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Friday, 4 May 2012

Reflections on a Decade in the Wild East

Originally posted on Paul D. Brazill's blogspot:

Re-edited.

Reflections on a Decade in the Wild East - Introduction

Hedonistic triumphs, drunk tank nightmares and a barren existence of seemingly perpetual solitude, were the highlights and low points of over a decade of living in the former Communist Europe.

Throw in a whirlwind turnover of jobs that made me look less like the stayer I in many ways am, with my experience in first St. Petersburg, then Warsaw and more recently Belgrade, I can look back with some surprise that I got through more than ten years of living in the former Communist region of Europe.

Three years in Russia, six in Poland and two and a half years in Serbia were achieved - if that’s the right word - via a combination of luck, commitment and sheer bloody-mindedness - which often edged me towards the self-destructive.

Circumstance brought me to Russia in 1998 after the college I was working for as a lecturer in English and Philosophy discovered it was in dire straits and had to make staff cut backs. I seized the opportunity with both hands and applied for voluntary redundancy and was deliriously happy when I found I was one of a handful who got it.

The severance pay meant that I had cash to spare at a time in St. Petersburg when Russia as a whole was apparently being flushed down the toilet. August 1998 saw Boris Yeltsin default on the country’s debts and devalue the ruble. Watching from the UK while my visa was being sorted wasn’t a happy experience: the old aged pensioners ranting at TV cameras with empty shopping bags, the long queues of the desperate trying to change their increasingly worthless rubles into dollars and the cloud of despair the western media eagerly sought to form over the Russian nation had me worried to say the least.

My wife – from Poland – was doing a degree in Russian at Birmingham University so she was due to go to St Petersburg on her gap year. When I got my job, teaching English as a Foreign Language at a school in the city, it meant we could continue living together.

St. Petersburg before my arrival and the onset of the crisis had been a mad place anyway by all accounts. It had just been more expensive in dollar terms. The freefall of the ruble meant that so many lives were supposedly about to fall apart but a night out in the former capital would soon disabuse you of that notion.

I had already experienced that fresh, unbridled hedonism when I visited Poland on an annual trip made over the years. Most of the clubs of the time have long since closed down. There was one, called Blue Velvet – a converted public toilet in Saski Park, where later thousands would kneel to pay homage to the late Pope John Paul II – whose laid back values were those of the Russian clubs I visited later on.

Ecstasy, speed and LSD were all on the menu in that venue, as was the chill out room concept, perhaps one of the 1990s’ most splendid inventions. I would lie down in one in St. Petersburg’s Griboyedov club - the best of the lot - when I needed a break from the intense partying, and found a helpful cushion being pushed beneath my head to sleep more easily. I would gently slumber knowing that kindness surrounded me.

But some of them could get surly too. Not least to foreigners from the west. Being stopped by the St. Petersburg militsia and having your money taken from you was a constant bane of mine and many other Brits’ existence. The police would approach asking for your passport to check your identity, then pilfer the contents of your wallet. Complaints from embassies and others were ignored completely.

Being locked up in the infamous ‘Kolska’ drunk tank in Warsaw wasn’t much fun either. Forcibly stripped, having a ‘blood test’ needle shoved in your arm and then being wrestled into a cell with bruised and bloodied fellow inmates was the most profound culture shock I could have imagined. No one had told me of the place’s existence in the first instance. And as far as my wife was concerned, I had simply disappeared.

I went missing in Serbia for completely different reasons. Most Russians of 1998 seemed to take me and other westerners to their hearts, except for the official exceptions mentioned above; the Poles were less concerned in 2001 because they had loads of foreigners in their midst already. The Serbs, even in 2009, thought you were mad to have wanted to come and live in their country. 

And yet they treated you with the utmost friendliness when you sat down with them. Many would also insist on paying for everything, when it wasn’t necessary. Then they would disappear as if you never existed. Never a phone call, nothing. Their Orthodox brothers and sisters in Russia were completely the opposite, where friendship seemed the be-and-end-all to everything.

The Serbs’ attitude could be covert revenge for NATO’s bombardment of the then Yugoslavia in 2000. Perhaps. But that wasn’t my doing, nor was it millions of Brits or Americans’. A lot of us didn’t agree with it in the first place.

But in Russia I was smacked in the head for being in someone’s way and in Poland there were plenty of hooligan and me opportunities, let’s just say. But in Serbia, everyone kept their distance. In this, the hub of the former Yugoslavia, where there were apparently a number of war criminals knocking around, you found that you were in one of Europe’s safest cities.

And yet, given time, I was plunged into the least safe of circumstances, because the Serbs often abandon you. You could get beaten up quite easily in Russia and yet your Russian friends would rush to your aid without a second thought. That is a paradox you had to get used to and given the Belgrade experience, it is a pleasant alternative on the whole. Because you are very unlikely to get punched in Serbia, despite the fact that NATO strafed various parts of it to bits. 

But you were also likely to be left completely to your own devices, with not so much as a call from an acquaintance to ask after your health. That can be very hard to deal with. However, as with so many other things in life, eventually – no matter how glacial the progress – I did find that my fortunes began to change for the better.

Poland might seem to lie culturally opposed to the two Orthodox countries but in fact it shares a good deal in common with each in contrasting ways. Whilst they are certainly as hospitable as the Russians in a more straightforward manner than the Serbs, the Poles are also as pious as their southern European counterparts in some striking ways.

While in Warsaw at the time of Pope John Paul II’s funeral, I was struck by the number of teenagers who genuflected in the dirt to pay their respects. This was a deeply conservative Pope who was implacably opposed to the sexual revolution that swept the country and the rest of Eastern Europe after the fall of Communism. But yet there they were: the hormonally-challenged on their knees in worship.

And in Belgrade, the huge St. Sava Cathedral was home to relays of youngsters lighting candles to icons, while on their way to or from work or college. The girls often wore the tightest of jeans or the shortest of skirts yet they oozed piety at precisely the same time.

Yet when young Russian women dressed up they did so for the least holy of reasons.

A typical night in a St Petersburg club involved a compere encouraging young men and women to get up on stage and take their clothes off to the booming sounds coming from the DJ. They obliged with abandon. It was often very amusing but also a turn on, because in the epi-centre of the former Soviet Bloc, where it was once remarked that "sex didn't exist" this is where freedom reigned.

In my experience, the new-found liberty had the Russians topping the bill as the most unfettered. Yet, it was the Poles who started the whole process with Solidarnosc and the Serbs - as part of the then Yugoslavia – were not even members of the old Communist bloc, giving them some liberal leverage in the whole mad process of change. 

It was a world turned upside down, my experience part of an imperfect yet exhilarating chapter on an insane roller coaster.

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