Anyone who has the misfortune to have proximity to the daily life of a writer knows that everything is up for grabs when it comes to subject matter. Whether you’re an essayist or a novelist, a journalist or a blogger, you’re always on the hunt for material.
With this in mind, it seemed like going on the TransSiberian Railway last November, and not writing about it, would be like losing two stone and looking blank when someone complimented you on your newly invisible arse.
There were a few comments from readers about how much they looked forward to seeing me write about my travels. A few other smartie pantses commented on the fact that I had blog fodder for the foreseeable, now that I had actual adventures to bore people to death with. The fact that I’m not a travel blogger didn’t seem to make any difference to either camp.
Consequently, I sat down to write. I had so many fond memories from November I was sure it would be easy.
There was that hilarious episode while trying to change 5,000 rouble banknotes with highly disgruntled shop assistants in Moscow, for starters. And the developing smell in the corridor of the train on day 5 – surely that warranted a post all by itself? Tee-hee, I thought. Perhaps I am a travel blogger after all, I grinned smugly (although if there’s another way to grin other than smugly, I would be interested in hearing about it).
Three thousand deleted words later, I was forced to admit defeat.
I had failed to answer the most important question, which is: what the hell do you write about Russia, without getting yourself or anybody else into trouble?
For starters, I considered it wise not to mention the Russian ban on EU imports (in retaliation for sanctions), which meant that I couldn’t eat a brie and prosciutto sandwich, even while walking past the emporia of Gucci, Prada, Chanel, Hermès, and Louis Vuitton in central Moscow.
I also couldn’t mention the high level of security in Moscow, which largely resulted in vast numbers of armed security personnel walking around in every place and at every thing, staring with deadened eyes as people blithely walked around metal detectors on their way into shopping malls.
Once that observation had been ruled out, I thought it best not to mention the incident at the Moscow concert, where the man ahead of me (my husband, but don’t tell anyone) beeped, having actually walked through a metal detector, prompting an ennui-laden armed guard to step forward and make the international Charades gesture for a man around his body without touching a single fibre of his clothing, let alone him.
I could, I thought, make the remark that Moscow was one of the best-looking cities I have ever seen: a city of hills and hollows, designer labels and diamonds, ornate plasterwork and domes, and some of the most garishly coloured buildings that I’ve ever seen outside of seaside towns, beautiful and shining even under the cold grey skies of the early Russian winter.
But then I wrote that if I was an American President, I’d call it a 10: and that paragraph got deleted faster than any of the others.
I had fond thoughts about eating in Russia at 1 o’clock in the morning, in restaurants with signs outside which said they closed at 11pm; but then I wondered if that might get people I’d never even met into trouble, so I scrapped that anecdote quick-smart.
Moving swiftly on, I tried to write something about the fact that our first weekend in Russia coincided with a national holiday and a major parade in Moscow, the purpose of which was a little fuzzy around the edges (the closest I could get to its official title was ‘Parade Which They Insisted Was Not A Reluctant Centenary Of The 1917 Revolution Even Though Most People Were More Or Less Certain That’s Exactly What It Was Really’).
This fuzzy holiday nonetheless resulted in lots of people being on the move that week, and consequently on the train, as we moved eastwards.
Tearful platform goodbyes and luggage of all shapes and sizes gave us some glimpse of the working life of those who work far away from their families, in a country so large that sometimes there’s 3 days between you and your kids. But the stated intent of the national holiday versus its outward appearance was so tricky, that instead of writing an emotive piece about an awe-inspiringly vast country, I got a headache, and had to go and lie down.
Eventually I came to the conclusion that it might be safe to write about the practicality and sagacity of Russian people, who will never go anywhere without a warm coat, even when head-to-toe in designer gear while it’s only zero degrees, which in Russia I believe is quite balmy. This is the polar (sorry) opposite of Irish people, who will only dress for weather once it’s made the news headlines.
Unfortunately, that turned out to be sanctimonious as well as boring, so I was forced to delete that too.
The upshot of all this paranoia is that I was left with nothing to write about Russia. This is a terrible shame, because it is a very beautiful, very interesting, very large country, which is full of surprises, and people tut-tutting at you for doing really stupid things, like looking at the outside of the FSB building, or trying to change a 5,000 rouble note you just got out of a Russian bank ATM.
I have therefore no alternative but to not write about it at all, and instead return there at some point in the visa-dependent future in order to form safe opinions about it.
In the meantime, please enjoy this picture of an apolitical kitten. Thank you.