Catherine Merridale

Elena’s invitation to the hitchhiker was not encouraging. ‘We’ll give you a lift if you want,’ she said. ‘But honestly I wouldn’t get in this car with us. For a start, the thing’s a wreck. The lights aren’t working. We don’t know what’s happened to them. We’ve already had one crash, and it was all my fault because I can’t really drive. And none of the rest of them’ – she gestured to me – ‘has the faintest idea where we are.’ The teenager looked nervous, but only for a moment. She handed her wicker basket to Oksana and squeezed into the back beside her. As we pulled out into the Sunday evening traffic heading towards Moscow, she was tearing an enormous gingerbread heart into four pieces and chatting happily about the fatal accidents she had seen. ‘Last week was awful,’ she announced with a grin. ‘There were bodies all over the road.’ We had two hundred miles to go and it was getting dark. ‘It’s really boring around here,’ she added through the crumbs. ‘I’m glad I’ve met the three of you.’

Russia is never really boring. Its unexpectedness, its wildness and its anarchy have fascinated travellers for centuries. My friends have a word for it: ‘ethnography’. Almost anything that goes wrong, from the privatisation of state industry to the plumbing in my flat, can be attributed, in their scheme, to the national culture. The idea is appealing because it takes the heat out of so many daily irritations. There’s nothing personal about it, I can tell myself as the civil servant blocks another carefully framed request. It’s just their culture. We have morris dancing. Whether I call it ‘ethnography’ or ‘tolerance’, some version of this openness, this readiness to set expectation aside, must be the only valid approach for me to take. But it’s easy to be detached when things are going well. It is much harder to stay calm when faced with imminent death.

‘Moscow is not Russia,’ my friends like to insist. ‘You really must come with us to the country.’ We have this conversation frequently. But this time there was no escape. Oksana’s little boy could have some time with his father. Elena’s campaign to retile her kitchen could wait another week. It was ethnography time again, a chance to sample the authentic life, uncluttered by cash machines and satellite TV. We made the idea sound like work, which meant that we could take off two whole days. ‘Let’s go to Andrei’s dacha and have a barbecue,’ Oksana suggested. We could look for mushrooms. Or heat up the banya. Or find that lovely swimming lake. We were enthusiastic by that stage. Even I had forgotten my English caution, my worries about dirt roads, the pile of books unread in the library. And then Elena clinched it. ‘Dad’s lending me the car. We can drive.’ The offer put a stop to any doubts. It also meant we didn’t take her seriously when she said: ‘Perhaps we ought to take a man with us. You know, in case.’

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