Olga was 20 and working as a film extra in St.Petersburg when the Soviet Union collapsed. The film was about Lenin and the Revolution, although the title escapes her. To this day she hasn’t seen it and has no intention to. It’s all part of a past life that happened somewhere else – and, I get the impression, almost to someone else. It’s all so far away now.
Dressed in 19th Century costumes, she and her fellow extras would sit listening to the radio in the long pauses between set calls (film-making is often not as interesting as you may think…). They heard the political death throes of the Communist era broadcast live, the ultimate extension and conclusion of Gorbachev’s Perestroika and Glasnost (could he have even guessed where it would all lead?), at the same time as re-enacting scenes from the old Soviet revolution, dramatised for celluloid.
“It sounded more like an adventure than a disaster,” she says, recalling the mixture of excitement and apprehension at the uncertainty of it all. “Everything got stirred up like a muddy cloud. No one knew the way it would go.”
Change, of course is not always welcome. Sometimes it is not even recognised as such. She recalls the shifts in power and structure, hearing of how “one clique was taking power from another”. There were many who said, “Nothing’s going to change: it’s just the same people under different names”. Even with her own relative lack of interest in events unfolding around her, however, she knew that “something was stirring. And I wasn’t sure that I wanted it. I wanted a quiet life. And in that already-established environment, I could have that”.
So, forget the notion of protests in the streets, and earnest talk of politics in intellectual cafes. For Olga, the wind of change blew around her, just as I’m sure it does for many people in the UK where our politics are concerned. “I didn’t think that by participating in things I would change them,” she says: a pragmatic resignation to events being “what they will be”, and an attitude formed from growing up under Communism. (Okay, so not everybody growing up under the same circumstances has the same way of thinking: that’s why we have arguments.) She elaborates:
“In Soviet times, things were already decided for us. Some things were good: education, health care, a flat from the state and a job. A boring and safe life was guaranteed. For people who don’t want fuss in their lives, it was ideal. The whole point of Perestroika was that you should decide for yourself” – a freedom that came with risks and responsibilities, with a certain sting in its tail. There was a choice between safe, predictable monotony or interesting, adventurous risk. Not everyone welcomed the latter.
For the life Olga wanted to lead, it may not have even mattered who was in power, or which political structure she lived under: “I was interested in reading and art galleries, writing, studying law.” The quiet life. So quiet that even the standard requirements of her chosen career could make for unwelcome surprises: “I thought I would just be quoting law from books!” she says, baulking at the revelation that she would in fact have to aggressively defend or pursue a witness in a court of law.
Her years of higher education were to bridge the Communist/Democratic divide, as she entered university under the old system and graduated under the new. Falling out of the education system, she found herself in a world both familiar and yet irrevocably changed.
“There was a sense of opportunity, a sense of huge uncertainty. A tough time”. She talks of the risk of opportunity, of fledgling, inexperienced businesses starting off with little money and a lot of enthusiasm, and subsequently floundering.
Others would succeed, and acquire truly grotesque amounts of money, and a narcissistic need to display it. As Nickolay (also from St.Petersburg) tells me: “Modesty is definitely treated as a merit in Russia, but it is not common now. More common is competition in all fields: better work, better home, more money… People try to show their success. You can see many people driving more expensive cars than they need and many women wearing luxurious dresses”.
A far cry, then, from a time when even the availability of some basic essentials was in doubt. Olga remembers shortages of certain types of food, needed to make up a balanced diet. Her youthful outlook insulated her somewhat from this harsh reality: Can’t maintain a good diet? No problem: have a bad one instead! “When you are young you just open the fridge and there it is. You wouldn’t be too fussy about what kind of food you ate”.
These days she lives in the UK, and talks about her memories of events in a stumbling new Russia as though it were a dream. “There’s no detail,” she says. “Just impressions. Impressions…”
Next time: Trips and Tales (Part 16)
Roads Less Travelled
[Photo by Sara Lafleur-Vetter]