My agent sent me a copy of AD Miller’s Snowdrops – the Booker prize shortlisted novel set in Russia – and it took me down a memory lane that’s littered with hammers and sickles. Set in Moscow at the beginning of the ‘noughties’, the novel has some great descriptions of both summer and winter in the Russian capital and recalled for me customs, stereotypes, streets and parks whose names I had consigned to the dustier places in my memory.
In 1991 I spent close to six months in Moscow, living in the (then) rather grim area known as Vykhino. I was supposed to be studying at the Moscow Institute of Management but just finding enough to eat was a full-time job. Those were the final days of the Soviet Union, the last gasp as it began to crumble, and everything was still scarce. I went over there at the end of February and came back in July – the August coup happened just weeks after I left. Nothing to do with me, of course.
So I remember sub-zero winter, the briefest spring and a sudden leap into the hot and muggy Moscow summer. I remember ration coupons, queueing for hours to buy bread or to use the telephone, or even to send a telegram. I remember buying rolls and rolls of toilet paper just because it was there. I remember the miserable woman in the embassy shop telling us we could only buy one of anything – one tin of beans, one pack of savoury rice, one pack of biscuits. Then there was long the trip to post office to watch the official tear open the food parcel my parents had sent to me. There was the bathroom that couldn’t be left in the dark because of the cockroach infestation. The procession of mice that drowned behind the toilet. The creepy Georgian blokes who crept into your room at night to sell drugs or military memorabilia. The market stalls with nothing to sell but three carotts and a handful of potatoes . . .
But I remember good things, too. Gorky Park glistening in the snow. Izmailovsky Park shimmering in the sun. Blossom falling like snow on Tverskaya. Shashleek and a bottle of Pepsi from a vendor (only one bottle allowed per person of course). Metro stations like museums, with art that takes your breath away. The overnight train to Kiev and that first glimpse of the awesome Motherland monument. Euphoria at finding a taxi driver who’d sell you vodka. Discovering the black-market and being amazed that it was a real place with stalls to browse. A surreal week in Samarkand and Bukhara in Uzbekistan . . .
So it wasn’t all bad, I guess, but it was hard. Very hard.
And guess what? I even found a few pictures I took. I never was very good at taking photos – I always forget – so these ones are not great but, well, they jog the memory.