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.

Vladimir Stabnikov is waiting for us. I have met him before, in England and in the Soviet Union. Small, thick-set, black-eyed, densely-bearded, restlessly rubbing his hands, inexplicably powerful, grinning indefatigably, he wafts our party into the VIP lounge, where six or seven Africans are torpidly toying with glasses of Pepsi. After about ten minutes, all the formalities have been completed on our behalf and we leave for Moscow in two cars. No snow. A wet night. Temperature: 2 degrees. Stabnikov tells me that he is about to become the head of Soviet PEN and that they will be hosting a conference on the literature of the Second World War. Asked for suitable names, I recommend Stephen Spender (because of his experience de-Nazifying German libraries after the war) and Alan Ross. When I mention that Ross served in the Navy and, in poems like ‘Murmansk’, recalls the war in the Baltic, Stabnikov seems satisfied. We pass the now famous queue outside McDonald’s, where, I am told, customers wait four hours outside and then an hour and a quarter inside before they are served. On the other hand, how can only one outlet serve Moscow’s nine million inhabitants? Baskin Robbins is here. Pizza Hut, I see from the hoardings, is also on its way. Christian Dior is another sign I notice.

At the Hotel Rossia, the television and the radio in our room have been switched on to welcome us. Andrei, our interpreter, produces money to cover our expenses, meals and so forth. We sign for 130 roubles each. Andrei exists on three roubles a day. We unpack, have a swig of duty-free Jameson’s and head for Red Square which is five minutes’ walk away. Most of the five minutes is spent getting out of the vast hotel. Outside, despite my vatnik (a wadded jacket as worn in the gulag), we are accosted by people selling military regalia and other more obvious souvenirs. On this trip, though, no one tries to change money. A large party of Americans are taking each other’s photographs outside Lenin’s tomb. They are noisy, high-spirited, unabashed, triumphant. Why not? I argue with myself. The windows of GUM have considerably more than faded pyramids of snoek. Trainers, track-suits, ski wear. There is an electric guitar even uglier than anything I’ve seen in the West. Its futuristic shape is based on the ice hockey stick. Saturday 10 February. Bus to Peredelkino, the writers’ colony. We have a programme and a list of guests. Jeremy Treglown is there, but where are Richard Gere and Bernardo Bertolucci? Where is Kurt Vonnegut? The bus sizzles along wet roads flanked by blackened chunks of Kendal Mint Cake and we debuss at the tiny Peredelkino church, where a service for Pasternak is to be held. The choir has not yet arrived and the church is packed and stuffy. Jeremy, Michael, my wife and I, plus Andrei, decide to take a look at Pasternak’s grave before the main party arrives. The graveyard is set on the side of a hill. Each grave is surrounded by its own iron fence. Paths squeeze in and out between the railings. My wife is following her instinct. When we arrive, the main party is well in evidence. Yevtushenko is master-of-ceremonies, highly visible in a zoot-suit jacket of black, white and red, like interference or a Mexican blanket. Please Do Not Adjust Your Suit. Around me, people are asking if Raisa Gorbachev has come. She hasn’t, though she attended the Bolshoi festivities the night before: our interpreter turned, saw her, said hello spontaneously and was immediately closed off by her security men. I see a couple of proprietorial Russians trying to ferry Arthur Miller to the graveside. Squeezing past, he steps apologetically on our toes in one direction and then again in the other direction – but gets no nearer the epicentre represented by Yevtushenko and the television cameras.

Yevtushenko introduces each speaker fulsomely and then ignores what they have to say because, with urgent gestures, he is silently cajoling the next person towards the camera. By now, it is clear that these celebrations have a dual purpose – to pay tribute to a great poet (Yevtushenko) and to demonstrate to the wider world the continuing vigour of glasnost. All the big words that make us so unhappy are loud on the lips of every speaker. We decide to return to the church to get warm.

Jeremy unfolds a pair of depressed clericals that collapse into themselves like a miniature wheelchair and, finding a bench at the back, unfolds his long frame too and settles to read in the fug of BO and beeswax. Earlier, he had remarked that the pew was Protestantism’s great contribution to theology. I admire the three-dimensional crucifix which hangs at the centre of the church like a magnified snow-flake. On one altar, parishioners leave offerings for the priest: a bag of caramels, biscuits, a bottle of soured milk. An old woman presses her face to the iconostasis: what the sutler saw. The choir arrives and performs. It is the Russian equivalent of an accordion to evoke the streets of Paris – musical black bread. After a brisk volley at the net, one word is lobbed heavenwards and hangs in the air like the Paraclete – Go ... spodi.

Back in the graveyard, it is still impossible to get near. My wife describes the headstone to Jeremy in case he should want to write about it. Yevtushenko appears to be in the middle of another aria, so we set off for Pasternak’s dacha by road. The week after Pasternak’s funeral, my wife remembers, you could still see the wide path beaten by the mourners across a field of strawberries as they took the shortest route to the cemetery from the dacha. She also treats us to a short disquisition on Pasternak as a translator of Shakespeare – how he edited, used Russian idioms, took liberties, curbed Shakespeare’s verbosities, toned down the lewdness of the original. The Russians are rather prudish, as Andrei will later confirm when he describes his simultaneous translation work at the cinema. American films casually use expressions like motherfucker, scumbag and asshole which, were he to translate them accurately, would scandalise the audience. His amour-propre as a translator is piqued, however, when mischievous members of the audience complain loudly about his euphemistic substitution of ‘rascal’ for ‘motherfucker’.

When we reach the dacha, Yevtushenko and Voznesensky are before us once again to inaugurate the dacha’s new status as a Pasternak museum. Both men’s eloquent but limited gestural vocabularies are unabated. A huge crowd has gathered. Alexander Bloch from PEN, an elegant figure in a pin-striped suit and brown suede shoes, nods towards the speakers and says: ‘The strong, silent Russian hasn’t been invented yet.’ Madame Bloch asks me if I do not think the translation of Rimsky-Korsakov’s opera rather ‘unfortunate’. Our programme says we are to see it on Sunday evening. It is called The Golden Cock – not The Golden Rooster, which she thinks less improper. I explain that this regular embarrassment is so regular as to be no longer embarrassing.

Pasternak’s son, Evgeny, comes to the microphone to say that he remembers this dacha very well: down there, he says, is a lilac bush planted by Pasternak’s second wife, Zinaida; he also remembers, seeing this large crowd, how, after the award of the Nobel Prize, no one came to the dacha for a week, until a friend arrived by train from Georgia. For all its level, almost toneless, delivery, it is a measured rebuke.

Lisa and I are pleased to see that the old enamel bath – from years ago – is still there in the vegetable garden. I remember the outside lavatory and wonder if it, too, still exists. It does. A kind of sentry box with a darkly soaked seat, it has an incredibly deep shaft of about four storeys, which must have taken some digging. You can’t lift the seat – like a gentleman – because the board is structurally immovable. Inevitably, I pee on the seat like everyone else, just a little bit.

Relatives seize us, but even with their Pasternak credentials, it is difficult to get into the dacha museum. The crowd pressure never stops. ‘They must be selling bananas,’ someone jokes. After an hour, we are literally dragged inside by a relative. Pasternak’s dacha is rather better than most writers’ museums because there is an excellent display of his father Leonid’s pictures, something worth seeing rather than the usual raft of pencils and pens. There is also a wonderful television set – a square yard of woodwork and upholstery framing a four-inch screen that looks like a Chiclet pellet. On the desk is a manuscript of Doctor Zhivago, on the fly-leaf of which Pasternak has written ‘And there shall be no more death’ (Revelation 21:4) presumably to emphasise the meaning of zhivago whose root is ‘life’ in Russian. Lisa sees a woman return to this quotation with tears in her eyes, saying: ‘Only a great poet could write such a thing. There shall be no more death. A great poet.’ She shakes her head with admiration and disbelief. By the end of this weekend three thousand people will have signed the Visitors’ Book.

Back in Moscow, we invite a gaggle of relatives to lunch in the hotel restaurant. Somehow they manage to pay – an alarming soufflé of ten rouble notes. During the meal, I consume several glasses of vodka (einmal ist keinmal, a cousin assures me) and hear about Pamyat, the new Russian-nationalist movement, which, though supported by some genuinely good writers like Rasputin, has anti-semitic hangers-on, whose strength it is impossible to gauge. The anti-semitism is ‘explained’ in terms of Soviet history and a reaction to the strong Jewish presence in Bolshevism. Now, it seems, the Jews are responsible for every Communist failure from collectivisation to the KGB. A meeting at the Writers’ Union has been broken up by anti-semites.

Some of my relatives are puzzled when I express regret that the Lithuanians and Estonians should have embarrassed Gorbachev by pressing their nationalist programmes. Perhaps, some of them say, this was their only chance: the moment had arrived. Pragmatism sometimes seems completely alien to the Russian soul. For instance, why are they paying this bill they can’t afford?

We go straight from lunch to the Writers’ Union where a sumptuous reception has been laid on. There, Jeremy introduces me to Adam Michnik. Why, I wonder, looking at his faintly grubby jeans, is Communist denim so distinctively different from capitalist denim? Why is it so insistently a work material which can never make the transition to leisure status? The truth of these ruminations strikes me so forcibly that I wonder if I’m pissed from lunch. I ask Michnik how Poland is surviving its twenty-fifth or so devaluation since Mazowiecki came to power. He fobs me off like a true professional: short-term hardships will soon give way to long-term improvements. It strikes me as classic Gorbachev-speak. On the other hand, I’m speaking French, which probably means I am drunk.

Two days later, in England, I discover one answer to my question. Now that they are part of a market economy, my Polish publishers can no longer afford to publish my poems. A few days after that, I receive a copy of Student Life from Prague, which contains an interview I gave. My interviewer’s letter tells the same story: ‘it looks as if the magazine will be folding up very shortly, now that the state has ceased to finance the IUS to the extent it previously did, but I can’t say the world will significantly mourn its passing.’

Sunday 11 February. We have decided to skip the organised trip to the monastery at Zagorsk. Instead we’ll go to the Pushkin Museum to see the last day of its Pasternak exhibition. I suppose this isn’t scheduled for the other foreign guests because Russian is required for a serious visit. Dresden have sent a van der Weyden crucifixion to illustrate the exhibition’s theme – the parallel drawn by Pasternak between Christ’s Passion and events in Zhivago’s life. There is also a lovely Cranach of Christ at Gethsemane, in which the stereotypical spaniel-eyed Christ is as automatic as the Euclidean folds in the drapery, but redeemed by the particular, workaday faces of the Apostles, who, for once, are credibly asleep. There is a photograph of Pasternak with Mayakovsky on his left, which Pasternak has annotated: ‘the left eye is smaller out of respect to my neighbour.’ You look again, and it is. A whole glass case in the exhibition is devoted to the denunciations of Pasternak that appeared in Pravda after the Nobel announcement. Also there, is Pasternak’s letter of retraction, with its pitiful hope that he can still do the state some service – painful if you prefer heroism to be simple; almost gratifying if, like me, you like your heroes to be human.

In the main gallery, there is a delicious little Vuillard: a figure relaxed on a rose-upholstered divan with loose covers. This great blush of strawberries and evaporated milk is set off against the severely plain linoleum and a white, beautifully observed door, where Vuillard has transcribed the exact weight of the handle and the awkward broken white paint on the sturdy hinges.

From the museum, we walk to Golgolevsky Boulevard, past the steaming open-air swimming-pool. We want to see Alexander Pasternak’s old flat in the building he designed himself. We stayed there in 1974. In front of the block, a man carries a bucket of hot water to his car, which is filthy like every car in Moscow. We wonder what he is going to do with the water, since he couldn’t possible intend to wash the car. But he does. We celebrate by eating an ice-cream outside Kropotkinskaya underground station. Then, for five kopeks each, we take a journey to the outskirts of Moscow. We are going to visit yet more relatives. At the metro station where we get off, there is a market. We buy a pair of valinki (black felt snow boots) for one of our kids, a jar of mushrooms in oil and garlic (the plastic lid is the same price as the contents), a kilo of cranberries, a jar of hot garlic and tomato paste, a plastic bag containing shredded carrot, dressed and spiced. At the end of the stalls, there is a pale blue lorry with a high tidemark of dirt almost to the roof. The back door is open. You can see a scrap of blanket, faded green with a brown stripe, and a Tartar is lounging, half in, half out, against the hay inside which is packing for a vast quantity of melons – the colour of giant nutmegs and individually tied with dry rushes. Below, another Tartar, vinyl-eyed, is slicing open a sample with a long, broadening blade. The flesh of the melon is brilliant white lavishly brushed with red gold. They want three roubles a kilo. What we want is a camera.

My brother-in-law discusses the difficulty of sex in shared accommodation, the built-in constraint of your mother only an inch of plaster away – or even only the width of a curtain. As we pick our way through the mud, I see, on cue, three pale turquoise, used condoms on the ground.

Inside the cramped flat, books, pictures, old-fashioned furniture, an atmosphere of culture, the smell of cooking. We talk to my wife’s Aunt Anya, who is over eighty, dignified, spruce, her hands calm in her lap. She tells us how her brother was arrested several times, released, then finally sent in 1938 to a camp ‘without the right of correspondence’ – in other words, liquidated. After his first arrest, in 1919, the brother – by some legal oddity – could be visited only by her, because she was under ten. Why was he arrested? No reason. Perhaps because William was not a normal Russian surname. This is the first time any relative has ever mentioned this murdered man. When we ask what it is like to be able to say anything, the reply comes back that now there aren’t any jokes. But seriously, we persist, what is it like to be able to say anything? They catch each other’s eye, then someone says: ‘we’re not sure we can say anything.’ They offer a definition of glasnost: the lead has been lengthened; the dish has been taken away; we can bark as much as we like.

Another story from the time of collectivisation: one summer, a peasant and his small son came from the Ukraine, where their whole family was starving, to beg in Moscow. The William family let them live in their attic. They collected crusts of bread and dried them on the roof. By winter, when they returned to the Ukraine (they would have frozen to death in the attic), they had sacks and sacks of dried crusts to keep them going. It was their only food and it wasn’t enough. The next summer, the father returned with his wife and baby daughter, but without the boy. The little girl was eight months old. Anya William had just given birth herself to a son – now a jovial, grey-haired architect with a bold arrangement for disguising his bald patch – and she offered their sick daughter a dish of kasha. The parents explained that the baby had only ever eaten pre-chewed bread. The little girl died and the mother and father returned to the Ukraine with their sacks. The next summer, only the father came. And the summer after that, no one came. Ten years later, the mother came on her own. She had been sent to a camp and only just released. Everyone else was dead.

The William flat had eight rooms which were requisitioned. Ten families were billeted there, the largest total of people being 36 at one time. A single kitchen and lavatory were used by everyone. Personnel changed over the years, but included Lenin’s bodyguard, who, family anecdote has it, wrote in his memoirs: ‘I was a good friend of Lenin. Many’s the time he’s said to me, “Get out of my sight, Friedmann, I can’t bear the sight of you.” ’ He was married to a dancer at the Bolshoi. There were also two informers – a political informer and a police informer – and an executioner. One woman wanted to beat up another woman who was universally disliked. So there would be no witnesses, everyone agreed to stay in their rooms – where they listened to the rumpus through their closed doors. When the victim had gone to lodge a complaint with the militia, everyone emerged and the victor, when asked how she felt, said: ‘It was a very appetitlich beating.’ The flat also housed an ancient peasant woman who in the krasni ugolok (the red corner traditionally reserved for the icon) set up a shrine to Stalin. Its centre-piece was an embroidered misspelt motto: THISS TOWULL IS GIVUN TO HYM WHO IS KINDE AT HART.

Vodka flavoured with aniseed is served and I propose a toast to everyone but especially the old who have seen so much. Not for the first time, I’m close to tears – even as I realise that my toast is a quotation from King Lear: ‘The oldest hath borne most: we that are young/Shall never see so much, nor live so long.’

Back at the hotel, we decide to skip The Golden Cock and visit another set of relatives on the opposite outskirts of Moscow. I am so tired I feel like a blue bottle toiling up a window pane only to fall, stupefied, half the height achieved. Taxi drivers aren’t keen to take us such a long distance, but finally Lisa does a deal and a driver agrees to take us for a five-pound note. In the car, she asks him what he will do with the valuta (hard currency). He intends to buy a leather coat. But couldn’t he buy that in a Russian shop? He points: see that magasin over there? Do you know what barraban means? (It means a ‘drum’.) Well, that shop is emptier than a barraban. It’s a vacuum and roubles are as much use to him as a Mongolian tugunka. In high spirits, the taxi-driver tells us the joke about the man who goes to hell. As he walks, the road ahead divides. There is a tall bearded person, a cross between Father Christmas and Neptune, who is carrying a trident and standing at the fork. Which road do I take? asks the man. Depends where you want to be, the Neptune figure replies. This road leads to the capitalist hell. That road leads to the socialist hell. What’s the difference? asks our man. Not much, comes the answer. In the capitalist hell, they hammer a six-inch nail up your arse every day for a month. In the socialist hell, it’s the same thing – only some days there are hammers and no nails, and other days there are nails and no hammers, but at the end of the month you have 30 six-inch nails up your arse to fulfil your quota.

After 45 minutes, we reach our destination. The taxi-driver offers to take us back for the same terms. We agree that he should return at 10.30. This flat is more cluttered than the other flat. I see a set of dumb-bells. Our hosts have a dog which prances, hoovers my crutch and barks at the top of its voice. Its name is Snap, which is pronounced ‘Snep’. We eat cold cuts and apples which have been preserved in salted water. I try an apple and regret it. In this flat, there are several family drawings by Leonid Pasternak. They include a profile of Alexander Pasternak, aged about nine. His closed lips tell you about the slightly buck teeth behind them. There is a drawing of my mother-in-law as a bold, dark-eyed three-year-old with her mother – and another of her, aged ten, sitting sideways in a Biedermeier chair, with her legs over one of the chair arms. You can see the tops of her stockings. The sketch has the informality of a snapshot and yet is precisely composed. It is as if this wisp of a girl is cradled in the arms of the chair. It is gay, yet has the form of a pieta.

We mention our taxi-driver and one cousin tells us how she took a taxi to bring a load of shopping home. The driver kept glancing over his shoulder and quizzing her: what did she do, then? A marine biologist, eh? So what did she bring home in wages? What did her husband do? Another marine biologist, eh. And his wages? When she told him, he was astounded and, switching to the intimate form of address, offered to get her husband a job as a taxi-driver.

The other topic of conversation is private property. Their parents have bought a house in a village which is a night’s train journey from Moscow. Only one inhabitant of the village still lives there and he hunts for a livelihood, mostly wild boar. The houses cost about three hundred roubles.There is a considerable amount of paperwork – all the owners have to give their written consent – but such transactions are now legal. At the moment, the official exchange rate is ten roubles to the pound. A buyer’s market.

On the return journey, our taxi-driver is more subdued. Perhaps he has realised that, in his dealings with us, it is a buyer’s market. We ask him about a towering chromium monument. Gagarin, he replies laconically, we call it the whistle. I half-expect him to offer me a wad of receipts.

Monday 12 February. The international Pasternak conference begins at the Writers’ Union. We can attend only the opening session. Our plane leaves in the afternoon. As security for the simultaneous-translation headsets, officials are taking the foreigners’ visas. I decide to forgo the pleasure. Voznesensky opens the proceedings, which thereafter continue inaudibly, partly because the nearby simultaneous translators kick up quite a racket in their sedan-chair hutches. My brother-in-law says their translations are criminally skimpy. I am pleased they make no attempt to translate poetry. As things muddle on, I reflect on what has been said to us – particularly the prognosis that Russia is on the verge of civil war. But a Russian civil war, in which, though the sides are not yet clear, the victorious side is clear. It is whichever side the Army takes. Being here, being anywhere, doesn’t seem to make things clearer. It isn’t a guarantee of authenticity. Think of those foreigners credulously attending now to the simultaneous translation. I find myself sceptical of all analysis and inclined to make the international football match an exemplum. Stay at home and see more on television. It isn’t until we return to England that we hear Nelson Mandela has been released. The Prague correspondent I mentioned earlier describes the phenomenon perfectly: ‘our Polish printing house went on strike and hot on the heels of that little rebellion came our (so-called) Velvet Revolution, about which I am sure British media have kept you better-informed than me!’ This from a student, one of those whom Tim Garton Ash judged to be the efficient cause of Havel’s revolution.

According to my wife, the proceedings of the conference are dull, except for the contribution of Georges Nivat, who married and divorced the daughter of Olga Ivinskaya, Pasternak’s last mistress. Nivat recalls Pasternak discussing Shakespeare’s use of soliloquy – the naked artifice of the device and its blunt violation of naturalism. Then Pasternak added: ‘But in the Thirties, when there were things I dared not say even to my wife, I would look at the Kremlin over my shoulder, soliloquising inside my head, saying: “One day I will stand in judgment over you.” ’