Memoir | A Russian Experience

Memoir | A Russian Experience

“People, Places, Things: A Life with the Cold War” was the title of a long essay by Adam Somerset that won third prize in the Aberystwyth 2017 Prize for Memoir. Its subject went from a childhood with early memory of the Cuban missile crisis to travel in the satellite countries.

In this excerpt Adam Somerset recalled the Russians of his experience.  

Russian is now one of the languages of Europe to be heard spoken in public places. In London the visitors and the property-owners have their haunts and watering-holes of regularity. By night the clubs of Mayfair are the preferred locales. By day the young in designer jeans and jewel-embossed belts may be seen and heard on the pavement cafes of St John’s Wood High Street. Their children play on the great pirate ship of wood that is the centrepiece of the Diana Princess of Wales Memorial Playground in Kensington Gardens. Keep an ear open to the voices on a sunset walk on the Promenade des Anglais in Nice. The rhythm of Russian is distinctively prominent amid the linguistic medley.

These rhythms of Russian stand out. The stresses are unlike English with its regular pattern of two to three syllable rhythm. Russian spreads the stresses out more evenly. It is a language that was absent for decades from the public spaces of Western Europe. Even in the East it was elusive. Five hundred thousand Russians were stationed in the Democratic Republic but they were invisible. It was a language I had never heard until past the age of thirty.

The first Russian whom I came to meet was called Pavel Bondarenko. He wore white shorts and t-shirt, was short and stocky, built of muscles that indicated a daily work-out. The forearm extended in greeting was tanned and thick, the shaking of our hands was a grip of steel. Our point of introduction was his brother-in-law, a Macedonian who spoke six languages. Pavel Bondarenko and I had not many words in common. I had French and German from school. He had Russian and Turkish. Our venue for meeting was the island of Burgazada, one of the Prince’s Islands, places of tranquillity an hour’s ferry ride from the turbulent quay-sides of the centre of Istanbul.

Burgazada in the Spring of 1981 was a place of tranquillity, its Chekhovian air helped by the presence of horse-and-carriages in place of cars. The houses that ascended the slopes were substantial but not ostentatious. Most dated back a century to the late decades of the Ottomans and their principal building material was wood. Istanbul is the first city of consequence on the journey from the Crimea. Trotsky lived for four years in exile on the neighbouring island of Buyukada. Pavel Bondarenko was Russian through and through but he was not of Russia. He was one of the myriad second generation Russians in exile. In November 1920 one hundred and twenty- six ships of Russia, France and Britain had clustered at Sevastopol. They took away with them one hundred and fifty thousand refugees from the Civil War. Constantinople became like all the cities of Europe home to a Russian colony.

My second exchange with a Russian came a couple of years later. It was also with an exile but of a different generation. With more shared language the conversation was more substantive. I have just once taken a New York taxi the distance from Manhattan to Kennedy Airport. It was a Sunday afternoon and the public transport was not good. To choose a taxi in New York or London is a throw of a dice as to the nationality of the driver. This throw chanced to be a Russian six months arrived in his new country. “Call me Leo” he said. Leo talked, he liked to talk and did so for near on an hour. His arrival in the United States as a place of refuge had not been for the most noble of reasons. His father had run the largest department store in Odessa. In his son’s telling a job in any commercial activity could only be undertaken by gainsaying the state’s official channels of distribution. In Britain just-in-time systems were in widespread use at this time- this was 1984- but not so in the Soviet Union. Its systems of logistics meant that a third of food was warehoused and left to rot in the wrong place. In Leo’s telling his father’s way of doing his job was a necessity but also a hazard. He had skipped Odessa along with his family ahead of a tip-off that he was to be arrested. The change in this family’s fortunes appeared to coincide with change at the peak. The long-term KGB Chair Andropov had made his short-lived ascent to the position of General Secretary.

Leo was one of the first Jews who were to leave. He himself was on an upward ascent. His sister had already passed her first law exam. Leo’s energy and ambition were awesome but his disdain for the long-standing minorities of New York disturbing. The Jews of the Soviet Union were a constant feature in the news of that decade. One million six hundred thousand were to eventually leave. The most famous dissident Natan Sharansky made the crossing of the Glienicke Bridge on 11th February 1986. Three western agents crossed with him in exchange for five agents of the Eastern Bloc.


* * * * *


The Hay Literature Festival is a window upon the world. Reporters who have travelled the vastness of Russia have spoken from its platforms. A lecture from May 2008 “Putin’s Russia” given by Garry Kasparov is in the festival archive. It lasts just short of an hour. It is a potent polemic with a now predictive force to it. His country, Kasparov says, is a vast Potemkin village put up for display to deceive the visitor. Russia has to be understood as a feudal state, more akin to the caudillo republics of Latin America than any European country. The inner circle pays tribute to their generalissimo and they in turn extract their toll from their own circles of vassals.

The President wears in public a watch that costs one hundred and sixty thousand dollars. He is, according to investigative journalism, quite likely the world’s richest man. Crucially, says Kasparov, the foreign affairs adventurism has nothing to do with a return to the USSR. Its purpose is to create a permanent sense of instability that will maintain high energy prices. That at least was how it was in 2008.

In May 2016 a small woman is to be heard in a large marquee of Hay. Her physical size belies her literary stature. Svetlana Alexeivitch was the 2015 winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature. Not strictly a Russian her home was a village in Belarus. Her work is an odyssey into the voices of living Russians and their echoing testimonies from the century of turmoil. It is not history at the level of policy or decision-making but excavated at the granular level from the lives of individuals. “I’m piecing together the history of domestic, interior socialism” she says “Socialism as it existed in a person’s soul. I’ve always been drawn to the miniature expanse of the individual. It’s where everything really happens.”

As an anatomist of the Union that dissolved in 1991 she is unique. She is also guide as to why its memory clings. “I sought out people who have been so deeply penetrated by the Soviet idea that the state has become their entire cosmos, blocking out everything else, even their own lives. Such people couldn’t walk away from history- dissolving into their private existence, allowing what had been minor details to become their big picture.” She speaks of the generation gap. For for those born in or after the USSR “it’s like they’re from different planets”. She herself was simply there at the right time. “I came into writing when this multi-nation empire was collapsing. I was just the right person in the right place. I met people who had met Lenin.”

As for the new century “In the early 1990s we were all romantics, you in the West and us.” Her starting point was journalism. It ended in reportage of epic scale. “A writer writes, but a writer also listens” she says “I decided my story would be domestic socialism, how it was lived day in, day out. I would be a historian of overlooked feelings, the sort that big history ignores. No-one asks the small people. They are the disposables in this game.” Her last words are sobering “When I look around Russia the hate horrifies me, the necessity to hate someone. An absolute lack of desire to reflect on the main thing, Stalin and the war.”

I had spent a few days in the company of the small people. The time was January 1993, the location was unlikely and the proximity of families and extended groups of Russians unexpected. We were together on a big flat-bottomed boat built by German engineers specifically for the Nile. Tourism in Egypt was in a slump. Our boat was four-fifths empty. All along the quays empty boats were moored, the value of redundant tourist vessels, all purchased and owned by the state, running into the hundreds of millions of pounds. The Britons were eight in number, the Russians outnumbering us eight to one. We had guidebooks but were without children. With the Russians it was the reverse. We were earnest in the pursuit of antiquity. They were there for pleasure and the winter sun. There were no other nationalities and we had few words in common. They were admittedly not Russia’s little people. But they were not the Russians to be seen in Hyde Park and Kensington. They had money enough for a holiday in the sun in a cheap country that was an extended party. They were the first in generations to have the means and the circumstances to see Egypt freely. They were voluble but not raucous. In their manifest enjoyment and hedonism, with their purposes so far from ours, their presence was engaging. Back in 1969 Paul Kantner sang his opening line in “Wooden Ships” if you smile at me you know I will understand. ‘Cause that is something everybody everywhere does in the same language.”

The monuments of Aswan span millennia. The Tombs of the Nobles that overhang the Nile date back to the Old Kingdom. The Monastery of St Simeon was founded in the seventh century of our era. Up on the giant dam the makers have left their own monument of today. In the shape of five petals of the lotus flower it is seventy metres in height. The driver on the high road by the dam pulled in on the verge. For him it was just another sight, the last of the day. “Visit and take photo” he said. “Monument to the friendship of Egypt and Russia.” It was the close of a day that had started early. The Russians, the bulk of the passengers, spoke among themselves but there was not much debate to it. The words that were comprehensible were few. “Monument” seemed to be a common word. A sentence with those rumbling stresses ended with the word “Soviet.” It had a spit to it that indicated small respect and sounded more like contempt. A wave was made to the driver to close the doors and move on. He looked dismayed.