Back in the USSR

The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong at the broken places. But those that will not break it kills. It kills the very good and the very gentle and the very brave impartially. If you are none of these you can be sure it will kill you too but there will be no special hurry.

Stalin shouted over to me. He’d seen my pipe and wanted to compare. I wandered over. Stalin liked mine. He asked me what make it was. I told him it was from Ireland and asked if he wanted some tobacco. I had some good stuff. Lenin laughed and told Stalin he was cheeky. Stalin didn’t care. He stuffed tobacco in his pipe like a starving man would bread. He asked me for a light, but my lighter wouldn’t work. I said I was sorry and left him there, with a pipe full of fresh tobacco and nothing to light it with. 


I should apologise. I’ve probably been reading too much Hemingway. It’s shameful, but I find myself inadvertently lapsing into the voice of whoever I’m reading at the moment. Either way, it seemed as good a way as any of reigniting a long neglected blog.

Needless to say, I am back in Moscow. Only now ‘I’ has become ‘we’ with a union soon to be blessed by the British Consulate and whatever God that looks over Montenegro. In many ways, this will render permanent the voluntary estrangement I have from the UK. Make no mistake, the Daily Mail has already won the debate on immigration. There is no welfare welcome wagon waiting for my Russian, soon to be, wife in the UK, only endless waits and needless bureaucracy with no guarantee at the end of it. I’m OK with that.  If anything, it reinforces my resolve to make the separation from my country permanent. The Little Englanders have won. They can keep Jerusalem.

One day I’ll buy a horn.

As it is, Moscow has become a kind of home. Returning here from Vietnam was as natural as stepping back into an old and familiar room.  Moscow still takes no prisoners, it never did, but the city’s familiarity now blunts its teeth. I met Irina here and, despite all the crap of old; the blindness, the uncertainty and the operations, a second new life has emerged, as unexpected as it was unsought. As it was, all lives – whether they be new ones or old ones – need their own specific magnetic North. Ours turned out to be here.

There are worse places.

I walked today. It’s August, but already Autumn seems to have arrived. The suffocating heat of the early summer is gone, and a chill now fills the air and rain is rarely far away. I didn’t really have a plan, but, drawn as much by the love of a book as anything else, I ended up at Patriarch Ponds. The leaves were beginning to turn and the air was fresh and cold. Children, wrapped up in coats and scarves span around their parents legs, while the drunks pulled themselves further into their coats and passed another bottle around. Again, it’s hard to say why, but it’s hard not to love this city. I stayed a while, reading my book, before drifting towards the centre and a refuge from the drizzle.

I ended up in a church. Irrespective of belief, (I don’t have any) Orthodox churches have to be amongst the most peaceful places on this or any world. They exist in a perpetual evening of childhood Christmases. It’s hard to imagine a mood that couldn’t be softened by the low lights, the choir and the sense of endless history that works like resin through the wood of these places. Don’t misunderstand me. I’ve experienced the fury and intolerance of the Russian Orthodox Church first hand. I covered the abortive 2013 Moscow Gay Pride rally. Still, inside, it’s hard to reconcile the vivid memories of those brutal images with the tranquillity of the interior.

Maybe peace, happiness, whatever, is always best experienced at a distance. The minutiae of the everyday distracts from enjoying the immediate. Maybe that’s why childhood memories are always so pleasant. Because we have distance. Alternatively, maybe it’s me. Maybe I’m finally just giving way to age. Maybe the soul’s little more than a spiritual liver. We start of clean. A blank slate for own histories to be written upon, before polluting it through the highs and terrible lows of nothing more sinister than our lives. We become clogged and emotionally snarled up and, gradually, our ability to experience pleasure dissipates.

Or maybe I’m just in a bad mood.

I’ll change tack. I’m not working, so any structure I impose on this narrative is my own. Moscow has been kind. Work was easy to come by. We both quickly found teaching work with our old school and I was soon contracted to The Moscow News as a kind of formal freelancer, (Russia is strange this way). I’m incredibly proud of having worked for the Moscow News. Primarily, I’ve always been a historian and working for a newspaper that, to the English speaking world, documented much of the Soviet Union’s history was always a little humbling. That, and the Editor, Natalia Antonova, was little short of awesome. Not least, as she supported me in writing stories like this. As you can imagine, finding out the paper was being reduced to an insert in Mosckovskii Novostii wasn’t good news.

That didn’t help my mood.

I need to cheer myself up. I need to come back to Moscow. I don’t know if it’s because I’m adopted, I don’t know if it’s because I’ve always been a shiftless bastard, but, right now, this feels like home and I like that. It’s true that we’re also preparing to leave again and, maybe, that accentuates the bond with a place, or at least forces the ties to the surface, I don’t really know. I only know that, though I know we’re leaving, I’m equally certain that we’re coming back.

It seems impossible and I never lose sight of that. So much in this city does. I wandered into a bar a couple of days ago and met a man, my age, with his left eye missing. We sat there with two eyes between us and toasted each others’ sockets. Moscow does that. Moscow is riddled with the impossible and the amazing and it never ceases to surprise.

So, there I was, trying to put all of this in order, putting this blog together in fact, as I walked out of Red Square smoking my pipe, when the guy who dresses up as Stalin for the tourists yelled over to me. He’d seen my pipe and wanted a look.

And I was home.

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