Letter from Russia
Sunday February 4th : Moscow
A visit to a Russian classroom
Moscow, night-time. There are the sounds of doors clunking, hurried footsteps, an announcement on a loudspeaker and a low murmur of disembodied voices in neighbouring compartments. Orange lamps glow defiantly outside the window, the snow is hard and grey as stone on the ground. The guard stamps her feet and pulls her fur hat down a little tighter over her head, her breath rising like a pale phantom into the frozen dark.
We are almost ready to leave. I have an eight-hour journey through snowy forests and past grey wintry towns ahead of me one of many over the next ten days in this lecture tour of south-west Russia, in which I'll clock up several thousand miles.
February 5th: Lipetsk
After my lectures on teaching methodology, I am taken to the Principal's office. He is a professorial, softly spoken type, whose fine white hair seems to be wrapped round his head like a cloud. Together we talk for a few minutes, during which I learn of his nostalgia for the old days, when the Soviet Union was mighty, when things were stable, and when at least you knew what to expect. Before, he admits, you had to queue for an hour to get your three weekly bottles of beer. Now you can choose from 20 imported varieties, but can't afford any of them.
February 6th : Rostov
There are two voices in my head above the sound of the turning wheels. One of them is the childlike one that's always accompanied my travels to far-off places. I'm in Russia - unbelievable! Just listen to the language, take in the faces, plunge in to this parallel world. The other, quieter, one is asking: Why on earth am I on my own again, in yet another country? What's the point of this lonely and constant movement, this endless conversation-making with total strangers? What's odd is that this second voice is there at all, a few years back it never made itself heard.
Preserving the memory of the past
February 7th -9th Volgograd
A lighter mood already, perhaps because of the familiar faces that greeted me as I stepped off the train: I'd spent time with all three people last time I was here. When you meet people for the first time, they are company; next time round they are already your community.
It doesn't take much to make the transition: a little common history, some shards of half-remembered dialogue, an in-joke or two. A sense of community can take root in the shallowest soil. It doesn't demand a common birthplace, or even nationality, still less decades of shared experience: all it requires is the absence of the state of being total strangers. It's the tiny but significant shift from being an outsider to becoming part of the scenery, from exclusivity to inclusion.
My companions are naturally dismissive of the nostalgia I've been hearing about for the USSR. The college principal I spoke to, they say, was probably just regretting his lost youth. Sure, back then there was a certain amount of stability but no-one, they state emphatically, really wants to turn the clock back.
There are opportunities now, especially for the younger generation. There are no more queues to buy butter or eggs. You can travel. What's more, it's no longer dangerous to sit with a foreigner in a restaurant. Tatyana tells of how in the old days she once got talking to an African student on a train. They exchanged addresses and a letter from him arrived a few weeks later. Soon, however, a couple of not-so-discreet enquiries from KGB officials offering money for information to her friends, and dire predictions of future problems from her mother, were enough to ensure she never wrote back.
To the military museum, in this city dominated by the huge shadow of its wartime past, in its previous incarnation as Stalingrad, the pivotal location in the fight against the Nazis, in a war which led to the death of twenty-two million Russians. My colleague mentions in passing that your average soldier, when entering the battle of Stalingrad, could expect to live for precisely one more day.
But there is little time to linger over this image we have a school to visit. Arriving at Grammar School no. 1 we are led into the small well-lit classroom where no more than about fifteen eight-year old students sit neatly in pairs. I'm surprised at the small class size, but of course Russia, like so many European countries, is suffering from a critically negative birth rate. There are incentives of ten thousand dollars per couple just to have a second child.
The boys and girls stand up to greet us and sing a sweet welcome song. The walls are covered in posters, charts and flashcards, the textbooks are ablaze with colour, and the lesson itself is highly engaging. There is no mistaking either the concern and passion the teacher has for her charges and for her subject, or the confidence, motivation and the ability of these girls and boys.
Saturday December 10th: Astrakhan
We stop at an onion-domed Orthodox church. Now it rises self-confidently upwards, but fifty years after its construction this building was demoted by the Stalinist regime into a storehouse and then became a bus station. My colleague points out the side-chapel where the cashiers once sat dispensing tickets. These days however the atmosphere is resurgent: the paint is fresh, the many icons have been restored and tall candles burn in every nook and cranny.
Passing through the city I am struck by the names of the roads: Soviet Street, Communist Street, Red Army Avenue, as well as by the red stars, the sculptures of muscular socialist youth and the ubiquitous statues of Lenin. Unlike everywhere else in Eastern Europe, where the paraphernalia of post-war socialism was dismantled within days of the revolutions of 1989, here these emblems are still treasured. Other countries may have reverted to their old symbols of nationhood, but here these are the markers in the national story.
Sunday December 11th: Astrakhan-Moscow
On our way out to the airport, we pass the suburb upriver where the 'New Russians' live. Villas (considered to be “European style”), 4x4s parked in the garages, children's swings in the large gardens: these are the symbols of conspicuous consumption for which these nouveaux riches are known. It's fairly clear from the tone of my companions that to be a New Russian is not entirely a positive achievement...
Monday February 12th -13th: Minsk, Belarus
Outside, the temperature seems to have plummeted. A red sign blinks the message “-17°c”. Emerging from the warmth of the metro into the open air is to have ten thousand tiny men work at your face with miniature icepicks, while goblins chew your earlobes. I should have bought a hat long ago, but it hardly seems worth it now, so near the end of the trip, and I can't think of many uses for big furry headgear in Dhaka.
February 14th: Moscow
Even though I have been shown kindness after kindness, and been witness to the magic of a vast country perfectly iced in snow, I know it's now high time to push open the front door of my own house, and sink gratefully into a bed that knows me. And after ten days bursting at the seams with words, not to talk to a single person until I do so. Far easier to travel in silence than to have to start another relationship: no more need for company till then.
And of all the communities that could exist, there's only one that calls out to me now.
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