The Glossing of History

Memory’s a funny thing isn’t it?  We each have our own version of it, and then there is the history that enters the annals, the story that people who come later will read as the truth.

It’s the Olympics again that has set me thinking, especially as in the filler bits between action, the BBC is giving us snippets of Games from the past so we can point at the screen and say ‘I remember that.’

Yesterday, on the day of the semi-finals for the men’s 800m, we were given a show of Sebastian Coe returning to the stadium in Moscow where he ran under the Olympic flag in the 1980 games (there was an ‘official’ political boycott because of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan).   Coe is the chairman of the London Games and has somehow become to embody the spirit of good sportsmanship, which is fascinating to me mainly for its disparity from my memory of his behaviour in Russia.

In 1980, the 2 best middle distance runners in the world were British: Coe and his arch rival Steve Ovett.  It split the nation, as in tennis where you were either for McEnroe or Borg, you either favoured Ovett, the surly rebel, or the more conventional Coe.

Coe was meant to win the 800m in Moscow, but was beaten by Ovett.  Coe, in my memory, didn’t behave well in defeat.  He couldn’t bear to look at Ovett, and shook his hand as if it was something he might have stepped in.  In contrast, when Ovett,  was beaten in his preferred event of the 1500m, he seemed smiled and congratulated his rival with some grace.

Since retiring from competition Ovett has not been in the public eye, while Coe is front and centre rubbing shoulders with politicians and Royals.  His reputation has been buffed and glossed.  It’s another reminder that history is written these days by the people with good PR, but I can’t quite rid myself of the memory of what a bad loser he was.

‘Collaborators’ at the Olivier Theatre

Collaborators, a new play by John Hodge, and starring Simon Russell Beale and Alex Jennings, re-imagines a relationship between Stalin, and Mikhail Bulgakov, the writer of The White Guard and The Master and Margarita.  

Although The White Guard, a production of which the National Theatre staged last year, is a play which gives a sympathetic portrayal of people opposed to Bolshevism, it was allegedly one of Stalin’s favourite plays, and he saw it many times.  But Bulgakov, like so many writers and artists in post revolutionary Russia fell foul of the soviet leaders.

His masterpiece, The Master and Margarita, is a surreal satirical vision of what might happen when the Devil visited Moscow in the company of his fast talking black cat. In it he paints a picture of a greedy dysfunctional society, and although he finished it just before he died, he never saw it published, and when it was first printed in Soviet Russia, it was significantly edited and a full version only appeared in the 1970s.

One mystery in his career of writing bleak black comedies sending up the Soviet regime which were routinely banned by the authorities, was that he wrote a hagiographic play about Stalin’s early years.

It is this fact that is the starting point for Collaborators.  Did he write it as part of a deal to get his play Moliere performed, or were members of his family threatened if he didn’t do it?

The play is a giddy production on a crooked round stage, exploring in surreal terms how effectively Stalin got inside Bulgakov’s head to torment him.  There is much that is blackly ridiculous in the play,including a dream sequence were Stalin pursues Bulgakov around the stage to eventually beat him with his own typewriter, but that felt to me, entirely in keeping, echoing as it does Bulgakov’s own style of satire.

The casting is brilliant: Alex Jennings gives a haunting performance of an artist torn by guilt in the knowledge that he is collaborating with a regime that he knows is profoundly evil.  It raises, in an extreme situation, that perennial question of how much should an artist compromise to survive in the world?  What would you do when faced with tyranny that threatens you and your family?

And then there is Simon Russell Beale playing Stalin as an affable fool, with a country accent and a limp at the beginning; but at the moment when his eyes go dead, and he reveals how calculating he has been, how manipulative, how he knew exactly how effectively he was manipulating Bulgakov.

I cannot recommend this play highly enough.

Blue – A Photo

Determined to avoid the obvious which popped into my head uninvited when I read that the photo prompt for this week is ‘blue’, I also wanted to eschew pictures of sky and sea, here is one from the archived.  It’s of part of the Monastery at Sergiev Posad, a town about 40 miles outside of Moscow, and one of the places we always tried to take visitors.

But this was on a particularly cold and snowy day when I was on my look see visit before I went to work there.  I remember I was wearing a borrowed hat as my Russian hosts couldn’t believe I had come to the city in winter without something for me head, for both the cold and to show respect when entering the chapels and churches.

The Memories in a Torn Sheet

It never ceases to amuse me how the oddest things can bring a raft of stories to mind.

Yesterday morning when I was changing my bed I found a neat triangular tear in the bottom sheet I was about to put in the bed.  There have been small pinprick holes in that sheet for years.

I originally bought them at a French hypermarket somewhere off the autoroute between Beaune and Paris when I went for a week’s holiday when I was living in Moscow.  Until I took them back with me, the only sheets I had in my flat those which came with it, so there was a real sense of luxury in having something new of my own, even if they were from a supermarket.

It was the kitten I was persuaded to adopt when the cat my friend had found in the street and took home gave birth to a litter of six.  I called her Nastya and when I was in the flat she sat beside me, or on me, or squeezed herself underneath the sofa cushions and then reached up through the gaps and scratched my back.  When I was sleeping she curled up on the end of the bed….. but one of her favourite activities was in scratching at the mattress through the bed linen.

The little tiny tears she made in the fabric have taken 14 years of additional wear and tear to render the sheet unserviceable.

It’s a long time since I thought about the cat.  I often wonder what happened to her.  She’d always been a flat cat, and escaped without me noticing just a few days before I was due to leave the city and I couldn’t find her anywhere.  I’d got her flight to Glasgow booked, she’d been to the vet for all her inoculations, I’d spoken to the Scottish Office and applied for her permit to enter the country, and my mother had been to visit the place where she would have to spend he six months quarantine.  I surprised myself when I started crying when I had to phone up all the places to tell them she wouldn’t be coming.

So I felt a little sad to remember her, and searched out the photo.  And then, there’s that awful material covering the sofa, and a whole other batch of memories flooded back…….

Is Every Day ‘Women’s Day’?

When I saw one of my friends had written ‘I can’t stand the Journée de la Femme’ on her facebook status it made me laugh out loud, as I had just been reading, with increasing irritation, a lot of  Twitter babble about ‘#IWD’ (that’s International Women’s Day on March 8 to the uninitiated).

I don’t know when people in Britain started remarking on the day.  I’d never heard of it before about 1 March 1995.  I recall the date so precisely because I’d been in Moscow for about three weeks and I was asking why the following Tuesday was to be a public holiday.  And it was during the subsequent few days that I learnt what a big deal it was.

It seemed that every Russian woman expected to be feted on the day, and, in the business world, any failure to send a gift of flowers or chocolates in the hands of a suitably charming young man would be noted as a slight.  The immediate consequence of this, for the firm of financial consultants for which I was working, was that a small focussed task force had to be set up, given the vital task of compiling a list of all our important contacts, buying flowers and confectionery, and building a crack squad of delivery boys for March 7.

Bearing in mind, that at the time, all of the key people at the State Pension Funds and Social Security Funds with whom we had frequent interactions on behalf of our clients were all ladies of a certain age, it was a big job.  We had conversations along the lines of Gennady should go to X because Irina Vladimirovna likes him, but Alexei should go to Y because he’s managed to charm Tatyana Mikhailovna, even though she’s usually such an old cow.

I felt a little queasy at it all, and even told Alexei he didn’t have to go if he didn’t want to, but he smiled at me ‘It is my job as a man.  And she is just like my Granny.’

I felt even more queasy when I went, with the rest of my department to the main office conference room for what I though was a team meeting to find that it was a ‘party’ for Women’s Day.  After each person had a drink, from the usual selection of beer, juice or Shampanski, one of the young men presented Alexandra, the senior Russian woman present, with a single carnation, accompanied by a flowery little speech about how kind and clever she was.  I was horrified to discover that I would be next, as all eyes followed Alexei as he approached me, carnation in his outstretched hand.

So, no.  I understand that the day has a greater social significance, where there is no Mother’s Day, and it is preferred that all women be celebrated rather than just one category, and I appreciate that the tradition of Russian speech-making requires that all women be kind and beautiful and that all men be honourable and brave, but that embarrassment of being patronised by a young man because that was all part of what one had to do in life, is a memory that can make me squirm even now.

Treat me well every day instead.

A Very Unexpected Memory Jog

I’m no sports fan, so put it down to a sneaking soft spot for Matt Damon that, courtesy of my project to catch up on films that I’ve missed, that I watched ‘Invictus’ this week.

It’s based on the real events surrounding the victory of the Sprinkgboks in the 1995 Rugby World Cup in South Africa.  It tracks a story in which Nelson Mandela, newly elected President made a calculated decision to get the post apartheid country to unite behind the team.  This was quite an objective, as until then rugby was considered a whites only sport, with the black population habitually supporting whoever was playing against the Springboks on principal.

Made with, presumably, an American audience in mind, the script either glossed over the finer points of the sport, or laboured to explain particular aspects of it, by making some characters oddly ignorant.  It was a laugh out loud moment where one had to confirm they knew about the All Blacks’ Haka , something too cinematically attractive to leave out, taken as read in international rugby, but requiring explanation to a potentially ignorant audience.

The main focus of the story was in the transformation of the attitude of the people of South Africa to the sport, and its unifying effect, as beating the odds, the Springbok advanced through the competition to eventually win the it. But there had to be some running about and cheering of crowds in packed stadia to provide the backdrop.  The filming of the matches was interesting in that it was without the thinly veiled homo-eroticism  in the usual televising of  real matches.

Because the memory that watching the film brought back to me was that I had actually watched the real match, on Eurosport, in my flat in Moscow.  That I ever tuned into that channel was itself only a reflection of the limited resources I had available to me at the time.  My ‘Kosmos’ service provided Russian channels, CNN, BBC Prime  (all the disappointing programmes the BBC had produced in  the preceding 20 years on an eight hour repeat cycle), a country music channel, MTV, and one that showed only US made for TV movies, usually involving Jaclyn Smith in her post Charlie’s Angels career.

There was an active trade in counterfeit video cassettes, but even that supply ran out on occasion, so I did sometimes stumble upon the peculiar diet of freestyle dirt bilking and tractor pulling that populated the sport schedule when they didn’t expect anyone to be watching.  One afternoon I stumbled on the rugby final, and was intrigued enough by the coverage of the presence of Mandela at the game that I stayed to watch it until the end, because it turned out to be quite a cliffhanger ending.

I don’t think I was aware of the huge significance to the country that the President’s support of the team had made, but it did register how he had decided to take advantage of the worldwide audience that the tournament would attract to show the country in a new light.  And it worked, if it piqued the interest of a sport agnostic like me.

Ireland’s Export

Not an Irish Bar......

Is it true that any town of any size, anywhere, has an Irish bar?

It was certainly the case for Moscow when I was living there in the 1990s. There was the bar at Sheremetyevo which was referred to generally as ‘The Irish Bar’, so much so, that I can’t honestly now remember if it had any other name, and then there were the related establishments of Rosie O’Grady’s and Sally O’Brien’s relatively near my office, as well as another generically named one on the Novii Arbat, near the ‘Irish supermarket’, and once again my memory has let me down on any other proper names (and fond as I am of a google internet search, there are limits).

And what made them Irish?  The dark wood fittings, the scuffed wooden floors, the festoons of shamrocks and Guinness advertising, the barmen, the stout on tap?  The craic?

Are there any pubs in Ireland itself that are like that, or has a blueprint of a collection of clichés been exported, while local establishments in Dublin and Cork have moved on into other design trends?

Barbados has its own Irish Bar, McBrides, in The Gap, the party area of the island.  Venturing out of the quiet of Speightstown on Saturday night to hit the hot spots of noisy bars and cocktails in frozen glasses, was a culture shock in its own right, before I’d even arrived at the late night hang out.

Conducting the inventory: Guinness signs? Check.  Dark wood bar? Check. TV on the wall showing English football results? Check.  Pictures of people dressed in green? Check.  Greatest hits from the 1970s and 1980s?  Check.  Bouncers on the door? Check.

I’m not sure the style of dancing would go down well in the old country, though.  Although participants were fully clothed, modesty forbids me from describing the main moves; suffice to say that locally, they call it ‘grinding’, and there were some remarkably bored expressions on the faces of some of the female dancers as they leant forward, their elbows resting on a ledge, taking occasional sips from their drinks…….

But then, the music was so loud that conversation wasn’t really possible.

Money Money Money

A comment from one of my friends in relation to a post a few days ago about buying things in a dollar only shop in Moscow set me reminiscing about the change in what was and was not allowed in Russia in the period I spent there.

By the time I made my first visit to Moscow in December 1994 the dollar only shops had already disappeared.  Anyone could have dollars to spend; the restriction against Russian’s holding US currency had been repealed; it was just a question as to how one might get ones hands on them.

It was a period of such rapid change that I recall that when I tried to research guide books before my trip, the only ones in the shops still recommended taking cigarettes as gifts for local contacts.  I didn’t know much, but I knew that Philip Morris and BAT were already trading extensively in the newly opened market.

In that period of late 1994, early 1995, many transactions were conducted exclusively in dollars; rouble inflation was rampant, so the only way to set a stable price was to use the trusty buck.  Prices in the restaurants I went to, in the supermarket I shopped at, were all quoted in USD.

You had to have nice new, shiny bills.  Any crumpled or less than pristine notes would be rejected.  I became so accustomed to seeing only crisp new notes that when I went to the USA for a visit, I was astonished how scruffy the money was there.  Over the years I developed a relationship with a bank teller in the Clydesdale Bank at Piccadilly Circus and would go to her every time I needed currency, as she understood the ‘fresh bills’ requirement.

Some time in 1995 the Russian law was changed to prohibit the use of American cash in any transaction.  Infringements would result in a 100% penalty.  Showing true Russian flexibility most establishments complied.  The prices on the menus and on the shop shelves were still in dollars, but there was a sign over the door that disclosed the applicable exchange rate.  As nothing had been done to control rouble inflation, the rate changed daily.

If you paid in cash, you could calculate the number of roubles that would be required; if you paid by credit card you might be charge in dollars, deutschemark or finmark depending on some whim that was never apparent to me.

Then the authorities stepped in again and forbid the use of US dollars to price anything.  And once again, natural ingenuity found a solution: the introduction of the universal currency unit.  Entirely coincidentally the exchange rate for the ECU to USD was 1:1.  After a little bit of reprinting of price lists, everything carried on as before.

Just to show, there’s a way around most obstacles.

Red – A Photo

‘Red’ as a prompt opens a Pandora’s Box of ideas for me.  I love red, and have many things that colour; but memories are many and various, and conjure both good and bad.  What to pick today?

In the days when mountaineers went out in tweed jackets and plus fours it was good practice to wear brightly coloured socks so that one might more easily be found should some accident befall you on a mossy hillside.  These days all outdoor clothing is made in dazzling primary colours; does gortex even come in dull colours?

My waterproof jacket, and various fleeces are red.  Consequently I have a choice of photos of red blots on beautiful landscapes.  Here is one in the Kumbu in Nepal, which I think captures how much the colour would stand out in case of emergency.

I have quite a collection of books on recent modern Russian history, and when I looked, of course, a number of them have been bound in red.  But the most prized one is called ‘Modern Moscow’ by Eugene Lyons.  It was published in circa 1935 and was given to me as a gift last year.

Inside is a label indicating it was presented as a prize for mathematics on 16 July 1937 to R Bundle, by Orleton School, Scarborough.  I am intrigued by the thought that a book on contemporary Soviet society would be given as a prize in an English school, and not for history or languages, but for mathematics.

I spent hours googling all the tidbits of information available about the school, the writer, the publisher, and found only more snippets which intrigued even more.

Lyons was an American journalist, who lived in Moscow from the early to mid 1920s.  Very pro Soviet, pro Bolshevik  when he went, he subsequently became a major critic of the country in the 1930s.

One of the great pleasures in reading the book which was drawing a portrait of the society on the cusp of massive social and economic change in the 10 years after the Revolution, was the similarities in what he observed to things I experienced 70 years later, in the period after the economic convulsions of the end of the Soviet era: the make do and mend attitude of his Russian friends, their ability to make a party out of very little, their reliance on each other when governmental structure breaks down.

And finally, here’s one I found in my photo files which shows that I had definitely been spending too much time in hotel rooms in 2008.

Nothing worth watching on the TV

PS I didn’t do the photo last week because the ‘prompt’ inspired nothing.  (‘Wildlife’ in case you’re wondering.)

Crime (and punishment)

I’m currently deep in the editing process for my novel, set in Moscow in the 1990s.  I had put the manuscript to one side for a few months after I completed the first complete draft.  Now there are some episodes in it that I had almost forgotten, so I have the odd experience of reading some things with relatively fresh eyes; something that, when I was in the first frenzy of weaving it all together, I would never have believed possible.

It has given me a little perspective, and I can see some of it much more objectively.

I don’t think I’d ever seen a gun close up before I went to Moscow.  I’d seen them in the hands of flak jacketed policemen at the airport, but that would have been the extent of it.

So when I saw a young man dressed in military fatigues, balancing a machine gun (which, in my ignorance, I imagined to be a Kalashnikov) the butt in his hand, the muzzle pointing to the ceiling, in the lobby of the office, when I arrived for my first day of work, it would be an understatement to say that I was surprised.

But after that striking introduction I gradually became aware of guns, both blatantly visible, and obviously concealed beneath bulging jackets, in many places.  Some restaurants had airport style metal detectors at the door, many offices, like ours, had armed guards inside their entrances; strangers in the street had a swaggering gait that came from a particular kind of confidence.

My first view of Moscow in daylight, from the Slavyanskaya, December 1994

For my first three weeks in the city, I lived in the Radisson Slavyanskaya hotel.  At the time a fierce commercial dispute between the Russian and American partners in the hotel joint venture was approaching its violent end.  By pure mischance my room was on the floor used by the American partner when he was in residence.  His bodyguards would congregate in the large open area by the lifts and watch every one getting out with close suspicion.  I would rush past them as quickly as I could and would only relax once I was behind my own locked door.

What with the bodyguards in the hotel and the gun juggler in the office lobby, I was convinced that I stood quite a high likelihood of being shot by accident.

Some violent crime did unfortunately affect people quite close to me, and a couple of men in another department of the firm fell victim to their own vanity by being taken in by young women in bars who then subsequently drugged and robbed them.

It was these experiences that fed into my imagination when I was writing about Rose Fleming and her experiences in the city. For the purposes of drama, I subjected her and her colleagues to some frightening and potentially dangerous situations, although, to my knowledge, none of them actually happened.  At the time I did occasionally consider the possibility of what I would do if I really had to confront danger, but it’s not the sort of thing I can linger on and still be able to sleep at night.

While through work I had only indirect contact with officialdom in the form of the various taxing authorities, the closest I ever came to a member of a police force was the regular contact anyone travelling in a car had with the GAI, the traffic police.  They would stand at road junctions and wave down unlucky drivers for infringement of one of the multitude of potential offences.  For the majority it was easier and quicker to pay the officer than to deal with the protracted delay involved in having a formal ticket written.  The rate was clear and uniform across the city; it amounted to a sort of privatised taxation.

I was perhaps fortunate that the only crime of which I was directly the victim was the regular theft of my telephone bill, something that was as mysterious as it was frustrating, as it frequently resulted in the phone being cut off.

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