January 4th, 2005


Initials JB

The first record I ever bought was this one. I mean the first Russian record. That record shop, somewhere near the Arbat, didn't exactly have an extensive selection to choose from. I remember also buying a boxed recording of Prokofiev's Cinderella. I think I just asked what was popular and it was on of the few albums that wasn't a national folk ensemble or the like.

It was the spring of 1980. Brezhnev was in power and John "Boo-Boo" Gould was taking his Russian pupils to the Soviet Union for two weeks in Moscow and Leningrad. I can't remember how he got that nickname although it must have come from the series Yogi Bear and his little sidekick. He was a kind enough teacher, but in memory he seems both stressed and nervous. He'd roll up his sleeves in the summer to reveal thick protruding veins that looked fit to burst in the sun. I studied with him for five years and, once I'd begun Russian A level, was one of precisely two pupils in the room. For Ancient History [not quite my memory - we called him Reggie, and he knew it, for his Perrinesque quirks. He was without doubt the person responsible for me becoming a historian and taught me an immense amount about the discipline. He treated it like a top-flight undergraduate course. University disappointed upon arrival], I was one of four and we got eat his wife's coconut ice. There was no ice in Russian, but we did get our own copies of Pravda to pose around school with. I seemed to choose these classes with small teacher-pupil ratios.

The nickname soon became adapted into a satirical song concerning the trip which was sung to the tune of David Bowie's Fashion. "Fashion! A turn to the left!..." became "Boo Boo! Buy the tickets! Boo Boo! Sell them all back. We are the Booboos and we're coming to town. Boo Boo!" At some point we'd witnessed what seemed to our eyes another neurotic standoff between him and his wife about some event we were thinking of going to. He bought tickets for us to go and then he sold them again, then realised he actually did want them and tried to buy once more. I can't imagine it was easy leading a group of 20 teenagers around a communist country when we were keen on subverting his authority at every opportunity.

David Bowie - Fashion

It doesn't matter what Bowie tries and how many reviews I come across saying that this or that recording is the return to form that some people have been awaiting. It doesn't matter what he achieves musically, since Scary Monsters is the last album on which the mystique is still just about intact. Just as Brezhnev is about to go and the Soviet Union is on the verge of collapsing via Andropov, Chernenko and then to Gorbachev, so too is David internally imploding and we all hurry along towards Thatcher's welcoming arms.

Who was there on that trip? From my year there was also Marcus. Adam from the year above. Johnny. We were the Spartak Skins, regardless of actual haircuts. Johnny was madly besotted with Catty (there were girls only in the 6th form) and kept an alternative diary of the trip in which he created various masochistic fantasies about her cruel indifference in furs and riding boots. The days were occupied with language lessons (in Leningrad anyway) and various edifying excursions to museums, palaces and both a school and a factory. I still have the slides I took then. Many of which feature Johnny immolating his pubic hair with burning vodka. There are more memories than I can address in this one entry. I had a great time, especially because me and Johnny were happy to play up to the role of starstruck Soviet idolisers and express/feign extreme disappointment when unable to see some particular collection of books in the Lenin Library or similar and cheer/weep at appropriate monuments and historical sights.

I can remember visiting the Museum of Atheism and Religion in Leningrad. A large display cabinet of monkish figures with various devices of chastisement attached to themselves. John Gould muttering: "Fanatics! Fanatics!"... Birch juice for breakfast, banging the table with our fists and chanting Mi Chotim Apelsin, a syrupy fizzy orange drink, until matronly waitresses brought it to our table. Malchiki, malchiki... Drunkest I'd ever been, climbing the stairs of the Astoria, one, two, three, four... An ice hockey match, evenings at some Kremlin gala or another, hotel bands playing turgid disco, change money change money, the felt shoes you'd wear to slide across parquet floors in Imperial ballrooms, the cruiser ship Aurora, nelzya nelzya...

, I was intending to post something from Jeanna Bichevskaya's first album, but I sort of gave up. Why? Well, I was put off by this story. Whereas as 1980's Bichevskaya is treading on Joan Baez and Buffy Saint-Marie territory, if not in music then in look at least, 21st century Bichevskaya is some nationalist religious nutter of the wrong sort for invitation to my table. Okay, Yabloka also be playing to that gallery of national yearning, but they're not after the canonisation of Ivan the Terrible. From the gipsy look to the gipsy persecutor. Bichevskaya gets the Russian Soul vote for sure, but, to be frank with you, she misunderstands Orthodoxy as much as I do. She's interested in Russian Orthodoxy, the particular version of which pays no heed to historical fact and everything to romantic imaginings. I've had arguments with Russians over this sort of issue. What do you know, they say, you're not Russian. I can't argue with that, but when I remind them that they've been through sixty years of godless communism. Well, I'm more than a little suspicious that a generation has been skipped there in religious continuity and, like Bowie, society has been moved along. That break enables people like Bichevskaya to come out with this sort of crap. Inventing histories. The game of selective memory.

Early Bichevskaya (brunette) is relatively charming in its way. Later Bichevskaya (blonde) is beyond drink-fuelled melancholia and seasonal affective disorder. You can hear her across her career here and here and here and finally here... [You may need to adjust the text encoding on tha page for it to view in Cyrillic properly. Bichevskaya's name looks like this - Жанна БИЧЕВСКАЯ] I came across that site [Songs of National Resurrection] through an idle search. It's worth a look around if you want to hear various artists singing mournfully about their country and its role (that is destiny) in history. Slash and burn. Welcome to Grozny - Twinned with Fallujah - Population? - Enjoy Your Stay! Look at this band, the Irkutsk Town Theatre for National Drama [looks like this in Cyrillic - Иркутский городской театр народной драмы].. They must think they're Laibach and they sound like a soft rock version of them. It's all a bit scary over there and I don't really want to look that hard (click on the speaker icons and it will start a download rather than direct link). So:

Boney M - Rasputin

What? What has this really got to do with Russia? Well, Johnny was looking for some peasant-style blouse to give to Catty and we were asking random tram passengers if they knew of a shop. We ended up in the Leningrad appartment of a Russian and his wife, where we were fed and given vodka. No refusal possible. Vy obidete menya? Are you insulting me? A valuable lesson in life learned there. None of your English hospitality. We will give you everything. Make a positive flattering remark about some painting or trophy on view? You'll be going home with it tucked under your arm. Giving all even though you have almost nothing.

Although I've experienced the zenith of toasting etiquette in Georgia, Russia was the introduction to toasting as the offering of prayer. We toasted arithmetic, after some discussion about relative prices, we toasted women, for all that they have given us, we toasted molecular chemistry and we toasted Rasputin. Ivan's collection of Western music tapes was the same bizarre mismatch you'd find in many other places. You took what you could get on the black market. Since we were from England, we must love Uriah Heep. We didn't claim we didn't. And surely, we must know this song, someone from outside the Soviet Union had written a song about Russia! Come on! So we danced our best for England around his one room.

In the next entry, I'll post some music that I think is really good - for a change. As I also hope to have caught up on sleep. Apologies for the lack of energy in some of this. Events elsewhere are challenging sleep patterns.