Craig Raine goes to Moscow

Monday 29 January. Things have changed. We are at the Russian Embassy to see Andrei Nekrasov’s execrable biopic about Pasternak. A huge video projector squats while Sergei Shilov, the Ambassador’s personal assistant, presents my wife with 12 red roses, garni, and says a few words of introduction. He will not presume, he says, to speak of the work of Boris Pasternak because, well, there are in the audience the nieces of Pasternak, who are intelligent, well, very intelligent, and also, well, very beautiful and far more able than he is to speak about Pasternak’s work. Shilov’s English has that mixture of hesitation and surge normally associated with high-wire artists. At the end of every successfully negotiated sentence, he smiles like a performer being judged – radiant with nerves.

As a diplomat, he is masterly. Faced with a straight question from a BBC interviewer, he speaks fluent fog. You want to coin, in the spirit of admiration, a new verb of speech, ‘to soothe’. As in, the Ambassador’s personal assistant soothed:

Indeed, every generation of arts carries with it the burden of past mistakes and triumphs and is affected in everyday writings. Be it writers, painters, artists and musicians, they are affected by the history of the nation. In some ways, of course, the legacies still affect them. But it is not in the relationship of an artist via the State, it is just in the inner soul of the artist where the conflict remains.

I take my quotation from a BBC transcript. These sweet nothings, impossible to paraphrase, are virtually without content. As they are in any wooing process. And, unmistakably, we are being wooed.

My wife Lisa, my brother-in-law and I have a last-minute telegram of invitation to the Pasternak Centenary celebrations in Moscow, sent to us by the poet Andrei Voznesensky, head of the Writers’ Union. It turns out that the other English guest is Jeremy Treglown, the editor of the Times Literary Supplement. Josephine Pasternak, the poet’s only surviving sister, and Sir Isaiah Berlin were to have been the first team, we later learn. But even as substitutes, we have everything made easy. We supply three photographs and the Embassy fills in the visa application for us to sign. For my wife, the occasion is full of irony. ‘I can remember,’ she tells the Today programme,

queuing drearily here, not in this building, in 1960, when my uncle was dying and had asked my mother to visit him at his bedside. It was only with extreme difficulty that we got a visa after his death. Now things have been completely reversed and we’ve been invited to come to Moscow to attend the celebrations of his centenary. I’m a guest here to read his poetry and I shall read a poem which he kept only in manuscript in which he talks about his time being without wings, uninspired time. So this is full of the ironies of change.

Fortunately, the BBC do not use an answer she regrets having given. Asked if she feels bitter, she answers ‘no’ – a reply she would want to qualify, pointing out that she herself hardly suffered anything more than the ‘insolence of office’, whereas her uncle was abused, isolated and deprived of his livelihood. The English instinct to be agreeable – not to cause a fuss – goes very deep. Somehow I can’t imagine the Russian phrase, ‘It’s only a scratch.’

Monday 5 February. On the other hand, have things changed all that much? Secretary Shilov telephones me at work to say our visas are ready for collection. I ask him to send them to Fabers on a motorbike. Ever the diplomat, he counters this extravagant proposal neatly, by saying he doesn’t have the visas himself. I must collect them from the Consulate, not the Embassy. The Consulate is ‘only down the road’. In that case, I rejoin, can he go and collect the visas personally – to avoid any delay – and I will arrive in a taxi at the Embassy in one hour’s time? The air tickets must be collected separately from the Aeroflot offices (‘first floor, ask for Jenny’) opposite Reid’s Hotel in Piccadilly.

An hour later, I press the buzzer at the Embassy gate, drop Shilov’s name and listen uncomprehendingly to the crackle of cyrillic. For some reason, Russian always makes me think of hallmarks on silver. Finally, a delightful woman with blonde hair and pale blue eye shadow runs down the steps to the gate, grins (one dimple), holds both my hands, and tells me that Sergei Shilov is not yet back from the Consulate with the visas. Do I know how he looks? I do. Today, apparently, he is wearing a beige raincoat. And there our intense relationship ends. With a grin, my hands are returned to me and I climb back into the taxi and am driven slowly back down the semi-private road.

Here is Shilov, accompanied by a burly, dark-jowled figure whom I immediately assume is ‘security’. We shake hands. This time, I retain his hands in both of mine. There is a difficulty, however, with the visas. I can collect them tomorrow. We agree instead to entrust them to the GPO’s special delivery service. I have an idea that even his influence and status have failed to affect the due process of bureaucracy – a side of democracy we don’t often see in England, but which is frequently displayed in socialist countries. In Poland once, I remember our interpreter vainly lying about our international importance at a hotel reception desk whose magnificent unreceptiveness was explained by a notice on the counter – revealing that the staff were having their thrice-daily break. This aggressive assertion of equality makes all the service industries ghastly in the Eastern and Central European socialist bloc. Waiters and waitresses are more concerned to establish their lack of servility than they are to serve. Only in the abstract is this not such a bad thing. I grin at Shilov with genuine friendliness, as if to say that I know, too, what it is to have one’s charm rebuffed.

After some cruising down Piccadilly, Eros comes into sight and my taxi-driver and I realise simultaneously that Reid’s hotel is elusive mainly because we should have been looking for the Ritz. Thirteen pounds on the clock. I ask for a receipt. His eyes meet mine in the rear-view mirror: ‘Use a lot of these, then, do you, mate?’ And he gives me the remainder of a book. Which contains, as it happens, only two blank receipts, but I feel gratified somehow by the idea of beating bureaucracy, of asserting the right of every freeborn Englishman to fiddle his expenses.

At Aeroflot, Jenny is out to lunch. It is 4.40. Finally, at 4.50, she appears. The manager has the tickets. He is out to lunch and his office is locked. Then it transpires that he has given the tickets to another secretary – but only after my ineffectual charm has been replaced by muted truculence and a demand that Secretary Shilov should be phoned at the number I give them. When I examine the tickets, I discover that my wife’s is made out to Lisa Pasternak, whereas her passport, which dates from the bad old days, discreetly gives her name as Dr Elisabeth Raine. It is too late to have the ticket changed, so I collect a series of names and direct telephone numbers for use if the check-in at Terminal 2 becomes awkward.

Friday 9 February. As it turns out, my wife’s birth certificate is enough to convince the English employee at the check-in. Our flight has been cancelled, however, which means that we will definitely miss the inaugural ceremony at the Bolshoi theatre. Our timing was, in any case, touch and go. I am not heart-broken. I have attended several opening ceremonies. On the flight, my brother-in-law, Michael Slater (Michael Pasternak, according to his ticket) is unable to read because the Aeroflot jumbo doesn’t have individual seat lights. He has the aisle seat – exiled to inner darkness. Speaking of darkness, what a curious sensation it is to emerge from the gloom of the transit corridor into the designer dusk of Sheremetievo airport and the ring-mail burnished rust of the ceiling’s empty pilchard tins.

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