Saturday 26 February 2022

The Saturday list #338 - My ten recollections of the USSR

What we are seeing in the Ukraine is an absolute tragedy. My family has very close ties to what was formerly the USSR. My wife did Russian studies at Manchester University, including a course at the Minsk Language institue that lasted three months. That was the year after Chernobyl and it was nearly cancelled due to the disaster. She made many close friends, many visited us, one of whom married my sister. They came from all across what was then the Soviet Union. Gorbachev was the general secretary of the Communist party and the Soviet empire was falling to bits. As soon as she finished her course, we visited the USSR, visiting Moscow, Leningran and Minsk. Most of her friends were still at the college and I got to meet many of them. They were a diverse bunch from what is now a collection of countries, including Russia, Belarus, Ukraine and Azerbajan. I also visited Vilnius in Lithuania illegally, without paperwork, pretending to be a drunk Beolarussian peasant, which was then part of the USSR. It is amazing how invisible you can become and what you can get away with if people think you are drunk and insane. 

 I met many Lithuanians who were desperate to see the end of the USSR and join the EU. It seemed a ridiculous proposition at the time. I started to write a book about it, but with the end of the USSR, it seemed to be a pointless exercise. 

In light of events, I have been thinking of those times. I simply couldn't imagine a situation where Russia was at war with Ukraine back then. They were all mates at University and there were no divisions on ethnic lines. I thought the situation warranted a list of my recollections. I have to say, I get no pleasure reading of deaths of Russian soldiers. Each one  is the beloved son/daughter of a mother, a brother or sister to someone. What for? Nothing. War is futile and perhaps never more futile than this conflict.

1. The beer bar in Minsk. Russians drink vodka. They didn't really understand my love of beer. When I met Clare's friends, I asked if they could take me to the pub. The concept didn't really exist as such in Minsk, as we know it. But eventually they relented and took me to the beer bar. The nearest anaology in British terms I can give is a bar at a non league football ground in the 1970's. It was full of very working class middle aged men. My student friends felt quite uneasy taking me there. I loved it. There was one brand of beer on sale. There was no womens loo and no traps. The urinal was a piece of corragated iron draining into a gutter. Clare was not too impressed with the place. I proceeded to get into an argument with an old Belarussian guy who called me a fascist, because I was British. I told him I was no fan of Margaret Thatcher and reminded him that the USSR was in a pact with  Hitler when Britain was at war with them. That went down very badly, but I enjoy a good row. Later some black Cuban students arrived. I started to discuss Castro with them. They told me of their undying love for their leader. I said they were being ridiculous and I was more than happy to criticise Thatcher. They said that was because Thatcher was not a bad person wheras Castro was marvellous. One of my Russian friends later told me that any criticism of Castro would have meant a return to Cuba. My friends got very embarrassed when the Cubans started to get Racist abuse from the local workers. They told them off and said that they were an embarrassment to the USSR behaving like that in front of an English visitor. That was when I realised that the USSR was a in reality deeply racist. It disturbed me and made me realise that for all the talk of Communist ideals, you get racism and stupidity everywhere.

2. The train back from Lithuania to Minsk. One of my friends, Sasha, a Ukranian studying in Minsk, asked if I'd like to visit his parents with him in Vilnius. I am by nature reckless and used to love putting myself in danger. I had no papers to visit. It was a long train journey. He gave me strict instructions that under no circumstances was I to speak English. The cover was that I was a Belarussian drunk. On the train back, an attractive young lady joined us. The trains were divided up into compartments. She chatted to Sasha for an hour. She seemed very nice. I just sat there drinking beers. When she got off, Sasha looked very relieved. She was working for the KGB. She'd told him that she 'hated drunk Belarussian peasants'. I am a very good actor.

3. The slice of fat. When we arrived at Sasha's parents, they'd put on a big spread for us. His father worked in the aviation industry. There was all sorts of meats and fish. I saw a large slice of haloumi cheese, that I loved and said "Ah, this is my favourite, thank you for getting this". I took a slice and when I bit into it, I realised my mistake. It was a slice of pig fat. I nearly gagged, but to be polite scoffed it down. I thought I'd got away with it, but Sasha's Dad, having seen me wolf it down so hungrily, gave me another slice.

4. The Menus. In the Soviet Union, you'd go to fine restaurants and the food would be decent and cheap. You'd get given an extensive menu, it was most impressive. There was just one snag. They only had the items on the menu that had a price next to them. The rest was just for show. Clare being a vegetarian, it was all a bit of nightmare. She had eggs and tomatoes at many places and they thought she was bonkers. 

5. The Beryozka. The shops for the local populace were very poorly stocked. It was only when I visited the Berioska that I realised that the Soviet version of Communism was rotten from top to bottom. They were well stocked shops that took hard currency and were only open to foreigners and party officials. It offended my sense of fairness and justice. The workers in the beer bar would never be allowed anywhere near the goodies on sale. If you really want to understand Vladimir Putin, you need to understand that he was a man of the Beryozka, a man who believe in the privelige for the few who ran the show and stale bread and cheap vodka for the masses.

6. The train explosion. We were in Minsk when there was a train explosion. 575 people died and 800 were injured. It was an absolutely awful accident. There was a day of mourning to commemorate it. The mood was somber and sad. Many of my friends were angry and felt it was a symbol that the Soviet Union was failing.

7. The Kremlin. Growing up, the BBC always portrayed the Kremlin as a grim and scary place. When I visited it, I was shocked beyond belief. The building we associate with it, St Basil's cathedral, is one of the most beautiful buildings in the world. The rumour has it that after it was completed, Peter the Great had the architects eyes pulled out, so he couldn't make anything better. I went to see the corpse of Lenin, the man who caused all of the trouble. It was all a bit odd. When I was at St Vincents school in Mill Hill, they had dead nuns in glass coffins, supposedly saints who's bodies were preserved as they were so holy. When I saw Lenin, it reminded me of that and I realised that Leninism was in many ways a quasi religious cult gone wrong. 

8. The Pirate Radio Station. I was delighted to learn that one of Clare's friends was running a pirate radio station at the Uni. I had the honour of being interviewed on it. What especially impressed me was how they'd built all of the gear themselves. I realised that there were such stations all over the USSR as the mainstream stations there didn't really play Western music. Their tastes were a bit AOR for my tastes. I was surprised at the lack of interest in Punk Rock. It didn't really occur to me at the time, but punk is quite quantly English in many ways. Bingo Masters Breakout by The Fall doesn't really translate. It took me a while to fully understand that.

9. The Vodka party. For our final night in Minsk, Clare's friends held a party at the Uni for us. I'm not a Vodka drinker, I'm not really into spirits, but they insisted. We had vodka with lime, vodka with tonic, vodka with coke. When all the mixers ran out, we even had vodka with Mayonnaise. I have to say that all it really did was confirm my dislike of vodka, but it was great fun. I also found out that you get a very different quality of hangover with Vodka. You feel very glum, grey and miserable, quite fitting for living under a dictatorship.

10. The wedding party. My sister got married in Minsk Cathedral in 1990. I went over with my Mum, my missus and my sister Catherine. I'm not entirely sure why the rest of the family didn't go, probably because it was expensive and difficult to travel. Under Soviet Law, if you got married you got a special pass that allowed you to have a  proper party at very little cost. There were 40 or 50 people, mostly friends of my brother in law. The food was amazing, but what really caught my eye was that between every two people there was a bottle of red wine, a bottle of white wine, a bottle of vodka and a packet of Marlboro cigarettes. My Mum was most impressed that the whole thing cost less than £400 with a DJ and a band to boot! Sad to think that some of the people at that do will have sons and daughters possibly fighting each other as we speak. 

Have a great weekend. A couple of years ago I wrote a song that seems quite appropriate to the current situation, although written for a different nation and a different scenario

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