“A city of extreme contradictions” – Daniel Silva, on Moscow.
Of the great loves of my life, the one that has caused me the most heartache and confusion has to be my passion for Russia.
When I was 13 years old I fell in love with the sound of the Russian language. When I was 15 I fell in love with a Russian make of ballet shoes. And when I was 19 I fell in love with Moscow. I had chosen to embark on a degree in Russian, part of which was taught at the Moscow State University. Off I went, naively, without any idea what to expect.
The education I received during my 10 months in Moscow went far beyond the grammatical labyrinth of the Russian language: I was a world away from my privileged, British middle class background, in a place where I saw poverty, disability, corruption, and frustration in degrees I could hitherto only have imagined. The “daily grind” was etched on the grim, fatigued faces of the people I saw on the metro every day as I was heading to and from class. It was a difficult time: Yeltsin was coming to the end of his term of office. The rouble had crashed. Many people had lost everything. You got the impression that they would have been angry if only they hadn’t been so utterly exhausted.
Yet behind the sullen countenance of the girls in the grocery kiosks, the stern looks of the khaki-uniformed administrators in the metro stations, the pale, drawn faces of the morning commuters, I quickly discovered a polar opposite: the fun-loving, sociable, hospitable, generosity-laden side of the Russian spirit.
My year in Moscow was made wonderful by the people I met. From my school teacher, Tamara Grigorievna, who chastised and tutted her way through class, yet found us every piece of information we ever needed and sent us off on excursions to the most interesting places in town, to my stern yet beautiful ballet teacher, Tatiana Petrovna, whose first words to me when I went to watch a class to see if it might be my cup of tea were, “Why on earth would you sit and watch?! Where are your ballet shoes?! Join in, for goodness’ sake!”, to Tanya, my Russian “mum”, with whom I lived for eight months and who force fed me pancakes and borsch as if I were a foie gras goose, and who, no matter how dreadfully long and exhausting her working day had been, sat me down every evening without fail and grilled me about my day so that I could practise my Russian.
All manner of friendships were struck and I knew I had people I could call on if things went wrong or I needed help. And what’s more, I know I still could. When it comes to friendship, the Russians are rather like elephants: they never forget.
It’s still disappointingly difficult to visit Russia. The logistics and cost of obtaining a visa mean that popping over to Moscow for a weekend now and then is simply not possible. So over the years I’ve lost my connection with Moscow, my spoken Russian has gone downhill for lack of practice, and my obsession with the place has dwindled as I’ve ranged from disillusioned to downright disgusted by the politics. It’s difficult loving a place with such an abysmal human rights record, such corruption, dishonesty, aggression, and – frankly – blatant arrogance. A place where levels of brutality don’t seem to have reduced, irrespective of the lessons that history has tried to teach.
So when it came to attending a conference in Moscow last week I had mixed feelings. Mostly I didn’t really want to go. I’ve been back a couple of times since I finished my studies – most recently three years ago after a protracted absence – so I’d already been through the shock of finding that my beloved city has changed beyond recognition into an expensive, cosmopolitan capital full of sushi bars, designer clothes shops and European cars. Moscow is fast losing its identity and turning into a generic, globalized capital city. Despite being disappointed by the change, I couldn’t help but be impressed by the improvement in standard of living that had come with that transition. People look younger, healthier and less downtrodden, and the average life expectancy has increased by around 10 years.
This visit was less of a shock to my system, but no less contradictory in terms of my feelings about the place. I was appalled, yet somehow not surprised, by the selective broadcasting – skewed TV reporting on Ukraine and endless holding forth by the President. Russia’s self-importance dominates the news. If I hadn’t known better I’d have thought the Ebola crisis miraculously solved and typhoons in Asia mysteriously blown out. Yet I thoroughly enjoyed the opportunity to visit some old haunts and reminisce about my time there as a student. I found myself walking down the Arbat with a smile on my face, remembering how I used to run to ballet class; devouring an icecream on Red Square (a must if you ever visit – the Russians are mad about icecream and there’s actually nothing better than slurping an “Eskimo” in the middle of a sub-zero, snowy Red Square, looking at the low winter light over Saint Basil’s Cathedral); and eating all my favourite foods – pelmeny (little ravioli/dumpling type things cooked in chicken bouillon and served with sour cream), goluptsy (minced beef and onion wrapped in steamed cabbage leaves), and numerous pancakes. Sights, tastes and smells transported me back 15 years in an instant, and I couldn’t help thinking how incredibly lucky I’d been to have had so many wonderful experiences and have made so many wonderful friends there.
I concluded that the things that frustrate me about Russia will doubtless continue to do so. But despite my misgivings, my little trip back to Moscow reminded me of how I had once loved that crazy city, its people, its culture and its language, and has perhaps succeeded in rekindling the little spark that remained of that passion.