I’ve just been in Moscow for my Russian publishers, Centrepolygraph, attending the Moscow Book Fair and doing a number of bookstore signings, as well as a press conference with over 25 journalists lasting some three hours. I hadn’t realized Roy Grace is huge in Russia — and it was really a thrill. And no, sadly they didn’t give me this car to match my ego!!!!
It has been an extraordinary visit — the last time I came to Moscow was in 1985, pre-Perestroika, when everything was incredibly drab, and the atmosphere was scary. It was also spookily quiet — there were hardly any cars, and the ones you saw were weird, Russian makes, like Tatras — you could literally have crossed any street in the middle of the rush hour, blindfold, and not been run over. And there was nothing, literally nothing at all, in the shops that anyone would want to buy.
The contrast could not be greater today — there are constant traffic jams, filled with Beemers with blacked out windows, Bentleys, Mercs, Porsche’s, Lamborghinis and all other kinds of motoring exotica — despite cars costing over a third more here than in the west. The shops are alive, brighly lit, filled with western merchandise and teeming with customers. I told people that the contrast between coming here in 1985 and again now was as if on my first visit the whole of Russia had been in black and white, and now it was in colour!
I did have one slight problem: My plane was late and I was rushed from the airport to my first event, a talk and signing in Moscow’s biggest bookstore, Mockba Books (and it is massive).
When I arrived I found a gathering of about 100 people around a huge display of books, but I didn’t recognize the author’s name, although the covers looked familiar (!) and I thought there must be another author event going on simultaneously! Then I realized (as you can see from the photog) that these were indeed my books, but my name was written in cyrillic — where they put the surname first and then the first name!
Ever since my first visit in 1985 I have had a great respect for Russian people. They are strong, proud people, with a great sense of humour and enegery, who have endured centuries of suffering. I had a real eye-opener back then when I engaged a feisty interpreter in conversation and asked her why it was that the Russians would never co-operate in the SALT (Strategic Arms Limitation Talks) with the West. She angrily banged the table with the fist and said, “It’s not us, it’s the American armanents lobbyists! The American armanents industries make so much money, they don’t want peace!” Now does that sound a little familiar, perhaps about Iraq today, folks??!
Joking apart, it was one of those moments that changed my perspective on the world — and when I realized that we ordinary citizes in the UK and in other western countries were fed propaganda too, and didn’t necessarily know what the truth really was. When I realized, for the first time, that the real world wasn’t necessarly the vision of the world that I had been fed by my school teachers and by the western media for all of my life.
That was reinforced back in 1985 when I visited the extraordinary museum in Leningrad (as it was then) now St Petersburg again.
As the museum harrowingly shows and tells, more than one million Russians died during the Siege of Leningrad. Many of those from starvation, reduced to eating rats, and worse. And for this nation, that was just one more chapter of misery in a saga, that, despite all the light, and music and energy that fills Moscow today, is not necessarily over for good. More of that in the next part of this blog, to follow.
I always remember a wonderful comment: Someone joked during the dark days of Joe Stalin, when historical records were constantly being re-written, that, “Russia is the only country in the world where the past is less predictable than the future.”
Of all the many positive things I took away with me, one was the knowledge that that is no longer the case. I sense a nation that has thrown off its shackles and embraced freedom and free enterprise. But a nation where there is still a massive imbalance of wealth — although not opportunity.