"How would you feel about teaching in our school for a year?" I was having tea with the headmistress of Gymnasium 1526, a school in the Southern district of Moscow. It was August 1995 and I was visiting some friends in Russia. The end of the Summer holidays was near, my teaching job in an East Sussex college was mine to keep for as long as I wished. Yet for reasons that I am about to disclose, this job offer in Moscow was like an answer to a life-long dream, or to be more precise, a dream that I had nurtured for the past twenty-five years.
Twenty-five years ago, as a student specializing in Russian Language and Literature, I somehow felt cheated. Other language students were able to spend several months in the country of their chosen specialization, yet such an opportunity was denied us Russianists. Because of the Cold War we had to be content with reading Chekhov’s plays or Tolstoy’s novels, steeping ourselves in such a fascinating culture without the hope of one day actually gaining first-hand experience of life in the USSR. The best I could do was to travel to Moscow and Leningrad twice on one-week package tours, but in the stern Brezhnev era we were denied any rapport whatsoever with the locals. The only conversation we had was asking for the key to the floor-lady of our hotel. It was all extremely frustrating.
So, having completed my studies, I got married, raised a family, traveled, taught languages and shelved any interest I had in Russia. I sporadically taught Russian to interested adults. Then, with the advent of Perestroika and the exciting news reaching us from the USSR, my yearnings began to resurface. I started a Russian A-level class in the sixth form of the college where I had been teaching French, and took some groups of pupils to Russia in the late 1980’s. I organized a student exchange with Gymnasium 1526, and began to wish again that I could spend at least a few months in Russia. There seemed little opportunity for such a move, however, both because of family ties and because in Russia everything was still in turmoil. It all seemed very unlikely. And then it happened:
"How would you feel about teaching in our school for a year?" This was 1995, and yes, I knew how I felt about such an offer. Somehow the timing was perfect for me to take up this offer. My children were more or less independent; I had recently been widowed, but still young enough to undertake something new. So I replied: "I do want to, very much." Tamara Gerasimovna replied: "Then we’ll do it", and I knew her well enough to realize that this was not an empty promise.
A year later, after much form filling and the inevitable bureaucratic red tape, and with a valid one-year visa in my hand, I set off on my big adventure.
It was 24th August 1996 and school would begin on the first day of September. On arrival at Sheremetevo airport I was met by Lena, my friend and colleague-to-be, and Seriozha, another teacher’s husband, the proud owner of a Mercedes. I was offered three carnations as a form of welcome and then whisked off to my new life.
The previous evening we had drunk champagne in Lena and Sasha’s flat, where I was staying whilst my prospective home was being prepared. We drank to a successful and happy year in Russia. It had all seemed so cozy.
But the morning after brought with it the first minor irritations: I had to be registered somewhere in the city center, which meant at least an hour’s journey to our destination. We ended up in a small overcrowded lobby with several untidy queues apparently leading to different rooms. We stood in line for an hour, with a patient, enduring expression on our faces, the way all Russians look in such circumstances. The only redeeming feature was Tchaikovski’s violin concerto being piped through a loudspeaker.
Finally we were ushered into a small, barren room with the customary official glaring at us through a small partition , which forces the applicant to bend down very uncomfortably in order to put forward his request. We very speedily found out, however, that we were in the wrong place with the wrong paper work. We had with us a covering letter asking the authorities to register me, but the letter had been stamped by the school, not by the Ministry of Education which had issued the original invitation to work in Russia. Half a day had been lost and we wearily returned to Lena’s flat, ready to start all over again the next day...
Three days after my arrival I had to attend the first teachers’ meeting to prepare for the first of September. About forty of us were crammed into a classroom far too small for comfort. All around was the lively chit-chat of colleagues, tanned and healthy-looking after the long Summer break. Most of us were women, with just a few men, mainly Physical Education teachers, adding some spice to a very female gathering.
Tamara Gerasimovna, the headmistress, came in looking cool and elegant as usual. After several unsuccessful attempts at greeting us all with a cheerful smile, she started to speak, and it became quiet in the room. First off, the bad news: great changes had been made in the organization of the Ministry of Education, the upshot of this being that no-one knew where the school really belonged and hence where any money would come from. No one appeared too shocked at this news. Tamara Gerasimovna continued: the Ministry of Education did however now have a new name; it would be known as the Ministry of General and Professional Education. More information: The regional "Prefect" who had been mugged a few months ago, had now sufficiently recovered to be nominated Vice-Mayor of Moscow. He would be replaced by a new Prefect. Again no-one batted an eyelid.
The problem of children’s safety was next raised. Due to frequent hostage taking and other recent unpleasant occurrences the system of protection was going to be upgraded, and there would constantly be a guard at the school entrance allowing access only to pupils and staff. It all sounded daunting: muggings, hostages, presumably all part of daily reality here...
The next step was telling us in no uncertain terms how to treat parents. We depended on their goodwill and were to treat them accordingly, politely and without using strong language or behaving rudely. Did teachers really need to be told that?
There followed a long list read out in a droning voice of who did what, who was responsible for whom, endlessly. A headache was fast developing....names, names, and names. I was no longer following and just sat in a daze. A piece of paper was shoved into my hand, a signature was required. What was I signing? That I had heard all the rules and duties.
It was time for questions. There were very few, as everyone was anxious to get out of the classroom. Outside the sun was shining. In the corridor I met Zhanna and Tatiana, both language teachers. Tatiana told me that she had been cleaning my flat. Had I seen it? Not yet.
"Oh", she assured me, "it’s all right…lots of cockroaches and other insects, but it does have a balcony and it IS a two-roomed flat!".
I decided to venture to the local shops, armed with a huge wad of rubles, adding to the value of only a few dollars. I went into various dilapidated buildings which were advertising ‘produce’. Amongst those were some shops situated in former air-raid shelters, built at a time when the Soviets feared a Western nuclear attack. At least they were being put to some good use.
Once inside a shop one had to try and understand the system. With privatization , supermarkets have now become a very untidy conglomeration of separate ‘stalls’. For some reason which to this day I fail to understand, one has to pay a central cashier if buying in some sections, and directly to the saleswoman in others. As the shop assistants appear to have been recruited from a particular planet where it is the norm to be fat, dyed -blonde and extremely unpleasant, it was difficult, to say the least, to gather where one had to pay and subsequently to deal with the huge amounts of banknotes required for any transaction. The shop assistant invariably made you feel that you were a complete waste of her time and I became so nervous before buying any item that there were times during those first few weeks when I felt that I could truly go without bread rather than face those monsters.
This breed of women who flourished under the Soviet system, when there was no incentive to be pleasant to customers, still appears to thrive in many shops, although private enterprise will undoubtedly change the nature of shopping and the character of its shopkeepers.
I was in desperate need of bread and so, despite my above-mentioned misgivings, I went to find the nearest bread stall. I had seen one on the previous day and didn’t think it was very far. I would easily find it again.
I walked for a good half-hour before having to admit that I was lost. All the surrounding buildings looked the same, and there was not a single bread stall in sight. I didn’t panic, just walked on, hoping that all would become clear around the next corner or past the next lot of entrances.
"Are you lost?" asked a friendly voice behind me. It was Marina Nikolaevna, a teacher from my school whom I had met previously. She was chatting to another lady and her children. I faltered: "Not really, I’m just going to buy some bread." "And where did you have in mind?" I smiled uncertainly: "Around here, somewhere." "Well, not exactly, but don’t worry, you have gone a long way and my friend will take you to a nearby bread shop and then will take you home."
"Oh, that’s really not necessary." I quickly said, turning to the other lady. "It must be out of your way!" "Not at all," said Marina’s friend, "We are just on our way there; we don’t live far, and it will be our pleasure to accompany you." So, duly escorted, I found my bread seller and was taken home to Lena’s front door. As she let me in, Lena smiled knowingly: "I know that you got lost on your way to the bread shop; Marina just rang me, next time I won’t let you go off on you own!" I felt like a reprimanded child who was no longer going to be allowed out unaccompanied.
It was still Summer, a fine sunny day with a warm breeze blowing. With Sasha, Lena and the boys we went to the Kolomenskoe museum area. It is in a beautiful setting, on a hill, overlooking part of the Moscow river. Several churches, dating from different periods and built in varying styles form this open air museum and it is delightful to just walk around, breathe in the fresh air and admire some outstanding architecture.
We were wandering somewhat aimlessly and suddenly there were very few people around, more trees, and we realized we had wandered into an old cemetery. There were some very simple tombstones and wooden crosses and other more elaborate burying places, erected by wealthier Moscovites. The cost of burials is prohibitive and relatives make huge sacrifices to honor their dead.
Russians have a more eastern approach to their burial grounds, looking after their plots with care, frequently bringing fresh flowers, and paying their respects to their close ones as well as visiting the tombs of former celebrities regularly. To them it is a reminder of the passing of time and Lena wiped away a few tears as she read out the names on the tombstones, meditating on the frailty of human life. It was with a feeling of relief that we came out of the somber churchyard. Suddenly we were in a forgotten world at the heart of this city of high-rise buildings: here was the settlement of Diakovo, a cluster of colorful wooden houses, with kitchen gardens and a country path forming this hamlet’s main street. A former village school was offering courses in carpentry and embroidery. Everything looked lush and green. It was one of those magical ends of Summer days. Was this still Moscow? How had the city planners forgotten this tiny corner, and how soon would someone rediscover it...