In 2012, J’s pursuit of an acting career led her to the prestigious halls of a renowned Moscow theatre academy. The Russian culture shock was a jolt of awakening after classical acting studies at her familiar London-based drama school. Enrolling there had committed her to a placement in Russia through an academic partnership between institutions 1800 miles apart.
Usually, the term “exchange student” would apply, but there was no exchange. Incoming students were accepted from the UK and returned home with (perhaps) more Russian experience than they bargained for (as you will see), but Russian counterparts never traveled westwards, by return.
Undoubtedly, the exchange rate worked against them but J speculates on a gulf between mindsets – not just finances. “They thought they were better anyway!” she says with a smile. What could the UK teach Russia about classical acting – right?
On Moscow’s unfamiliar ground she would still study the classics, but this time: Chekov, Gorky, Gogol, Stanislavski, and more. Mostly though, Stanislavski, whose acting principles were revered by her new tutors.
Living accommodation was segregated according to gender, pre-school style. Boys with boys and girls with girls; a strange consideration for those who had already achieved adulthood – even if only by a few years. It was something to do with decorum, no doubt, but even with near hindsight the arrangement would soon seem like a bad idea.
Four apartments, each containing four same-sex individuals were organised, with the groups spread across the capital and with no immediate access to each other. Property reservations had fallen through late in the planning stage and second-best had to suffice for some, well, for “the girls” specifically.
Whereas “the boys” were located close to the centre, J and her compatriots found themselves at the end of a daily, hour-long metro ride cramped into a modest tower-block apartment. “Two shared a bed, one slept on the sofa and one on the floor,” she reveals. So much for thespian glamour. Wherever the location, J reveals the two common denominators of “high rents and no luxury”, with an extra helping of grime and potential danger.
“There was a local, smelly, run down shop – where I don’t remember buying anything fresh!” she tells me. To make the prospect even less appetising she adds: “It was a 15 minute walk, round the back of some garages – very dodgy.” Dodgy indeed; as she and her flatmates would discover.
It was a woman from the other women’s flat that ran home screaming however, after a looming shadow in a darkened, midnight alley raised a baseball bat to strike her down. A careless sound from the spectre had alerted her, and panicked, she launched into flight along the capital’s night-lit streets.
Trembling back at the flat she contacted the ever-dedicated Moscow police who after very little consideration, helpfully offered that it was: “maybe a practical joke.” Nothing to see here -and nothing that they either could or would do.
The initial question is: why was a young woman from London walking alone at midnight down a darkened Moscow back street? It’s how those who casually say “I can look after myself” die of course. Wielding her keys for protection, she had (mistakenly) felt secure enough on alien territory. However, in a bizarre, international permutation on Rock-Paper-Scissors: Baseball-Bat trumps House-Keys every time. Furthermore, even if you fancy yourself as London streetwise, you are still a beginner on Moscow’s darker streets. Tread carefully.
J and a housemate had a couple of worrying encounters with creepers in vehicles – shamelessly in broad daylight. While crossing the street on day 2 of their visit, a car passed them with an attention-grabbing honk of the horn. Then terrifyingly it pulled to a halt before slowly reversing back down the (main) road towards the increasingly wide-eyed thespians. With the motor’s rising whine in their ears they hopped onto a grassy footpath running at 90° to the main thoroughfare, reassured that the vehicle could not harass them further.
Then with the encroaching sense of nightmare, their backwards glance caught the vehicle lollopping wheel by wheel, up over the kerb, turning across the pavement and then grass-tracking in slow deliberation towards them. Abandoning their cool, they fled along the cut-through into the safety of the broad streets beyond.
The second episode of automotive intimidation started with the usual slow-down and finished with J mock-threatening to smash the car’s windscreen with her umbrella. This time, drunk, hungover, and buoyed-up on false courage: she was not in the mood for such nonsense. She was also fooling nobody of course as the car and it’s shadowy driver sat in silence, as if to say: “It’ll take more than that.” Now, relating her tale, J dismisses it with a casual wave of a hand: “Things like that happened quite a lot,” she says nonchalantly – and we continue to chat.