Among Russians
[The writer Colin Thubron, who spoke Russian,
travelled widely in the European regions of
Soviet Russia in the early 1980s.
Thubron ended his travels in the western parts of the Soviet Union
by driving through the Caucasus republics of Georgia and Armenia.
On his way to the Black Sea coast,
he encountered a jovial old farmer,
then visited the resort towns of Sukhumi and Sochi.]

§   §   §

But the only Abkhazian I met was an elderly collective farmer who hailed me as I descended. The Abkhazians were happy with life, he declared, as he plied me with a treacherous homemade wine , with cheese from his goat and mandarins from his trees.

"Abkhazia's good country --- rich," he said. "Are there many Abkhazians in England?"

"Well, I've..."

"England...England..." he mused, ransacking his memory for any fact or image. "Ah yes! Churchill!" he poured out more wine from a huge earthenware jug. "I've seen your Queen, Mrs. Churchill, on our television. She had white hair and was very beautiful, but her head was sticking out of a tank."

I dimly recognized Mrs. Thatcher. This photograph of her visiting a tank regiment had been circulated by the Soviet news media to corroborate her belligerence. "I don't approve," said the farmer circumspectly, "of women driving."

I saw more Abkhazians next day. Lean, dark men on lean, dark horses, they were driving their cattle and proud-horned goat flocks down the savage glens beneath Lake Ritsa to winter by the sea. But at the holiday resort of Sochi these nomad freedoms died, and I was in Russia. Sochi, Sukhumi and Yalta are the choicest resorts of the country, and members of the Politburo keep discreet villas here.

... Sochi was full of those titanic sanatoria so favoured in the Stalin years --- grandiose Italianate palaces where approved workers are sent by their trade unions for 26-day holidays of sea-swimming, lectures, and thermal baths. Like the Moscow subways, these institutions bring the trappings of luxury to the masses. Porticoed terraces lumber down through fountained gardens towards the sea, and the spartan dormitories are banked behind Corinthian colonnades. They seem to offer the grosser inconveniences of privilege without its essence.

In one of these sanatoria, half visible for cascading rain, I found a stout matron to show me the facilities. It accomodated seven hundred, but I wondered where they had all gone. The place's white-coated staff began to suggest something indefinably alarming to me --- a lost episode from Kafka.

The matron was inexorable. She tramped the corridors with doctrinal authority. "Look at our lovely sea!" she cried. It was invisible for the rain. "Look how beautiful our gardens!" They were soaked and obliterated; muddy water gushed down the terrace. When we came to an empty hall she declared: "People are playing here."

I stared. "Where? When?"

"Now. All the time." Objective fact was gossamer beside taught truth.

We passed noticeboards pinned with timetables:

    7:45: physical jerks.

    8:45: first gymn session...

A succession of lectures was forecast:

    "The politics of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union."

    "Reminiscences of Edith Piaf."

    "The Plans of the Party are those of the country."

A closed-up library displayed placards for the 110th anniversary of the birth of Lenin.

§   §   §

"Those places are death," said Vasily, a student I met in the campsite restaurant. "They're only good for the old. Everyone's so serious you want to puke. It's meant to be a privilege to go there --- you have to get a doctor's certificate --- but they don't even allow discos. You just go mad."

Out of the starless night, rain came gusting and chattering at the restaurant windows, but inside, and all around us, Georgian campers were uncorking champagne bottles with ribald whoops and jets of palomino liquid, which made Vasily physically shudder. As their songs and uncorkings detonated around us, he lapsed into the kind of absent musing which I had once imagined only to be a figment of Russian literature. What would he do with his life? He was already nineteen, and filled with hopelessness. Why was he so melancholy? He didn't know.

Then the thwops of Georgian corks would jolt him into a wondering distaste. "These Georgians ... in a way I envy them. If somebody closes a door in a Russian's face, he just shrugs and goes away. But a Georgian always gets in through the back. You never actually see them doing any work; they just sit in the cafés. But us Russians, I don't think we're made for town life ...." The voice drifted away ... thwop! thwop! ... returned. "I hate our big industrial cities, Moscow most of all. Everything gets coarsened there, uglier ...The best people are the Siberians, you know. They're honest and generous in ways we've lost here in the west. Perhaps I'll find my future in Siberia...."

Now the rain was falling in a sustained, heavy flood, and Vasily's mind had seeped away with it. It is said the Russian is like an onion: the more you peel him, the more you weep. And Vasily was peeled to thin air. I had the sensation that he was physically disappearing, pouring down with the rain. His voice was a self-communing murmur. "The rain'll stay for days now. Everything takes such a long time here...."

--- Excerpts from Among the Russians
by Colin Thubron
© 1984, Harper Collins
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