Wednesday, June 22, 2005

Going Back Again - VIII


In writing down these memories of what life was like for us as British Council exchange students at Moscow University thirty-five years ago, I’m conscious of having left out many things. For example, the high level of surveillance extended well beyond the dim and densely populated corridors of Zones V and B. On a visit to the home of someone outside the main building, a home usually – though not invariably – housed in an apartment block, one could reckon on having to pass at least one security booth, in which a uniformed militsioner (policeman) sat or stood, keeping a tally of those who came and went. There were, however, times when the duty policeman was not on duty – and it was important to know what those times were. Gelfand, as he took us to the waiting taxi, would choose one of those times.

In the new year, L.P. at Inotdel made an appointment for me to meet a Soviet postgraduate student who was also writing a dissertation on Annensky. This turned out to be something of an anticlimax, as when I met him, the student, S., told me that he didn’t really have a very high opinion of Annensky’s work, and regarded him as much inferior to Blok, and even Bryusov. When I asked why he had bothered to make a special study of Annensky, he replied that apart from Fyodorov’s work, no Soviet critical study of the poet existed, and so he had been assigned to write one. It was concentrated on a very strictly defined area, namely the relation of Annensky’s poetry to that of Blok and Mayakovsky, and was written from a Marxist-Leninist viewpoint (there was no other viewpoint for a Soviet study). S. turned out to be pleasant enough – he invited me and D. to tea one day, and we went to what turned out to be his parents’ apartment in the centre of Moscow. It appeared that his father was something in the Politburo, and the apartment was very dark and very grand: we counted at least two servants in old-fashioned black-and-white servants’ attire, and the snacks for tea were wheeled in on an old 1930s-style trolley, with shiny metal covers for the food, and a cake-stand. A grand piano stood in one room, and there were gilt-framed portraits on the walls. The place had an atmosphere of almost Chekhovian tragedy: S.’s brother was an invalid, and couldn’t leave the apartment. Pale and ill-looking, he spent all day with books and music. It was all like stepping into the past – perhaps into the 1930s, or even earlier.

By February or so, the darkness, snow and general atmosphere of political and social oppression were beginning to weigh on us. I think that D. was less affected by it than I was, but we both found that life in this reality, which was constructed and intended quite aggressively and openly as a totalitarian alternative to Western ideas of social and political freedom, was slow and difficult. It was true that there were concerts, recitals, plays, bookstores, cinemas – but what was presented in these was all wrapped around by a heavy aura of ideology and political dogma. Even the concerts tended to be of music one would rather not go out on a cold winter’s night to hear – Kabalevsky, Khrennikov, a cycle of Khachaturyan symphonies, or piano recitals that began well enough with a Beethoven sonata or two, but gradually lost their way in series of unremarkable “pieces” and encores. The bookstores, such as Mezhdunarodnaya Kniga, mainly contained vast amounts of political and party literature, though there were interesting sections, such as the Cuban and Latin American literature department, where the books were all printed in Havana. At the cinema one might be able to see the recent extremely long and multi-series screen adaptation of War and Peace, but more usually it was films with a political message – often strangely enough American or in origin, and dubbed into Russian. And outside the streets were full of grey slush and endlessly falling snow, the lights of the foodstores white and ghostly, the shelves in them often empty, with odd exceptions and variations: one of my enduring memories is of a gastronom on Kutuzovsky Prospect which had a tank of zhivaya ryba (live fish), where large and sluggish perch or pike swam around, waiting for someone to buy them. The tank disappeared after a week or two, and I never saw it again. Or shops in which there appeared to be only one thing for sale: sometimes it was canned kil’ki (sprats), or it might be oranges. The latter would sell out quickly, and then the shop would be totally empty. There were cafes that had no coffee, but only watery tea, and snack bars that had no tea at all, but only cold kompot or – nothing. A visit to the Detskii Mir (Children’s World) store was a strange and tantalizing experience, as there one could find all kinds of goods and clothes, but the goods were toys, and the clothes were only for children, in children’s sizes. The equivalent clothes for adults – just the basic essentials, like coats and boots – were simply for the most part unavailable.

It wasn’t the sort of city where one felt one could relax or enjoy oneself much – though there were always the dollar hotels – but as a backdrop for serious academic work it wasn’t bad, I guess. I completed my dissertation in 1971, and got my Ph.D. from Edinburgh University that same year.

In Moscow that winter, my plans for meeting Soviet dissidents didn’t come to anything. In the end I didn’t meet Brodsky until late 1972, in London, after his expulsion from the Soviet Union, and I remember that at that first meeting he found my recitation of my experience of life in Moscow quite amusing, though he commiserated. D. and I left Moscow in March, and I didn’t return there for a long time. My political – and human - education was really just beginning: it took many years, and still continues today.

See also:

Going Back Again
Going Back Again - II
Going Back Again - III
Going Back Again - IV
Going Back Again - V
Going Back Again - VI
Going Back Again - VII

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