Don’t it always seem to go that you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone.

Joni Mitchell

I’m in limbo. Well, to be exact, I’m in Lancashire. The wind and the rain are pounding off the window of my Father’s study and I’m still trying to make up my mind on how best to frame my final impressions of the last year. The truth is, I can’t.

To be honest, I’m just a little numb. I look back and think of Moscow as a place I was but am not now. I know, there has to be more to it than that and there probably is. Only I’m not feeling it. I have no sense of a long journey completed. Only that I’m here now and I was there then.

I think the real truth of the matter might lie in one of my final trips, (I’m still waiting to post accounts of the others). Towards the end of my contract, I had a week booked off, some money set aside and no particular plans for either. As it was, without a Visa for anywhere but Russia, I headed to Siberia by plane, the idea being to make my way back along the Trans Siberian Railway. It was on this route that I, (I say ‘I’, there were two of us) made a mistake that was to really bring something home to me. We, (getting it now) had intended to stop in a small industrial town called called Kungur, to have a look at the ice caves there. In itself, this wouldn’t have been a problem, apart from the fact that Kungur was two hours out of synch with the train timetable, (all train times in Russia run to Moscow times, whereas all the places in Russia run to their own). As it was, we arrived in the small, frozen Ural town at 5.20pm, with  a departure time of 3.20am and ten hours of yawning nothing stretching out in between. I’m not going to go into any great detail on Kungur; it was empty, cold, archaic and we spent most of the night in a place called ‘The Tractor Bar’, where half the bar was beer on tap and the other half dried fish, (this is also why there are no photos with this entry – my camera’s still there).  The reason that I’m talking about Kungur is that it was in Kungur when I realised what I’d only previously suspected; that, while I knew Moscow relatively well, I really knew next to nothing about Russia.

The truth is that Moscow is an island. They’re currently demolishing the five story ‘Krushchev’ flats, knocked up in the 60’s, replacing them with modern high rises and coating the current, rain stained, concrete flats in shining plastic. It’s a fairly exciting development and one that’s on the lips of most of Moscow’s chattering class. However, it’s the kind of expense that’s unimaginable elsewhere. Even with the crippling corruption, even with the city’s budgets being siphoned off at each juncture, there’s still wealth enough to rebuild and rehouse this massive portion of the city population. That couldn’t happen in Kungur.

In Siberia too, unemployment is at critical levels. During the Second World War, the great majority of Russia’s heavy industry was moved there to protect it from the ever nearing Nazi threat. Along with the transplantation of heavy industry, came the corresponding transplantation of people. New populations in new model towns emerged and Siberia boomed. Now, with the massive military spending of old gone and the majority of heavy industry moved Eastwards to China, Siberia feels as if the tundra is reclaiming the Soviet future for its own. Part of me would like to wax lyrical on this, to drop sly and oblique references to Ozymandias and the durability and power of nature. However, in the face of the hardship, suffering and acute poverty that has come with these changes, such a move could only be considered callous. As always, it is the old that are hit the hardest by these changes; those who believed the most, who worked the hardest to create the socialist utopia of the future are now reaping the capitalist harvest of the present. All this while the bright lights of Moscow shine ever brighter and the oligarchs dance the nights away around the world. So, no, I barely feel that I  know Russia at all.

However, maybe this is true of any capital. I can’t say that London is all that representative of England, or that Edinburgh is of Scotland. It’s also – and equally sadly true – that I have no knowledge on which to base comment on Cardiff or Wales, but I don’t think that’s really the point. Perhaps the point is to assess, if only for myself, how the last year has met my expectations. Given that and given that I had so few to begin with, I can honestly say that its surpassed them. There’s no denying that I’ve had a good time; I met a girl, I formed a band, (we got on the news) and I managed to travel through Georgia and across Central Asia. Please, don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that this hasn’t been an awesome year, it’s been a blast. It’s just that I’m trying to formulate some kind of concrete thoughts on what I may, or may not have learnt. Basically, for the next one hundred times I’m asked, ‘What’s Moscow/Russia like?’, I want to come up with an answer – and I can’t.

Perhaps, going back a bit, staying and working in one place isn’t really the answer. Maybe, to form a cohesive impression of a place, it’s best just to visit. To take a mental snap shot, rather than make a feature film. I don’t really know. Perhaps, in time, my thoughts will coalesce and form some kind of cohesive whole and then I’ll be able to tell people what Moscow was like. All I can say for now is that it was home. And that, I think for now, must remain in the Past Simple.

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2 Responses to Endings

  1. I think there’s a far bigger gulf between Moscow and Russia’s smaller towns, than there is between London and England, Edinburgh and Scotland, Paris and France, Berlin and Germany. I don’t think it’s a size or an EU issue; the difference between Ottawa and the rest of Canada isn’t so dramatic compared with Russia. I think it’s more comparable with the other BRIC countries. The gulf between Delhi and rural India is incredible.

    As for being able to frame a cohesive experience, that always takes me some time and distance. Geographical and otherwise. You’ve done well though; such a lot of expats in Russia cocoon themselves. You’ve engaged with the country. And observed something beyond your own experience.

  2. zosiav says:

    Chopper, I know exactly how you feel about trying to explain a place to people. I felt the same way about Kenya. Nairobi was an island too, completely different than the North, which was entirely tribal. After 3 months I had no idea what to tell people, except to rant about the bad parts and how I couldn’t really think about it anymore. Great post.

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