Diary: Russian Lessons
Robert Skidelsky
Prospect | Tuesday, October 01, 1996

Thursday 27 June
 
I am in St Petersburg both as a tourist and as a British observer of the second round of the Russian presidential elections. The excuse for tourism is that the House of Lords Bridge Club has been invited to play a match against the South African consulate. I fly to St Petersburg with my wife, Augusta and our younger son William (19). Our elder son, Edward (22), joins us from Moscow where he is working. Our leader is Richard Gisborough, who has organised the expedition. On arrival at St Petersburg airport we board a coach with a poster stuck on the front window with the words "House of Lords" written on it. A band strikes up God Save the Queen. I smile radiantly and am about to raise my hand to acknowledge the reception, when the band turns round to face the next coach and starts up the Marseillaise.
 
Friday 28 June
 
We leave our hotel, the Peterhof, a moored passenger boat, for a tour of St Petersburg. Our cities are black and white; St Petersburg is technicolour, a profusion of yellows, pinks, greens, and blues like 18th century clothes. It was built by Peter the Great on marshes, and thousands died to create his capital. With its girdle of concentric canals it is the real Venice of the north, more so than Copenhagen or Stockholm. Amazingly it escaped destruction by the Germans, and the Soviets kept it in a state of frozen shabbiness. Our tour guide is Elena, a squat, red-faced woman, whose clothes match the colours of the buildings. She bombards us with historical information. I notice that the new Russia has carried privatisation to new lengths. Many street names had to be changed after 1991, so new street signs are put up by private companies, with their logos underneath.
 
We go by boat to the real Peterhof, where Peter the Great built his grand summer palace. He almost never used it, preferring to live with his wife Catherine in a charming, but modest house, "Monplaisir," on the shore of the Gulf of Finland. The whole estate was dynamited by the retreating Germans in 1944.
 
Saturday 29 June
 
Today's expedition is to Tsarskoe Selo, 15 miles south of St Petersburg. Here Pushkin went to school, and the architects Rastrelli and Cameron designed an even grander palace, in turquoise and gold, for the empresses Elizabeth and Catherine the Great. It must have the longest fa´┐Żade of any palace in the world (300 metres). Again, the whole palace complex was blown up by the Germans in 1944-an act of pure cultural vandalism, without military object. We see photographs of what it looked like when the Russians recaptured it. I become anti-German, and make the mistake of saying so to an Austrian lady staying on the Peterhof. It turns out that her father had fought on the eastern front. She says, defensively, that the Russians had left the palaces like "pigsties."
 
Sunday 30 June
 
This is our Hermitage day, with our guide Elena appropriately dressed in flaming green. The highlight is the "secret collection" of Impressionists and post-Impressionists, so-called because the Russians took them from Germany in 1945 and kept them locked up for 50 years. Now there is a big row, as the Germans want them back. Richard Gisborough makes a beeline for a portrait of his ancestor, the regicide Thomas Chaloner, painted by van Dyck.
 
Ivan Benilan, my Russian-French cousin from my mother's side of the family, turns up at the hotel when we get back. Ivan works for a Russian engineering firm in Moscow. He tells us that Russians are "either better or worse than you expected-they have no middle." The English are all middle.
 
Wednesday 3 July
 
Today is the second round of the presidentials-Yeltsin versus Zyuganov. It is the first time the Russians have ever been given the chance to choose their ruler. Augusta and the peers went back to London on Monday, Edward and Will have gone to Mos-cow. I am installed in the Astoria Hotel, opposite the monumental St Isaac's cathedral. Here the poet Yesenin committed suicide, and Hitler planned to hold a banquet when the Germans captured the city. I am an official British observer. My co-observer in St Petersburg is Geoffrey Lawler, a former Conservative MP, our "minder" is Nicola Hickman, from the Britain-Russia Centre. The election is being supervised by an independent central electoral commission in Moscow: a vast number of subordinate electoral commissions, covering over 90,000 polling stations, report to it. We set out early on a wet morning for the first of our 15 targeted polling stations, mainly outside St Petersburg.
 
We spot no hanky-panky, instead a great anxiety to do everything by the book. There are exceptions. Sometimes older husbands and wives go into the voting booth together; some people don't bother to enter the booth at all, but vote at a table, or en route to the box into which the slips are dropped. Each candidate is allowed an observer. As we go round I notice that the Zyuganov observers are old Communist party sweats, while most of the Yeltsin ones are much younger, have little or no political background, and are paid to be there. This reflects the fact that there is no "Yeltsin party" as such, and that the democratic parties which support him, like Chernomyrdin's "Our Home," are very thin on the ground, even in and around St Petersburg, the most western of Russian cities.
 
The polling stations are more cheerful than in England. Pop music is blaring and stalls of food and drink are set out. Perhaps this is a hangover from the old days when the regime needed to get its 95 per cent turnouts. My attention wanders to the schools in which the polling stations are set up, and I peek into the empty classrooms. The buildings are run down, but the insides show the old Soviet pride in education. One primary school classroom is daubed not with infants' scrawls, but with photographs of famous Russian mathematicians and algebraic formulae. Will this last in the new Russia?
 
It is 3pm, we are in the middle of nowhere, and I am hungry. Geoffrey Lawler assures me that food is close by. We find it in the middle of a kolkhoz (collective farm). After we have done our observing duty, we are led to a back room where we see a table heavy with food-soup, potatoes, sausages-and bottles of vodka. It is manned by three enormous ladies with red faces. Toasts are drunk, men drift in; soon a party is in full swing. The men are keen to test our drinking capacity. The convention is that if glasses are clicked, they have to be drained in one go. The only way to cope is to stuff yourself with food. I expected a place like this to be full of Zyuganov supporters, but nearly all of them had voted for Yeltsin in the first round. After innumerable toasts, we stagger off, vowing eternal friendship.
 
Late at night we attend the vote count at a selected polling station, and then the aggregation of votes at the regional office of the electoral commission. The polling station heads arrive with their results and these are fed into a computer. The results are sent off to the electoral commission headquarters in Moscow. In our region Yeltsin leads by about 70-30. Turnout is higher than expected.
 
Thursday 4 July
 
With most of the votes counted, Yeltsin has a 12 per cent national lead, as we all expected. I take the midnight train to Moscow. Sharing my compartment is a young man from Vietnam. He speaks no English, and his Russian is as bad as mine, but we manage to chat. He is studying economics at Moscow State University. I say that Russia is the last place I would go to study economics. He explains that he comes from a small village, and his government allocates foreign studentships on the following basis: the best ones are sent to the US, the next best to western Europe and Australia, and the worst to Russia.
 
At about 3am I wake up, and need to go to the lavatory. They are both locked. I rouse the guard. A hard-faced woman appears and tells me that the lavatories are locked ten minutes before the train pulls into a station and for ten minutes after it leaves. We are still hurtling through the night, and I demand that it be opened at once. After a couple of minutes of shouting at each other, she produces a key.
 
Friday 5 July
 
Debriefing at the French embassy. Foreign observers from a number of countries give their impressions, Michael Meadowcroft chairs. He is head of the OSCE's office for democratic institutions and human rights which has co-ordinated the international observer effort. The conclusion is that the elections were fairly conducted, but the national media were excessively pro-Yeltsin. However, most local newspapers are still controlled by the Communists. Does anybody bother to read them? I am deeply impressed by the maturity of the electorate. In spite of the hardships they have endured since the collapse of communism they rejected a return to the old system. This imposes a heavy duty on Russia's rulers to govern well, and on the democrats to stop squabbling and splintering.
 
I meet Mark Fisher, a delightful, civilised Labour MP who has been observing in the Moscow area. In the evening we have dinner at the British embassy.
 
Sunday 7 July
 
Today I move into my new quarters-a flat south of Moscow on the Profsayuznaya avenue, where I am to lodge for the next two and a half weeks. My aim is to improve my Russian. This dom or block of flats was built in the early 1980s for Soviet dignitaries, so the flats are spacious by Soviet standards. The prime minister, Chernomyrdin, used to live here. I get a room with a desk, and balcony which overlooks a vast courtyard. This is babushka's (granny's) room, but she has been sent away for the duration. My landlords, Sasha and Shorena Bokuchava, are very welcoming. He teaches Russian literature at Moscow State University; she is a doctor. They are Georgian, and neither of them speaks English. It was his father who got the flat. He was a well-known agronomist who wrote a treatise on green tea. He developed a strain with the same properties as toothpaste, so if you drink a lot of it you have gleaming teeth. Sasha has planned intensive cultural and linguistic activities for me, which I will find exhausting.
 
This is Will's last night in Moscow. He and Edward come to dinner at my new flat, together with Liam Halligan (a former student, now an economist working in Moscow). Long speeches by Sasha and lots of toasts drunk in vodka and Georgian wine.
 
Monday 8 July
 
Today I have my first two-hour Russian lesson with Valentina Nikitina. I already have some Russian, but she soon persuades me that my foundations are very shaky, and need to be completely reconstructed. So we start with unit one. She is to come every day. After this ordeal I have a nap. My bed is as hard as a plank-in fact, it is a plank, with a thin mattress. Sasha has offered me an alternative, but I reject it. Various friends of Sasha drift in for a meal at about 3.30pm which, with some additional company, turns into dinner. Having drunk a lot of Georgian wine I retire for another nap, in order to fortify myself for the evening's entertainment-a two-hour performance of Russian poems and short stories by a "leading actress" in the drawing room. She declaims a Gogol story, followed by a story of a woman who dreamt of being God and a fish, a poem by Pushkin, and one or two others. I understand almost nothing, but I don't nod off, perhaps because of my precautionary snoozes. A small snag is the absence of hot water-the "system" in this block of flats has broken down, and no one knows when it will be restored.
 
Tuesday 9 July
 
The food supply has also broken down today, as Shorena is doing one of her 24 hour stints in the hospital, and Sasha, being a traditional Georgian, does not function in the kitchen. So I drink soup and read Russian history. John Lawrence gives a good account of medieval Russia, which doesn't seem to me that different from the rest of medieval Europe. There were lots of traders and towns and free peasants all the way down from the Baltic to the Black Sea, and the great autocracy only really started with Genghis Khan and the Tartar invasions. So I don't think the Russians are by nature inapt for self-government. But extreme variations in the seasons have tended to encourage extremes of activity and lassitude-Yeltsin is the latest example.
 
Sasha is full of plans for expeditions. But I am starting to believe they won't come to anything. He loves to talk, but finds action rather distressing.
 
Wednesday 10 July
 
I have established a routine. I get up from my plank, have breakfast, do two hours of homework, and then two hours of lessons. I am on to unit three, and hope the foundations are being laid. Laundry time has arrived. Shorena and I sally forth in search of a launderette. But it has broken down: there is a nice Russian word pinned to the window: it is "ill." Shorena will try to get a babushka to wash my clothes.
 
Sasha and Shorena are very poor, at least by our standards. She earns $200 a month as a doctor, and he about half of that as a university teacher. The prices of food and drink don't seem to be very different from ours. So like all Russians, Sasha and Shorena supplement their official earnings-in this case by having a lodger; perhaps Shorena has pri-vate patients. In the evening we walk through Sasha's favourite childhood wood-his father's institute was opposite it. I had not realised before how leafy Moscow is-remnants of the thick pine forests which used to cover most of Russia.
 
Sasha suffers from an acute anxiety complex; all practical arrangements fill him with despair. Probably most Russians feel the same, as they are forced to move outside the narrow tramlines of Soviet existence. But I suspect there is something else in his case: the effect of a dominating father. Our flat is a kind of memorial to the dead agronomist: his piercing eyes stare at you from every wall. There's one photograph of a teenage Sasha by his side looking haunted. Sasha is a dissident, a dreamer, his father was a successful Soviet man of action. There must have been an enormous clash of wills. But one senses father kept control until the end. He died only last year, and Sasha, who is 53, spent the last 15 years looking after him. I wish I could tease out the story. The much younger Shorena, whom he only married after father's death, has large confiding eyes. She drops hints but I can't understand them.
 
Thursday 11 July
 
Valentina has set me the task of writing a short essay on my life in England. It will take me hours. I retire to my plank. So far my plan is working perfectly. I am surrounded all day by people who speak no English, and so I am forced to speak Russian. I sense an improvement, but still stumble on the simplest phrases. The grammar is dreadfully complicated-too many rules and too many exceptions to them-and I haven't memorised enough words. This afternoon I had a great triumph-I bought a wastepaper basket. The Russians have a phrase for it: a container for not needed paper. Unfortunately wastepaper baskets were not needed in the five year plan, so they are hard to come by. Mine is imported from Vietnam. Our dom, though upmarket by Soviet standards, is surrounded by dreadfully rundown stores of the old kind. There was some furniture in one of them which exceeds in hideousness anything I've ever seen. New western-style shops have opened up in the city centre, but in the suburbs capitalism is still mainly represented by stalls selling drinks.
 
Friday 12 July
 
After an incredible amount of phoning, Sasha has arranged for me to play tennis with a "trainer" friend of his. We set out on a long journey by metro to the other end of Moscow. The trainer is not much good as a player, but is rather good as a trainer, pointing out all my faults in graphic body language. I suggest more lessons, but this is not so easy. Trainer has a sick father, his mother has just died, and there are other problems which I don't understand. I have been looking forward to a shower. But the changing room smells like a sewer and I hear some scurrying about in the dark, so we retreat.
 
Sasha insists I must have my shower at Olga's, a university colleague of his who lives nearby. So he tries to telephone her from a public call box. He can't get through, and the telephone only works with plastic "gitones" which have to be obtained from the metro. This, he tells me, is "socialist surrealism." Eventually he gets through and I have my shower. Olga has a pleasant, though tiny flat, which she shares with her daughter and mama. As in most Russian blocks of flats the public spaces are dreadfully seedy. Our's is an exception, having been built for superior people. It has a grand marble hall, though the lifts are (typically) tiny. In the hall sit the babushkas, guarding the tenants from unwelcome intruders. You can find them in the metro, too. There are many more old women than men in Russia-male life expectancy having fallen to 58-and they are kept semi-active as attendants. It is more civilised than planting them in front of television sets until they die.
 
Saturday 13 July
 
Another piece of socialist surrealism, and all my fault. How do I get my clothes washed? There is no washing machine in the flat, and anyway no hot water. So Shorena sets out with a plastic bag. She is to meet a babushka at a metro station in the middle of Moscow and hand it to her. I beg her to abandon the whole idea. But no, arrangements have been made. She returns two hours later, minus plastic bag, and looking weary. I am full of guilt.
 
I have supper with Edward at his flat in Pyatnitskaya Street, close to the Tretyakov museum. He lodges there with his "Russian mother," Irene, and his "Russian father," Volodya. Unlike most middle aged Russian women, Irene is thin as a rake. Volodya's humour is of the black variety. They, too, have come down in the world: they are geologists, but in the new era can only find jobs as museum attendants. They live in a grand flat of extraordinary shabbiness in a decayed old building. Edward is very protective of them. "This place could do with some renovation," I say to him as we enter the dom. "Why can't you enjoy things as they are?" he says to me crossly. Irene has prepared a cold soup, akroshka, and kvass, a black bread-based drink, both very refreshing with the temperature still almost 40 centigrade. She has flavoured the vodka with lemon, rather successfully I think. Earlier in the day Edward was stopped by the police and questioned for not having his passport. He feigned ignorance and was released. The police are ubiquitous, but mainly they just stop people at random in order to justify their existence. They are useless against the criminals.
 
Someone ought to do a proper audit of the Soviet Union. It will be mainly negative, but some things are good. The Moscow metro, for example, is magnificent, and still works very well-much better than the London underground, and far more beautiful. Alas, advertisements are starting to creep in. Other aesthetic comparisons are less clearcut. Soviet paintings are full of compulsory "uplift" which stifled creativity; but western modernism is hardly a great success. In a perverse kind of way I've even grown fond of Stalin's monstrous "cathedrals" which dominate the Moscow skyline. Apparently, he wanted to put a giant statue of Lenin on top of one of them, with a library in his head, but the architects told him the whole thing would come crashing down.
 
Sunday 14 July
 
A welcome intermission from my lessons. I go with Sasha and a German student of his to visit Shorena's hospital. It is set in a "health complex" for demented academics. The hospital is modern, with a huge marble vestibule, which has never been finished: the bits which were finished are now falling down. We approach Shorena's neurological unit through miles of wide empty corridors, with clusters of wires where light fittings are supposed to be. Russia is full of such grandiose, uncompleted projects. The hospital is surrounded by woods. There is a polluted pond in which dogs splash, and around which fat couples sunbathe, young mothers scream at their babies, and tattooed young men play volley ball. The student reads German poetry to Sasha, I snooze.
 
Another dinner with Edward's Russian mother and father. Various Oxford friends of his drop in: Sophie Martin, who works in our embassy, someone I know only as Plum, and Dominic King, who speaks Russian like a computer, with a strong English accent. It is amazing how they have all landed up here. A spectral babushka briefly appears, is handed a bowl of soup, and vanishes. I take a taxi home, or rather I hail a passing car and we start bargaining. It is a perfect auction market. My Russian is up to it, although I stumble over the awkward word tysiacha which means a thousand. As a result of years of high inflation, all prices are in thousands and millions.
 
Monday 15 July
 
Sasha and I trudge to the other end of Moscow for my tennis lesson. This time it is a run-down tennis club, next to the Theatre of the Soviet Army. There is a performance on of Much Ado about Nothing.
 
Dinner with Lena Nemirovskaya and her husband. She is Edward's employer at the Moscow School of Political Studies; he is a philosopher. Edward calls her the Queen, and she is, indeed, queenly. Their flat, which is very superior, is next to the Ukraine Hotel, one of Stalin's "cathedrals." Edward was there, with other guests, including Christopher and Brigitte Granville, Andrei Illarionov, the economist, a French lady academic, and a theology student called Kyril. There is good discussion in several languages, some of which I understand.
 
Wednesday 17 July
 
An expedition to the Pushkin museum, but with Shorena, not Sasha. Opposite it, the new Cathedral of Christ the Saviour is almost finished, its golden onion-shaped domes gleaming brightly above the scaffolding. It is a replica of the structure pulled down by Stalin in 1934 to make way for a people's swimming pool. Shorena tells me her family started the cultivation of irises in Georgia. True or false? In the Pushkin my eye is caught by a collection of Roman portraits. I am struck by the deterioration between the first and third centuries AD. By 200, the style has become primitive, the faces have huge staring eyes. A civilisation is reflected in its art. Where does that leave us?
 
The plastic bag with my clothes has reappeared in my room. Perhaps Sasha has retrieved it. I have not seen an English newspaper for days. I am aware of riots in Northern Ireland from Russian television. Is the beef war over? Are there any more scandals?
 
Thursday 18 July
 
A cultural expedition with Sasha and Olga (a different Olga) to a famous nunnery, Novodeviche Kladbishche, where Peter the Great imprisoned his sister. We peek into the church where a service is in progress. Sasha and Olga, who are religious, light candles. Nearby is the cemetery with graves and tombstones of the famous of Moscow. Even academics are there-including Sasha's father-plus a few disgraced politicians such as Khrushchev and Gromyko.
 
I am enjoying Pushkin's novel, The Captain's Daughter-a story of military adventure at the time of Pugachev's rebellion. Despite Valentina's best efforts, I cannot yet read it in Russian. Unit ten, which I have now reached, continues the dreary tale of a Russian family and their son's American friend, John. Father is an engineer, mother is a doctor, Natasha studies biology. John's father, being American, is, of course, a banker.
 
Friday 19 July
 
Shorena had to go to the hospital unexpectedly, so there was only rather thin borsch available for lunch. I am eating much less, which suits me, and I feel rested. I work four hours a day on my Russian, but that's not what I call brain work. I think Sasha has gone into a decline. He spends hours in his room on the phone, and cultural expeditions are never mentioned. Natasha, my Russian teacher from London, turns up. Her husband, Dima, a mathematician, was on a temporary contract with London University, and she does not know whether they will be going back. I take her to Gum, which she hasn't seen since its transformation into a gallery of boutiques. We then go on to the Irish House, the fashionable food store in the New Arbat, where I buy some Georgian wine and Russian champagne.
 
Saturday-Sunday 20-21 July
 
Meet Edward and a young woman called Masha outside Kievsky station. They bid each other a fond farewell as Edward and I board the coach that is taking us to Golytsino, where I am to perform-briefly, thank God as I am on holiday-at one of Lena Nemirovskaya's "schools." These are week-long affairs which bring together "experts," domestic and foreign, and young Russian politicians and officials. Lena certainly manages to rope in the stars. The late Ernest Gellner was a regular; earlier this year I bumped into Shirley Williams; this time Edward Luttwak has dropped in. He gives a brilliant talk on the geopolitics of the future, arguing that the western-led world order has expired, as no western countries are willing to accept casualties in defence of freedom. Two government ministers, Vasiliev and Starykov, talk about privatisation and agriculture respectively. Vasiliev wants to privatise everything. Is this the policy of the government, the "students" want to know? "This is my policy. I don't know whether I'll be in the government tomorrow," Vasiliev answers disarmingly. There is no such thing as collective responsibility, as almost every political party-although not the Communists-has a minister representing its interests. I speak briefly on the tax crisis, the banking crisis, the shareholders' crisis, and other such recondite topics, having been well briefed by Liam Halligan. A Russian monarchist asks me to send him a photograph of me in my robes.
 
Tuesday 23 July
 
My teacher Valentina showers me with information at my last lesson (unit 15): how Red Square was called Red Square long before the revolution (red in Russian has the same root as beautiful); how St Basil's cathedral was known as such after a beggar called Basil died in front of it; how Ivan the Terrible put out the eyes of the architects of the cathedral to stop them building a better one somewhere else; how Patrice Lumumba University is the home of Moscow's drug traffic. Apparently, this campus is still haunted by superannuated third world revolutionaries. Their studies have long since come to an end, and none of the countries which sent them wants them back.
 
Wednesday 24 July
 
Yesterday I disgraced myself by losing my wallet in the Old Arbat. I had it when I bought my Russian doll: it had gone by the time I made my next purchase, a tee shirt with the Moscow metro on it. Theft or carelessness? I will never know. Fortunately I had left my passport and tickets at home. This morning Sasha and Shorena accompany me to Sheremetyevo airport. It is pouring with rain, and we are late. As the taxi speeds up, it starts bleeping, and the driver slows down. "It bleeps when the police are near" the driver tells us. How on earth can it tell police cars from other cars? But Russia is full of mysteries. As Tyutchev's famous lines have it, you will never know Russia with your head: you have to believe in it.