Impressions of Russia to remind us not to forget Ukraine

Nov 10


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Helen Whitten

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Impressions of Russia to remind us not to forget Ukraine

My first novel, No Lemons in Moscow, is published this month by Troubador. You can buy a copy here. It’s set between the years 1990-2003, partly in London and partly in Russia.  I wrote it in 2020 before Russia invaded Ukraine, and thought you might find my observations of the changes that occurred between my first visit to Russia in 1990 and my return in 2016 of interest, as they are still relevant.

I publish this article now partly because I want to sell my book (of course!) but also because WE MUST NOT FORGET UKRAINE in the midst of the Israeli-Gaza war. If we forget Ukraine, Europe could become a very different place and we must remain mindful of this, as well as seeking peace in the Middle East.

I returned to Russia in 2016, visiting Moscow and St Petersburg 26 years after my first visit in 1990.  At that time I was on a tour organised by Auberon Waugh’s Literary Review, to visit the Russian authors’ houses and discuss Russian literature, which I had loved since I was a teenager.   I was travelling alone, part of a group of some 20 people all with an interest in Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Pushkin, Turgenev and Chekhov, among others.  We met for the first time at Moscow Airport and were greeted by a country at the very depths of economic austerity.  There were no lemons or oranges in Leningrad (as it was then) or Moscow – hence the title of my novel No Lemons in Moscow – and there were lines of drab-looking people outside any food store, queuing to find a chicken, loaf of bread or a half-dozen eggs for their family.

The food we ate on that tour was disgusting – weak chicken stock with a few pieces of pasta or an egg, indeterminate meat or fish.  So our group spent the next ten days supplementing our diet with black market caviar and vodka.  These were sold on the street by young boys or by hotel waiters, who charged us $5 for any purchase, although we had to wrap our dollars in napkins as it was illegal for them to possess American dollars. 

During the day we stimulated our minds with Russian literature and at night we drank vodka into the early hours of the morning, talking about life.  I unashamedly weave some of these experiences into the novel but the protagonist Kate is definitely not me and the book is fiction not fact.

For the population of Russia at that time Gorbachev’s era was a difficult one and he was an unpopular leader due to the food shortages. So perspectives of leadership are interesting, as whilst the West saw him as a good influence and key to ending the Cold War, the Russian people were, quite literally, starving.  They were also conceptually unable to understand that they could, in a capitalist world, get loans and start their own businesses to work their way out of poverty.  Years of rule under Tsars and Communists had taken away their ability to perceive creative options.  The Cold War had seemingly ended, the Berlin Wall had come down the year before but the average resident of Moscow found life tough.

And what a difference 26 years made. In 2016 our visit started in Moscow where we oldies were very competently chaperoned by the 21 year old daughter of our friend.  She was on secondment to Moscow University, studying Russian.  She was impressively fluent and also able to gain the respect of waiters and to ensure that even the most scary-looking taxi drivers did her bidding.  The latter drove at 100 kpm along multi-laned city streets – like Lewis Hamilton on a suicide mission.  I just shut my eyes and sighed with relief whenever we got caught in the huge traffic jams we encountered both in Moscow and St Petersburg; although the drivers still constantly switched lanes at least we weren’t going quite so fast.

Russia in 2016 was flourishing in comparison to 1990.  There had been investment on infrastructure, the hotels and restaurants were buzzing, young and old were better dressed and there were French and Italian designer boutiques in the GUM department store and elsewhere.  With organic and health food cafés on almost every corner one could easily have been in L.A.  The museums, chapels and the Hermitage had been restored and there was a sense that the Russians were way better off than they had been before.

And so it was easier to understand how Russians seemed to perceive President Putin to be a good thing.  Contrary to 1990 where the West saw Gorbachev as an ally but many of the Russian people distrusted him; in 2016 the West viewed Putin with trepidation but the Russian people seemed (from our short glimpse) to be happy with what he had done for their country on the inside. Whether they were or not is always difficult to tell in a country under authoritarian rule.

With May 9th coming up on our 2016 visit we also witnessed the build-up of troops and tanks in preparation for what they coyly called the “theatrical celebrations” of the end of World War II.  Red Square was transformed with banners of hammer and sickle; the square outside the Hermitage filled with thousands of marching soldiers and the narrow road outside our hotel became blocked with tanks, missiles and warheads.  When I sent photos of these scenes to others and mentioned my concern, one response was “OH come on!  What’s menacing about a few nuclear missiles and nerve gas weapons in the hands of a psychotic? Don’t be pathetic…!” and another: “show me a stable democracy that still feels they have to parade military equipment to the rest of the world”.  Since the invasion of Ukraine, of course, Putin has threatened us further with these nuclear weapons.

But the old fears of how much people could express opinions or not remained in the air. We chatted to some young girls wanting to practice their English. They were aware that it was illegal for them to download English movies and therefore had to log in with an IP address registered in the Netherlands.  “Perhaps one day the authorities will find us” they giggled nervously.  And when discussing press freedom with our guide he looked, for the first time, uncomfortable and told us of how his mother berated him for talking too much. Raised in the Stalin era he described her generation as having “fear-in-the-blood”. And yet, he said, the young can’t really imagine what life was like in previous eras and history is buried, along with the records of Chernobyl. I believe this is even more true of Russia today.

Security was everywhere on my second visit – in the detail required for a Russian visitor’s visa, the x-ray machines as you exit airports, enter railway stations, museums and shopping malls.  This makes me consider now whether we are adequately protecting our own department stores and galleries from terrorism, especially after the Just Stop Oil protest at the National Gallery recently and the sad divisions we are seeing on the streets these days. 

In idle moments I have wondered whether Putin has been reading Machiavelli’s Prince, the effective ruler needing to be “a fox to discern snares, and a lion to drive off wolves.”  Machiavelli’s rule that when seizing a principality or state “the usurper should be quick to inflict what injuries he must, at a stroke” triggers images of Crimea and now Ukraine, although he has been more hampered there than he would like.  Putin uses propaganda to seek the approval of his populous, it not being wise for a leader to expose himself to hatred as this signifies an inevitable and premature death or end-of-rule.  The Prince has relevance also for the oligarchs and new leaders of businesses in Russia.  Machiavelli admired the self-made man who rose from humble backgrounds advising them to learn how to be sensitive to the dance of power between ruler, powerful elites and a general population.  Leadership is a balance between strategy and action for the benefit of a business or country but can require tough decisions   We now know that Putin does not shy from such toughness and the oligarchs tread a dangerous path if they stand up to him.

When I left Leningrad in 1990 I left with the impression of leaving an inefficient country.  Banks ran out of money, Post Offices had no stamps, restaurants had no food, wine or vodka, our coach driver lost his way between Tula and Orel because he had no map.  On our last day, as we sat on the runway waiting to take off, the BA pilot explained that we had been delayed because the Russian Air Traffic controller had removed his earphones and was looking the other way.  The pilot had tried waving to get clearance.  Eventually someone else in the tower alerted the controller, who allowed us to take off.  I remember thinking it a fitting farewell to a disorganised region.

The same was not true in 2016.  We took off on the dot and there were plenty of lemons in Moscow.  But, with Putin in the Kremlin, I was not sure I would sleep well at night. In 2023, with his invasion of Ukraine I know I was right to be fearful. Let’s not allow the tragedies occurring in the Middle East to take our focus off Ukraine’s plight. There are children being kidnapped there too, and if Putin succeeds there, who knows what he will do next in Europe.

My novel No Lemons in Moscow is available from your local bookshops, Amazon, Kindle and Troubador Publishing.

8 Responses

  1. Helen, thank you for this. I guess most people have very little idea of the reality of living in Russia, although we all have a view, as we do on most matters. There, no doubt lies the problem, too many conflicting views, as also in the Middle East crisis- there is so much history to take into account which is very complicated. Then there are the dangers to be aware of, i.e the outcome of the Ukraine war and whatever happens in the Middle East. We need some wise leaders to take charge. We should make it a condition that all politician do some compulsory reading of Plato’s Republic.

  2. A very revealing account of the changes that have taken place under the Putin regime. So hard for the Russian people to know the truth of what he has sanctioned in the Ukraine war. The devastation of people’s homes and hospitals, let alone the kidnapping of children. The breaking of the Geneva convention on the conduct of war, and so on. The world has changed as a result of tyrannical leaders with no moral compass at all.

  3. Largely agree with your impressions, Helen. We went to Russia in1988 and 2003. on the first occasion the only people who were well dressed were the military and police, on second people obviously had access to smart casual clothes and the whole impression was one of prosperity. In my experience though the food on both times was good to excellent and interesting. In 1988 paying in dollars was de rigueur.
    My son had in laws, who were very ordinary Russians, and had been financially ruined by Gorbachev’s regimen because of the collapse of two banks. A reason Mr Gorbachev was less admired in Russia than in the West.

    Totally agree about not forgetting Ukraine! The extraordinary and complete collapse of news from that source since the Middle East blew up again is almost sinister. This applies to all BBC outlets and all major newspapers.

    1. Thanks David, yes fascinating the differences between the years and also how the West had this idea that Gorbachev was admired in Russia when he was actually viewed with misunderstanding and suspicion.
      And as for Ukraine, I find it also disturbing the way the focus has switched off the problems there when children are kidnapped there too, hospitals bombed, people tortured… but no marches on our streets and hardly a mention on our news media …hmmm …?

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