Don's Diary

July 21, 1995

Saturday. Try to resist ethnic stereotyping as I wait patiently in the queue for passport control at Sheremetyevo airport, having arrived on time thanks to Lufthansa. Begin to adjust to Russian levels of decay and disrepair as the flickering lights finally fail as it gets close to my turn. Abandon British reserve when those behind besiege the special booth for diplomatic passport holders where, in a typical display of privilege, the lights remain working.

Once through the reconstructed bureaucratic curtain, I am met by Irina, the Moscow representative of the International Institute for Social History, who steers me past some unsavoury taxi touts, my first encounter with the Russian free market. Tanks and road blocks at the city boundary, a precaution against the Chechens, victims of Russian ethnic prejudice and military might. Arrive at hotel, where the bar is reassuringly named "John Bull".

Sunday. My one free day, so brave the morning rain to explore the Kremlin. Weather improves, but fail in my quest for a pavement cafe. Moscow, I quickly come to realise, is not a tourist city. There are no postcards to be had, despite the endemic presence of street vendors, pathetic penny capitalists who stand around all day in the hope of selling a single item - a packet of cigarettes, a nearly-new garment, a bunch of onions, a kitten. Begin to feel uncomfortably middle class, like a 19th-century social investigator.

Monday. Walk to the Russian Centre for the Preservation and Study of Modern Historical Documents (where papers of Marx and Engels are stored in an underground bunker, safe from nuclear attack) for the opening session of my workshop on ethnicity and labour history. Very impressed by the students and their responsiveness to the new culturalism of western social and labour history. Having abandoned the ideological teleology of Soviet historiography, they still need encouragement to question ethnic prejudice and pseudo-scientific racialism in Russia.

Return to hotel via the central post office where one postcard of Moscow is on sale. Treat myself to a bottle of wine with dinner (a rather grand term for the food on offer), but those parts of the menu which have been translated defy comprehension. Order "ox-meat wine" assuming that it might resemble Hungarian Bull's Blood. A bottle of Italian Merlot appears.

Tuesday. Kirill, the Director of the Archive, invites me to look at their pristine collection of Rowlandson, Cruikshank and Gillray prints. Satire of such quality is timeless: particularly pertinent in contemporary Russia where corruption and the Mafia are rife.

Wednesday. Jaap and Jan, the Director and Research Director of the International Institute of Social History at Amsterdam arrive to see how the workshop is going. The Dutch are the pay-masters for this ambitious programme: it is a long-term investment on their part to create a new generation of Russian historians.

There are fears that students might use the programme (an addition to their full-time studies) in opportunistic manner, taking advantage of the stipend (in western currency, the equivalent of US$10 a month!) and of the extra tuition in English, before abandoning history for a job in banking or commerce.

Jan then sees the students individually to discuss their progress and long-term commitment, while Kirill invites me into his room for another treat, letters by William Cobbett previously unseen by western scholars.

Then a hot ride by metro - the ventilation has been reduced as an economy measure - out to the suburbs where Irina entertains us in the most generous fashion, defying (western) economic logic. Back to the city centre for some beers, bought at a kiosk by Kirill who refused to allow anybody else to buy a round, although it became clear in conversation that he had to dovetail three or four academic jobs in order to approach a living wage.

Thursday. A most rewarding day's teaching as we concentrate on migrant labour in Germany and the Poles in the Ruhr. The Dutch ask me to join them for their last engagement, a social meeting with the head of the library service in Russia. I wait for an hour and a half in the hotel lobby before repairing to the John Bull bar. They arrive shortly afterwards, full of apologies, having been unable to contract me as there is no telephone directory for Moscow. The head of libraries seems undisturbed by our late arrival and offers another example of remarkable hospitality (unfortunately shared with the local insect life) in what are obviously the most straitened of circumstances.

After the vodka and beer, we decide to visit the gents, where the Dutch notice a copy of a pamphlet on Lenin lying half open with several pages torn out, an appropriate alternative to the old newspapers which elsewhere serve as toilet paper.

Friday. Am flattered by the students' kind words at the end of the week. Leave Moscow refreshed in my commitment to teaching. Frantic drive to the airport where even though the lights are working it still takes 55 minutes to get through passport control, leaving no time for western consumerism at the duty-free shop.

Reader in history at the University of Liverpool.

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