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.

Another visit to the Bolshoi, this time for an evening of ballet excerpts. Note the universal presence, even here at the ballet, of small, square old men, their jackets buckling under the weight of medals and ribbons, and looking like the Eastern Front in person. By now I am unsurprised to find Melvyn is in the ballet as well as the opera, and he even takes a curtain call, accompanied as ballet calls are the world over, by a deadly hail of tulips. I have only seen one bit of graffiti in Moscow, a faint felt-tip scrawl on the huge revolving doors of the Ukraina. ‘Be Attention. Aids!’

To the Novodevichnaya Cemetery to see the grave of Chekhov. However, today is Saturday, relatives’ day, and since we are only tourists and no one, not even Timothy Mo, is related to Chekhov, we are not admitted. Galina, the sterner of our guides, goes into the gateman’s office to argue it out. ‘I have a delegation of British writers outside.’ The man shrugs. ‘But these are writers.’ ‘So? I am a reader.’ One had not thought deconstruction had reached so far.

After lunch at a Georgian State Restaurant near Pushkin Square we stroll back through the Arbat, a pedestrian precinct crowded with shoppers and sightseers this Saturday afternoon. With its seats and bulbous lamp standards, street pedlars and guitar-players, it could be a precinct anywhere in Western Europe. (‘The Russians are like us; they have precincts.’) The difference of course is that there is virtually nothing in the shops. There are queues for ice-cream and queues for coffee, but, that apart, no one is selling anything resembling food. I go into a stationer’s to buy an exercise book (the word tetradka surfacing unbidden from my Russian learned and forgotten 25 years ago). Even in the stationer’s there is a queue and a bored shop girl serving a little boy has him trembling on the edge of tears, so I come out. Going into the shop has made me lose the others and hurrying to catch up I pass a middle-aged woman stood at a podium improvised from a cardboard box. It has something written on the front in pencil and on a bench nearby sit a man and a boy whom I take to be her husband and son. She is making an impassioned speech to which no one is listening, the husband looking shame-faced and the boy turning away in embarrassment. Not wanting to contribute to their discomfort, I do not listen to her either or try to read what is written on the box. It is only after I have walked on that I wonder if this is a political protest and think maybe that is what dissidence is like – embarrassing to the general public, shaming for the immediate family, getting a dose of freedom like getting a dose of Jesus.

By overnight train to Orel. It is a bad night and we have to be up at six. Me: ‘There are two men playing chess in the next compartment.’ Craig Raine: ‘One of them isn’t Death by any chance?’

None of us has ever heard of Orel and when we come out of the station we realise why. It is Loughborough. We are met by our Intourist guide Marina, a youngish woman, sturdy, solid and with a wide-eyed humourless look I find familiar but hard to place. Of course. What is missing is the wimple. She is a nun. ‘Now,’ she says briskly, ‘we have arrived at our place of destination.’ We get into our bus and she seizes the intercom. ‘Allow me to compliment you on your choice of season for coming to our city. It is spring and as you see everything is not yet bare still. After your breakfast we will pick up, so to speak, some other writers from the centre of our city and visit the war memorials.’ Even on the short journey to the motel one detects the difference in atmosphere between here and Moscow. There we had scarcely seen a slogan and Sue thought that even the pictures of Lenin were not as common as a few years back. Here he is very much in evidence and every factory and public building is still surmounted by calls to action. ‘All Power to Soviet Youth.’ ‘Long Live the Working Class.’ Marina drives the point home. ‘Let me say something of Orel centre. The city was a witness to many historical events. It has a prolonged form along the river and was one of the 15 most ruined cities by the Fascists. On the right is a monument not to any concrete personality, so to speak, but to the distinction of Orel Steel Rolling Mill which outports to 60 countries in the world.’ It is seven o’clock on Sunday morning.

The morning having been devoted to war, the afternoon is set aside for art. ‘Here is our museum of Orel writers,’ announces Marina as our bus draws up. ‘Now we are getting out and coming in.’ The Orel writers turn out to be Fet, Bunin, Andreev, Novikov and (somewhere out in the country) Turgenev. What they all have in common, having been born in Orel, is that they got out of it at the earliest opportunity. The museum is full of dark Edwardian furniture. It is like a succession of dentists’ waiting-rooms. Soon I am moaning aloud with boredom and I begin to realise what the Queen must feel like.

A tea party to meet the present-day writers of Orel – the ones who haven’t managed to get away, that is. My neighbour is a burly playwright who looks more like a butcher. ‘Do you like Orel?’ I begin vapidly. He shrugs. ‘He says it is nice,’ Marina explains. ‘Less rushing than in Moscow.’ ‘Were you born here?’ I ask. ‘No. He was born in Siberia.’ Maybe it is the mention of Siberia that galvanises Marina, but she decides we have spent long enough on the social chit-chat and ought to get down to business. ‘What is love?’ she asks firmly. ‘That is good question to discuss. Love is, so to speak, many things. Let us discuss that as writers.’ Instead we discuss literature and in particular Jerome K. Jerome’s Three Men in the Same Boat.

We drive 60 kilometres to the east to visit Turgenev’s birthplace. Wide-verged roads, thin woods, rolling countryside: the tanks must have had a field day. Marina has the mike again. ‘Permit me to say a couple of words about the vegetation of Orel region. There are oak trees, pine trees, birch trees. There are in all many grown-up trees.’ Two of the local writers accompanying us take a fancy to Sue Townsend, taking turns to sit next to her, and these manouevres generate a sense of hysteria in our party. Lunch is taken at a ranch-style roadhouse in a room hung with chandeliers used for banquets and weddings. We have scarcely started on the food when the toasts begin, the writers popping up one after the other to give long rambling speeches about peace and friendship and the Russian soul. I remember the Russian soul. It was much in evidence twenty-five years ago when I was on the Joint-Services Russian course at Cambridge; it was always a useful theme to pad out one’s weekly essay. None of the writers in Moscow had mentioned it, but here it was in Orel, still alive and kicking. When the lengthy meal is finished, we climb wearily back into the bus, whereupon Oleg, the leader of the Orel writers (and one of the suitors for Ms Townsend), proceeds to harangue us further on the Russian soul. We become more and more hysterical. ‘I had been told the English were reserved people,’ says Marina. ‘But you laugh all the time.’ And of course knowing we are behaving disgracefully doesn’t help.

When we reach Turgenev’s villa Sue Townsend, Craig Raine and I avoid the guided tour and wander by the lake. We then do a perfunctory tour of the house (more dentists’ waiting-rooms) and sit by the village pond just outside the gates. The back gardens of some wooden cottages run down to the water and a peasant woman stands on a little jetty washing some buckets. Children play by a lower pond and geese usher their goslings down to the water. It could be a theme park, of course, but it doesn’t look to have changed much since the 19th century. It’s the sort of scene that youth or love would print on the heart, but with nothing to make one remember, no agent to develop the snapshot, one notes the pond and the peace this warm spring day and that’s all.

The coach returns and as we draw near to Orel Sue’s admirers become increasingly desperate and try and get her to go for a walk in the woods. One of them (the playwright) coyly opens his briefcase to reveal two bottles of wine. He has his son with him, a shy boy who is about to go into the Army and who speaks a little English. He has to translate his father’s ogling remarks. Were the seduction to go according to plan, he would presumably have to stick around until actions began to speak louder than words. In its potential for filial embarrassment it reminds me of a Chekhov short story in which a father and son, sailors on a freighter, draw the winning lots to the cabin spyhole through which they watch a honeymoon couple.

At an Embassy cocktail party back in Moscow I talk to the BBC correspondent Jeremy Harris, who has been at Philby’s funeral. He says the first evidence that it was happening was a phone call to a Reuter’s colleague to say that Philby’s funeral was taking place at the Kurskaya cemetery. ‘When?’ ‘Now,’ said the voice, and rang off. They piled into a taxi, got to the cemetery and found it deserted, the only evidence of the coming ceremony an open grave lined with red and black silk. Eventually, a procession threaded its way among the graves with the coffin borne aloft. As it was lowered, they saw that it was open and there was Philby, smiling slightly. The oddest figure there was Philby’s son. He must have come straight from the airport, and standing at the graveside he was still carrying his duty-free bag.

Novy Mir had printed bootleg extracts from Sue Townsend’s Diary of Adrian Mole. Now it is to be officially translated and the translator is to take her out to supper. We go off to a restaurant, where eventually she joins us. The translator has stood her up. Next day he calls to say he had the day confused and thought Tuesday was Thursday. Paul Bailey remarks that this augurs ill for the translation, which will probably read: ‘Friday. Got up early and went to Sunday school.’

To Lvov by Aeroflot. It is a two-hour flight and the only refreshment served is a cup of faintly scented mineral water. The stewardess waits while one drinks this (not enough cups), making it seem even more like medicine. Spirits rise as we see another stewardess coming through with a trolly and the passengers falling on the contents. They turn out to be dolls. A second pass through the plane brings little brown bears and plastic carrier bags, and a third the Russian equivalent of Knight’s Castile. I imagine if the flight went on long enough we’d be down to Brillo pads and plastic sink tidies. The woman in front of me is nervous of flying. She is sweating a lot and eventually removes her coat. Sitting by the emergency door and not finding anywhere to put her doubtless precious coat, she tries to hang it on the emergency door handle. In an unaccustomed moment of decision, I clasp both arms round her and shout: ‘Stop!’ She doesn’t even look round, just meekly puts the coat across her lap and goes on sweating. On the flight Paul Bailey reads Gibbon, I read Updike, Sue Townsend reads Paul Bailey and Timothy Mo chats to Volodya, our senior representative. He is translating John le Carré and asks Tim for help with some idiomatic phrases. ‘What is “Down the hatch”? This is an invitation to drop the liquid, no?’ Some of Tim’s explanations are as inaccurate as Volodya’s guesses. ‘At Oxford what is Port Meadow?’ Tim describes a rich green pasture where cows stand up to their bellies in the lush grass, a far cry from the patch of scrub bordered by factories and allotments that it really is.

Lvov turns out to be an enchanting place, a 17th and 18th-century city that is largely intact, with architecture so cosmopolitan one could be anywhere in Northern Europe or even Austria. The city was Polish until 1939, when it came to Russia in the carve-up after the Nazi-Soviet Pact, and is now a centre of Ukrainian nationalism. We are taken to meet the mayor, a large ironic man who gives us coffee in his parlour and tells us of the contacts the city maintains with expatriate Ukrainians, particularly in Canada, where he has just been visiting Winnipeg. I mention that most of the Russians in An Englishman Abroad were played by members of the Ukrainian colony near Dundee. ‘What a pity,’ he says. ‘Next time maybe they’ll play Ukrainians.

Lvov is full of churches, Catholic, Orthodox and Uniate, and all of them are packed this Thursday morning because it is Ascension Day. Sue and I go into the cathedral. Although the service is over, women are kneeling, not only in the pews and before the altars, but in the aisles, against pillars, anywhere where there is a spare patch of flagstone (which some of them kiss). We are younger than most of the congregation and a kindly old granny, assuming that it is all mumbo-jumbo to us, starts to explain about the Ascension and Pentecost. She is stopped by a mean-looking old woman who tells me I should not be sitting with my legs crossed in a church. Sue is upset by this attack and starts crying, whereupon the nice granny shoos the old witch away and takes us off behind a pillar in order to continue the lesson.

Such fervour is disturbing. Lvov is still Polish in spirit, which explains part of it, but one realises there is no easy equation between political liberty and religious freedom, and that faith as blind as this is no more democratic than the regime that would suppress it. It is incidentally very anti-semitic. We ask our guide whether there is a synagogue in the city. There may have been, he says, but he thinks it has been destroyed. Further questions are met with a shrug. Later we discover that during the war Lvov had a large concentration camp on its outskirts.

An afternoon spent in discussions at the local Writers’ Union. The most striking person here is a French-speaking Ukrainian woman. She is in her sixties, but chic and smartly-dressed, almost a caricature of a Frenchwoman making the most of herself. Her job was to translate approved novels from the French. The approval had its limitations, however, and she was sentenced to ten years in a camp at Magadan. When the official interpreter translates this, she doesn’t actually say ‘a camp’, but ‘somewhere far away’. I am not sure if this is because of censorship, voluntary or otherwise, or because it wasn’t a camp, just a kind of exile. Or maybe it’s just that she’s naturally embarrassed in an atmosphere of cordial discussion to admit there are such places.

There are plenty of cafés in Lvov, more food in the shops than in Moscow, and in the evening the place takes on an Italian atmosphere with the whole town out walking the streets round the main square. On park seats old men play chess, dominoes and a kind of stand-up whist in which the players hurl their cards down onto a low table. Later we go to the opera to see an epic of Ukrainian nationalism, Gulak-Artemosky’s The Ukrainian Cossack beyond the Danube. It is a simple tale, given once a month by the company and greatly appreciated by the audience, who applaud it way beyond its merits. The orchestra are plainly bored stiff with it, openly reading newspapers and chattering loudly during spoken passages. A pigeon now gets into the roof against the glass. The chorus discuss this while singing and step out of line to look up at the source of the disturbance, as in their unoccupied moments do the leading singers. At the end, bouquets are brought onto the stage and there is the usual hail of tulips and ten minutes of rhythmic applause. Nice to see, though, that Melvyn has caught up with us again, this time giving a somewhat overstated performance as eunuch in the retinue of the Sultan.

Beer was unobtainable in Moscow except at the hard-currency shop, and before coming to Lvov I bought a dozen or more cans to see me through the trip. However, beer was plentiful in Lvov (though about as alcoholic as dandelion and burdock). So when I board the plane for Moscow I am still carrying a dozen cans of Heineken. It is, I suppose, the closest I shall ever come to being a football hooligan.