Sunday, 1 December 1991. As I blew in to Sheremetyevo airport, Moscow, I had about five words of spoken Russian; that’s all that had stuck from the six week intensive language course. I had as much chance of making sense of the tea leaves at the bottom of a cup than reading Cyrillic. I had read most of Tolstoi and Doevtoievsky’s canon, as well as ‘The Spy who came in from the cold.’ AND I’d seen the BBC costume drama ‘War and Peace.’ All of which meant I had some hopelessly out of date and very romantic ideas about what might await me. I’d managed to arrive at the bleakest time in Moscow’s history since the Nazis were banging on the gates fifty years before. The Russian empire in Eastern Europe had just fallen to bits and in 1991 the USSR went the same way, as the republics checked out en masse from the old Soviet club. In a matter of months Russia had lost all the conquests made since the time of Peter the Great. Gorby was gone, Yeltsin was in and the Party – the communist one – was over.
It was a mad mad world: dark most of the day and air so cold just breathing gave you a thick-shake headache. The pot holes in the road were big enough to swallow a car. There were two types of building: those in need of repair, and those beyond repair. All around fortunes were being made while inflation was tearing savings and pensions to rags. Track suit clad thugs flashed their pistols at me in the street. I thought they wanted to mug me, but they were just showing off. They were probably not too long for this world – Moscow’s mafia wars was soon to make homicide the number one male cause of death.
The adage ‘we pretend to work and you pretend to pay us’ was truer than ever. People clocked in to work then raced off to queue for toilet paper; any car you flagged instantly became a taxi, the driver anxious to earn a few extra rouble. To add to queuing, that perennial national favourite, were now the pastimes of pulling down statues of Lenin and renaming everything – metro stations, squares and streets; anything named after Communist heroes. Getting around became a bit tricky as all the signs had been changed but none of the maps. At times it felt like Weimar era Berlin – without the cabaret. At others it was Clock work Orange. The nation was in a state of collective shock, wondering how they’d all slid from super-power status to being a banana republic with rockets in less than a year.
I was settling in for a years study, but most Muscovites were trying to get out. A week into my stay I went to the Academy of Sciences to meet my Russian thesis supervisor, Andrei Suchkov. I bought him a little gift on the way – a half litre bottle of Stolichnaya. Read the fine print on the next bottle of Stoly you buy and you’ll see that it’s delicately described as an ‘aperitif.’ But forget about sipping a wee dram to cleanse your palate before a meal. Vodka was sunk like teenagers drink beer – fast and vast. The diet alone would drive you to it: there’s only so much you can do with beetroot, meat, bread, carrot and potato, the only foodstuffs hardy enough to survive the bumps in the supply chain from country to town.
Andrei’s eyes lit up and he splashed the entire vodka bottle into two coffee mugs, which we duly drank. Mine still had some dregs of coffee in it. It was 10am in the morning.
Nothing worked. John Helmer, the Australian Financial Review correspondent, told me there were two things you could never close in Moscow – a business deal and a Lada door.
Before the anti-alcoholism drives of the 1980’s the tradition had been to pop the cork, throw it away and finish the bottle. So Gorbachev ordered the corks replaced with screw-tops. But they didn’t screw properly – you had to rip them off to get at the vodka. Then you couldn’t get them back on. So you finished the bottle.
Another night early on in my stay I visited a jazz club with a Russian friend. Windows were at that time routinely taped up for the winter, and everyone smoked. You could hardly see to the other side of the room. Around 2am I decided it was time to head home. But of course the last train had long departed. So I walked along the Moscow river – not a taxi in sight – and three hours later was still walking. To keep warm mostly. Then, sometime around 5 or 6 am, out came the street cleaners. Hushed and bent old babushka’s, grandmothers, pushing yard brooms, clearing snow off the road. When they die, someone told me later, they won’t find anyone else willing, or able, to do such back breaking work.
Life was hard, and in the year I stayed, it was to get even harder.
NOTE: The images here were all taken around the time of my arrival. They are a trifle bleak, but the look is right – it was like being back in the 1960’s.