At around the age of eight I was a Lead Sunbeam in my ballet school annual show. Not an ordinary, run-of-the-mill sunbeam like the rest of them but one of two special sunbeams. I resented the Sun though as she had pointe shoes. I retain that resentment to this day.
I was to return to my ballet career during my time as a student in Russia.
I am often asked why I ended up with such an interest in Russia and the former USSR. I wish I had a great story such as being descended from some impoverished Countess who escaped the revolution to settle in Paris. No, my Mum thought it was a good idea. It was the 80s, I was good at languages, and she very wisely thought Russian might just be useful. It was indeed useful but probably not in the way she envisaged.
A problem I had studying languages was that my voice was already buried inside me. This had been the case for a very long time and that story is one I am not yet ready to tell. However, I picked up Russian at Aberdeen University very quickly indeed I knew how to speak but could not speak. Finding, or recovering, my voice is a theme that runs through the fragments of my life.
I spent a lot of time at university feeling totally overwhelmed. I was the only probably ever tee-total student in the Russian department who had to have fruit juice brought in for the legendary department parties. I was profoundly scared that alcohol would mean that I would lose control. I couldn’t think of anything worse.
I went to classes, came home right afterwards to look after my sister, prepare the evening meal and that was pretty much it. It meant I missed out of the “rite of passage” part of being a student. I had already learned to define myself by achieving things rather than by contentment or, perish the thought, fun. I still have trouble with that one.
And then, I was sent to Russia for language practice….
My first period of study was at the Leningrad Polytechnical Institute and I was still in very well-behaved, suppressed mode. I don’t remember much about that first trip except that Chernobyl had happened and we were given seaweed tablets with meals for the iodine. We got used to being followed by the KGB who we called the Kent Gas Board or “Gas Men” for short, or strange voiceless phone calls in our rooms whenever we said anything subversive. And yes, if we wanted to say anything really controversial, we would all pile into a bathroom and turn on the shower. Whether that was because we had seen that on the movies or it was actually needed is up for debate.
I remember Lenin featuring in every lesson, even grammar and the great efforts made to make us participate publicly in “Soviet” rituals such as the “Subbotnik” when all Soviet citizens were expected to give a day’s labour free to the state. We were despatched to paint the benches outside the Institute but we failed to fulfil the plan by swapping the tins of paint between us and making them stripy. This was Western decadence and very much frowned upon.
We learned how to function in what were the dying embers of the USSR. We knew not to tell anyone if we felt unwell. “When in doubt appendix out” was the order of the day particularly if we contracted food poisoning or made the mistake of ingesting the notoriously noxious Leningrad water. It happened to Ingrid. She got gastroenteritis and I had to stand between her and the doctor who was adamant it was appendicitis even though Ingrid was already appendix free. It was still ideologically impossible to get food poisoning from Soviet food.
My next period of study in 1987 was even more memorable for all kinds of reasons. I was sent with a classmate from Aberdeen University of whom I was in awe and rather scared. She was a Londoner and had famously turned up to university in her pyjamas saying she was an anarchist. I was in a new jumper Mum had bought me in C&A. I SO wanted to be like Su rather than a walking bundle of inhibitions. It turned out I was just as wild if not more so than she was. My inner rebel was just buried inside a concrete bunker, and surrounded by minefields.
Su and I turned out to be ideal roommates. We worked out early on that turning up to classes was not the best way to learn Russian. The classes were awash with Lenin references again. We were sent for a weekly cultural lecture featuring one of the other Soviet Republics. The only one we attended featured a bunch of happy Uzbeks making carpets. Lenin carpets.
One day it was announced as we were, like the Finns, “not intellectual” so we would be doing singing lessons instead of some lofty lecture about Lenin hiding in a haystack or whatever. We did one folk song and progressed to the serious stuff, a hymn-like work of deep solemnity entitled “Lenin is always with you”. Too right Comrades.
We rebelled completely at that point. Su got entangled with a Soviet army officer who tried to pass me onto his friend Gleb who had goldfish bowl glasses and the most severe case of acne I have ever seen. I ran away.
I bumped into someone I knew from my previous course and he turned out to be in Leningrad doing a documentary for Channel 4 about the still underground, but slowly emerging, music scene. And so, we ended up hanging around with Boris Grebenshchikov and various other reprobates. Much better than talks on the diet of the Siberian eskimo any day.
Then came my 21st birthday. I had been very abstemious with alcohol up until I met Su and the rather revolting Soviet Champagne which was dirt cheap and something akin to being attached to a glucose drip. It certainly went straight to the head, particularly as we were not eating much other than stale bread and cucumber.
On my birthday, I broke out of my shell completely however. Memories of that day are hazy, but I know after consuming much of the said Shampanskoe, I had the idea of reviving my ballet career in the very home of classical ballet. What could possibly go wrong?
Now tables had turned, and I was leading Su astray. I was the Artistic Director and Prima Ballerina of this production. We commenced at the statue of Lenin at Finland Station where he had delivered his “Peace, Bread, Land” speech. We did the “Bring Me Sunshine” dance from Morecambe and Wise. We went on to entertain the passengers on the Leningrad Order of Lenin Metro Named after Lenin by doing barre work inside the train. We then picked the most boring-sounding station we could find – something about Fish Canners or something and alighted hoping to set alight the people of Leningrad, fish canners included. This was our grand finale. We did the Cygnets from Swan Lake and mid-prance we were grabbed one arm each by a small but very strong member of the security forces.
We were taken to the militia office in the station. There was a KGB woman there in a fur hat and sky blue nylon raincoat who read from her notes with extreme Soviet seriousness “she took off her coat and pirouetted across the platform as if in a ballet”. I had such an urge to giggle but didn’t. Thank God, the Militia though turned out to be more drunk than we were. They got rid of the Kent Gas Board and started to “question” us. This was where I realised that alcohol enabled me to speak. I was suddenly fluent in Russian, quoting various human rights’ agreements and wafting a photocopy of my passport at them. They had a good laugh and let us leave with a drunken “dance again tomorrow, girls”. We left waving dramatically back at the militia as we disappeared back down the escalator rather disappointing the crowd of locals who had amassed presumably hoping to see some Soviet justice being inflicted on us. Had we been Russians and they had been less amenable, it would have been off to the drying out house where the treatment consisted of being propped against a wall and hosed back to reality with freezing water.
I was reunited with Su some twenty years later and she reminded me that even at that stage, I had still not finished my artistic mission. We acquired some vodka and ended up dancing from pillar to pillar at the Kazan Cathedral which was around the corner from our hostel.
This episode was a milestone for me. It seemed to liberate me from my oubliette. However, it also should have told me that there was something about me and alcohol that was way too volatile a cocktail….