In a World of Objects

In spring this year I returned from 15 months’ living in Moscow, where I set up the first office of Amnesty International. Everyone who has lived in Russia has anecdotes to tell but they can be quite repetitive, and I think they often fail to convey the exhausting physical grind of living there. What I would prefer to describe are the impressions which a double dose of culture shock left on me, as I made regular trips between the UK and Russia.

Most of my time in Russia I spent in Moscow, and most of my time in the UK I live in London. Both are large capitals with sprawling suburbs and a cosmopolitan population of around nine million people. In Moscow, though, even without stepping outside my four walls, I was conscious I was living in a massive continent and sometimes the sense was so vivid it was frightening. Here, you know the country is small. I have wondered what the grid lines are, and perhaps the most graphic one is the Russian weather forecast – for some reason invariably broadcast to the tune of “Yesterday” – which rattles past like the cast list of Ben-Hur, as it tries to give the average temperatures of a sixth of the world’s land mass.

Another explanation, I think, is a question of tone and the tendency of the UK media to make big things “small”. I thought one British writer put it well earlier this year in his review of an anthology of 20th-century literature – he said that in British literature the dominant voice is “ironic” rather than urgent, the tone “knowing” rather than enquiring. He put this down to what he saw as the “thinness of the English middle-class” and the dominance of the Oxbridge voice in our public culture. Whatever the reason for it may be, it assaults your eyes and ears when you step off the plane from Moscow and in some contexts seems even ridiculous. New findings about the origins of the universe had just been published, for instance, when I came home in April and I was immensely struck to hear the British TV presenter pause, then say: “Quite so” – after she had been outlining the Big Bang Theory and God’s role in Creation. You can imagine a number of Russian reactions to the origins of the universe, but that would not be one of them.

Urgency, however, is not in short supply in Russia. News bulletins rarely repeat themselves and I, like other people I knew, would watch them from nine at night to 1.00 am, simply to find out what was happening. No single newspaper can convey the full picture and most people I knew bought several each day. Russian society is deeply divided and people do not agree on the way they should be tackling their problems, but – remarkably to me – they seem to share a view of what those problems are: massive ones of how to avoid hunger, how to prevent a slide into civil war, and how to come to terms with their own history. At bottom I think that provides quite a cohesive social feeling, although sometimes it feels like the cohesion of people running downhill with their ankles tied together.

In the UK I doubt if people agree about the “problem” any more than they agree about how to solve it. If divisions radiate through Russian society from a common base, they seem to drive parallel lines through ours, with one group having little notion of what life is like for another. This was brought home to me when I was sitting in Moscow, following the British coverage of the Newcastle riots in the winter of 1991. As you expect, there was a gulf between the police version of what happened and the view of the rioters, but what surprised me was that the media seemed unable to fill it – as though they were writing from Novosibirsk rather than describing something that was happening in their own very small country.

Beyond a point, detachment seems to get in the way of good reporting, because it is hard to convey the flavour of something you have never tasted. I found Russian current affairs programmes very enjoyable, perhaps because the people who made them were closer to the situations they were describing. The reporters seemed genuinely interested to find out what was happening around them and also free to be less “solemn”. At the same time, it is hard to imagine a Russian newspaper carrying a piece about the travails of commuters travelling in a train with a tramp, which passed as a humorous feature in The Independent in April. I think it would be very unusual for a Russian poke fun at poverty.

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Much of what happened during the coup attempt in August 1991 was so alarming that there was little time to sit and think about it. One thing did strike me, however, on the Monday night, when the coup committee was broadcasting its first news conference on television.

The TV was high up on the wall but although the restaurant was packed, no one else was watching it. There could have been any reason for this, because during the first day the public attitude to the coup was still unclear. On the screen [vice-president] Gennady Yanayev announced that since the tanks had arrived “everyone in the capital is breathing more easily”, and suddenly all the diners laughed derisively, without turning their heads. I realised that after nearly a lifetime of it, they were attuned to the rhetoric, and did not need to see who was speaking to understand what was being said.

Until then I had not appreciated how far the official lie had been fading from the Soviet media. Even before the coup attempt television had broadcast all-day sessions from both the Soviet and the Russian parliaments. After it, newspapers, television and radio exploded with information, especially about what was happening in the non-Russian republics. Russian television seems ready to try anything from horoscopes after the news to card tricks during it, and for a foreign viewer the lack of sophistication is refreshing. It`s not unusual to see interviewers choke themselves on the microphone they forgot was hanging round their neck, or to hear someone off-screen sniffing. The media are also trying new subjects. Shortly after the coup failed the national radio channel began a weekly magazine programme on human rights and Amnesty International was asked to fill a regular slot. Human Rights Day on 10 December was then celebrated with peak-time programmes on television and radio.

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Borrowing a friend’s car during one of my visits home, I was struck by the sheer pleasure of being in control of a machine. In the UK we are used to being surrounded by things, whether they are pencil sharpeners or tin openers, and most of them work. I think they give us autonomy we do not always recognise and make most of us the “subject” of our own small world. When I began the long pilgrimage round government departments in Moscow, trying to get our office registered, I found out what it is like to be an object in someone else’s world. I suddenly realised that every Russian I knew was also waiting for an official stamp on an obscure piece of paper from a surly stranger, which would allow them to move flat, travel abroad, or open an office. My quest for one particular stamp began when I arrived in January 1991 and was still going on when I left fifteen months later, although the Soviet state had collapsed, and Communism was gathering sand.

If you can imagine spending four hours a day for a year wrestling with British Telecom, you get a sense of what this is like. The helplessness is a torture, but at the same time it makes you very close with other people who are in the same position. People in Moscow tend to hunt in packs with their friends, swapping teapots for flour and a haircut for a ride to the station. My own currency seemed to be translations of Janis Joplin and the Pet Shop Boys. I was struck too by the time which people in Moscow give to each other, whether in waiting at the stop for the bus to arrive, or helping to mend the tap, and I enjoyed it very much. It seems to me that, in London at least, many people miss this. We may have more control of our worlds, but we find it harder to entice other people into them.

Because we are used to having machines that work, I realised in Moscow how used I have become to working in “systems”. With a computer, leaflets and an address list, I expected to be able to reach a wide network of people within Russia and beyond, and to some extent I did. There, however, I soon learned, systems bring fresh headaches. Paper is hard to find, and people do not entrust important things to the postal system, preferring to convey them from hand-to-hand. You can walk long distances to find a photocopying shop and queue for long hours at the local post office to receive or send a fax.

All this is a sad waste of everyone’s energy, but it forces you instead to meet people and talk face-to-face. It was probably my line of work, but usually led to interesting conversations about life and what it should mean. People were genuinely troubled that if everyone had the right to emigrate, wouldn’t the Russian economy collapse even faster? I forget too how many times I was asked if death was not preferable to loss of freedom? These conversations were much more interesting than doing mass mailings, but in some ways, they were more difficult, because Russians are intensely critical of each other’s integrity and they are no easier on you. There was usually no conclusive answer to the questions we discussed, but for me it was valuable to hear a different tradition speaking and I hope it was for them too.

In a country where it seems that everything, including your freedom can still be taken away from you at administrative whim, I think Russians have only the haziest notion of what “rights” are. The word is as fashionable now as kiwi fruits on the market, but if it disappeared from the scene I am afraid real life would not be greatly affected. There is a lot that they could borrow here from other countries’ experience. However, although we are much stronger on rights, my time in Moscow makes me think that Russians keep a surer grasp of what is human. As the trickle of workaholic foreign activists passed through Moscow during the year, come “to set the human rights movement on its feet”, I increasingly wondered who was helping whom.

Russian friends of mine were incredulous that in a rich country like the UK old people die of hypothermia, particularly when they compared our winter with theirs. They would probably be even more surprised to know how many of the homeless people on the streets lived until recently in mental hospitals. It would be foolish to exaggerate, but when I lived in Moscow I felt that Russians have a greater sense of responsibility for each other than we do, and are unembarrassed about it. It was refreshing, and something I think other cultures could borrow from them. Without it, “rights” can seem a cold and contentious thing.

1992