As we sat chatting I sometimes helped David out when I saw that he was struggling with a word. I’d just quickly slip in the English word. Finally, seeing that he had been up all night I tried an experiment.
“De ye ken far we’re garn?” I said.
He looked at me as if I was from the moon.
“How on earth?” he said in English.
I don’t intend to reproduce the Aberdeenshire Scots of the area where I was born in this narrative, not least because even people from Edinburgh might struggle to understand, and I have no idea how to spell it. Anyway, I find the attempt to write Scots, as opposed to speaking it, tiresome and far too tied up with political sentiments with which I disagree. But anyone reading this is welcome if they know how to pronounce it in their head as if they are from Aberdeenshire.
“Can you understand Doric?” I said.
“Not bad, but I just don’t get to speak it that often.”
“I don’t either, as you can well imagine, but this is how I spoke in my youth.”
“Where are you from? I thought you were Russian?”
“I am Russian.”
“I’m not only Russian. Let’s not get into that just now. As I said earlier, do you know where we’re going?”
“I know a bit, but not that much.”
“Maybe we could compare what we know.”
Galina looked over at us: “He should be practicing his Russian, Zhenya. Anyway, what sort of language are you speaking?”
“It sounds something like Danish,” said Vera.
“I think, David’s tired,” I said. “We’re just having a little break.”
I looked across at him and wondered if he had understood the nature of my little experiment.
“I’ve found it useful,” I said, “sometimes in life to have a language that no one else can understand. Quite often that language is Russian, but what if you live in a country where everyone speaks Russian, or indeed where everyone speaks English?”
“Is that why you started speaking to me in Doric?”
“Well, they can jabber away in their fast colloquial Russian that you can’t understand, why shouldn’t we do the same”
During the rest of the journey and in bits and pieces of conversation later on we shared what we knew of our destination. I taught David a method of indirect communication. As long as you were circumspect, as long as we didn’t use names or phrases which would be obvious we could talk quite freely in our private language, which only someone from Aberdeenshire could understand.
Ever since Galina had given up her makeup, ever since she’d stopped looking in the mirror every time she’d come into class, I’d known that she’d changed. I didn’t ask her what had happened. We were sort of friends but it was more a teacher pupil kind of thing. She must have been twenty years younger than me.
She’d come to my office. I’d read something she had written and we’d discuss it sometimes. We’d meet up and drink coffee. Once in a while she came to dinner with my husband and perhaps one or two other students. I might once in a while meet her friends. There were some hints occasionally about what had happened that summer. I guessed a couple of things. It wasn’t anything drastic. Or at least if she had said anything about it, no one would have considered it so. But sometimes something very private that only matters to the person concerned can put them on a different path. She sometimes also talked indirectly. She sometimes gave what might have been clues. Perhaps, I even picked up on a few of them even then, but nothing really was said.
Over the next couple of years she devoted herself to her studies in a way that she had not previously. She began to come out with some interesting ideas. I’d give her an article to read or a novel, and simply suggest that she write something about it. Sometimes I thought she missed the point, but then sometimes what she wrote was rather brilliant.
As she became more deeply involved in her studies she more and more held herself aloof. The girls with whom she had been friends were baffled that she no longer cared about clothes, makeup, celebrities and television. The boys found her more attractive than ever in a way that was quite unexpected even to them. They would have said that they preferred the young model look. They didn’t. They were embraced, insofar as they wanted to talk about philosophy, literature and theology. They did indeed want to talk about these things. But as soon as Galina discovered that the subject that actually interested them was her, she began holding them aloof, too. Eventually word got round that it wasn’t worth bothering. She became part of a small group of the more studious students. The crowd that was not in. But even here there was something missing. While previously she had made friends easily, now her aloofness somehow was retained even with those who shared her interests. They didn’t share her interests. She was beginning to be interested in something else.
I was as close as anyone to Galina in those days, but she still called me the Russian equivalent of “vous”. We more or less only talked of her studies but widely and in a way that was freely touched on whatever came to mind. She used her essays to communicate some of what she was really feeling and our academic talk would skirt around the personal without directly stating anything. A discussion of literature can be quite revealing and can be intended to reveal. But there is only so far a closeness can go when it is developed in terms of metaphor. We were not that close.
She would ask me to suggest books for her to read. Her interest was presented as academic, but I knew that far more, it was personal. She was looking for something in books and wanted to discover some piece of literature that would provide what she was looking for. She didn’t know what it was, which was why she asked me. But although it was all connected to the subjects we were studying, it wasn’t so much for that reason that she was asking. She felt a need.
I told her of some of the books I had liked in Cambridge. I mentioned Walter Scott’s ‘Redgauntlet’, James Hilton’s ‘Lost Horizon’, Kierkegaard’s ‘For Self-Examination’, parts of Wittgenstein’s ‘Tractatus and Philosophical Investigations’, ‘The Story of a Soul’ by Thérèse of Lisieux and other things that had influenced and changed me. I mentioned Dostoevsky, but she already had read and hated Dostoevsky at school. That was always the pity of force feeding great chunks of Russian literature to school children. They had to spend their summer holidays reading quickly what they could not understand and, certainly, not understand quickly. I’ve met far too many Russians who can’t stand Tolstoy, or Dostoevsky because of how it was forced on them at school, but then I’ve met a lot of people in Britain who wouldn’t dream of reading Shakespeare for pleasure.
I played her music that I liked, especially some pieces of 20th century classical music which she had never heard. I told her of how through listening to some of these composers I had seen some connections between music, literature, philosophy and theology. I said that all of these things together and many other things had been part of what made me think the way I did.
But she didn’t like the path which I was pointing her towards. I always describe this as the great choice: either Kierkegaard or Hegel. That is the fork in the road. You either think in the end that everything is one or you think that everything is different and discreet. You either think in terms of the individual or in terms of the collective. Galina didn’t care much for the books that I suggested.
Her parents had been quite deeply involved in the Party and when it all fell apart, they were left in a much worse situation. So indeed were many of us. As a little girl Galina had known almost nothing of Orthodoxy. It became clear to me over time that she was looking for something else. It was for this reason that she didn’t find what she was looking for in the books that I suggested or the music I played to her. I’m not even sure that she looked seriously. She saw the label Christianity, and immediately knew that what she was looking for she would not find there. She told me that she found Christianity dull and too every day, just old ladies with head scarfs and men with beards. Besides, the Orthodox Church had always sided with those in power. In a way she wished she could feel something for it but she didn’t. Somehow it was both too near, too familiar, but also too far away. She had been brought up to think of the Church as superstition and that the Party had raised Russia out of the mire of ignorance. The books that I had been suggesting didn’t touch her or what was more important, they only touched her intellectually and therefore in the end, they did not even touch her intellectually. She didn’t really go beyond the surface of these books, because she had already rejected them before she had even started reading. I told her how I had been the same at her age, but somehow faith had come to me as a gift most unexpectedly. I had thought that I was arguing against it, but found one day that I was arguing for it and that the argument I was using was the same argument from a different perspective. She looked at me baffled and she was right to be baffled: I couldn’t explain. Who can?
She started looking elsewhere than me. At that time in Kaliningrad a lot of people from the West started arriving offering free classes in dianetics, massage, English, meditation or yoga. What they were offering was free, but it quickly became clear that they were selling something.
It’s hard to get across to people, who didn’t go through it, how traumatic the break-up of the Soviet Union was for so many people. There had been certain rules of life that you followed. These led to success. Life in the late 1980s wasn’t perfect, but it wasn’t bad. The idea that people have of the Soviet Union in the West is nearly always completely false. In many, if not most respects, it was much better than what came afterwards. If you studied and worked reasonably hard, life was pretty good. It wasn’t like the 1930s.
When I first arrived in Kaliningrad, I started by teaching English. For the first year or so I studied Russian intensively with a personal tutor. I went to the obligatory Marxism-Leninism lectures and I also had some courses in philosophy and literature. Of course, much of what I had already studied in the West was not taught in the Soviet Union, but then neither was much that was taught in the Soviet Union known about in the West. I started reading 20th century Russian literature and found much of it very interesting. Some of course, was dull and stupid, but that’s the same everywhere.
I was paid an academic’s salary even while I was still studying and getting up to speed with my Russian. My English lessons were for the most advanced students. None of the other English teachers had been abroad, and so they frequently had rather odd ideas of what was correct and what was incorrect. Moreover, they didn’t generally teach people to communicate. That was my task. The people I taught were usually those destined in some way to work abroad.
With my husband’s salary and mine we lived pretty well. We had the upstairs part of a house a couple of miles from the centre. The house was one of those old German ones with large rooms. Food was cheap. There wasn’t a lot of choice, but then who needs more than one type of cheese. There were frustrations and the bureaucracy was ridiculous, but we had enough to go out regularly and to take trips. Weekends would involve a trip to the beach or to the woods, where there would be barbecues. The men went on drunken fishing trips. There were loads of holidays.
I never regretted going to the Soviet Union. I was intensely happy there. There were rules. There were things you didn’t talk about and there were things you had to do. But so long as you played the game, all would be well. I had a good job for life that paid me enough to live well. So did my husband. I was lucky in addition that I still had my job in the UK. I was still a fellow of my college and they paid me quite a decent amount given that I only ever turned up there about once a year. I’d go back, chat with my colleagues and friends, bring some articles and whatever else might be useful, then I’d go up to Scotland to see my parents and afterwards fly back to Kaliningrad. Visas were never a problem as I always had two passports and just switched them. People were very understanding and in case of difficulty, well let’s say there was never any difficulty.
Of course, I had advantages that were unavailable to all Soviet citizens at that time. My husband had a fairly important job with the government, we had certain privileges and we had access to foreign currency if and when we needed it. But we rarely did. My friends weren’t exactly destitute. I went to people’s apartments and had dinner with them. They had enough and more. What we all had was certainty. We knew how things would play out. You worked hard and once a year you’d get to go to the Crimea or the Black Sea coast. You might sometimes get a trip to Moscow or “Peter”. As long as you kept out of trouble, all would be well.
Behind closed doors we were free. I discussed what I pleased with my husband and certain friends that he introduced to me. We sometimes even had religious services. There was no problem doing this at all so long as you were discreet. There was no problem with almost anything so long as you didn’t think it necessary to wear a t-shirt.
When it all fell apart however, there was uncertainty. Suddenly the rules didn’t apply. A job in a university no longer paid very much at all. Someone who had an important job with the government might find they had no job at all. The paths to success after 1991 frequently led to failure. Suddenly we were all much, much poorer. I remember in the early 1990s we received food aid from the USA. We ate the chicken they did not want to.
It was no longer necessary to attend the Marxism-Leninism lectures. It was no longer necessary to sit quietly in the Komsomol meetings. But those things were a small price to pay for the certainty. Nearly everything that everyone had been taught to believe their whole life turned out to be false. The whole economy turned out to be some sort of house of cards. We had thought of the Soviet Union as indivisible, but in one breath it all fell apart in what felt like seconds.
With so much uncertainty, with so many of the old certainties discredited there was a vacuum. There was a desire for something to replace what had been lost. We kept our street names in Kaliningrad for we could not revert to the old German ones, but some of the statues were moved. Nearly everywhere else in Russia went back to its pre-revolution name. Kalinin became Tver, Sverdlovsk became Ekaterinburg, Kubyshev became Samara, Gorky became Nizhny Novgorod, Leningrad became St. Petersburg, etc. etc. So we were no longer to believe in Lenin or any of the others communists who had had cities named after them. It wasn’t quite like the way Stalin had been purged after his death. Statues remained and Kaliningrad remained a sort of time capsule of communism at least in terms of names. But still if your faith had been Marxism-Leninism, if you believed that Lenin was a more or less perfect human being, even indeed if you had liked your life in the Soviet Union and found the new Russia rather less likeable and much more uncertain, you began to feel rather empty.
Some people filled the vacuum with what had always been a part of Russian life. They went back to the old ways. Orthodoxy began to flourish again. We rebuilt churches, we built new ones. I began to explain to friends some of the stories. People did not know what the icon they had represented. So I told them. But it didn’t matter. They believed without necessarily knowing the details just as people had done for centuries. Medieval peasants in France couldn’t read the Bible, so they had pictures and they had carved doorways. It didn’t make their faith less. Perhaps, indeed it made their faith more. It was like the 70 year gap was as nothing. Russia almost immediately became one of the most faithful countries in Europe. It had all been slumbering like a seed that waits in the desert for decades. It was very beautiful indeed to see this flowering. I was grateful to be a part of it.
That was one path. That was the path I suggested to Galina. But she was one of those who found for whatever reason that this path was blocked. Perhaps, she couldn’t bear going back seventy years and so thought she had to go forward. She started looking for something that was free. She tried free English lessons, but made almost no progress when she found that the lessons were just a front for Mormonism, or scientology or dienetics. Instead, she found meditation and yoga more to her liking. These apparently genuinely were free. They just taught you to clear your mind and to relax. She kept going to the classes and when she had got quite good at meditation and yoga, someone began explaining the philosophy behind it. It was all very exotic, and she began to dream of India.
I began to see less and less of Galina. One of the last times I had seen her was with David. I remember wondering if at the time they might be, or at least become, a couple. There was something about the way he looked at her and also about how she seemed happy with him in a way I had not seen her with anyone before. But it had been a short flying visit. She’d come to let me know that she was shortly going to leave for Moscow. She was going to stay with friends in the beginning. She said she hoped she could travel soon. I asked her to write me an e-mail every now and again. Sometimes I waited months at a time and thought perhaps she had thought there was no point anymore to such a correspondence. But just when I had forgotten about her or at least ceased to think of her, I would get a message.
David, it turned out, had kept in more regular touch and he at least wrote longer letters. When he had said goodbye to her in the school in Kaliningrad he had assumed that everything was finished. He had not expected to see her again. The whole experience had been mildly unpleasant. He had liked her very much and had felt some sort of connection, but then suddenly she had not wanted to continue their afternoons of conversation practice. He wondered what had done. Anyway, he took the disappointment like all the others before and just got on with his lessons. But he was hurt, and made it pretty clear he did not want to spend any time around Galina. She seemed to think everything could just continue as before, but David was having none of it. He resented her presence and was glad when he left thinking that it was all done with.
It was two or three weeks afterwards when he received an e-mail from her. He might have disregarded it as spam as her address was unfamiliar and the whole thing was in Russian. He was terribly surprised. In fact, initially he simply couldn’t reconcile her writing with how things had ended. But soon he began to take it as a good sign. He felt renewed optimism. He thought this one might just be worth pursuing. He got over her, but his feeling for her returned as he read her letter. So he wrote back and with every letter his feeling increased.
David’s Russian at this point was fairly rudimentary. But he got his grammar book and he got his dictionary and he set about writing the best letter he could. He did not even know how to type on a Russian keyboard and so even finding each character on the keyboard was initially a challenge. Each letter would take him four or five hours to compose. He set about courting her with his words and learning how to write well in a language he was really only just beginning. He tried to write far better Russian than he could, but then that is why in the end, he did write far better Russian than was reasonable to expect.
Initially her replies came fairly regularly. He had to sit deciphering each letter with a dictionary and found himself frequently baffled by her grammar. But he was desperate to understand her meaning and so this keenness, this need to translate helped him do so. He picked up on the words she used about him and about herself. He looked for clues in the dense texts that she sent him. Was there anything to suggest a return of the Galina with whom he had spent those pleasant afternoons?
As time went by he discovered that she was soon to go to India. He was planning another trip to Russia and so suggested he visit Moscow on the way there for a day or two. That was impossible she said. He couldn’t visit where she was staying. She lived with friends. They weren’t keen on visitors. Besides she was busy. There was a lot that needed to be done to prepare for her trip.
Whenever he asked her about India, she was vague about it. Soon her e-mails almost dried up. He would wait and wait and eventually send her a second e-mail. He checked his in-box incessantly. In one year he received only two short e-mails. She was in India. She was living in a monastery. It was difficult to write.
As months passed he began to give up. He kept on going to Russia and met new people. There were other girls who interested him, but still he kept an eye out for Galina in his in-box. When she came back to Russia she wrote him a long e-mail telling him something of her life in the monastery. He asked about again about the possibility of them meeting up. She sent him a brochure for a festival in Germany, which she thought she might go to. He found the brochure rather bizarre. It had to do with something called Bakhti Yoga. People had markings on their noses and were smiling as if they were on drugs. He had no interest whatsoever in such matters, but thought it wouldn’t be so bad if only he had the chance to meet up with her again.
It turned out that it was harder than she had thought for her to get to Germany and so their meeting was put off. He told her he was willing to just fly to Moscow if only they could meet up for a few days. She discouraged this and came up once more with excuses about who she was staying with and being busy at work.
Finally, she had invited him to Moscow in the New Year saying that they would go and stay at a house in the countryside and that there would be a festival. She said he would be able to find out a little about what she had been doing in India and that he would find it interesting. She suggested that he read a book as a sort of preparation. It was called the Bhagavad Gita. He read it, plus a couple of other texts and an introduction to Hinduism. It wasn’t really his sort of thing, but he tried to read with as much understanding as he could and had actually learned quite a lot.
At some point Galina let slip that she had acquired another name somewhere along the line either in India, or in Russia. She was now called Garudi. David did not particularly care what she was called. Her letters continued to contain the odd hint about how she thought tenderly about him and there was the occasional mention of caresses, probably metaphorical ones, but he took them literally. He wrote quite well by this stage and thought he was excellent at writing between the lines. But of course she did not need to read between any lines to know what he was after. While she took months to reply, he would reply in a few hours.
I knew rather more than David did. I knew quite a bit about the people she was involved with. When I had been asked a few weeks earlier to go to Moscow by Galina’s mother, I had found out what I could. She had broken off all contact with her parents on her return from Moscow. It seems her father had got angry and said she was ruining her life with a lot of nonsense that was all completely untrue. Galina had left soon afterwards, changed her mobile and e-mail addresses and had never got in touch with her parents again.
I agreed to try to help and gave Galina a message on “VKontakte”, the Russian equivalent of Facebook. I talked vaguely about being interested in what she had been up to. She, too eventually asked me whether I had read the Bhagavad Gita. I said I had, which was true, but that it was not an area I knew that much about. Within a few messages she had invited me to Moscow, too. Just like David, I read up a bit on the subject. In every possible way I found out all I could.
Even so I did not know quite what to expect when we arrived at a small town on the edge of greater Moscow. I knew in general, but not in detail.