Tuesday, 1 March 2016

My first Russian New year 1992, Moscow.

I had been staying with Ira's friend Lex for a few days, in a flat in a high rise out at Molodezhnaya metro on the outskirts of Moscow. Things had been going well, mostly. We drank vodka in the evenings and had transporting conversations - the two of us, or with his brother Misha and his wife Olga, who also lived there. I was 17 and thought it was marvellous.

One day I stayed in all day, but felt suicidally depressed by the evening. Lex shook his head: 'of course you feel sad - you have to get outside!' The next day he asked me to meet him in town at Kievsky Metro Station. I looked suitably terrified at the prospect of finding the way to the metro on my own without him as my guide. Somehow I managed it - a cross country stumble - and even changed lines on the metro: terrifying and disorientating, walking among the glittering faience tiles, enormous chandeliers dimly lighting the name of the station. I let the hoardes of fur-clad dark crowds bundle me along with them - and hoped that they would carry me to where I needed to be. 

I was dressed in my Moscow winter garb: grey cords, a green fleece lined army jacket, heavy black walking boots and a black fur hat. I was being called ‘molodoi chelovek’ (young man) by anyone who chose to address me - as people often do in public in Russia.  In Soviet times Mr and Mrs (gospodin and gospozha) had been replaced by the blunt: young man, girl, man, woman etc. It had been tovarishch (comrade) once, but that was no longer used. I thought I was basically invisible in all my muddy colours. But on one occasion getting out at the Arbat, a man took me under one elbow very firmly as I left the carriage, and walked me off the train saying ‘on no account should girls dress like this.’ 

One night Lex had said to me ‘do you like to take risks?’ I understood the verb ‘to risk’ as it is taken from the english. I of course said yes. We set off from the flat into the dark unknown past the shop selling Frukti i Ovoshci ( fruit and vegetables) where we had earlier in the day selected a few beetroots from a wire basket on wheels, beside the one full of cabbages - I was fascinated and horrified by the starkness of it all, towards a railway track. There were no markers, no arrows, none of the endless streams of words and symbols that a walk in London was accompanied by. A train stopped on an unmarked platform and we jumped on. The risk was that we had no tickets but no inspector came and we arrived at a mainline station in Moscow, unquestioned. 

Lex went everywhere with a large bag hung across his chest, in case anything came up to buy - it was the man-bag equivalent of the ubiquitous net bag, whose name - the avoska - means ‘just in case’. These fit into handbags and weighed nothing so were popular. Plastic bags were rarely used and were a luxury - people washed, dried and folded them if they came into their possession and they were expensive to buy in shops if available at all, one couldn’t count on it, certainly not in 1992. Lex often bought a bottle of vodka to nestle in his bag, and usually had several packets of Belomorkanal - those legendary papiros cigarettes of cough-inducing black tobacco with a cardboard roach. Outside the metro one day I was amazed to watch him haggle with a babushka for a lump of fat - sala. She wrapped it in newspaper and he put it in his Mary Poppins bag. We had it that evening, finely sliced and salted on black bread - a delicacy, especially when accompanied by vodka. 

New Year’s eve we were to spend on the Arbat. Lex’s parents lived there as did his closest friend Ira and her family. This was the second time I’d been in Lex’s parents apartment. The first time I had nearly cried - the cat, the ladles of love and comfort being handed out by Lex’s mother, it was, finally, a set of symbols I could understand in this cold grey jungle of blank expressions and lack of legible signs or pointers. Lex’s mother cooed over her son, heating up soup, laying out a plate of meat and vegetables, and then piles of sweet things to go with the tea. His father wandered in every now and then to look at the anglichanka and ask me important questions that I couldn’t answer, such as how much a fridge cost in england and what was the average monthly salary. Lex’s grandmother lived in the sitting room. She was bedridden but sat up with us for New Year that night. Lex and I went out on to the balcony for a cigarette and looked over the roofs of the side streets around the Arbat - he showed me the Melnikov House - a strange looking double cylinder with hexagonal windows that some ten years later was to become of huge interest to me. 

Lex was keen to get to the fun part of the evening so minutes after midnight we found ourselves bundling into our clothes and setting off into the backstreets of the Arbat to make a series of New Year visits. 

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