Hidden Privilege

Michael Irwin

  • Russian Journal by Andrea Lee
    Faber, 239 pp, £8.95, May 1982, ISBN 0 571 11904 2

Andrea Lee spent ten months in Russia in 1978-9, together with her husband, on an academic exchange – eight months at Moscow State University and two at Leningrad State. Her Russian Journal, some of it written during her stay, some of it worked up subsequently, consists of thirty or forty fragments, each encapsulating an incident, an experience or a character. The entries are chronologically ordered: there is little theorising and no thesis. Andrea Lee likens them to ‘a set of photographs taken by an amateur who is drawn to his subject by instinct and capricious inclination’. This unpretentiousness is one of the great strengths of her book. She obviously has no interest in selecting or distorting evidence to make out a case.

It is her general good sense which inspires confidence. A Harvard graduate, born in Philadelphia, she is neither complacently nor guiltily American. She recognises that as a Westerner, physically and sartorially, she becomes an automatic focus of attention, an inevitable influence on the scenes in which she takes part: in that sense, what she sees tends to be atypical. It is by no means an irrelevant factor that, in so far as her personality emerges from the notes, she seems friendly but shrewd, always prepared to like people and to enjoy herself but not to the detriment of her alertness. Although she hasn’t come looking for bad news, she isn’t going to be conned or intimidated. She also wins credit for her refusal to adopt a pose of detachment, to imply that she herself is immune to the pressures she sees as deforming the lives of her acquaintances. When she comes under surveillance as a result of running English classes for a group of Soviet Jews on the verge of emigration, she grows conscious ‘of an intense anger forming like a stone in my guts ... a personal anger based on fear’. At first she is put out by the devouring stares of subway passengers fascinated by her clothes, but later, starved of ready visual stimulation in Moscow, she becomes a starer herself whenever she encounters ‘a well-cut dress (terribly rare), a handsomely bound book (still rarer), or an attractive face’. She is all the more persuasive an observer for implicating herself in what she observes.

Roughly speaking, she alternates accounts of particular episodes – a visit to a peasant market, a blues concert, a night-club, a public bath-house, an Easter church service – with descriptions of individuals she has come to know reasonably well. These include Grigorii, a fellow-student who keeps an eye on visiting students on behalf of the KGB but somehow seems pitiable rather than merely repulsive, Seryozha, a harassed dissident of aristocratic descent, Rima, a sort of unofficial entrepreneur in the underground art-world, and Valerii, a devoted Komsomol member who yet despises most things Russian and is moved to an anguished pitch of envious bliss when smuggled into a dance at the Marine Bar in the US Embassy. There are longer sections on two notabilities with whom Andrea Lee gets caught up by chance. At a restaurant in Leningrad she finds herself sharing a table with a middle-aged man who inspires deference even in the waiter. When he is introduced to her as Tikhon Khrennikov the name means nothing to her. Later she learns that he is a famous composer, a musical mediocrity who has been head of the Union of Composers for the past thirty years, a man who has fawned on Stalin and hounded Shostakovich. As a result of the meeting she and her husband are invited to a closed performance of Khrennikov’s new ballet at the Kirov Theatre, where they witness the opulence and the sycophancy of the official smart set. The other lion she comes to know is Victor Louis, journalist, ‘so-called mouthpiece of the Kremlin’ according to Andrea Lee, Moscow correspondent of the London Evening News and co-author of The Complete Guide to the Soviet Union. Invited to a Christmas Party at Louis’s huge house in Peredelkino, the American visitors are met at the station by his English wife, Jennifer, wellbred and be-tweeded, ‘a pillar of the Protestant community of Moscow’. Over a sumptuous meal, served by two maids, Andrea Lee chats with Nikolai, the son of their hosts, the recent product of a British public school, but now a student of history at Moscow State University. Over coffee she sits with Louis himself, watching a tape of The Two Ronnies, and later listening to his ‘liberal’ views on Doctor Zhivago and the dissident demonstrations. Both here and in her account of the Kirov Ballet she nicely catches the ironies and the unreality of high life ‘in this country where privilege is hidden like a disease’.

Andrea Lee brings to these vignettes a novelist’s talent for conveying moods in very few words. While avoiding grandiose diagnoses she makes many incidental remarks that catch the attention. When describing Yura, a hunchbacked librarian in Leningrad, she reflects that the physically and mentally defective seem far better integrated into the social system than are their American counterparts: ‘Deformed by nature or age, they are very often the strictest guardians of social form, many of them, like Yura, deeply patriotic. For him, life does seem good, perhaps the best it could be in any country.’ After an evening with some Moscow hippies she comes to the surprising conclusion that their life-style ‘isn’t as much a rebellious departure from the social norm as it was for hippies in the United States’. Economic pressures and the shortage of housing have made even the most respectable Russians accustomed to pooling resources or dossing down in one another’s houses.

Given her astuteness, it is a pity that Andrea Lee isn’t prepared to speculate a little more ambitiously. She glances at several issues which she could profitably have explored further. In discussing the deletion of sex-scenes from foreign films she mentions ‘the odd mental talents a diet of such films must develop: an ability for elision, for constant suspension of logic’. But comparable deficiencies exist at every level of life in a Communist society. What views can the Soviet citizen hold on housing or agriculture or disarmament if he distrusts the party line but has no alternative source of fact or theory? What profitable occupation can there be for the moral and intellectual energies that in a democracy are expended on political controversy? The freak diet on which the Russian has to subsist must surely foster not only ‘odd mental talents’ but odd mental limitations of several kinds. What Andrea Lee remarks in passing she could well investigate at large. She joins the marchers in the May Day parade and shares their exhilaration, feeling ‘a wild, childish excitement’. Yet without explanation her report turns hostile: ‘The rain began to come down harder, and still the monstrous, disorganised spectacle went on, inspiring joy in no one I could see, but blundering on, in its sound and fury, out of sheer momentum. What gigantic vanity or insecurity would demand a display like this one?’

The book suffers from one or two other minor limitations, most of which the author herself would no doubt acknowledge. She describes only a narrow social spectrum. The friends she makes are students, artists, dissidents, professional people, the great mass of those she sees in the streets remaining inscrutable: ‘glum workmen in grimy quilted jackets, fantastically fat old women in shawls, girls with exhausted faces under their make-up’. It must be conceded, even of the class she knows best, that the Russian who will consort with a visiting American is likely, by definition, to be unrepresentative.

Her husband, Tom, is said to speak ‘nearnative’ Russian. She herself lays claim to ‘a far slighter knowledge of Russian strengthened only by a good ear for language’. It would be reassuring if she admitted to the possibility that she might have misunderstood a conversation or misconstrued its subtext. Arguably she sees too simply, too clearly. She can make participation in the private problems of Russian life sound implausibly unproblematic. She seems to accept her involvement in the crises of her new friends with the amiable unself-consciousness of a David Copperfield. Some episodes seem too neat, too ‘finished’. She meets an Eritrean student named Ibrahim whose brother has recently died in the struggle for independence from Ethiopia. He himself is soon to return to join the fighting. With his friends he joins a table-game in which a moving saucer functions as an ouija-board. He asks his brother what he can expect on his return home, and the saucer spells out the Russian word for ‘death’. After crouching with other students to listen to the song of a nightingale Grigorii, the weedy informer, ‘removed his comical taped glasses and unashamedly wiped his eyes’. These incidents may be literally true, but as related they are unconvincing, trimmed to the crafted tidiness of a short story.

This may seem an over-elaborate reaction to a work that is deliberately simple in manner and scope. But the modest truthfulness which Andrea Lee aspires to is most difficult to attain, requiring precariously delicate adjustments of attitude and tone on the author’s part. A more theoretical book could stand or fall on the theory: Russian Journal must win assent by the authenticity of all its parts. To note the author’s few miscalculations is to suggest the difficulty of an ostensibly undemanding enterprise. Russian Journal is a considerable exercise in observation, empathy and personal and literary tact.