My room mate Saima and I had all but exhausted our repertoire of imaginary spying exploits when Tony from the US Embassy came along. We were also very hungry having got to the end of Saima’s stash of Bombay Mix. The food in our hostel was largely cabbage-based and we existed more on vodka and flights of imagination than anything else. When Tony flashed his diplomatic pass at us and said he needed our Russian skills urgently we were ready…even if it meant being somewhat over-optimistic about our respective Russian skills. Saima was hovering on the wrong side of A Level whereas I was over the other side but only just.
We were not going to miss out on the chance of real adventure however, so the next thing we knew we were en route to what was then the new US Embassy. We were shown around the place which was still more or less empty as they had not yet moved from the old premises. There was only one place in the Embassy that they knew was free from bugs – a sound proofed bubble big enough for only two people where the seriously confidential conversations would happen. By the time Tony cooked us a steak and brought out the Bounty Bars we were ready to agree to anything….
The “anything” in this case, was an agreement to accompany him on visits to religious dissidents of various kinds with some visiting Christian publishers. Tony, it turned out, was a fundamentalist born-again Christian and saw his mission at the US embassy as “casting out demons” from the USSR. “Fine” we thought, as long as the chocolate kept on coming. That is what our Souls were worth.
We didn’t question when Tony it transpired, was not in fact a high-up at the US Embassy. He was in charge of the new sports’ centre at the new Embassy complex and as such, was hardly the material for a John le Carre plot but you never knew…. He had been a backing musician for Dan Fogelberg, and knew Cliff Richard. Neither fact impressed us much.
Then the madness commenced. We went with Tony fuelled on our over-active imaginations and his somewhat histrionic Born Againedness, to meet up with an array of colourful characters “translating” for the American publishers who were in town for the first Moscow Religious Book Fair. This has been allowed as part of Gorbachev’s policies of Glasnost and Perestroika.
Tony, however, was stuck in the past in his own head and had not quite cottoned onto the changes in the air. He assumed we were being tailed by the KGB at all times which meant going through elaborate rituals to get them off our tail. We were off to meet a persecuted Parapsychologist and this was, said Tony, a truly Top Secret mission. That meant hiding in a bush outside a typically Soviet block of flats and practicing our “cover” which was that we were from Estonia. I had said that British people speaking Russian tended to get taken for people from the Baltic States. I did not mean that Tony who had a Texan drawl in any language, particularly in his very limited Russian, or Saima, who was from India via Croydon could pass as Estonian, but too late….I am certain we were NOT being followed and that the only reason we might have been, was that we looked so ridiculous.
Life started to get to me hiding in that bush. I bust into tears and declared I couldn’t take it any more but realised I had more Russian than the other two put together so it was all down to me. I gathered myself, existential angst and all, and we approached the building. Tony managed to forget the address of Varvara the Parapsychologist but an old lady in the lift took one look at us and asked “You are looking for Varvara Ivanovna?”. I said “nyet”, Saima said “da” and Tony said “my iz Estonii” (we are from Estonia) like the native of small-town Texas which he clearly was. The old lady just surveyed us with the resignation of someone well used to visits from foreign mad people. From then on, Tony became Tony Iz Estonii (Tony from Estonia) in true porn star fashion.
We made it finally to Varvara Ivanovna’s flat. I found her very wise. She was a Spiritual Healer who had had more than a brush with the Soviet authorities in her past. I found myself really opening up to her. I remember telling her how lost I felt. I remember that I felt she saw right through me. Already at that stage I felt like an imposter in my own life. I had been plagued by extreme anxiety for most of that year leading me to have to pull out of a study visit to Leningrad in the Spring. I had become agoraphobic after becoming convinced that my dizzy spells were due to some sinister brain condition. All tests had come up negative and my doctor was trying to convince me that it was all anxiety. Looking back, I think Saima and myself were both in full flight from reality, from ourselves, and from extreme pressure to succeed, and to fit into boxes created by others. Those crazy times at the end of the USSR with its whiff of 1930s Chicago was such an ideal escape route and I was learning fast the ability of vodka to speed up the escape.
I was to spin off out of control into a very dark place and Saima was to become a huge success in a profession where I am sure her ability to create alternative realities has been a real advantage.
In the meantime though, we had a job to do – keeping a bunch of Fundamentalist Christians satisfied that their mission to rid the Evil Empire of its Demons was on course for success. We met all kinds of weird and wonderful people. We sat in a kitchen with a Baptist Pastor who knew the astronaut John Glenn. He had been in a Gulag during the Stalin Purges. I am truly ashamed to say our Russian was not up to translating this lovely gentleman’s beautifully allegoric turns of phrase so we made it all up. We made up what we thought the Americans wanted to hear laced with some stuff borrowed from our limited acquaintance with Solzhenitsyn. I remember saying that he had scraped poems on bits of bark from trees in the Gulag. I have NO idea whether that was true. It might have been. That was how we justified ourselves.
Eventually we ended up at the Religious Book Fair itself. I remember nothing about that apart from the fact that we met two Amish there, proper Amish, in Amish outifts sans pony and trap but otherwise straight of the cast of that Harrison Ford movie. By that time, we were so accustomed to being in a surreal world that we questioned it not one iota.
The publishers returned to the US happy they had cast out some demons. Our demons remained intact however. Our last night in Moscow was not our finest hour. We had a farewell dinner with the other students whom we barely knew, at the Aragvi a famous Georgian restaurant in Gorky Street. We polished off vodka, Soviet Shampanskoe, red and white wine, and Georgian cognac. I ate a whole pot of caviar which I can still taste now as I write this and not in a good way. All I remember about the rest of the meal was standing on a chair and singing “Flower of Scotland”.
The other students staggered off back to the hostel but not the intrepid pair. We decided to hit our favourite bar at the Intourist and got there by ballroom dancing across Gorky Street and through the Revolution Square underpass. We were then invited to the nightclub by a very creepy Egyptian businessman who was connected to the Al Fayeds in London. He plied us with more Shampanskoe and we descended further into mayhem. A drunken Finn arrived on the scene and asked Saima to dance, and the Egyptian propelled me onto the dancefloor. At this point my memory is hazy except I can still see Saima’s face looming out of the mist every so often and her voice echoing “careful, he wants a WHITE woman” as she whirled past. Thankfully however, the inevitable happened and Saima and I discovered there WAS after all, a point at which our bodies could take no more alcohol. We simultaneously started to recreate the Exorcist copiously and spectacularly, I threw up right down the front of the Egyptian. This reduced my attractiveness somewhat and we were poured into a taxi.
The hangover last some three days and was still raging when I got back to Aberdeen. My Mum had been so worried by my state on return from Moscow that I had been packed off to the doctor and tested for glandular fever.
Was any of this to put me off alcohol for life? Sadly no. It was to get worse, very much worse. But at that time, I packed up my colourful Moscow life and returned to my box – well behaved, controlled and only half myself. I left the other half, the liberated half, the spontaneous half, the ALIVE half scattered on the streets of Moscow….