Ten Days that Shook Me

Alan Bennett

I spent ten days in May in Russia on a visit arranged by the Great Britain-USSR Society. My colleagues were the novelists Paul Bailey, Christopher Hope and Timothy Mo (who also writes for Boxing News), the poet Craig Raine (who doesn’t) and the playwright Sue Townsend of Adrian Mole fame. I had many misgivings about the trip, particularly in regard to creature comforts. I wondered, for instance, if the Russians had got round to mineral water. John Sturrock reassured me. ‘Haven’t you heard of Perrierstroika?’

The Writers’ Union is a pleasant one-storeyed 19th-century building set round a leafy courtyard and currently being refurbished against Mr Reagan’s visit. He is to have lunch here. We are never going to have lunch, it seems, as this introductory session of talks began at ten and it is now 1.30 with no sign of it ending. We sit down one side of a long green-baize-covered table with the Soviet writers on the other, the most eye-catching of them the playwright Mikhail Shatrov, a stocky middle-aged man with a pallor so striking Sue Townsend insists it owes something to Max Factor. Shatrov is seemingly contemptuous of these proceedings; he arrives late, ostentatiously reads a newspaper during the speeches and from time to time points out items of interest to his colleagues. Sceptical of the purpose of formal discussions like these, I find Shatrov’s attitude not unsympathetic, particularly when the talk turns to the writer’s role in society. I feel like a not very expert motor mechanic taking part in a discussion on national transport policy. Presiding over the meeting is Professor Zassoursky, who holds the chair of journalism at Moscow University. He is an urbane and elegant figure (in what looks like a Brooks Brothers suit) and witty with it. The talk among the Soviet writers is all of the coming Party Congress, which they hope will enforce the retirement of the heads of the Musicians’ and Writers’ Unions, both notorious hardliners. ‘But if they resign,’ says Zassoursky, ‘it could even be worse. After all, they might start writing again.’

The Hotel Ukraina where we are staying looks like the Gotham or the Dakota, those monstrous 19th-century mansions on New York’s Central Park West, though this and dozens of buildings like it were built fifty or sixty years later by Stalin. Like the Writer’s Union, the Ukraina is being refurbished against The Visit, the refurbishment taking the form of new three-ply cabinets to encase the (old) TV sets. My room has a fridge which lights up nicely, but otherwise just makes the contents (one bottle of mineral water) sweat. An engineer comes and looks at it but is baffled. It is hard to understand, with simple technology such a mystery, why they haven’t blown us all up years ago. ‘Be fair,’ says Sue Townsend. ‘I believe they do a very good smelter.’ I am disturbed to find Melvyn Bragg working in the hotel as a doorman. He pretends not to recognise me.

To Massenet’s Werther at the Bolshoi. It is an indifferent production, the scenery and sets almost Music Hall, but the house is packed and Nina and Galina, our guides, say that this is the first time for years they have managed to get a ticket, which makes us all feel worse for not enjoying it. Someone who is enjoying it is Melvyn Bragg, this time in the back row of the chorus. Though food is pretty basic, I find meals the high points of each day, just as they are when filming. One talks about food, thinks about it, and tonight, returning from the opera, we are mortified to find we are too late for supper. Anne Vaughan, our organiser, braves the kitchen and eventually a waitress takes pity on us and gives us some bread and ham and a bit of dog-eared salad which we take upstairs in plastic bags. ‘You must be very hungry,’ says a man in the lift. ‘What country are you coming from?’

Another session at the Writers’ Union. Most of the writers we talk to are likeable, decent people and it is this that makes it difficult to raise potentially embarrassing issues like dissidence. If these were fanatical hardliners it would be easy to ask the hard questions, but they are not. One tells us how she has just translated Animal Farm (‘Not a good book,’ one of us says prissily) and they are so obviously thrilled with what is happening that to inquire, say, about psychiatric punishment seems tactless. What one does not get from them is any sense of what they think of each other. They hear out each other’s speeches without comment or dissent and only when Boguslavskaya (Mrs Voznesensky) makes a long self-regarding speech and shortly afterwards sweeps out does one get some hint that they think she is tiresome too.

Breakfast (food again) is self-service and is generally a relatively tranquil meal, but this morning I come down to find we have been invaded by the American Friendship Society (‘Lois Ravenna Jr,’ says the name tag of the lady opposite). They are a middle-aged to elderly group, ladies whom I would call ‘game’ (and Barry Humphreys ‘spunky’). They know they cannot expect the creature comforts on offer at the Wichita Hilton but they are determined not to complain or be defeated. This sometimes leads them into absurdity. One old lady, not noticing the nearby pile of plates, assumes the plate is just another refinement the Soviet Union has not got round to. No matter. She grits her teeth and piles meat balls on one corner of her tray and porridge onto another, a practice she can only be familiar with from Hollywood prison movies.

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