It’s odd how you come across people and facts which interest you. I have long considered – once I retire and have saved enough money to do so – to take an extended break in the U.S. – that is, one longer than the customary two weeks most folk take to learn about the country and its people from the side of a pool in Florida – to travel the country. We hear so much about the U.S. and see so much about it on TV and in the films that I thought it might be worth taking a look at the real country.
So much of it resonates: New England, the ‘Deep South’, California, the Appalachian Mountains, the Great Plains, Montana, Utah, Texas, Arizona, New Mexico, LA and New York – you get the picture. For one thing, however much I dislike the behaviour of successive governments and their attitudes and am shocked at many instances of their hypocrisy, when I have come across ‘ordinary’ Americans, they have invariably been extremely pleasant folk (though as someone once pointed out, the ‘ordinary’ Americans one comes across in Britain are those who have bothered venture out of their country and visit abroad, so perhaps they might not be quite as ‘ordinary’ and representative. Who knows. I was once bemused when I was asked for advice while on London’s Tube by an American. He asked me how safe it was to walk around London. Where are you heading to, I ask. Holland Park, he told me. Oh, I assured him, you will perfectly safe, and only allowed myself to laugh out aloud once he had got off at his station.)
. . .
I have only spent a week in the U.S. and that week was spent in New York. And what struck me quite forcefully was that although Britain and the U.S. have a language in common, it is as much a ‘foreign country’ for us Brits as are Spain, Bulgaria, Greece and Sweden. It is that shared use of English which is misleading. What I was also struck by was how far more polite were the folk I met than your average snotty-nosed Brit, but, on the downside, how unexpectedly regimented life seemed to be. It began with the excessively officious border control lady at the airport who treated me as a criminal merely for daring to visit the US of A, and continued a few days later on the subway. I was heavily into photography at the time and taking a lot of pictures.
I had just taken a picture of a train arriving and was just about to take another when a cop – a short-statured female cop but with enough weaponry hanging around her body to equip the army of a small nation – approached and told me photography wasn’t allowed on the subway. Fair enough, I thought, and began to put all my gear away. That’s when a passer-by intervened and instructed me to ignore the cop and carry on taking pictures. No, I said, that’s fine, I’ll do as she says. No go, on take your pictures, she said (it was another woman) and began arguing with the cop. Very quickly the situation got out of hand, and although I didn’t say a word, in the ensuing argument the cop almost arrested the woman and me. It was surreal.
It isn’t however, just the U.S. which has a certain fascination for me: I should also like to spend more than the usual touristy two weeks travelling around Russia. That, of course, would prove to be far more difficult as I don’t speak a work of Russian. But, just as with the U.S. you pick up this and that, here and there, snippets, half-facts, which intrigue you and which, in my case, decide you to find out a little more.
Where could I start listing the bits and pieces I ‘know’ about Russia which make that country interesting? Its composers, its writers, its history (the little I know), its language (when I hear Russian women talking to each other, as one often does outside the office here in High St. Kensington, they always, always, always sound as though they are complaining, but the men don’t), its various political systems, from the ruthless autocracy of the czars, to the tyranny of that secular czar Josef Stalin, to the growing and apparently also quite ruthless autocracy of one Vladimir Putin (and I gather life wasn’t fun if you got the wrong side of that autocracy and it still isn’t) Then there’s the drinking – no one, it seems, can drink quite like the Russians, though given how cold it gets, that is really no surprise.
Doesn’t sound like much fun, but Russians seem to have one thing which in America, as far as I can tell, only its blacks possess: soul. Where the Americans have Coca Cola, the Russians have vodka; where the Americans have football (with the whole helmets, padded look – British rugby players always laugh themselves sick), Russia has chess.
Then there is an anecdote, sadly wholly apocryphal but it makes a point well, that when returning American astronauts complained that their ballpoint pens were useless in space, drying up, refusing to write when held upside down and generally a pain, Nasa scientists spend a great deal of time and money coming up with a ballpoint pen which would solve those problems. Russians astronauts had reported the same problems: they were issued with pencils. It does tend to describe something. OK, there might well be other interesting countries, but somehow Russia grabs my interest.
. . .
It was because that interest that last week I tuned into the BBC Radio 4’s Book Of The Week which it broadcasts every day from 9.45am to 10am, and repeats it 12 hours later from 12.30am to 12.45am. Last week the chosen book from which five 15-minute excerpts were broadcast was by Peter Pomerantsev called Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible: The Surreal Heart Of The New Russia, and boy did Russia sound surreal.
Pomerantsev is a Ukrainian who was brought up in London and who went to work in as a producer for Russian television.
The stories he had to tell about Russia in the Putin which he feels illuminate life there at the beginning of the 21st century included that of one of the girls who make a career of being the mistress of a rich man, a woman who suddenly found herself in court on drugs changes when the industrial solvent she was selling was reclassified by corrupt officials as a substance used to make drugs; and, for me most fascinating of all, the story of a gangster from the Russian Far East.
. . .
Vitali Dyomochka (pictured below right) sounds like an extraordinary man. His story, as recounted in Pomerantsev’s book, was that after shining at school, he drifted into crime as the Soviet era came
Dyomochka decided enough was enough and instead of a life of crime he would become a filmmaker.
He felt that the series and kind of films shown on Russian TV and in cinemas were ludicrously inaccurate and misleading, so using his own gang (and its victims) he would make a series showing what real gang life was like. And the series Spets was made and screen on local TV.
There was no script, Dyomochka’s gang played themselves (and many were jailed during filming and one was murdered), the characters being beaten up were men who owed Dyomochka a debt and agreed to be beaten up for real in front of the camera if that debt was reduced. Real bullets were used and the ‘staged’ car crashes were real car crashes.
There was even a claim that local police agreed to play ‘local police’, with one quote as saying ‘we work for gangsters anyway, so why not work for a different set for a change’. To be fair, this is disputed and many local police were very unhappy with Dyomochka’s film career, turning up on set to arrest him first thing in the morning and holding him to dusk so that there wasn’t enough light to film. Believe what you will – most probably both versions are true (in keeping with the theme of Pomerantsev’s book where ‘nothing is true and everything is possible’.
I say, and truly believe, that Dyomochka is an intelligent and very capable man, because he has now apparently knocked gangsterism and crime on the head – so to speak, and am apt metaphor given his previous life – and has become a novelist, writing comic crime novels. And by all accounts they sell. And I suspect that he didn’t end his life of crime for any moralistic reasons but because he’s bright – given the far more powerful gangsters who now seem to run the country, he probably reasoned that it was wisest to get out while the going was good. A man after my own heart; never push your luck.
I don’t really drink a lot anymore – I am thoroughly sick of hangovers these days – and when I do drink, I tend to stick to wine, port, sherry, Campari – anything, in fact, except spirits. But were I obliged to drink a spirit, I would make it vodka and would like to do so in the company of Vitali Dyomochka. Dyomochka’s resemblance to Vladimir Putin was commented on in Pomerantsev’s book, but I know who I would prefer to drink with and it isn’t Putin. За твоё здоровье, жизненный!