenever he visited, usually with Michael or Mary, we had to take care not to let the conversation turn to topics that were “sensitive”, or else be prepared to make the trip out to the corridor.

The thought of the microphone in the room also began to have an effect on D. and myself, I think, and we became more guarded in the comments we passed to one another, which was an odd experience. We conducted several searches of the place to see if we could find the hidden bug, but without success. Playing music on the record-player seemed to be the best way of covering our voices - so if we wanted to talk without worrying about what we said, we usually played some jazz or rock music.

(to be continued)

See also:
Going Back Again
Going Back Again - II
Going Back Again - III
Going Back Again - IV

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