It’s an unsettling experience to be driven through Moscow at hell-for-leather speed by a Georgian cabbie with suspiciously dilated pupils, especially while he indignantly explains the Russian-Georgian conflict to you with his head turned over his shoulder.
I can’t say that much of his explanation stuck.
This was a few years back and I had been asked to lecture at Moscow State University. At first there seemed to be no intelligible reason. Granted, I do speak Swedish and it was the Swedish subsection of the Faculty of Foreign Languages and Area Studies that invited me. But still, why invite a cynical, constantly quipping columnist to lead the students astray?
It didn’t make any sense.
The actual explanation made even less sense. This particular group of students were learning Swedish largely by reading and painstakingly translating my columns. They solemnly sat by their desks and, with much deference, turned jokes they didn’t understand about people they’ve never heard of into what I only can assume was something even more pointless in Russian.
Of course, it was too bizarre to pass up. My wife and I flew to Moscow.
I delivered a lecture stuffed with sardonic irony. The students all took comprehensive notes. No one smiled.
Afterwards there was a kind of reception. Partially inspired by my Georgian cabbie I tried to talk a little bit about politics with the female professor. It was a no go. Next to “buziness”, she explained, there was nothing that interested her less than politics.
Having established that I tried a more general angle: what did the Moscow papers write about these days?
She looked more than a bit affronted.
“Really”, she said with perfect Swedish diction, “I wouldn’t dream of reading the papers”.
So what did she read? Tolstoy, of course. Pushkin. Maybe the odd Dostoevsky, to curb any frivolity.
We didn’t keep in touch.
Our hotel wasn’t, strictly speaking, a hotel. It was a room off a corridor in one of Stalin’s Seven Sisters, the giant skyscrapers that tells you what Manhattan would have looked like, if Joe Kennedy and Charles Lindbergh had gotten their fascist-state. There was nothing wrong with the room. At least as long as you didn’t turn the tap on in the bathroom. If you did the floor was immediately covered in a couple of inches of water.