We believe that we think with our minds, but in reality, I found, we really think with our blood. Blood follows you and draws you towards itself. Twenty six years after my mother finally left Moscow to marry my father, I moved in the opposite direction, back to Russia. For much of my time there, I thought I was in a story without a narrative, a constantly changing slide-show of phantasmagoria which Moscow was projecting onto my life for my personal delectation. But in fact I was caught in a cool web of blood-knowledge which was slowly winding me in. I have found myself, time and again, tripping over the roots of experience which I shared with my parents and grandparents. Echoes of their lives kept cropping up in mine like ghosts, things which remained unchanged in the rhythms of the city which I believed was so full of the new and the now. The damp-wool smell of the Metro in winter. Rainy nights on the backstreets of the Arbat when the eerie bulk of the Foreign Ministry glows like a fog-bound liner. The lights of a Siberian city like an island in a sea of forest seen from the window of a tiny, bouncing plane. The smell of the sea-wind at Tallinn docks. And, towards the end of my time in Moscow, the sudden, piercing realization that all my life, I had loved precisely the woman who was sitting by my side at a table among friends in a warm fug of cigarette smoke and conversation in the kitchen of an apartment off the Arbat. I came to Moscow to get away from my parents. Instead, I found them there, though for a long time I didn't know it, or refused to see it. So I began to write a story about Russia and my family, about a place which made us and freed us and inspired us and very nearly broke us.
It's hard, now, to imagine the thrill and the mystery of moving to Moscow, the secretive capital of a parallel, hostile world, as my father did as a young diplomat in September 1958. The Moscow he knew is separated from the Russia in which I lived not just by half a lifetime but by a seismic shift of history. My father's generation was defined by a bitter ideological divide which ran across the world, and he, for reasons that I only began to understand when I went to live in Russia myself thirty years later, did everything in his power to live on the other side of that divide. The time and city were pregnant with pitfalls for a young man in love with Russia and blessed, or cursed, with a strong wayward streak. The Cold War, which was born along with my father's fascination for Russia, was approaching its height. Soviet tanks had recently crushed the Hungarian Rising, and there could be no doubt that it was the ambition of Socialism to conquer the world. To the Embassy Cold Warriors with whom he worked, Moscow was then the heart of all the darkness in the world.
When my father first arrived in Moscow, the city's soul was swelling with victory and pride, not deflating in exhaustion. The Moscow he knew was a controlled, oppressive place, not the teeming mayhem into which it was to descend after the Soviet Union collapsed. And emotionally, for my father, the distance was far greater. For a generation unused to travel, Russia might as well have been on a different planet. But Mervyn could not have been happier. For all the rigidity and control, my father found Moscow a place of adventures, where he was courted by the KGB and fell in love. He had finally loosed himself from his home place in the world, and was drifting towards a place where he fitted in.
My Russia was a society adrift. Over the last seventy years Russians had lost much of their culture and their God. But at least the Soviet state had compensated by filling the ideological vacuum with its own bold myths and strict codes. It fed people, taught and clothed them, ordered their lives from cradle to grave and, most importantly, thought for them. Communists - men like my grandfather - had tried to create a new kind of man, emptying men of their old beliefs and re-filling them with civic duty, patriotism and docility. But when Communist ideology was stripped away, so its quaintly Fifties morality also disappeared into the black hole of discarded mythologies. People put their faith in television healers, Japanese apocalyptic cults, even in the jealous old God of Orthodoxy. But more profound than any of Russia's other, new-found faiths, was an absolute, bottomless nihilism. Suddenly there were no rules, no holds barred, and everything went for those bold and ruthless enough to go out and grab as much as they could.
Excerpt from Stalin's Children: Three Generations of Love and War by Owen Matthews, published by Walker & Company.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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