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December 30, 2018
My parents said I’d better go. A letter from my boarding school advised them that in the summer I could travel with my class mates, under the supervision of a teacher, across Scandinavia to Finland and over the Soviet frontier to Leningrad and Moscow. The return journey would take three weeks. The cost was £70 which may not sound like much, but this was 1964 and the purchasing power of that sum would be between £1,000 and £1,500 in today’s money.
I was reminded of this by a charming column that appeared recently on the Pushkin House blog. There, Jeremy Poynton tells the story of a 1960s school trip to the USSR. Reading it I realized that, although his adventure took place several years after mine (in 1968), and his itinerary was much more of an adventure (from the Finnish border to the Trans-Caucasus), there was nonetheless a clear connection. His school was mine (The Leys School), and the intrepid leader of his expedition (Richard Armstrong) was also mine. And an incident that seals the link: Jeremy relates an incident that took place during the 1964 expedition, to which I was an eye witness, when Mr Armstrong was briefly but excitingly detained on suspicion of espionage.
The whole business was an unusual experience for a British teenager, and it had a marked effect on my life. This is how it came about.
In those days you could take O-levels twice a year, in December and June. (O-levels were the forerunner of the GCSE.) My French class had taken the exam early, in December, and somebody’s rules obliged us to continue to learn a foreign language until the school year ended in July. In those six months our teacher, Richard Armstrong, introduced us to the first rudiments of the Russian language: a new script, the pronouns and a few verbs, and some basic greetings. We began to read stories by Pushkin and Lermontov.
The class was most amused by the Russian vowel ы (transliterated to English as y). “I was” in Russian is spoken “ya byl.” My class included Hugh Beale, later a distinguished legal scholar, whose parental home was in Edgbaston in Birmingham. We decided that the easiest way to the correct rendering of “byl” was to speak Hugh’s family name with what passed among us for a strong Birmingham accent, and we all did this frequently and loudly, whether required to or not. Such was the dog-eat-dog humour of our community.
We set off in a people-carrier of the day, a Commer space van. As I recall there were half a dozen of us schoolboys and three drivers: Richard Armstrong, our leader; a friend of his, of a similar age; and a younger adult, a recent former pupil, much admired for his Minolta 16mm spy camera (that’s what we called it). I had a camera, too, the family Brownie Instamatic. I took some pictures, or so I thought, but when the film was processed later there was nothing on it. So I have no photographic mementoes.
My memory of the adventure is episodic, so that’s how I’ll tell it.
1. Ferry across the North Sea from Newcastle to Gothenburg. The weather was blowy and the seas were enough to unsettle the inexperienced stomach. I was queasy but not sick. I looked out to sea on the windward side of the lower deck. On the upper deck another passenger did the same, and threw up. The results ended up in my hair. In the ship’s refectory I discovered Scandinavian brown cheese and ate so much of it that to this day I have never wanted to try it again.
2. We drove from Gothenburg to Stockholm. Wide roads and dark woods.
3. Overnight ferry from Stockholm to the Finnish port of Turku. Heavy seas (or so we thought) with lots of passengers throwing up everywhere. No one slept. By dawn the sea was a flat calm, and the vessel glided into port through an archipelago of green islets in a blue sea lit mistily by the rising sun.
4. Crossing the border. We travelled by road from Turku to Leningrad, crossing the border at Vyborg. At the border, the guards went through our baggage item by item, giving special attention to books. We all brought paperbacks to read and we shared them round. Among them was Ian Fleming’s From Russia With Love, first published in 1957, which had just been made into a film. But James Bond’s reputation had not yet reached Russia. The guards were intrigued by the title, which they spelled out carefully. They considered briefly, decided the book must be harmless, and returned it to us wreathed in smiles.
5. First night in the Soviet Union. Our route across Soviet territory and all our stopping places were pre-booked and pre-approved; our visas required us to to stick to it and not deviate by a day or a kilometre. We stayed in campsites near the major towns; these were well set up and crowded. The weather was fabulous: dry, sunny, and hot. Unlike home, the temperature did not fall when the sun went down, so the evenings were warm and convivial. Our first night was spent in a large tent; we slept on wooden bunks. In the late evening, harsh male voices were heard approaching, apparently going from tent to tent; perhaps they were looking for unoccupied spaces. When they came to us, they barked: “Male or female?” Richard Armstrong responded in a high, quavering voice: “Ne znayu” (I don’t know). There was a puzzled silence; the voices went away.
6. Leningrad. I remember the Neva embankment and the golden needle of St Isaac’s Cathedral. Probably we went to the Hermitage and did stuff like that.
7. Driving across Russia. By day, long straight roads through endless pine forests. Little traffic, mostly lumbering trucks. We overtook them with difficulty because the driver of our British vehicle sat on the wrong side for driving on the right. The driver asked: “mozhno?” (Can I?) The front seat passenger, with better forward vision, would reply: “mozhno!” At night, a problem was that Soviet vehicles did not have the facility to dip their main beams. In traffic they drove on sidelights, even on unlit roads. They either dazzled us or were barely visible. And we, driving on dipped beams, infuriated them, so that they flashed us repeatedly until we submitted and went over to sidelights only.
8. The Kremlin at Novgorod. This was Great Novgorod on the Volkhov River – not the better-known Nizhnii Novgorod far to the East on the Volga. I learned that every town of any significance has a Kremlin (fortress). I bought a print of the Kremlin at Novgorod for my parents, which I still have:
Nearing Moscow, we visited the Tchaikovsky museum in the small town of Klin. In every town and settlement there were party banners and slogans. Most memorable was “Miru mir” (Peace to the World), which we endlessly repeated to each other.
9. The Mushroom Incident. The writer of a contemporaneous account (in The Leys Fortnightly, 23 October 1964) relates “the Mushroom Incident, or, ‘How we Nearly got Sent to Siberia all because of Mr Armstrong’s Insistence on Taking Pictures of Things he Shouldn’t’”:
On the way to Moscow we gave a man and a basket of mushrooms a lift into a town with the sinister name of Klin.
Even after more than half a century I retain the impression that the man was uncomfortable in our company. This was hardly surprising. Most likely he was taking what he had gathered in the woods to sell in the town market. When we picked him up, he probably had no clue that he’d accepted a lift from a bunch of foreigners. By sitting down with us he was enjoying "unauthorised contact with foreigners," a violation of the code of conduct for Soviet citizens in the regions where tourists were permitted. This was a misdemeanour, if not a crime. The trouble that ensued was inevitable.
As a memento, Mr Armstrong took a photo of him. At our next stop, Tchaikovsky’s house, Mr Armstrong was interviewed by two secret policemen who had been told by an upright Russian tovarisch that we had taken a photograph of a strategic object, which we afterwards concluded to be a few electricity pylons. The police expressed their desire to have the film, which Mr Armstrong in his characteristically pleasant manner declined to give them, and so we eventually went off with another tale to tell.
We were told (I recollect) that the farmer had also been detained, and Richard Armstrong bravely protested against this, but of course I did not witness his conversation with the police.
10. Moscow and Red Square. On the approach to Red Square we made an illegal turn, paid a fine, and blew a tire. I had played with Meccano as a child but I had no other mechanical knowledge or experience, and I was physically lazy, so I took no part in the repair. We visited Red Square, the Lenin Mausoleum, and GUM, the State Universal Store. I remember the summer heat and cloudless blue of the sky. I also remember the queues for everything. In GUM I waited in line to buy a red Young Pioneer scarf. Did I buy a balalaika? Maybe. Some of us did, and I might have been one of them. If so, it was never played, but hung around at home for a few years. Ordinary people were friendly and curious, I guess, but I was a bit of a Young Sheldon. If anybody spoke to me, I was probably scared to death. I do remember someone tried to buy the jeans I was wearing. I’m pretty sure they were my only trousers, so I have no idea what I was expected to do on selling them, but I didn’t. The official reporter notes that, in Moscow and Leningrad alike:
We were often confronted by children demanding ball-point pens, chewing gum and stamps in return for badges often depicting Lenin or the Heroes of the Cosmos. Once two of our members were confronted by a Russian when the conversation went as follows: “English?” – “Yes, English.” Pause. “Beatles?” – “Yes, Beatles!”
11. Food and drink. Food: I discovered the indispensable vegetable of Soviet times: pickled cabbage. Drink: at that time the Soviet consumer was beginning to thirst for Coca Cola. What they got was street vending machines that dispensed sweet fizzy sodas of no particular flavour. A glass, chained to the machine for everyone to drink from, was supposed to be washed between users. We all used it, and as far as I know we suffered no harm.
12. The return journey. As we drew near to Leningrad, we made our only deviation from the permitted route: Richard Armstrong and one or two others paid a clandestine visit to the suburban home of an Orthodox priest of his acquaintance (how the acquaintance arose I never found out). Of our second visit to Leningrad I remember only coming across the Church of the Saviour on the Spilled Blood, built on the spot where Alexander II was assassinated in 1881. The church was not in the splendid condition of today, which you can see in a photo that I took of it last year:
In 1964 the church was in a sorry state, in use as a warehouse and closed to visitors.
13. Soviet roads. Near the border, after 1,500 kilometres of ruts and potholes, our faithful Commer van ran into the ground. A rear spring collapsed. One of us got underneath and counted the number of steel leaves in the spring to compare with a nearby Soviet vehicle of comparable size. Ours had seven leaves; the Soviet equivalent was thirteen, so roughly twice as many.
14. Farewell to the Soviet Union. Driving slowly and with great care, we limped our way to the Soviet border. Nearing the border, we stopped for a roadside comfort break. This was understood to be the right way to say good bye to Soviet rule. At the border we held our breath. After inspection, we were waved through to Finland and freedom.
15. Home again. From Finland we returned to the UK in comfort, by rail and boat. No doubt there was some extra expense, of which I knew nothing. In Oslo I strolled around the harbour and visited the Vasa, a wooden warship recently recovered from the waters of the bay. Our van, now barely drivable, was emptied of boys and baggage, and one of our drivers was detached from the party to bring it home.
Aftermath. On the surface, I appeared to have returned home safely and without consequences. In reality, without knowing it, I had contracted an incurable infection: a fascination with Russia that would never leave me.
I’ll finish with Richard Armstrong. He was one of the few teachers that seemed to me to be a genuinely kind person. He was slightly built with a sharp, intelligent face. He did not seem to have any particular age; I suppose he was in his thirties. He was physically tough; he helped to establish and coach the school rowing club and to lead school expeditions into the wilderness. His manner was normally gentle and good humoured; he was sharp only in the face of rudeness. He did not shape my way of thinking about the world, but his Russian class and the adventure that he made for us triggered my interest in Russia and set the course of my research for life.