T’s last three years at Moscow University (1986 – 1989) overlapped with the world of work in a punishing schedule that saw each full day at a book publishing company subsequently capped by a solid evening’s study. The combined workload exceeded 13 hours plus the required daily travel time at each end.
A midnight, arrival back home was followed all too soon by a 7.30am start, through whatever the seasons cast upon her. Long Russian winters were especially brutal. Whole armies have been lost to them after all, but regardless – she persevered.
The opportunity of Junior Editor had practically descended upon her, courtesy of good fortune and a helpful friend in publishing who advised her of the vacancy. The communist practice of assigning jobs to the proletariat – or even the intelligentsia – was a distant memory by the late 1980’s and the population fended for itself. Connections always helped of course.
Initially a temporary post covering maternity leave; it morphed into a permanent position when the absent staff member decided not to return from motherhood after all. Although luck and a benevolent connection had brought it to ‘T’s door, her ability ensured that it remained hers. No mean feat considering the parallel demands of her studies, which also included a reading schedule that somehow had to be slotted in whenever and however possible. As a result, free time was a thing of dreams; only partially realised for four merciful summer weeks when the University was closed and she “only” had a full day’s work (and the ongoing book list) to satisfy. Relative luxury!
Two years of such dedication found favour in her stern but fair boss who compassionately granted her a better deal for her final study year: 2 days in the office with the rest working/studying/resting at home. After a routine of the impossible, the merely ‘demanding’ was a godsend.
A digression: I talk with ‘T’ about the end of the world, though it applies to utopias too. It’s just a theory – more a feeling; that it starts slowly, around life’s periphery with a story here, a rumour there, a shift elsewhere, gradually encroaching until one day it’s in your street, knocking on your door. Such was the slow-dive of communism, or so it seemed, telegraphed by the death of Stalin in 1953. A pistol-start to a gradual, downward slope; initially so gentle as to be unnoticeable from the daily grind.
From the platform of the intelligentsia, ‘T’ and her colleagues had seen it coming for some time, loping in from the horizon at a slow gait. It was only a matter of time. “How long can this pretence continue?” they had asked, of a machine still running long after its master had gone. “We knew it would collapse” she tells me, “just not how or when”.
Gorbachev and his programme of Perestroika (restructuring) and Glasnost (openness) was met with a great deal of scepticism through the mid-late 1980’s – tempered with no small amount of private hope, too. Everyone remembered Krushchev’s “Thaw” after all, and the subsequent decline under Brezhnev. The change (the end?) came with a slow loosening of the State’s grip and a perceptible increase in small freedoms.
Certain books and products once forbidden (though easily obtainable through connections) were now freely available. Banned films were suddenly announced across cinema billboards. Small signs of change that descended into everyday existence, but change nonetheless.
I’m expecting tales of lighting bolts and great revelation, but none are forthcoming. Everyday life was much more prosaic. ‘T’ relates an existence of relative normality despite our Westernised view of turbulent times. This, tempered with a wry cynicism as a cushion against potentially broken dreams.
The ripples of great events may take their time in reaching the streets, but come they must. Suddenly it’s August 1991 and Boris Yeltsin is both on a tank and on TV. There’s been an attempted coup by the soviet old guard; an attempt to prevent the past from finally slipping away. It failed, and with it the life-support of an ailing system. It’s era was finally over. ‘T’ went to work as normal, but the shock-waves were set in motion and would reach her soon enough.
More in two weeks time: we finish the tale with volatile times and (literally) a passport to new life.
Next time: Doomed utopias #4