In my novel set in the Moscow of the mid 1990s, Rose Fleming, my protagonist learns a lot about the country through listening to tales told to her by her friends.
It was my experience that, in Russia, there is nothing prized more highly than a good story, and I decided to try to use a bit of that in my novel. So I was very gratified when I read ‘Russian Talk: Culture and Conversation during Perestroika’ by Nancy Ries to see that there is some cultural authenticity to that impression.
Ries is an anthropologist; the hypothesis of her study was that Russian people may derive a great deal of their sense of identity out of the tales they tell about themselves, both individually and collectively.
I was not making a study, but I would often ask questions simply to hear my colleagues out do each other with the comedy or the tragedy of their stories.
Shopping was always a good subject to get them going; it wouldn’t take long for the idea of the hunt or the chase to be raised. It was more than a metaphor in times of shortage the effort of finding food and then queuing to buy it in shops where often you had to wait in one queue to pay, before then waiting in another to actually get your hands on your purchase.
Everyone had a story of some extreme shopping adventure experienced by their Granny. I remember one of my colleagues telling me her Granny had bought so much soap a couple of years before that they had it stored on the top of every cupboard in their flat. It would likely last a lifetime, especially as since she bought it, much nicer things were available, so no-one wanted to use the glut. They would however never throw it away, as you never knew when there would be another shortage.
I copied one story wholesale for my novel. Sasha had participated in a school exchange programme and his family played host to a child from the UK for a week. For the six months leading up to the time of the exchange Sasha’s mother and grandmother had shopped tirelessly so that the flat was full of food for the week of the visit.
‘The British boy must have thought it was like ‘Alice in Wonderland’ in our flat. There was food everywhere, every cupboard was stuffed, and yet outside in the street there was nothing to buy. But he just ate everything while we watched.’
Everyone laughed, but I felt embarrassed for that British school boy who ever he was. I didn’t have the experience of the terrible shortages in the early years of perestroika, but I understood something of the shopping struggle as well as the tremendous generosity of a Russian host.