Today is Russia Day, honoured by reading War and Pace, eating blinis, listening to Rachmaninoff, performing dangerous repairs or potentially lethal dares and never, ever complaining.
In honour of Russia day, here are some entries from my journal from when I lived there, in 2008. I lived for a few weeks in Moscow, then went to stay in a shitty satellite town called Kolomna (kind of a Russian Faversham if that means anything to you?) and then to a truly dreadful little place called Shuruvo, where I worked in a cement factory, teaching English.
Jan 8th. Moscow. This morning I was in a carriage where a man had shit himself. Everyone moved up one end of the carriage to get away from the smell. I wondered if the man, slumped unnaturally in the corner seat, was perhaps dead. When I got out of the train I saw a woman passed out on the platform, covered in milk.
Wonderful place though the Moscow metro. Burnished wood panelling, faded brass and marble in imperialist art-deco style, finely wrought curlicues, and sans-serif metropolis fonts. Once you’ve bought your ticket from the old woman who hates you, down the long long escalators, past the barriers (that are, with unique malevolence, open and then smash shut into your knees if you try to walk through without a ticket), down in the tunnels, there are no adverts, no plastic panelling and no vending machines. The aesthetic is not even troubled by maps, which is the main reason I spend hours down there. I can’t find my way out.
Jan 10th. Moscow. The maid who cleans my room is from the nineteenth century. Her broom is made of twigs. Her face is like a polished brown nut. This morning I tried to talk with her and she looked at me as I were the devil and then… crossed herself.
Jan 16th. Moscow. Some of the faces here. I have never seen such misery etched into flesh. No uglier than the nondescript puppy-people of London, but far, far more obvious.
Jan 22nd. Moscow. Went for drink with Jake in a large characterless bar, bit like Weatherspoons. We were sitting in the middle of the room chatting when heavy music came on, some kind of techno, and eight beautiful naked women came from nowhere, pranced around the place for five minutes or so, and then vanished.
(2019 edit. I have a memory of this happening, it did happen; and yet it seems so fantastic to me now that I start to wonder whether it was a dream.)
Jan 28th. Kolomna. Six hour taxi ride. A long, long, loooong, straight road; a spiny bridge over a vast ocean of fetid green nothingness, rising up here and there into islands of trees, occasionally a scrubby area, clumpy with frosted bracken, or an ancient shed of grey broken wood. (What are these fields used for? Everything seems abandoned.) Across the snowy grass, turning clumps of exposed black green to unearthly orange, shines the yellowest light I have ever seen. I turn back to look at the evening sun setting in flame under a frameless goldwhite sky.
Its all space there in the west; all vast and epic and brilliant and mythic; but overhead it darkens, first to pink blue, pale slate and then, in the east, where we are headed, retreating storm clouds rise up, a black-grey iron wall stretching up for millions of miles but cut, down the centre with; a rainbow. Against the darkness behind it is clear and bright like a laser. It strikes the far horizon; like it has travelled from the far side of the universe. It seems not static, but flowing, some kind of communication, beaming into the ground.
I pointed this out to the taxi-driver. He nodded an eighth of an inch — but what an eighth of an inch! Somehow he packed so much love into that microscopic gesture.
Thomas Mann said that the Russian language was ‘backward and boneless’. I think this sound evolved because most conversations are conducted between clenched teeth.
Feb 9th. Konoveevo. Just arrived in the ‘resort’ of Konoveevo. Drove past snow covered fields, birch forests, massive concrete communist ‘living units,’ iced over railway tracks, checkpoints, industrial plants, barbed wire, frozen rivers and peasants grubbing for potatoes.
Still insanely cold. Opening windows is same feeling as opening an oven door; painful blast of heat, but in negative. Snow flakes very tiny and hard. Unhappy snowflakes.
This week’s intensive course is me and Jake, and nine women, mostly in their forties and fifties. During a game the word ‘laugh’ came up, which nobody knew. ‘We do not laugh in Russia,’ one of the women said. A bit later Jake offered to help a woman with her bag and she said no: ‘Russian women do not need help.’ Many old women are incredibly stern. A few days ago Jake got physically attacked by a bus conductress for, we think, not giving her money immediately. She was shouting at him, he was desperately trying to explain himself in English, but this just enraged her more. Eventually she started beating him. I wanted to pull her off him, but it was too funny.
Feb 12th. Konoveevo. (an aside) My grandfather died two days ago. Last night I felt he was in the room. I felt full of love.
Feb 15th. Kolomna. Young women mostly dress like tarts. The classic look here is tight jeans tucked into dominatrix black leather boots with a first-I-fuck-you-zen-I-keel-you fringe. Another popular look is doll-like frilly shouldered blouses, hair-bows, lacey tassles, two-hour hair-dos frozen in a kind of curly helmet and teeth like a sixteenth century graveyard. I saw one girl dressed in massive furry dark red yeti-boots, tight black leggins, a tight leathery ox-blood bodice with furry arms in the same dark red and a massive dark red fur hood arching dome-like over her tiny head. Posture is very good here, at least compared to the sunken-shouldered slack-bellied Spaniards I’d been living with.
Most men carry bottles of beer. Like the women they are either dry, wry and warm-hearted, or savagely hard and very frightening.
There is a cat here that looks Russian. Can’t work out why, I think because its cheek bones are higher and its close together ears furrier than I am used to. It also seems more laconic.
Feb 17th. Kolomna. The food is excellent in this country! Oniony soups with dollops of sour cream, carrot and caviar or apple and crab or dill and cucumber salad, sweet sultana studded quiches, tender roast meats and unusually herbed vegetable stews, chunky slightly oily but very flavoursome chips, dark breads tanging with rye, and the densest breakfast porridge conceivable. Stodgy dumplings too, delicate little pastries, and fish in a kind of batter. Even the grunts in the cement factory eat exceptionally well, easily better than all of Watford.
I’ve had two kinds of sauerkraut, a thin cut tart one and a slightly sweeter thicker one with carrots and some kind of spice (old women have big bags of them in the street which they ladle out). Place some of each alongside hard boiled eggs and new potatoes covered in (the local handmade) mayonnaise, gherkins (also peculiar and intense), cucumbers, pickled onions, carrot-based salad in some kind of spicy sesame, one of many herb-onion-potato-dollop-of-cream soups, vast range of relishes and preserves (flavoured with not sure what — have spotted juniper berries, capers, ginger and dill — dill very popular) dark chewy toasted barley toast and maybe dried or pickled fish. All kinds of pickled fish, some outrageously tasty. One I had today was some kind of sild I think, wrapped around mushrooms and prunes in a sweet strangely spiced oil.
Mmm. Sild. Lovely, lovely sild.
Feb 21st. Kolmna. Jake taught me a new word, liminal. I am currently leading a liminal life. Between everything. In the interzone. The hotel corridors elongate as I walk down them, the eyes in the head of the security guard in the foyer swivel to follow me around the room, the secretary smiles knowingly — one of the few staff not to have a do-not-disturb door-handle sign hanging from her smooth unused face.
Three days ago I went to Moscow. Took the train, after a day of petty humiliations, and dragged my twenty kilo bag across the metro with a stinking head-inflating cold. In the pouring rain, nose running (no tissue), needing a piss, I heaved across the packed muddy bus-station, dodging crowds of agonised wretches and crones, trying to find the right booth, being shouted at by drunkards, vendors and… then I was in a battle and telling the troops that they may never have experienced true courage and glory, but, by God they would now… take up the flag my boys — take up the flag!
On the train home I chatted with a nice-looking woman. I ended up kissing her and nearly missed my stop. Never saw her again.
Back at the hotel in Kolomna my room had been mysteriously downgraded from the standard pine-pastal-keycard travel-lodge room on the seventh floor (which was ‘being used’), through a temporal anomoly, to a nineteen-seventies soviet block, creaking floorboards, sellotaped windows, furry brown wallpaper, peeling formica-range paint and ancient spluttering piped room on the fourteenth. Which I prefer. I wondered if perhaps the other floors were on different time zones? Maybe on the twentieth floor live the Viking Rus?
I came downstairs for a snack, through the lobby, and walked past fifteen tall thin model-like women wearing even more tarty than the usual clobber — one girl, for example, was wearing tight black leather pants in knee high S&M boots, a black silk top with slits down the arms and back, wet-look hair and bright red lipstick. Next to them were two stocky fellas in leathers with sullenly violent yet self-consciously cool expressions on their mulleted cube-head. These girls were all sitting around one side of the lobby and on the other were four little girls, about eight, playing Monopoly with credit cards and an electronic swiper.
Feb 29th. Kolomna. Last night I went out with Olesa. We returned to a dangerous area of town, where I felt quite conspicuous carrying my laptop and I left her at a car park where, on one side, there was a taxi and another, the hotel in which Olesa was going to meet her friend. We said our cheerios, I walked towards the taxi, she towards the hotel.
As I am approaching the taxi I look back and see two men hassling her. One aggressively postured is in front of her not letting her pass; she stepping from one side to another, he mirroring her. I immediately walk over and when I get near say, ‘Olesa, come here a minute’ – this breaks the spell of his game, she comes over to me, I take her arm, lead her to hotel, she turns to me, gives me the kind of ‘my hero’ smile that all men dream of, and I turn back.
My hero, yes, fine, great; but I hadn’t been considering. Nothing to do with me. But; as soon as she leaves consideration returns. There is now me and between me and taxi; two men who I can now see are poor-looking and Russian-hard. I walk to taxi, ‘heart beating like a fucked clock’. The hassler is next to me talking in quiet threatening tones wide pock-marked face too close to mine, inside my egg. I am walking looking ahead but paying very close sideways attention to his large forearms. They could probably hurt me, I am ready to move very quickly but concentrating on walking calmly. I get into the taxi, rapidly, too rapidly, he doesn’t let me close the door, talking to taxi driver; I sit, awash with adrenaline, and trying so hard not to show fear, although I am now very afraid, trying to just look slowly (but always with my eye half on his arms, ready to do God knows what should they move at me). Perhaps my trying was evident, but at any rate he steps back and I pull the door closed.
Mar 4th Kolomna. Spent the day with Olesa and her family in their back yard ‘doing sauna’. Part of the Russian sauna event is to lie down in the sauna room, naked and appalling, while you are whipped all over with thick bushy sprigs of laurel dipped in boiling water, fanned screaming blasts of hell-fire wafts, turn over, cover balls, and have the other side done. This is agony. I could feel the sweat not just running down in rivers, but emerging from me and sliding down my skin in a single molten continuum. Then you stagger out, roll around in the snow, drink vodka, eat fish and return. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat.
The effect of all this as you sit drunk recovering in the freezing breeze, is like lying half-dead at the top of a mountain you’ve just sprinted up while being pelted with stones, but for a good reason, to rescue someone. Eventually it becomes mad and fades into hazy amnesia.
I stayed over, sleeping in the shed. Olesa and I had sex. She sat on top of me and played the violin.
Mar 20th Shuruvo. Snow is melting, all is mud. What a shitty, shitty, shitty world. Christ, the misery. So I thought as I walked from Shurovo to Kolomna, along the wide tramline between the vast apartment blocks and silos. Trudging through this trudging life with the dregs of the world I was, when, suddenly, the sun came out, and it was one of the most beautiful things I’d ever seen. The clouds were low and dark, but illuminated from underneath by a blood-red sun which was also reflected in the water, water everywhere, puddles of melted snow, pools of brown water to the horizon, which now all exploded in sunset red, pools of fire down the wide avenue, red gold everywhere, reflected from all the windows too, extraordinary… extraordinary… As you can tell from this jagged paragraph, words don’t come close to describing it. Even more amazing all the broken Russians walking God knows where to God knows where, stopped with me and looked at this horrible wonderful scene.
Mar 27th Shuruvo. At lunch today I stood in line with the cement workers. They looked at me suspiciously. I look very, very different. A couple of men pushed in, just walked into the space in front of me, either from dense unawareness or a more active attempt to assert — not sure. It was a relief to get into the steamy yellow kitchen area and the friendly (although hard-as-nails) serving woman, with her bright pink eye-shadow, standing at huge cylinders of mash and soup. I ate alone, on the blue-print plastic table in the dark chip-wood panelled room. At least nobody stares at me. I simply don’t exist.
Shurovo town is in the middle of a forest, but sprawls out. Russia is so big, you can build where you like, leave whatever you want wherever you want; beer bottles, mattresses, broken class, plastic bags, silos, cities, children… The roads are full of holes, most buildings are ruined things, dark and cracked, stray dogs pick through dustbins, so do mad old cripples and drunks. Between all this crumbling matter is the forest, green and sweaty, post-apocalyptic already.
After the thunderstorm I went for a run. It was bright and yellow. The roads have no drains, so huge pools of muddy water were again everywhere, brilliant in the clean new sun. I am glad the winter is over. It was quite brutal. How these old folk have lived through decades of these winters, through unimaginable privation too, God knows.
A few people hung around, looking at me. A tall slim and sharply attractive girl wearing a tiny blue skirt walked past and shot me a completely inscrutable glance. There are lots of incredibly beautiful women here, but they all look like hard work. A group of children came past me on bikes and scooters, happy in the very quiet way children here are happy. One scooter had an older girl, perhaps fifteen, short, blond and beautiful, standing behind a little boy, holding him between her arms. She trundled past, hair flying behind her, intense little face. I passed some young soldiers trying to fix a car. Further down a man was squatting in the street, I don’t know why. He had a face common here, sort of squashed and rubbery. An old woman was clinging to a wall, pleading with people as they passed. Finally back to my flat, with the iron bars over the windows. The usual gang were hanging round the door, six or seven mulleted teenagers. I really think they are plotting to kill me.
I stayed in Shurovo for a while. I loved it. I loved Russia. The people were kind and generous, lots of them were — some utterly terrifying — weird, mad things seemed to happen all the time — can’t stand places where nothing goes heywire — but also there seemed to be a quiet spirit of immensity, everywhere, a somewhat loving yet desolate hugeness in everything and everyone. Not really Moscow, that was already a capitalist hell-hole — I hear it’s much worse now — but out in the lovely country. I met mordant, curious, sensitive alarmingly competent folk there and left with the feeling that when civilisation ends, Russia, some parts of it, will somehow find a way through, and they deserve to.