28 October 2023
Sad circumstances (the serious illness of my father) forced me not so long ago to return to Moscow which I left nearly two years ago. Moscow made a disturbing impression. Even from outside or to hear about. The labels had all been replaced. The new advertisements on the streets were surprisingly eclectic and this had rendered the city’s physiognomy Asiatic, flamboyant, flashy, multi-hued, almost like Delhi but without the broad Indian smiles and the cheery youthful hubbub. In two years, the drivers on the streets had acquired the habit of honking their horns at one another, with and without reason, not as insistently as in Delhi or Islamabad, but still considerably more than is usual for Europe — the overlapping horn blasts created the feeling that people were driving not according to rules which were the same for everyone but were designing their own relationships with others in the traffic right there and then, provisionally, as it were, depending on the self-confidence of the driver or the size of the vehicle.
Satnav wasn’t working in the city, taxis didn’t arrive on time or at the right address. Muscovites told me that this was the security services’ way of trying to confuse the enemy drones heading towards the city but the poorly functioning GPS gave rise to a sense of being lost or gone astray, of having lost one’s bearings.
The people too seemed to be adrift. They gathered in small groups in strange places that they considered safe or friendly. People I knew reasonably well or barely at all, finding out that I’d arrived, were keen to meet me and just have coffee for no specific reason — “because everyone’s gone and there’s no one to talk to”. Of the good causes my friends continue to engage in in Moscow – education, medicine, social rehabilitation, science, culture, art – people preferred to speak quietly and asked me not to write anything, afraid that certain evil forces would deem their activities undesirable and destroy them.
The main sensation is this — they are attempting to save what I regard as hopelessly lost – therein lies the difference between those who have left and those who have stayed behind. Those who have left are waiting for the ruling regime to fall at an unspecified future date and for unspecified reasons, and they will return to build a new life from scratch. Those who have stayed are endeavouring to preserve what they can – their private school, their university chair, their hospital department, ultimately, their family. In my superficial opinion, failure awaits both the former and the latter. Those who have left may indeed return but a new life will be built not by them but by some young and new people, as already occurred in my memory in the 90s. Those who have stayed behind (as was the case in the 90s) will not be able to save anything apart from individual relics of the life they remember and love, while the new life will nurture in their bosoms a ressentiment that poisons the heart.
Imagine a house. The old dacha where you spent your childhood. It is out of date. It is unsuited to life in the new days that have dawned but every detail in it, every swollen bit of wallpaper, every shabby espagnolette on a window, you remember from childhood, they remind you of an irretrievable happiness. And, after a painful division of property, this old house is your inheritance – and what is to be done with it?
A pragmatist will say that it’s easier to knock the old ruin down and in its place put up a contemporary building made of – Lord, forgive me! – polymer and composite materials. A sensitive person will attempt to restore the old house and will run into technical difficulties, the massive expense of repairing walls eaten away by bark beetles, and the fact that – it’s enough to make you weep! – modern plumbing cannot be installed in the house without destroying the old nursery.
I count myself among the pessimistic pragmatists, otherwise I wouldn’t have left. I don’t think there’s a way out of this dilemma. At some unspecified future date and for unspecified reasons, my beloved old house will be destroyed and rebuilt by someone other than me. It will be good if that’s my children or grandchildren. The house will be made of polymer and composite and utterly unlike the one I loved. At best, with a good bit of magnanimity, the children will take some relic of mine into the new house – a piece of swollen wallpaper in a little frame or a shabby espagnolette in a glass museum case.
Translated by Melanie Moore