Wednesday, 9 December 2009

Sketches from a Russian notebook

Worm has some strange pictures of an abandoned Russian city. In the comments, I mentioned how corrupt Russia is, not just in terms of everyday corruption - bribery and suchlike - but at a psychological level. The deep-seated cynicism and paranoia, understandable when not justifiable, is something that wears away at you. I found it a fascinating country, but one which I was always glad to leave. Here are a few impressionistic sketches.


Walking back to my hotel in Nizhny Novgorod in the early hours. It's too cold to smoke and the snow's so thick on the ground the only way to get around is to walk down the middle of the road, jumping into a drift when a car or lorry swishes by. I turn into the street my hotel is on and in the dull, white glow of the street lights see a gang of workers clearing debris left in the wake of a snow-plough. They're using extra-wide brushes that look like robust, supersize windscreen wipers. I get closer and see they're little old ladies, leaning into the brushes, putting all of their modest poundage into shifting lumps of ice and snow. They're so wrapped up they look like badly-rolled carpets, stumpy and bulging. As I walk past I look into one of their brown, walnut faces, not unlike my Nain's. The eyes are impassive.


I'm sitting in the boardroom of a Russian bank, in the second day of negotiations concerning the split of fees on a bond deal. We're down to who gets the last few basis points. It's Friday afternoon and we're booked on a plane back to London that evening. But we're not moving; we're arguing in circles. Suddenly, the double doors swing open and in struts the boss: short, pale, curly-haired, snub-nosed. He starts shouting in Russian, gesticulating angrily. I don't understand it all but I can tell he's swearing and delivering some sort of ultimatum. He struts back out. My colleague and I go into conference: he's said that if we don't fold, our employer will never do business in Russia again; he also advises us that it would not be in our best interests to spend the weekend in Moscow. We call London, fold and are on the plane that evening.


I'm staying with a family, as a lodger, whilst I do a language course. My landlady, a young, single mother, who shares the two-bedroom flat with her son, brother, father and, temporarily, me is generous and caring. She asks me if she can host a dinner for me and a couple of friends, one of whom has come over to pick me up a couple of times and has got on well with her. I gratefully accept. The night of the dinner arrives. My two friends are female academics, both fluent Russian speakers, and the dinner passes convivially. After a few vodkas everyone starts talking more freely. We move - inevitably - on to The State of Present-Day Russia, and my landlady and her brother inform us they hate the Jews. They were behind the Revolution and also the collapse of the Soviet Union. They run international finance and through that the big Russian enterprises: if only Russia could be free of them, all would be well. My two guests are Jewish. Both look Jewish and one has an unmistakably Jewish name. We move swiftly on, still friendly. The next day, feeling I should say something, I tell my landlady my guests were Jewish - she shrugs her shoulders. I tell her I'm an eighth Jewish - she pats me on the shoulder, breaks into a consoling, indulgent smile and says "But Gareth, you are one of the good ones".


I'm in a provincial Russian hotel. It's only moderately dirty. Every night there's a raucous cabaret that goes on until about midnight. Sometime after the music dies down there's a knock on the door. Insanely (as I later reflect), I open it. A short, slab-faced man faces me. He's wearing a skiing jacket and swaying. He demands dollars. I say I haven't got any. Rather desperately I inform him I'm staying here as a guest of the Governor. He appraises me, seems to make a decision and walks away down the corridor. I close the door and lock it. When I check out the next morning, he's next to me in the queue. He doesn't meet my eye.


I'm in Ufa, capital of the Bashkortostan Autonomous Region in the Urals. For reasons that escape me, it's shortly before dawn and a colleague who's been here before asks our driver to take us to a certain square. We pull into it just as it's getting light; it's open at one end. Looking east it's apparent that we're on the highest point of a river bluff, high up on the edge of the fault line that divides Europe from Asia. We look out over the drop, past an enormous, thrusting man-on-horse statue - an ancient Bashkir proletarian hero. Ahead of us, into the smoky lemon light of the dawn, stretch Asian steppes flat-lining into the horizon. I've only ever experienced such visual depth when looking into the Grand Canyon. It's like peering at the moon.


Hey Skipper said...


worm said...

seriously good writing, which only adds to my desire to go there - even though I know I will almost certainly hate it. I would certainly like to read any more sketches as an when you have them!

Brit said...

Great bloggery, Gaw.

Brit said...

My wife has some weird little stories about Russia but she's a reluctant scribbler - I'll see if I can get them out of her.

worm said...

ps. about to start reading a book about the Urals and beyond called 'Silverland' by Dervla Murphy

Bunny Smedley said...

You do realise, don't you, Gareth, that if you produced a whole book like this, it would be my book of the year? Amazing stuff. (I liked Worm's strange picture, too.)

Sean said...

You would have loved the place Garth if only you had visited the local hypermarket and viewed the incredible range of vodkas. I counted 135 and stopped as I was only half way down the aisle on one side.

You have to take your hat off to that.

I fancy the Moscow to Bejing train trip myself, the Steppes sound great.

Recusant said...

Fantastic stuff Gaw.

I'm going to have lots of moments over the course of the next three weeks when I will need to escape for a while to read something this good.

Do us a favour, old boy, and bash out a chunk more on these lines.

Gaw said...

Thanks to everyone - much appreciated.

Skip: I'll take that as a compliment!

Worm: Never heard of that one. I'd be grateful if you could let me know whether it's any good.

Brit, Russia seems to have no end of ability to produce weird stories. Once you've spent some time there you realise that Gogol didn't have to make much up.

Sean: My brother did the train trip. He said the stop-over in Mongolia was the best bit. They had Mongolian barbecue: skin, eviscerate and joint a sheep, put all back into the stitched up skin with a bucket of water, bury with hot rocks for half-a-day, dig up, blow torch off wool, and voila! Soup and mains served with rice and flatbread.

Bunny and Recusant, I'm going to have a crack at doing something a bit more long form. I'm currently toying with the idea of doing a thriller, largely as if it ever gets published, I'd like it to be sold at airports. I figure if I'm going to write something I just as well try to earn some money from it - what do you think?

Nige said...

Amazing stuff again Gaw!

worm said...

the mongolian barbeque sounds positively repulsive! If I go there, I think i'll stick to their clusterfucks

Gaw said...

Nige: Thanks - you've encouraged me to have a go at something longer. Will see what happens!

Worm: I can't vouch for them, sadly.

Brit said...

If you want some tips on thriller writing, I recommend Steve Bruce's "Sweeper!"

worm said...

with perfect synchronicity - I turn on the TV tonight for the first time in weeks to see a dimbleby travelling through russia on BBC4 - it was actually a very good programme