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On the Devil's Horns
IT WAS OCTOBER 1978, and the coldest Moscow winter in a century was just revving up. Sadly, the district of Moscow in which we were going to spend it was only half-built. Our apartment was so new you could still smell traces of the plumber's last swig of vodka.
Soon there was ice creeping across the double-glazed window. Across the inside of the double-glazed window. The bolts holding the frame together had merely been placed loosely in the holes, allowing Siberian gales to whistle through the gaps between glass and wood. Apparently that crucial final step, where you take a spanner and turn the bolts clockwise, was an advanced-level skill not included in the Soviet builder's manual, so the first thing we had to do was buy some tools to finish off the work. Cupboard doors also needed straightening, and flapping electric sockets had to be attached securely to the walls. The drainpipe under the sink in the bathroom was sealed with an old rag, and leaked for months until we learned how to bribe a plumber to fix it. A three-rouble note – a tryoshka – seemed to do the trick for most odd jobs, though since this was almost exactly the price of a bottle of vodka there was no point at all in calling a plumber after about eleven o'clock in the morning, by which time he might have drunk his way through several odd jobs already.
The flat was provided, free of charge, by my employer, Progress, the Soviet Union's foreign language publishing house. I had landed the work in April, after doing a translation test while in Moscow with a group of language students. I also fell in love with one of the students in the group: like me, Neilian was Scottish, and equally fascinated by Russia. In September we got married, and set off for a year of adventure in Moscow. We were rare specimens in those days – foreigners who came to the heart of the communist world not as diplomats or businessmen or journalists, but to work for a Soviet organisation, with none of the perks that most Westerners enjoyed – just for the sheer joy of learning Russian and experiencing a forbidden place.
Vadim, the weasel-faced head of Progress's foreign relations department, met us at the airport with a driver. Our route to the apartment seemed to take hours. Vadim tried to scare us with talk about bears and wolves in the forests we travelled through. (Why we even travelled through forests remains a mystery to this day.)
On arrival, Vadim showed us up to our one-roomed apartment. 'Where are we?' I asked.
'On the devil's horns,' said Vadim with a strange cackle.
'Yasenevo,' he said.
I was none the wiser. 'Is that in Moscow?'
Vadim hesitated. 'Mmm, yes,' he said. 'More or less.'
The room contained a table, a couple of bottle-green patterned armchairs, and a matching sofa which folded out to become our bed. It was identical to many Russians' flats we would visit, apart from one extra accoutrement – a small metal plate which we discovered later under the wallpaper just above our bed. This appeared to conceal a microphone. Over the next two years snippets of our private conversations would make their way back to us courtesy of the army of perverts with language degrees employed by the KGB to snoop on foreigners' bedrooms.
Vadim left us with 50 roubles to tide us over until I received my first pay – 200 roubles a month, which at the official exchange rate in those days was about £200. Two hundred roubles went quite a long way. (The average Soviet wage was 170 roubles.) Over the next months we would be able to buy curtains and a strip of carpet (both chosen from the tiny selection of unconscionably ugly state-approved styles), a TV, a record-player and eventually a refrigerator. For now, there was no need for that: like many Russians, we hung our butter and cheese outside the window in a carrier bag. But come spring we would need one.
Our priorities on that first evening were a cooking pot, a packet of tea, some bread, and a few vegetables or meat for our first meal. But within seconds we realised we lacked the most essential item for life in these parts – rubber boots. It was not just our apartment windows that had not been finished off: the pavements and roads had not yet been tarmacked, and the 400-metre walk to the universam (universal store, or supermarket) was a swamp. By the time we reached the shop our shoes, indeed our ankles, were coated with thick mud. The floor of the supermarket was a sea of sludge, despite the best efforts of a very old woman in a charcoal overall and felt boots who dragged a black rag around with a stick, slopping the mud from place to place.
The shop somewhat resembled a Western supermarket, in that it had rows of shelves, but they contained almost nothing but cans – mainly conserved fish and meat – and identical oatmeal-textured paper bags which could be distinguished only by searching for the word written on them with a Biro: rice, sugar, flour, semolina. In the section marked 'milk', squishy pyramid-shaped plastic bags of milk were leaking onto the floor. The section marked 'meat' was bloodstained but empty. The section marked 'vegetables' sported several cage trolleys containing a few muddy potatoes, carrots and onions. Sparrows were flying about under the ceiling, chirping away as if they hadn't noticed that the woods they used to nest in had been chopped down and replaced with a housing estate.
An assistant appeared from a back room wheeling another trolley, filled to the brim with huge pale-green cabbages, like a mountain of skulls from Pol Pot's Cambodia. The supermarket had appeared to be almost empty, but now a horde of women appeared from nowhere and descended upon the trolley like a plague of locusts. First I saw the headscarves, then the flailing elbows, and suddenly the entire space was heaving with brown coats. As the cabbages vanished I had a cartoonish vision of the trolley stuffed with upside-down women scrabbling for the final one, their legs sticking up in the air like a packet of French fries. Within seconds the trolley was empty, bar a few tattered leaves, and the lucky shoppers were emerging from the dust cloud with smiles on their faces, while fights broke out among the losers. One woman who had a cabbage clinched under each arm was physically assaulted by a member of the losing team, and the supernumerary one was snatched away from her. My wife, who had merely been observing the fray with her jaw ratcheting towards the floor in disbelief, was verbally abused by a woman with an enormous puce face under a fluffy wool hat, who shouted: 'I know you're a foreigner. Why should you get one? Just go to the devil!'
They used to say Russians could always tell foreigners by their footwear. But even with our feet caked in mud, we stood out from the crowd. We would never fool any Russian into thinking we were one of them.
Hundreds of days lay ahead during which we would learn more about the finer arts of Soviet shopping, but now a small disturbance at the fish section caught our eye. A new consignment had just arrived. The blocks of ice in which the fish were frozen were far too big to go in the display counter, so the salesgirl was breaking them up. To do this, she had placed an old-fashioned two-kilogram weight on the floor and was now hurling the refrigerated blocks at it. On impact the ice shattered into tiny fragments and the rigid fish burst out of captivity and slithered across the mud in all directions. One of them, possibly a cod, skimmed over to the wall, slipped up the back of a heating pipe that ran along the skirting board, came to rest on top of it, and eased itself down comfortably in the heat, its glassy eyes goggling at the spectacle. We quickly bought some bread, tea and a pan, and fled from the supermarket.
Yasenevo turned out to be a brand-new neighbourhood in the very south of Moscow, just inside the outer ring road. That's what Vadim meant by 'on the devil's horns' – it means 'very far away'. Our flat was in a housing estate so anonymous the address didn't even merit a street name: it was 'building number 32, block 3, mikroraion (or microdistrict) number 5', Yasenevo. From our fifth-floor window we could see a forest of apartment blocks, identical to our own, as though someone was holding up a set of gigantic mirrors. They stood at a not-quite-safe distance for getting undressed – nine and sixteen storeys high and as long as ocean liners, all brand-new, all faced with coloured tiles, this one pink, that one mint-green, another one lilac, but in the dark they all looked the same, an endless grid of glowing windows.
Next morning we went out to explore. What we found presumably exemplified what Soviet urban planners envisaged as a perfect creation, since they had built it from scratch, just as they wanted it. They took a blank piece of land on the edge of Moscow and were able to design it exactly as they wished, with no concern for existing structures. (The only old building left standing was the little Peter and Paul church, which survived not to comfort the souls of Soviet workers but because the local state farm deemed it the perfect place to repair tractors.) So Yasenevo represented the acme of Soviet planning, a glimpse of the radiant future, when everyone would live in micro-districts, not streets. It was all completely new, constructed from prefabricated concrete panels over the past two years.
The dozen or so micro-districts were virtually identical. This induced mild panic attacks as we wandered from one to the next, wondering if we would ever find our way back home, or would be arrested for trying to break into a flat precisely the same as ours but in the wrong mikroraion. Each micro-district was approximately half a mile square, and consisted of a semi-circle of elongated 16-storey buildings, plus a few 9-storey ones, surrounding two kindergartens and a school. There were no actual streets, and the numbering of the individual buildings had been devised either by a dyslexic state planner or by a cunning security operative who wanted to baffle foreigners. The houses in our micro-district, for instance, were numbered 13, 17, 30, 32, 4 and 6. Even more confusingly, some of these were subdivided: for example, 32 (block 1) was the enormous 16-storey semicircle, while 32 (block 2) was the kindergarten; 32 (block 3) was actually four separate 9-storey buildings (including ours); and 32 (block 4) was the other kindergarten. Who would want to be a postman here? Each micro-district had a polyclinic, a few small shops hidden in various entrances, a first-aid point, and sundry administrative buildings. Each had a little stall selling bread, and a newspaper kiosk. The main buildings, being perhaps a hundred metres long, had several entrances, each with a porch, and each porch had a bench outside, where old women sat, even in winter, wrapped in shawls, exchanging gossip. Narrow access roads threaded around the buildings, and through arches in them, connecting the neighbourhood to the main six-lane thoroughfare leading north to Moscow. Planners had even thought of planting trees in some of the spaces – but had given less thought to the basics of life. Our micro-district, number 5, shared a single universam with four or five other micro-districts, serving some 30,000 people – which would explain why we often spent more than two hours in the line to the check-out.
The next day was Monday. I found my way into the office. Progress occupied a new six-storey block near Gorky Park. Vadim greeted me with his weaselly smirk and asked how we had coped with the wolves. The head of the English section, a matronly lady named Maria Konstantinovna, gave me a contract to sign, and handed me a manuscript to translate (at home, since there was no room in the office for all the translators). An editor called Viktor Schneerson then ran me through the style guide – English spellings such as 'realise', not 'realize'. I asked whether they used single or double quotation marks, and he instantly concocted the most bizarre reason for using singles: 'Actually, it saves ink,' he said, as if this was a brilliant example of the efficiency of Soviet industry.
'How are you settling in?' he asked as I got ready to leave.
'Fine, thanks. Getting a bit cold, isn't it?'
He laughed and shook his head. 'This is nothing. I used to live in Siberia. There it gets so cold birds freeze in mid-flight and just drop straight out of the sky. People there watch each other's faces closely, to spot signs of frostbite before it sets in. Otherwise your nose can fall off ...'
What was it about these Russians who all wanted to scare me with something?
Not a single colleague at Progress told me about the things I really needed to know. The little food stall that sold good steak, for instance, and the system of zakazy. It took me months to discover that once a week you could sign up for a zakaz (an 'order'). Three options were usually available. Each consisted of three or four items – two of them scarce and desirable (a jar of gherkins, perhaps, tinned salmon, or even caviar or smoked sausages), and one or two that were padding – a bag of sweets or a pack of sugar lumps, for example. On Monday you signed up for one of the options. A couple of days later you went in to buy it ... and trotted back home feeling tremendously lucky. By such means Progress's workers (and those in many other institutions and factories) beat the shortages in Soviet shops. It helped to explain that eternal Soviet conundrum – empty shelves in the food stores but full shelves in people's fridges.
As the first snows fell that evening I sat at my desk beside the puny central-heating radiator, pulled my scarf a little tighter, and looked out through the uncurtained windows. It was dark and still outside, as though everything was muffled in cotton wool. All life had retreated indoors. I toyed with the keys on my blue Imperial typewriter and stared blankly at the page of Russian beside it. I couldn't for the life of me think how to make my first translation sound at all English. It was about liberation movements in Asia and Africa. Translating it was part of my little stint in propaganda purgatory: ahead, they told me, lay more interesting works of literature – perhaps some of the classics – and next year, I'd be translating for a special magazine they were bringing out for the 1980 Moscow Olympics. But meanwhile it was this:
The victory of the Great October Socialist Revolution, which brought about a radical change in the correlation of world forces, provided the foundation for the implementation of Lenin's great plan for the struggle against imperialism.
What did that actually mean? More importantly, how would I stay awake to translate it? There were about 500 pages like this. How many quotation marks' worth of ink was that, I wondered.
The table I sat at had an oval tin number plate attached to it, because it belonged to the state-owned publishing house. Out there in the darkness, too, everything was provided by the state: the apartments, the shops, the theatres, the newspapers, the lorries, the buses, even the heat. Our central heating came from a white building down there, which pushed scalding water along foot-wide pipes that snaked around the buildings and into basements, to be pumped around all the apartments. The authorities switched it on, for everyone, in early October when the average temperature dropped below eight degrees Celsius for five days running. There were no thermostats: if it got too hot inside, you opened a window. (In the summer we would discover that not just the heating but even the running hot water supply was turned off for three weeks – 'for maintenance' – and we had to boil water in pans to wash.)
Living in Britain, we used to worry about heating our flat for too long. Those were the days of putting shillings in a meter to keep the electricity on. Many people thought twice before switching on a two-bar electric heater. But here, you were relieved of such concerns. The state decided when it was cold, and the state decided how much heat to give you. And it practically paid for it too, since the cost of communal services was so low.
So here we were, living in what the West called a communist country. They didn't actually call it communist here, though, because, well ... there had been a little glitch in the historical timetable set out by Marx and Lenin. According to them, as every Soviet schoolchild knew, 'communism' (a future classless society without private property, in which individuals would contribute according to their means and receive everything they needed from the state) was supposed to arrive only at the end of a period of 'socialism'. Khrushchev had impetuously predicted in 1961 that the transition from socialism to communism was imminent. But now, it had to be admitted, the advent of the communist nirvana was taking rather longer than planned. So the Communist Party decided to tweak Marxism a little, and came up with a new interim term: according to General Secretary Leonid Brezhnev we were now living in the era of 'developed socialism', defined as a 'second stage' in the transition from socialism to communism. Getting the jargon right was very important for Soviet ideologues. They couldn't improve the standard of living, but they could work wonders with the terminology.
Excerpted from "Moscow Calling"
Copyright © 2017 Angus Roxburgh.
Excerpted by permission of Birlinn Limited.
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Table of Contents
List of Illustrations vii
Preface to the Paperback Edition xi
1 On the Devil's Horns 5
2 A Russian Englishman 15
3 My Arbat University 19
4 Who Is Last? 28
5 Oh! Bananas! 34
6 Forty Degrees 37
7 Here Comes the Sun 42
8 To Red Lighthouse 51
9 The Unpredictable Past 58
10 Strange Encounters 63
11 Cold War Walls 71
12 Not Any Other Country 79
13 Oh! Oh! Oh! Oh! Oh! 86
14 Goodbye to Moscow 97
15 Back in the UK 107
16 Lemonade Joe 120
17 Into a Whirlwind 126
18 More Light 134
19 The KGB Makes Friends 150
20 The KGB Closes in 156
21 Baltic Rebirth 166
22 Triumph and Tragedy 174
23 The KGB Gets Me 181
24 Spitting Live Frogs 196
25 Turning off Gorbachev's Lights 207
26 Humiliated and Insulted 214
27 No Static at All 222
28 Siberia: The Shaman's Curse 227
29 Katastroika 245
30 Chechnya 255
33 The Fear of War 273
32 Life is Getting Better, Comrades 279
33 What Kind of Russia? 283
34 Watching from a Distance 294
35 In the Kremlin 302
36 'Foreign agent' 322