Utopia’s demise finally occurred with one fatal shot in 1991 as the last remnants of a post-Stalinist system rebelled with an attempted coup against the change taking place within its precious, modernising Russia. We’d left the story there in DU#3 as ‘T’, relating her tale, told me how ‘just another day at work’ turned into a pivotal moment in history; for both herself and her country as a whole.
From our Western perspective, we expect scenes equivalent to VE day celebrations, or something as dramatic as the liberation of Berlin with the raising of the Russian flag over the Reichstag. Instead ‘T’ relates a prosaic reality, with feet firmly planted on the ground. Never mind the fireworks; here in the reality of everyday life there are jobs to go to and bills still to pay whilst the party takes place in the photo-ops, video links and headlines of world media.
An immediate and pressing concern was pervading non-glamour of nationwide bankruptcy and an extended period of uncertainty as a new system defined itself (somehow) -over a period of years through a duality of excess and hardship. Fortunes were made alongside the collapse of monolithic, long-standing institutions. Some gained riches through entrepreneurial endeavour -or crime, or both- whilst others reeled, stunned at the loss of the inherent system of support and control that they had known all their lives. Extremes at both ends of the spectrum, whilst the middle ground clocked in and out and hoped that there would be work tomorrow and food to eat.
In an environment of contradictions, ‘T’ tells me of shortages with one sentence and opportunities with the next. Perhaps you couldn’t get bread, milk or cigarettes from your local store, but here: have imported Western goods! No problem. That’s if you could afford them. The country’s finances span in a turmoil of uncertainty that would see -by 1995- payday workers collecting their cash in sacks, as inflation reached farcical levels.
However, back in 1992 ‘T’ needs a job. The publishing house that she had been working for has failed in the storm, but fortune smiles once again. The friend that had helped with her first publishing job is back on the phone with news of an opportunity in the fledgling Kommersant newspaper. This was Russia’s first privately funded publication with issues released bi-weekly (later: weekly then daily) that would become legendary in post-Soviet publishing. The company was a mere 6 months old and employed her -initially for a 6 months trial period- as sub editor. She would complete the trial successfully and remain with the company for five years.
1992 was a indeed significant year for both ‘T’ and potentially every Russian citizen: suddenly passports allowing foreign travel were available. The once-unthinkable had happened: the final barrier to exiting Utopia had suddenly ceased to exist. The impassable obstacle was now a mere absence; a non-thing. An announcement, no thunderclap: it was over.
She applied without much fanfare and duly received the documentation. “This was my second passport!” she reveals “Russians already had to have a passport for travel within the country” -so the concept was nothing new, but horizons suddenly broadened to the very edges of existence.
No she did not immediately board the next plane out of the country. She still had work to do, a publishing career to establish and a job that she loved. Strangely, the opportunity to travel was almost thrust upon her, -by the Kommersant publishing company itself.
Calling her into a meeting, her employers announced that they had spare ‘allowance’ funds that had to be used by the year’s end or lost, so by way of gratitude for her services; they offered her the chance of a trip abroad. It was now late 1995 and her career was going well. Paris was an option but she realised that she could go there any time using her own resources, so something a little bigger appealed.
After running the numbers, ‘T’ -with a straight face- calmly presented a multi-thousand Ruble request for a two week Kenyan safari. After a pause and some due consideration her bosses granted her wish. In January 1996 ‘T” stepped out of a brutal -25° Russian winter into Nairobi’s heat and glare. Another world.
The rest of the tale is not merely “history”. There is the small matter of Italy to consider.
She would marry an Englishman and depart for the UK in 1997. Although they both enjoyed travel, “he hated Italy” she tells me, so she didn’t manage to travel there until 2003 after the marriage had failed. With some trepidation she finally arrived on the doorstep of her childhood’s dream. “What if I go and don’t like it?” she had thought. Dreams are great as dreams, but as reality?
Nonetheless it’s 2003 and she is in Italy amongst the architecture and galleries that she once thought she’d never see, now with tears of joy as her companions. Everywhere is wonder “Every stone is a piece of history!” she exclaims. She will return many times (and still loves it).
Photo by Sergey Norin