I don’t feel well. I don’t think I’ve felt well for over a week.
There’s an axiom that you never really say good-bye, without saying hello. It’s that whole ‘one door opening’ thing. Frankly, after a little over a week without a decent night’s sleep, I can’t help but feel that’s a little trite. Six days from now and I should be in Moscow. The modal, ‘should’ is there with good reason. Right now, I have no visa, no ticket and no Russian address to go to. All I have is a big empty flat that even these keystrokes now echo around. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that the prospect of working in Moscow isn’t exciting, it is. It’s just that, right here and now, it’s a little daunting. Like I said, I can’t really sleep, which means I’m constantly plagued with the nagging uncertainty of trying to work out what I’m doing next, or what I’ve forgotten last. Add to that the constant ache in my shoulders, plus a hair-trigger temper and you’ll have some idea of where I’m at.
I’m trying to make my mind up about something, You might think I’d have done that before setting my thoughts down here and – if you are thinking that – you’re very probably right. I apologise. However, I want to go back to axioms. It’s said that our belongings eventually end up owning us. Like I said, I haven’t made up my mind on this, but perhaps getting rid of everything has given me some kind of insight. True, I think shedding most of the things that have made up my life to now is, probably, partly responsible for some of the crap going on in my head. However, there’s something else going on here that, whilst maybe not entirely separate from that, is still distinct enough as to be treated separately. With me? Good.
You see, as well as the loss of belongings, is the loss of, let’s call it, ‘tangible memory’. Yes, I know exactly how pretentious that sounds, just bear with me. I’ll give you a ‘for instance’. Take, for instance, the sofa that, until this morning, sat just two metres behind me. Well, that had some pretty powerful memories invested in it. A lot of conversations passed between me and others on that sofa. It was the sofa that I sat on as I wrestled with what was, at that time, the very real prospect of going blind. Later, it was the sofa I sat on as I reconciled myself to being forever blind in one eye. It was also the sofa I was sat on when I decided that it was time I was in charge of events, rather than events be in charge of me. There was even a time when that was ‘our’ sofa, and not just my sofa. I think that’s what I meant by tangible memories. I don’t care what it cost, or how it looked, it was all the memories that been created around it that mattered. It’s that our belongings become far more than the sum of their parts, it’s that they become the physical embodiment of all the memories associated with them. Maybe it’s their continued presence that helps keep those memories alive. Now, take that association and apply it to relinquishing seven years of belongings/memories. Don’t forget, I’m not moving to another flat or house, I’m moving to Moscow. I can’t simply transplant things. I’ve had to let everything larger than one hold all and a rucksack go.
But then, this shouldn’t be a simple process. I think it has to be quite a hard thing to do and I think it’s important that it is. Perhaps it’s giving everything up that really brings home to you how absolute the ties that hold you are. I don’t know. I don’t want to give you the impression that I’m proselytizing for some kind of ethereal immaterial society here, I’m not. Plenty of people collect plenty of things and live brilliant lives in brilliant homes and do brilliant things, brilliantly. I know this because a lot of them are my friends, (and they’re brilliant). No, this is something utterly personal and has no application beyond that. I guess, what I’m trying to say is; it’s all a bit overwhelming.
I suppose I should say that I’ve been to Moscow before. I spent a week and a bit there in, (I think) 1999. I’m not entirely sure how relevant that information is going to be, as I’m told that it’s changed beyond all recognition since then. However, if I should suddenly make reference to speaking Russian, or comment upon a particular change since I’d been there, I don’t want you screaming in protest and denouncing me as a fraud. If I’m honest, I have few distinct memories of that trip. I think I was probably too tired or too drunk to make much sense of it. Though I do remember it being a very tense time. NATO had just gone in against the Serbs in Croatia and Westerners were, among some pretty unfriendly members of Muscovite society, not especially welcome. The Militia, (Police) too were a ubiquitous and ever threatening presence. To put it in context, Yeltsin had just devalued the Rouble, massively, and anyone with any savings had pretty much been wiped out. The Militia therefore, were a particular and very significant threat. Most of these guys were conscripted from the vast outlying regions beyond Moscow and Petersburg, born, back then, into an agricultural society that hadn’t changed a great deal since Stalin finally gave up and left them be. These self-same conscripts now found themselves in the busy capital, with hungry families relying on them back home and with all the power they needed to make nearly all the money they wanted.
This was also that strange period when Russia, (maybe Moscow particularly) was trying to work out just what kind of a place it was going to be under the new political and economic regime. Surreal as it may now seem, but the gangsters had a kind of uniform. You’d think that, with shootings growing increasingly frequent and the crime rate climbing through the roof, this might help the Police spot possible offenders, and it might, but it didn’t seem to even slow them down. In fact, it wasn’t all that uncommon to see gangsters and the Militia getting quite drunk together.
This was also the time of the ’biznessmin’. The guy that, whilst by no means a gangster, was adept at getting hold of one thing and putting it together with another. The oligarchs were already well on the ascendancy, so really, we’re talking about something lower on the food chain than that, but still something, or someone, perhaps not operating entirely within the bounds of the law, if any bound at all.
I saw someone killed during that trip. That was in St Petersburg, not Moscow. We were walking down Nevskii Prospect, (imagine the main street in whatever town or city you live in; it’s that) at around 2pm when it happened. It was a really busy day, with pedestrians shuffling along the pavement at a snail’s pace when, around 100 yards in front of me, I noticed a sudden flurry of movement. There was something silver in the air, then something red. As we drew closer, it was just possible to make out through the gathering crowd, a fairly scruffy middle-aged man, unshaven, lying prostrate against the wall, with his throat slit open and the bleeding wound gaping like a monstrous second mouth. We didn’t even stop walking.
I’m going to ask you to forgive me. Thus far, I’ve managed to establish that leaving everything behind is causing so much stress it’s making me ill, that I don’t really know where or when I’m going, but wherever and whenever it is, it’s likely to be a pretty scary place. All of this is true, but Russia is also an amazing place. Some people just get Russia and they’ll never properly be able to tell you why. As a student, I was supposed to be specialising in the study of the British Empire, or something equally tedious, when I took a module in Russian History to make up the credits. From that point on, I was hooked. It’s true that Russian History has all but been defined by tragedy. However, it’s also lifted by some of the greatest writers, poets and artists the world has ever conceived of, and that’s no coincidence. To me, and I think others, Russia is imbued with those qualities that make up the more noble and beautiful things in life, maybe even the things that make life worth living. I think those qualities cut through Russian society and are so deeply entrenched within it that they run through the Russian world like lettering through a stick of rock. If a certain degree of risk comes with experiencing that, well, so much the better.
Life has to have risks. Ask yourself when you last felt most alive. For instance, try to remember the last time you found yourself at the top of a rollercoaster, just about to plummet deep into the descent and begin the ride. Remember how alive that made you feel? Remember what it was like to feel your heart hammering against your ribs and how hard it was to swallow? Remember what it was like to hear your pulse crashing within your ears? Maybe I’m way off the mark here, but my guess is that it was the proximity of disaster that made you feel that way. So yes, it’s true that my shoulders are killing me, that I can’t sleep and that, when I think about what’s coming, I need to suppress my own nerves in case they overwhelm me, but yes, it’s also true that I feel very, very alive.
And the rollercoaster’s barely started.