‘Mother Russia’ had long intrigued the author, but a journey across the country almost changed his mind… The Independent, 3 August 2013
A lifelong student of Russian literature – no one wrestles with the shadow self quite like a Russian novelist – it was perhaps inevitable that I would write a novel profoundly Russian in character, and that in order to write it I’d first have to travel Mother Russia’s length and breadth, from Moscow to Magadan.
This preoccupation, with the likes of Dostoevsky, Tolstoy and Solzhenitsyn, was likely inspired first, by my Slav background – my grandparents Central European Jewish émigrés – and second, by my Czech wife, who like so many had the great privilege of living under Soviet Communism, this quintessentially Russian creation.
For only the Russians were willing to submit themselves, for quite so long, to such a contemptible system, to live according to a single prescribed ideology, which claimed to offer a lifetime of perfect Communist harmony but actually provided the very opposite, a lifetime of hardship, frustration and dread. Why was this? The answer surely lay in a Russian pilgrimage, I concluded.
Moscow I could handle on my own, I thought, though for the rest of the journey, to Siberia and beyond, I’d need a fellow pilgrim, and crucially one who spoke more Russian than I did. I was very fortunate here. My father, a passionate historian, linguist and former director of foreign language services for BBC World Service, agreed to accompany me, and what proved most valuable, when the odyssey got difficult, which it did, was less his above credentials and more the man himself – his great, indefatigable, big-hearted, fiercely intelligent and slightly mad (but in the best possible way) spirit. Without him, Mother Russia would have got the better of me.
Things got tricky in Moscow after just three days, when I was suddenly, and rather unceremoniously, accosted by two men while taking pictures of the Lubyanka, the former headquarters of the KGB. Dressed in dark suits, the two men, whom it transpired were FSB (Federal Security Service) agents, had bounded towards me, and before I quite knew what was happening, took me by either arm, and without saying a word, marched me through an underpass. They held me outside a side entrance to the main building of the FSB, while a third man, having confiscated my passport, ran checks on me inside, sure that I was a British spy. The two agents, big, bolshy Slavs, said nothing, simply stood guard over me like two great Russian oaks. Only after 40 minutes, when their colleague returned, did they release me, having deleted every photo I’d taken, their parting words, “Fuck off!”, spoken in perfect English.
What I immediately gleaned from this experience is that the country remains insular, suspicious and authoritarian, having placed far too much power in the hands of its security services. Perhaps the Russian people are predisposed to live under strong authority, I wondered, and thus accept the terrible abuses of Putin’s authoritarianism, just as they did Soviet Communism.
The flight from Moscow to Magadan, some 5,500km east, was nine hours, yet this did not include the stopover in Bratsk, where we were herded like cattle into a dingy brown Soviet-era waiting room and instructed to wait, for how long it was unclear. After three hours, my father had the gall to ask an airline attendant, “When might we be on our way again, do you suppose?”. His question met with the curt, officious answer, “Soon!”. No more was offered. In Russia, the customer is not always right. We finally boarded again, and when we arrived in Magadan were exhausted, this compounded by the fact that we had flown across eight time zones but were still in the same country.
We had not booked a place to stay in advance – my failing – and so trawled Magadan’s few hotels in search of a spare room. None could accommodate us, but for the last. We were taken to our rooms – designated for non-Russians. My father smiled wryly, as both of us shuffled wearily into our respective abodes. He clearly foresaw what was in store, and well, we were not to be disappointed. The wallpaper was peeling, the plaster cracked, the furniture dilapidated, the bathtub Stalin-era – little more than a urinal – the room fit for a fugitive and no more. It was, like the airline attendant, Bratsk Airport, the two FSB agents and Moscow itself, grim, colourless and indifferent. I sat down on the poorly sprung bed, then heard my father howl with laughter. “The pilgrimage is complete. What better view of the troubled Russian soul than this, comrade. How they’ve made us suffer!”
Nick Taussig’s latest novel, ‘The Distinguished Assassin’, is out now