Sunday, 23 April 2017

Moving out from the Maestro: stepping into Moscow life.

When I returned from the UK after Christmas, I moved out of the theatre into a Stalinist era arch in Sokolniki. 

It was a 2-bedroom flat with gold-threaded red 1950s wallpaper and a bathroom with a window; it was full of light, and it was all mine - I was euphoric. I enjoyed the walk from the metro: past a Holiday Inn that was in construction for about 10 years, reflecting the judderings of the young economy. Then past a hatch in the wall where you could trade in empty beer bottles, outside which there was always a row of drunks, and finally past an elaborate pen for carrier pigeons. I could see 'my' arch ahead of me as I approached it from far off. I would admire it and work out which my windows were. 

There was a doorbell that you turned and it made a tinny sound - the landlady said that her father had made it - he was an engineer and had helped build the Moscow Metro. There was a hall, two bedrooms and a small kitchen that had undergone 'evro-remont'. There, the wallpaper was pale and waxy, in contrast to the matt, boldly coloured wallpaper everywhere else. 

Despite the evro-remont, the fridge had special needs; the first thing the landlady did was show me how to mend it if it broke: I was to lie it on its side and then the other side, so the refrigerator fluid could flow through it. Or I could call her husband. I generally chose this option and he would come around with a friend and perform the fridge ritual over a beer.  

I was much happier in my new flat, despite continuing anti-social hours at the theatre. When the Maestro was away, I had people over. If there were a lot of us we would sit on the floor and eat off the parquet. Often friends from the theatre would come over. We would spend hours dissecting the character of the Maestro over bottles of wine and vodka, and then obediently go back to work in the morning. 

Nevertheless, the distance provided some respite from the goldfish bowl of the theatre. I had developed a crush on the lighting engineer. It was mutual. He was a fair bit older than me; I didn’t realise at the time that I had a crush on him, only afterwards, when he was killed in an accident. Both of our loved ones were far away and we were turning to each other for company. One night we both stayed at a friend of his’s flat in VDNKh, opposite the entrance to the park. I think it was a set up as we shared a room. I went to sleep innocently in my separate bed. 

The artistic director of the theatre was far more direct. I hadn’t realised that an invitation to his studio in Baumanskaya was an invitation to go to bed with him. He was old, grizzled, overweight, and roguish. He had bought a pomegranate ‘a fruit of passion’ he said, looking at me meaningfully. Then he produced an antique double-bladed knife with serrations like gentle waves. He said that it was especially sharp because if one blade was blunt the other was sharp. It was made in Sheffield and had a handle of bent silver. It was a beautiful object, and he kept it in his hand as he pursued me around the studio. I felt awkward as we didn’t have much to talk about, and sex was clearly all he was interested in. He had a last go in the lift when we were all wrapped up in our winter clothes and I think I let him kiss me a bit as I knew the lift journey would only last a few seconds. 

Despite the great notoriety of the Maestro and elevated reputation of the theatre, they weren’t putting on any plays. The theatre was a fortress hard to conquer: fashionable Moscow girls would come every day for weeks on end trying to get an audience - and never get one. I would wonder how I got an audience so easily. It had seemed to be sheer fluke, or was it because I was foreign? He modelled himself on Jerry Grotowski and his theatre laboratory in Poland. What interested the Maestro was the process, rather than the outcome. This meant that his plays were often in rehearsal for several years and sometimes never made it to the stage. I understood this in principle, but to me, the actors seemed unhappy - particularly those who hadn’t been on a stage in several years. They drifted around the corridors of the theatre like spectres. Were they trapped here by invisible economic ties, or was it a free choice? Had the Maestro had enough of them but didn't have the guts to tell them? It depressed me.

The manager of the theatre was a tortured businessman called Boris Lvovich who wore a cheap suit and carried a cheap briefcase. The Maestro, I thought, loved pretending not to understand when Boris Lvovich urged him to put on a play. ‘They are going to pull all funding if you don’t,’ he would say, ‘we have no money coming in. Don’t you understand, theatres have to put on plays.’ The Maestro would study his hands and arch his eyebrows and sigh and say, ‘Boris Lvovich do not torture me.’

Boris Lvovich would sit next door, where the administration was, and be clucked over by the large ladies who did the book-keeping. One day a play did open - Mozart and Salieri. I watched it several times. The great thing was that the actors emphasised prepositions rather than important words. It was a way to try and reanimate Pushkin - to get people to listen to him anew. The production, and actors, looked beautiful and had great presence, but it did not move me.

A lot of my working days were taken up with gossip with the other secretaries about the theatre - who was having an affair with who, and how to leave. The actors didn’t want to leave, but everyone else did. It was partly the wages, and partly the atmosphere. Lena, the elfin lady thanks to whom I’d been employed, and who’d been at the theatre for 7 years, arranged to leave 3 months after I arrived when she felt fairly confident that I could do the job. 

I wasn’t good at my job - it was liaising with theatres in Norway about a tour. I cannot recall doing very much and I was too exhausted and too in awe of the Maestro to show any initiative.

It was 1998, Moscow was awash with guns and money, and on the edge of economic collapse that would determine the political direction for years to come. I was oblivious to this - but when I went to the banya with western friends, most of whom were journalists - I could recite long excerpts of Plato’s dialogues in Russian, tell them what the Maestro had had for lunch, which chair he preferred sitting on currently, and various other titbits of gossip from across the theatre world. 

Life in Moscow was brutal. One of the best and most handsome actors was killed by blow to the temple in a chance fight just outside the theatre. It was a terrible tragedy. Then the martial arts teacher, an extremely handsome and graceful man who used to come and chat to us in his beautiful white clothes, was killed in a car crash. Loss after loss. 

In June, my boyfriend came to stay. I developed a huge boil, from exhaustion and bad eating habits, and lay in bed eating iron filings that he bought in the downstairs chemist, to try and cure it, while he bravely went sight-seeing alone. I resented the Maestro for my ill health.

I decided to leave 2 months early. Boris Lvovich was furious, but I was too tired to care. The night before I left my friend Yan took me for a walk to explore my neighbourhood for the first time. We walked behind the Stalinist arch where I lived and saw that it was less elegant than the front - a mass of balconies, hung with washing and TV aerials. Nearby he showed me the street Matrosskaya Tishina: the Sailor’s Silence. This was a notorious street - home to Butyrka prison, a TB hospital and a mental asylum. 

Yan took me by the elbow as I sobbed ‘I’m never coming to Russia again - it’s all fake! The arch is fake, the theatre is fake!’ Yan steered me to the post office to pay my outstanding phone bills to my boyfriend in the UK. Then he drove me to the airport. A month later came the crash: Russia defaulted on its foreign debt and the rouble plummeted. 

The other secretary was married shortly after I left in the summer, to someone in a rival theatre, and went to work there. I heard that Boris Lvovich went to live in a monastery - the stress of managing a theatre that never put on plays was too much for him. Apparently he lived there for 2 years during which time he mostly fished. This was, however, after he had cleverly secured financing for a brand new theatre to be built for the Maestro, on Sretenka Street, despite the collapse of the economy.

A few years later, I went to see a production at the new theatre. I wandered into the director’s office, curious to get a glimpse of the Maestro. He was pacing around reading something. He looked at me with no recognition in his eyes. 


  1. Wonderful! I have really enjoyed reading this little series :-)

  2. thank you Fortuna! and thank you for reading xx

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