Thursday, 28 June 2018

The love song of the dark lady








Chapter 1

I flew into Moscow and immediately the cold hit me. It had been a cold morning earlier when I had got up and been driven to the airport by my husband Petr, but it had not been like this. Moscow was at least fifteen degrees colder if not twenty. There was no wind and it was dry, much healthier than on the Baltic, but breathing was difficult and it hardly seemed possible to wear enough layers.
Sheremetevo’s domestic terminal seemed as shabby as it had been all those years before when I had first arrived there. But it was, of course shabby in a rather different way. Back then in the late 1980s there were few, if any, adverts, there were few, if any, shops and there was the odd bit of propaganda which was immediately contradicted by the reality all around. But somehow it had been more honest.
I made my way through the terminal. I had all I needed with me and so didn’t have to wait. I had, perhaps rather too much time if anything so there was no need to hurry.
I passed some baffled tourists about to be ripped off by extortionate taxi drivers and instead found a likely group who might know a cheaper way to get into the centre of Moscow.
“Do you know how to get to the metro from here” I asked someone pretty much at random.
“I think we’re all doing the same,” he said. “Just follow the crowd.”
“Don’t worry,” said another woman. “Everyone’s waiting for the same bus. Then you’ll need to make just one more change and you’re there. You’re not from round here?”
“I’m from Kaliningrad.”
She looked a little unsure.
“It’s on the Baltic next to Poland, I added.”
“Ah yes, your accent sounds a little different. Where are you from originally? Lithuania?”
“Everyone asks me that,” I laughed. “I’m Russian like all of us, it’s just I lived abroad a bit when I was a child.”
People were friendly at bus stops in way that is rare in a country like Scotland where I had spent my childhood. In Aberdeenshire everyone avoided any acknowledgement of those they did not know. Everyone sat on their own if at all possible, on the bus and moved whenever there was a spare two person seat as if they might catch something from sitting next to a stranger. Conversation happened, but rarely, usually when something unusual happened like the bus breaking down or some such disaster. Then everyone wanted to talk, but only then and the next day the shutters would be closed once more. I liked that even in a huge city like Moscow people wanted to help each other. Perhaps, it was because it was only in this way that we had been able to get through the tough times.
After a rather complicated journey involving a couple of changes and a few short walks I arrived at the metro station. I thought once more of the poor tourists. There is no way they could have done what I had just done. Russian really opened the gate that took you into Russia. Without it you saw nothing but the tourist attractions and understood less of where you actually were.
I had been to Moscow a few times over the years, but I was far from familiar with the metro. But again I knew where I had to get to and it was easy to find someone who would tell me the best way to get there.
I sat back and found my book. I’d chosen to take with me ‘A sSory of a Soul’ by Thérèse of Liseux. I hoped it would keep me on the right path in case of any difficulty.
The names of the metro stations flashed by, nearly all still the Soviet names. I wondered why they had changed so much but not that. But then it would have been necessary to destroy all the art too and that would clearly have been vandalism. So best to keep Komsomolskaya, Ploshchad  Revolyutsii and such like along with the Soviet realism that had a strange beauty even if it covered up a multitude of sins.
I was rather early when I arrived at the metro station where I had arranged to meet Galina. So I found a café nearby and sat there smoking and drinking a large black coffee. It was amazing how coffee had improved since when I’d first arrived in Russia. I remembered the row that I’d had with Petr the night before. He didn’t want me to go. It was the long January holidays and I’d be spending them away from him. He was right. There was no real reason why I should be here. I didn’t even really know where I was going or rather where I was being taken. I hadn’t seen Galina in well over a year and anyway I wasn’t much closer to her than any number of my students. Sometimes it was possible to make a certain sort of friendship with a student, but it rarely lasted and there was usually some sort of a distance. I’d corresponded with Galina intermittently I don’t remember who first started writing, I think it was her,  but I had always been pleased to write because she had a little something extra that I’d  recognised and valued. Sometimes she hadn’t replied for months, but then out of the blue would come a long e-mail.  In the end, I’d come because her mother had visited me in my office and had asked me to get in touch with Galina and try to see her. After a few minutes I’d felt I had no choice but to agree.
“But why you?” Petr had said.
“Because I’m the only one who can.”
“You still have to do the knight errant stuff, don’t you, Effie?”
“If I wasn’t that sort how do you think I’d have end up here?”
That had rather ended the argument. We reflected back all those years ago. How we’d met, how I’d ended up going to him and it seemed silly fighting after that. So we didn’t.
Sitting there in the Moscow café I thought of the first time I’d flown into Kalingrad. It was a few years before the Soviet Union broke up. Yes, I had been something of a romantic back then, but I didn’t regret it. We’d married in Copenhagen in the Saint Alexander Nevsky Church. We then had a wonderful few days together in one of the nicest hotels. Soon, however, Petr had to go back to Kalingrad and I was left in an apartment waiting for the paperwork that would enable me to join him.
I contacted my parents who were upset, but remarkably understanding. I had a sort of fellowship in Cambridge and they, too, were most accommodating. They were happy to describe my time in the Soviet Union as research if I could just come back every now and again and let them know how things were going. I promised to stay in touch and they promised to stay in touch, too. My salary would be paid into my account and they’d work out a way that I could have some of it if that should ever be necessary.
I had a number of interviews with people at the Soviet Embassy in Copenhagen. For the most part they were perfectly pleasant. They were also very helpful and gave good advice. I remember when they told me my new name.
“We have decided that you will be called Evgenia Ivanovna. It’s the closest common name to Effie.”
“Effie wouldn’t work in Kaliningrad,” I agreed.
“No. As you know, it’s a closed city. Only Soviet citizens can live there.”
“It’s still going to be a bit tricky in the beginning with my Russian and my accent.”
“You are going to have to spend a lot of time listening and not so much time speaking, at least in the beginning.”
“But I’m going to have to speak sometimes.”
“Your story will be this. You grew up in Scotland because your parents were involved in a Soviet trade mission there, to do with oil. You went to local schools there and didn’t like speaking Russian because your friends laughed. It is for this reason you speak such good English and can teach it and this also explains your mistakes and your accent.”
“Do you think people will believe this story?”
“I don’t want you to tell it that often. I don’t want gossip about you. You must spend the next few years being unnoticed, but if you get someone who won’t shut up asking questions or if you meet an official who wants to be troublesome, you must show them this.”
In the folder where my passport fitted there was a document and a stamp. I looked at it, looked at the embassy official, who confirmed what I was thinking with a nod. She closed the passport and gave it to me.
“You are booked on tomorrow’s flight to Moscow and from there to Kaliningrad. Good luck and welcome to the Soviet Union.”
I’d been anxious on that first flight into Moscow. I just didn’t know what to expect. I’d not once set foot in the Soviet Union, but here I was a citizen about to be reunited with my husband of less than a month.
My Russian was good even then, I spoke more or less fluently, but I wasn’t used to the speed at which people spoke and I didn’t get all of the colloquial expressions.
There was a hold up at the passport control counter. The guard said something very quickly to me and I only got about half of it.
“I’m sorry”, I said, “Could you repeat that?”
He looked at me as if I was stupid.
“Are you quite sure, you’re a Soviet citizen, comrade?”
“Yes, you have my passport.”
“It’s a brand new passport with no stamps.”
“I lost mine in Denmark. The embassy there provided me with a new one.”
“What were you doing there?”
“I don’t think we need to go into that”, I said. “Actually I was getting married. I’m going to see him now.”
“That’s what you think. I’m going to call….”
“I wouldn’t do that. Rather look inside the back cover of my passport.”
He did so.
“I am sorry to have held you up, comrade” he said passing me my passport.
“Not at all, you were doing your job correctly. Thank you.”
I looked back and saw that he was obviously nervous, but then again so was I. That little piece of paper proved useful on a number of occasions in those days.
I looked at my watch and realised that my reflections on my first arrival in the Soviet Union had nearly taken me up to the time of my meeting with Galina.
I got up, went to the garderobe, gave the old lady the token and put on my coat, scarf and hat and made my way out into the cold. It was only a hundred or so metres to the metro and I thought it might be Galina I could see in the distance, only she wasn’t alone. But then again our arrangements had been terribly vague. She hadn’t said she would be with someone, but then again she hadn’t said she would not. As I got closer I realised that it was Galina, but somehow she looked different.
“Hello, Galina!”
“Hello, Evgenia Ivanovna! Allow me to introduce my friend David. He’s come all the way from Scotland.”
I thought I vaguely recognised him from a couple of years earlier. I thought perhaps Galina had introduced us once before.
“I think we met once before,” he said in pretty good Russian. “Galina took me to your office once.”
“I remember. Your Russian has improved, I believe. And please let’s all be informal. None of this Evgenia Ivanovna, Galina, if we’re on a trip together, let it be Zhenya.”
“That’s easier for me, too,” said David. “I can never quite get used to the formal ‘you’ form.”
“I know what you mean,” I said. “English is much less complex since we did away with all that.”
“We just have to wait for one more,” said Galina.
I saw a moment of surprise in David’s eyes, perhaps a moment of disappointment. He was quite animated as if the last few hours had been something he had been waiting for. It looked as if everything was working out very well with Galina. She was smiling at him and he was just delighted to be there with her.
“Who are we waiting for?”  I said.
“Oh, just a friend, she’s called Vera.”
A few minutes later we went through the introductions again and then set off to find the train that would take us into the countryside surrounding Moscow.

Chapter 2
We were going to some little place on the outskirts of Moscow that I’d never heard of and apparently it would take about an hour on the little suburban “electrichka”. Since Vera had turned up the mood had rather changed. Galina began speaking rapid-fire colloquial Russian and David simply couldn’t keep up or join in. I felt it was my job to field him.
I half listened to what Galina and Vera were talking about. It was bits and pieces about working in offices, some things about popular culture and a bit about what we were going to do when we got to our destination. Vera sometimes even made somewhat sarcastic remarks about some leader and his pretty new Russian wife. Galina looked rather sternly at her. David began to look a little left out, so I talked to him.
“You’re tired no doubt,” I said. “You must have flown all night.”
“Yes, I flew from Aberdeen. You may not know it. It’s a town in the North-East of Scotland.”
“Yes, I know where it is.”
“That’s strange, few people in Russia do.”
“How long have you been learning Russian? You know, you speak it pretty well.”
“Around three, or is it more like four years? I still struggle a bit when they speak quickly.”
I looked at him more closely. I guessed that he was about thirty five. There was something very intense and serious about his look. I could see how it might put some people off. His eyes rather looked into your soul. Above all, he looked cold. He had on a leather jacket that was simply inadequate for minus thirty and he just didn’t have on the sort of clothes that Russians knew to wear. He didn’t have on enough layers.
“Have you been to Moscow before?” I asked.
“Never, I’ve only been to Kaliningrad.”
“It’s rather strange, there’s nothing much there.”
“But you like it well enough.”
“Yes, but not for reasons of tourism. It’s my home.”
“I’ve never been much of a tourist either.”
He looked at Galina and I could see that he wasn’t here to see anything, he was only here to see her. She had changed since I’d last seen her. I remembered how she had arrived at my class at the university; it must have been four or five years earlier. She used to arrive as if dressed to go out to a nightclub. Her long black hair she used as a sort of extra means of expression. She would touch it, flick it. She knew that everyone was looking. I saw her sometimes as I went into the class. She’d stand before the mirror in the hallway, adjusting her hair, making sure her makeup was just right. She was stunning and she knew it. Everyone else knew it, too.
For a long time, she’d sat in the class and said almost nothing. But I took her aside one time and asked why she was so quiet. I wondered if the class bored her. But no, in the next five minutes she showed that she had taken in much of what I had been teaching and had gone beyond it in a couple of places. She was able to think for herself and wanted to do so. I wondered if she was worried about ruining the effect if she started getting involved in a discussion of literature, philosophy and theology. So I began asking her to have coffee with me so that we could talk alone. We did this for some time.
Over the years I watched how Galina changed her appearance. The young model look was suddenly ditched at the end of her second year. She came back from the summer holidays dressed as if she hadn’t thought at all about what she was going to wear. Her hair was simply combed and she wore no makeup. She was still stunning, if anything she was more beautiful. She wasn’t trying anymore. She didn’t need to. The looks that she was used to getting from the boys if anything increased, but she no longer seemed to welcome them. She rebuffed them.
Our occasional coffees continued even after she graduated. She mentioned some of the things she was exploring. She began buying books on Taoism, Buddhism, or forms of mysticism. I tried to steer her back to the traditions which were closer to home, but she wasn’t very interested. I said that it was a mistake to think you need to journey to India to find the truth. You can find it in a prison like Boethius. You can find it in Kaliningrad or anywhere else you happen to be. But she was young and wanted to travel. She ended up working in a Russian language school for foreigners. She was rather hindered, I suspect, by not speaking any English, but her role was not so much that of a teacher as that of an administrator.  
Looking at her now sitting opposite me I found the change extraordinary. She had taken off her heavy jacket and unwrapped some of the other layers and set on one side her faux fur hat. I was confronted with a beautiful twenty-four or twenty-five year old woman who had tried and failed to make herself less beautiful. It was as if she had turned herself into Cinderella or more sinisterly into a woman faced with an invading army who tries to make herself  inconspicuous and ugly so as not be noticed.
Galina looked thin as if she had been fasting or more likely, ill. This was plausible enough after all, as she had only relatively recently returned from India and had been there for some time.
It looked as if she had cut her hair herself. It was short but rather uneven as if she had used dress-making scissors and used them quickly. But the black sheen of her hair was still there and somehow despite her efforts it was as if she was trying out some experimental hair style. She had a dark beauty, partly from the blackness of her hair, which would have survived any of her attempts to wreck it. But this darkness was not really matter of complexion, which was fair, or eyes, which were light brown, as it was simply how I had always seen her. I’m not using the word dark in any way negatively, quite the reverse.  I think, everyone would have agreed about the description dark, just as everyone would have agreed about the description beautiful, even if it isn’t always easy to describe quite in what way she had these qualities.
I couldn’t help noticing how David glanced at her. He was quite obviously in love with her and hoped that she would come to love him. It was equally clear to me that she did not, at least not in an ordinary straightforward way. Otherwise, she would have been engrossed in conversation with him.
I thought, any woman could have grasped the truth of the whole situation in second. After all, why else would he have flown so far if he did not love her? He certainly would not have done so to meet a man. The very idea was absurd. But then I thought, surely Galina could grasp this situation, too. In which case why did she ask him to come? I assumed she had. Then I remembered how they had been when I first saw them that morning. They’d seemed like a couple somehow. There had been that spark. But it wasn’t there now. I sat puzzled.
I saw how David glanced and looked away so as not to appear as if he was staring. Obviously, he still found her attractive. He was right, too. Somehow the Cinderella look worked even better than how she had been aged eighteen. That was a little girl playing with makeup, this was a woman who was beautiful because she didn’t give a damn how she looked.
“You met Galina in Kaliningrad?” I asked David. I saw Galina glance up at the mention of her name.
“It was on my second trip there,” said David. “She was working at the school and one of the teachers thought it a good idea that she show me around and that we have some conversation practice.” 
He spoke exceptionally very well indeed for someone who had only been learning Russian for three or four years. The grammar was more or less correct and his accent fairly natural. Still I adapted the way I spoke. Thinking of words he would probably know and saying them clearly.
“It seems to me your conversation practice must have gone well. After all, you are here.”
“The first time we had an afternoon together I hardly understood half of what she said. She has a habit of getting excited and speaking very quickly.  I was still working out the grammar in my head and spoke poorly. But somehow there was a sort of breakthrough that day.”
“I know what you mean. I teach English as well as bits and pieces of other subjects. The key I think is always that moment when you must understand and speak because you so desperately want to. It’s good to have that motivation. What better motivation could there have been?”
I glanced across and saw that he had caught my glance, though I thought, no one else had.
“I realised that I could understand without getting all the words and I could make myself understood even if I didn’t know a word or if I mangled the grammar. I used all sorts of strategies including pantomime, but I could talk about films I loved and literature, too.”
Galina interrupted: “You speak much better now, David, there’s no comparison.”
“It’s all down to you,” he answered.
“You exaggerate as always. What have I done? We spent a few days together, then as I recall you decided to snub me.”
“What this?” I said. “Was there a tiff? Do tell!”
“It’s all best forgotten,” David said. “I was rather silly. Galina, you see, was a bit busy back then and after meeting up a few times, it turned out she had no more afternoons free. So after that we saw rather less of each other, only really at the school.”
“He became very formal,” said Galina, “like a 19th century English gentleman. I remember he rather surprised me on his last day by saying something rather withering in extraordinarily good Russian. I was observing his class and made a comment and he just let rip with a sentence that was far above his level as if he was dredging it up because he so desperately needed it.”
“Perhaps, now it is you that is exaggerating,” said David.
“I think not. When he left that day he all but clicked his heels and made a bow. It was very charming indeed.”
“I don’t understand then,” I said. “It sounds like it all ended badly.”
“So why am I here?” said David.
“Quite so,” I said.
“I wrote to him,” said Galina. “How could I not?”
“And I wrote back,” said David. “Not only did she teach me to speak, she also taught me to write.”
“Nonsense,” said Galina. “You taught yourself. He writes really rather well, remarkably correctly. He writes these long letters which somehow describe emotions, but not specifically; they say almost nothing, but are full of feeling.”
“Sometimes I get even get replies,” he said.
It was extraordinary listening to this exchange. She was pleased to see him. More than that, at times she was acting like a school girl.
“Is this your first meeting since the heel clicking and the bows?” I said.
“Yes,” said David. “Since then we’ve only written e-mails.”
I sat their wondering. Why did she write to him? Why did she invite him to see her in Moscow? What really did she want?

Chapter 3
As we sat chatting I sometimes helped David out when I saw that he was struggling with a word. I’d just quickly slip in the English word. Finally, seeing that he had been up all night I tried an experiment.
“De ye ken far we’re garn?” I said.
He looked at me as if I was from the moon.
“How on earth?” he said in English.
I don’t intend to reproduce the Aberdeenshire Scots of the area where I was born in this narrative, not least because even people from Edinburgh might struggle to understand, and I have no idea how to spell it. Anyway, I find the attempt to write Scots, as opposed to speaking it, tiresome and far too tied up with political sentiments with which I disagree. But anyone reading this is welcome if they know how to pronounce it in their head as if they are from Aberdeenshire.
“Can you understand Doric?” I said.
“Not bad, but I just don’t get to speak it that often.”
“I don’t either, as you can well imagine, but this is how I spoke in my youth.”
“Where are you from? I thought you were Russian?”
“I am Russian.”
“But then?”
“I’m not only Russian. Let’s not get into that just now. As I said earlier, do you know where we’re going?”
“I know a bit, but not that much.”
“Maybe we could compare what we know.”
Galina looked over at us: “He should be practicing his Russian, Zhenya. Anyway, what sort of language are you speaking?”
“It sounds something like Danish,” said Vera.
“I think, David’s tired,” I said. “We’re just having a little break.”
I looked across at him and wondered if he had understood the nature of my little experiment.
“I’ve found it useful,” I said, “sometimes in life to have a language that no one else can understand. Quite often that language is Russian, but what if you live in a country where everyone speaks Russian, or indeed where everyone speaks English?”
“Is that why you started speaking to me in Doric?”
“Well, they can jabber away in their fast colloquial Russian that you can’t understand, why shouldn’t we do the same”
During the rest of the journey and in bits and pieces of conversation later on we shared what we knew of our destination. I taught David a method of indirect communication. As long as you were circumspect, as long as we didn’t use names or phrases which would be obvious we could talk quite freely in our private language, which only someone from Aberdeenshire could understand.
Ever since Galina had given up her makeup, ever since she’d stopped looking in the mirror every time she’d come into class, I’d known that she’d changed. I didn’t ask her what had happened. We were sort of friends but it was more a teacher pupil kind of thing. She must have been twenty years younger than me.
She’d come to my office. I’d read something she had written and we’d discuss it sometimes. We’d meet up and drink coffee. Once in a while she came to dinner with my husband and perhaps one or two other students. I might once in a while meet her friends. There were some hints occasionally about what had happened that summer. I guessed a couple of things. It wasn’t anything drastic. Or at least if she had said anything about it, no one would have considered it so. But sometimes something very private that only matters to the person concerned can put them on a different path. She sometimes also talked indirectly. She sometimes gave what might have been clues. Perhaps, I even picked up on a few of them even then, but nothing really was said.
Over the next couple of years she devoted herself to her studies in a way that she had not previously. She began to come out with some interesting ideas. I’d give her an article to read or a novel, and simply suggest that she write something about it. Sometimes I thought she missed the point, but then sometimes what she wrote was rather brilliant.
As she became more deeply involved in her studies she more and more held herself aloof. The girls with whom she had been friends were baffled that she no longer cared about clothes, makeup, celebrities and television. The boys found her more attractive than ever in a way that was quite unexpected even to them. They would have said that they preferred the young model look. They didn’t. They were embraced, insofar as they wanted to talk about philosophy, literature and theology. They did indeed want to talk about these things. But as soon as Galina discovered that the subject that actually interested them was her, she began holding them aloof, too. Eventually word got round that it wasn’t worth bothering. She became part of a small group of the more studious students. The crowd that was not in. But even here there was something missing. While previously she had made friends easily, now her aloofness somehow was retained even with those who shared her interests. They didn’t share her interests. She was beginning to be interested in something else.
I was as close as anyone to Galina in those days, but she still called me the Russian equivalent of “vous”. We more or less only talked of her studies but widely and in a way that was freely touched on whatever came to mind. She used her essays to communicate some of what she was really feeling and our academic talk would skirt around the personal without directly stating anything. A discussion of literature can be quite revealing and can be intended to reveal. But there is only so far a closeness can go when it is developed in terms of metaphor. We were not that close.
She would ask me to suggest books for her to read. Her interest was presented as academic, but I knew that far more, it was personal. She was looking for something in books and wanted to discover some piece of literature that would provide what she was looking for. She didn’t know what it was, which was why she asked me. But although it was all connected to the subjects we were studying, it wasn’t so much for that reason that she was asking. She felt a need.
I told her of some of the books I had liked in Cambridge. I mentioned Walter Scott’s ‘Redgauntlet’, James Hilton’s ‘Lost Horizon’, Kierkegaard’s ‘For Self-Examination’, parts of Wittgenstein’s ‘Tractatus  and Philosophical Investigations’, ‘The Story of a Soul’ by Thérèse of Lisieux and other things that had influenced and changed me. I mentioned Dostoevsky, but she already had read and hated Dostoevsky at school. That was always the pity of force feeding great chunks of Russian literature to school children. They had to spend their summer holidays reading quickly what they could not understand and, certainly, not understand quickly. I’ve met far too many Russians who can’t stand Tolstoy, or Dostoevsky because of how it was forced on them at school, but then I’ve met a lot of people in Britain who wouldn’t dream of reading Shakespeare for pleasure.
I played her music that I liked, especially some pieces of 20th century classical music which she had never heard. I told her of how through listening to some of these composers I had seen some connections between music, literature, philosophy and theology. I said that all of these things together and many other things had been part of what made me think the way I did.
But she didn’t like the path which I was pointing her towards. I always describe this as the great choice: either Kierkegaard or Hegel. That is the fork in the road. You either think in the end that everything is one or you think that everything is different and discreet. You either think in terms of the individual or in terms of the collective. Galina didn’t care much for the books that I suggested.
Her parents had been quite deeply involved in the Party and when it all fell apart, they were left in a much worse situation. So indeed were many of us. As a little girl Galina had known almost nothing of Orthodoxy. It became clear to me over time that she was looking for something else. It was for this reason that she didn’t find what she was looking for in the books that I suggested or the music I played to her. I’m not even sure that she looked seriously. She saw the label Christianity, and immediately knew that what she was looking for she would not find there. She told me that she found Christianity dull and too every day, just old ladies with head scarfs and men with beards. Besides, the Orthodox Church had always sided with those in power. In a way she wished she could feel something for it but she didn’t. Somehow it was both too near, too familiar, but also too far away. She had been brought up to think of the Church as superstition and that the Party had raised Russia out of the mire of ignorance. The books that I had been suggesting didn’t touch her or what was more important, they only touched her intellectually and therefore in the end, they did not even touch her intellectually. She didn’t really go beyond the surface of these books, because she had already rejected them before she had even started reading. I told her how I had been the same at her age, but somehow faith had come to me as a gift most unexpectedly. I had thought that I was arguing against it, but found one day that I was arguing for it and that the argument I was using was the same argument from a different perspective. She looked at me baffled and she was right to be baffled: I couldn’t explain. Who can?
She started looking elsewhere than me. At that time in Kaliningrad a lot of people from the West started arriving offering free classes in dianetics, massage, English, meditation or yoga. What they were offering was free, but it quickly became clear that they were selling something.
It’s hard to get across to people, who didn’t go through it, how traumatic the break-up of the Soviet Union was for so many people. There had been certain rules of life that you followed. These led to success. Life in the late 1980s wasn’t perfect, but it wasn’t bad. The idea that people have of the Soviet Union in the West is nearly always completely false. In many, if not most respects, it was much better than what came afterwards. If you studied and worked reasonably hard, life was pretty good. It wasn’t like the 1930s.
When I first arrived in Kaliningrad, I started by teaching English. For the first year or so I studied Russian intensively with a personal tutor. I went to the obligatory Marxism-Leninism lectures and I also had some courses in philosophy and literature. Of course, much of what I had already studied in the West was not taught in the Soviet Union, but then neither was much that was taught in the Soviet Union known about in the West. I started reading 20th century Russian literature and found much of it very interesting. Some of course, was dull and stupid, but that’s the same everywhere.
I was paid an academic’s salary even while I was still studying and getting up to speed with my Russian. My English lessons were for the most advanced students. None of the other English teachers had been abroad, and so they frequently had rather odd ideas of what was correct and what was incorrect. Moreover, they didn’t generally teach people to communicate. That was my task. The people I taught were usually those destined in some way to work abroad.
With my husband’s salary and mine we lived pretty well. We had the upstairs part of a house a couple of miles from the centre. The house was one of those old German ones with large rooms. Food was cheap. There wasn’t a lot of choice, but then who needs more than one type of cheese. There were frustrations and the bureaucracy was ridiculous, but we had enough to go out regularly and to take trips. Weekends would involve a trip to the beach or to the woods, where there would be barbecues. The men went on drunken fishing trips. There were loads of holidays.
I never regretted going to the Soviet Union. I was intensely happy there. There were rules. There were things you didn’t talk about and there were things you had to do. But so long as you played the game, all would be well. I had a good job for life that paid me enough to live well. So did my husband. I was lucky in addition that I still had my job in the UK. I was still a fellow of my college and they paid me quite a decent amount given that I only ever turned up there about once a year.  I’d go back, chat with my colleagues and friends, bring some articles and whatever else might be useful, then I’d go up to Scotland to see my parents and afterwards fly back to Kaliningrad. Visas were never a problem as I always had two passports and just switched them. People were very understanding and in case of difficulty, well let’s say there was never any difficulty.
Of course, I had advantages that were unavailable to all Soviet citizens at that time. My husband had a fairly important job with the government, we had certain privileges and we had access to foreign currency if and when we needed it. But we rarely did. My friends weren’t exactly destitute. I went to people’s apartments and had dinner with them. They had enough and more. What we all had was certainty. We knew how things would play out. You worked hard and once a year you’d get to go to the Crimea or the Black Sea coast. You might sometimes get a trip to Moscow or “Peter”. As long as you kept out of trouble, all would be well.
Behind closed doors we were free. I discussed what I pleased with my husband and certain friends that he introduced to me. We sometimes even had religious services. There was no problem doing this at all so long as you were discreet. There was no problem with almost anything so long as you didn’t think it necessary to wear a t-shirt.
When it all fell apart however, there was uncertainty. Suddenly the rules didn’t apply. A job in a university no longer paid very much at all. Someone who had an important job with the government might find they had no job at all.  The paths to success after 1991 frequently led to failure. Suddenly we were all much, much poorer. I remember in the early 1990s we received food aid from the USA. We ate the chicken they did not want to.
It was no longer necessary to attend the Marxism-Leninism lectures. It was no longer necessary to sit quietly in the Komsomol meetings. But those things were a small price to pay for the certainty. Nearly everything that everyone had been taught to believe their whole life turned out to be false. The whole economy turned out to be some sort of house of cards. We had thought of the Soviet Union as indivisible, but in one breath it all fell apart in what felt like seconds.
With so much uncertainty, with so many of the old certainties discredited there was a vacuum. There was a desire for something to replace what had been lost. We kept our street names in Kaliningrad for we could not revert to the old German ones, but some of the statues were moved. Nearly everywhere else in Russia went back to its pre-revolution name. Kalinin became Tver, Sverdlovsk became Ekaterinburg, Kubyshev became Samara, Gorky became Nizhny Novgorod, Leningrad became St. Petersburg, etc. etc. So we were no longer to believe in Lenin or any of the others communists who had had cities named after them. It wasn’t quite like the way Stalin had been purged after his death. Statues remained and Kaliningrad remained a sort of time capsule of communism at least in terms of names. But still if your faith had been Marxism-Leninism, if you believed that Lenin was a more or less perfect human being, even indeed if you had liked your life in the Soviet Union and found the new Russia rather less likeable and much more uncertain, you began to feel rather empty.
Some people filled the vacuum with what had always been a part of Russian life. They went back to the old ways. Orthodoxy began to flourish again. We rebuilt churches, we built new ones. I began to explain to friends some of the stories. People did not know what the icon they had represented. So I told them. But it didn’t matter. They believed without necessarily knowing the details just as people had done for centuries. Medieval peasants in France couldn’t read the Bible, so they had pictures and they had carved doorways. It didn’t make their faith less. Perhaps, indeed it made their faith more. It was like the 70 year gap was as nothing. Russia almost immediately became one of the most faithful countries in Europe. It had all been slumbering like a seed that waits in the desert for decades. It was very beautiful indeed to see this flowering. I was grateful to be a part of it.
That was one path. That was the path I suggested to Galina. But she was one of those who found for whatever reason that this path was blocked. Perhaps, she couldn’t bear going back seventy years and so thought she had to go forward. She started looking for something that was free. She tried free English lessons, but made almost no progress when she found that the lessons were just a front for Mormonism, or scientology or dienetics. Instead, she found meditation and yoga more to her liking. These apparently genuinely were free. They just taught you to clear your mind and to relax. She kept going to the classes and when she had got quite good at meditation and yoga, someone began explaining the philosophy behind it. It was all very exotic, and she began to dream of India.
I began to see less and less of Galina. One of the last times I had seen her was with David. I remember wondering if at the time they might be, or at least become, a couple. There was something about the way he looked at her and also about how she seemed happy with him in a way I had not seen her with anyone before. But it had been a short flying visit. She’d come to let me know that she was shortly going to leave for Moscow. She was going to stay with friends in the beginning. She said she hoped she could travel soon. I asked her to write me an e-mail every now and again. Sometimes I waited months at a time and thought perhaps she had thought there was no point anymore to such a correspondence. But just when I had forgotten about her or at least ceased to think of her, I would get a message.
David, it turned out, had kept in more regular touch and he at least wrote longer letters. When he had said goodbye to her in the school in Kaliningrad he had assumed that everything was finished. He had not expected to see her again. The whole experience had been mildly unpleasant. He had liked her very much and had felt some sort of connection, but then suddenly she had not wanted to continue their afternoons of conversation practice. He wondered what had done. Anyway, he took the disappointment like all the others before and just got on with his lessons. But he was hurt, and made it pretty clear he did not want to spend any time around Galina. She seemed to think everything could just continue as before, but David was having none of it. He resented her presence and was glad when he left thinking that it was all done with.
It was two or three weeks afterwards when he received an e-mail from her. He might have disregarded it as spam as her address was unfamiliar and the whole thing was in Russian. He was terribly surprised. In fact, initially he simply couldn’t reconcile her writing with how things had ended. But soon he began to take it as a good sign. He felt renewed optimism. He thought this one might just be worth pursuing. He got over her, but his feeling for her returned as he read her letter. So he wrote back and with every letter his feeling increased.
David’s Russian at this point was fairly rudimentary. But he got his grammar book and he got his dictionary and he set about writing the best letter he could. He did not even know how to type on a Russian keyboard and so even finding each character on the keyboard was initially a challenge. Each letter would take him four or five hours to compose. He set about courting her with his words and learning how to write well in a language he was really only just beginning. He tried to write far better Russian than he could, but then that is why in the end, he did write far better Russian than was reasonable to expect.
Initially her replies came fairly regularly. He had to sit deciphering each letter with a dictionary and found himself frequently baffled by her grammar. But he was desperate to understand her meaning and so this keenness, this need to translate helped him do so. He picked up on the words she used about him and about herself.  He looked for clues in the dense texts that she sent him. Was there anything to suggest a return of the Galina with whom he had spent those pleasant afternoons?
As time went by he discovered that she was soon to go to India. He was planning another trip to Russia and so suggested he visit Moscow on the way there for a day or two. That was impossible she said. He couldn’t visit where she was staying. She lived with friends. They weren’t keen on visitors. Besides she was busy. There was a lot that needed to be done to prepare for her trip.
Whenever he asked her about India, she was vague about it. Soon her e-mails almost dried up. He would wait and wait and eventually send her a second e-mail. He checked his in-box incessantly. In one year he received only two short e-mails. She was in India. She was living in a monastery. It was difficult to write.
As months passed he began to give up. He kept on going to Russia and met new people. There were other girls who interested him, but still he kept an eye out for Galina in his in-box. When she came back to Russia she wrote him a long e-mail telling him something of her life in the monastery. He asked about again about the possibility of them meeting up. She sent him a brochure for a festival in Germany, which she thought she might go to. He found the brochure rather bizarre. It had to do with something called Bakhti Yoga. People had markings on their noses and were smiling as if they were on drugs. He had no interest whatsoever in such matters, but thought it wouldn’t be so bad if only he had the chance to meet up with her again.
It turned out that it was harder than she had thought for her to get to Germany and so their meeting was put off. He told her he was willing to just fly to Moscow if only they could meet up for a few days. She discouraged this and came up once more with excuses about who she was staying with and being busy at work.
Finally, she had invited him to Moscow in the New Year saying that they would go and stay at a house in the countryside and that there would be a festival. She said he would be able to find out a little about what she had been doing in India and that he would find it interesting. She suggested that he read a book as a sort of preparation. It was called the Bhagavad Gita. He read it, plus a couple of other texts and an introduction to Hinduism. It wasn’t really his sort of thing, but he tried to read with as much understanding as he could and had actually learned quite a lot.
At some point Galina let slip that she had acquired another name somewhere along the line either in India, or in Russia. She was now called Garudi. David did not particularly care what she was called. Her letters continued to contain the odd hint about how she thought tenderly about him and there was the occasional mention of caresses, probably metaphorical ones, but he took them literally. He wrote quite well by this stage and thought he was excellent at writing between the lines. But of course she did not need to read between any lines to know what he was after. While she took months to reply, he would reply in a few hours.
I knew rather more than David did. I knew quite a bit about the people she was involved with.  When I had been asked a few weeks earlier to go to Moscow by Galina’s mother, I had found out what I could. She had broken off all contact with her parents on her return from Moscow. It seems her father had got angry and said she was ruining her life with a lot of nonsense that was all completely untrue. Galina had left soon afterwards, changed her mobile and e-mail addresses and had never got in touch with her parents again.
I agreed to try to help and gave Galina a message on “VKontakte”, the Russian equivalent of  Facebook. I talked vaguely about being interested in what she had been up to. She, too eventually asked me whether I had read the Bhagavad Gita. I said I had, which was true, but that it was not an area I knew that much about. Within a few messages she had invited me to Moscow, too. Just like David, I read up a bit on the subject. In every possible way I found out all I could.
Even so I did not know quite what to expect when we arrived at a small town on the edge of greater Moscow.  I knew in general, but not in detail.
Chapter 4
It was the closest you can get to the middle of nowhere an hour or so’s train ride from Moscow. But there were a couple of shops that were open, so I resolved to stock up on some cigarettes.
“I’m just going to go in there for a minute,” I said.  It was wonderfully warm compared to outside, and I took my time buying a couple of bottles of fizzy drink and enough packets of cigarettes to last me a few days. Galina looked on disapprovingly when she saw the carrier bag with my goodies.
“You’ll not be allowed to smoke, either of you, nor drink Coca-Cola.”
“I’m sure I will be allowed to do what I please outside.”
“We’re supposed to be clearing our minds, not filling them with stimulants.”
I tried to be conciliatory. “I’ll do my best, but you can’t expect someone to give up everything at once.”
“I understand,” said Galina. “It’s very good of you to come at all and you, David. I’m sure you will both enjoy yourselves.”
I looked at David and caught the slightly dubious look on his face. But he was pleased to be there. It was minus thirty. He had on clothes that would have worked brilliantly on the coldest day in Britain or indeed that worked well in Kaliningrad, but I could see that he was absolutely freezing here. His thick leather jacket just didn’t do anything at these temperatures. He was stamping and clapping his hands round his body. We waited and then we waited some more. As ten minutes turned into twenty, we began to wonder how much longer we would have to stand in the cold.
“I can’t think what’s happened,” said Galina. “I told them when we would arrive.”
“Why don’t we get a taxi?” I said.
“No. I’ll call again.”
Twenty minutes later a rather old minivan turned up. The driver looked vaguely as if he was in India except that he was Russian and had on the outer clothes that a Russian would wear in January. He introduced himself with a name that I instantly forgot, some combination of Indian words or perhaps, they were Sanskrit words. There were no apologies. No doubt, he had been considering higher things.
We put our bags in the back and drove off. It must have been five or six miles we drove. The route was circuitous and we passed a lot of what looked like dachas, rather expensive ones that the wealthy in Moscow used for the summer. There were endless woods all around and thick snow that hadn’t been cleared. Eventually, we pulled up outside a large modern house. It was completely secluded. I wondered, but already sort of knew, what it had been before. I’d been in such buildings in the old days. It was the sort of place you’d go for a conference or for training. I’d attended these from time to time in Kaliningrad. There was always good food and often some luxuries that were not usually available. We’d go away for a few days, there’d be some lectures, perhaps, we would be told about some new initiative, perhaps, there would be a demonstration that showed a new way of doing things or a new policy. There would then be networking and a chance to keep in touch with others doing similar work. I remembered these events quite fondly. Of course, it had been necessary to play the game and sometimes things might turn a little creepy, even a little dangerous. Powerful people are always a little dangerous, because there is little they are not capable of. We are all capable of much good and much evil given the necessary power. If you think this does not apply to you, you just have not been in the requisite circumstance. Most of us are neither especially good, nor especially bad, but we all have in us the seeds of something much better or indeed much worse. I have seen this from people who were not so very different from me. We kid ourselves when we suppose that such people are unusual.
This was just such a place as those I had visited in the dying days of the Soviet Union. It would have been ideal. It was secluded, not far from Moscow and could have given some favoured people a touch of luxury otherwise hard to obtain. Who knows what went on here before? I used to hear talk of there sometimes being quite riotous parties at such retreats. There might be drink, there might be pretty young girls, but there also sometimes might be screams. It was beneficial for all sorts of reasons to be secluded, far enough away for no one to be able to hear.
So it was with a certain frisson that I arrived there. I had been in just such a building many times in the countryside around Kaliningrad. It was built almost to exactly the same design. Soviet architects frequently worked to the same plan, which is why it is not always easy to tell which town you are in unless you know in advance or you get the chance to see a sign post.
It did not matter to me much where I slept, and so I ended up in the girls’ dormitory along with Galina and Vera.  It was warm and sufficiently comfortable and I had lived long enough in Russia to not find it problematic when it was sometimes necessary to live in a Spartan fashion. If you travelled at all, or even if you wanted to go out into the country for more than a day, it was normal to accept a degree of privation. At home Petr and I would often just drive out somewhere and ask some people if they could find a place for us to sleep. They usually would for a small gift. Houses in rural parts of Russia do not always have running water or toilets inside. So I have sometimes found myself roughing it on some cushions on the floor. It is worth it. Once you get used to a simple life, there is a lot to recommend it. You can live in the countryside in Russia happily for next to nothing and the next morning can be very beautiful with the sun rising over a lake and the sound of a moose calling. Then there is the whole day ahead of you, maybe gathering mushrooms, maybe hunting or fishing or having a barbecue. There’s a freedom in this that we had in the Soviet Union that people in the West just do not get. We were so far away sometimes from anyone that no one could listen to what we said and no one could tell us what to do, because no one was there and no one cared what we did. Practically speaking we were as free if not freer. Some of the places which go on about freedom I find rather filled with regulations about what you can or cannot do and there are rather a lot of things you cannot say, even things that are self-evidently true.
I could see however, that David was not comfortable. His idea of a holiday was not sleeping in a dorm with a bunch of people he did not know.
“Can you help me out, Zhenya?” he said in English. “I might need the help of a translator.”
I went with him and found the organiser of the event. He was a man in his fifties and quite strict. To begin with, he said there was no possibility of someone staying on their own. Who did David think he was anyway? I explained that David was not used to the conditions in Russia. He had just flown in from Scotland and was tired. Moreover, he was happy to pay extra.  I spoke to David in Scots to find out how much he had with him. It was a lot. I started negotiating. David did not particularly care how much it cost him, but he did want a room on his own. I guessed why. It was not just that he was shy. It was not just that he was mistrustful of the people he was suddenly going to spend the next few days with. He wanted the possibility of being alone with Galina. He did not, I am sure expect anything to happen, at least not immediately, but his sole purpose of making the trip was to spend time with her. How could he do that if there was nowhere they could go? He told me later of their first couple of hours together that day.
He had arrived with very vague instructions. It was two in the morning, and she was not there. He had told her of a backup plan if they somehow missed each other. He would go to a certain hotel in Moscow and she could find him there. He had stood there in the airport nervously drinking coffee and smoking cigarettes, but after about half an hour she turned up. She had taken the earliest possible bus. It simply had not been possible for her to get there earlier. He did not care. Instantly his mood had changed from fear of being stood up to joy at seeing her. The joy was mutual. He could see that she was absolutely delighted that he had come. She told him that no one had done something as splendid for her before. For the next two or three hours it was exactly like those first afternoons they had spent together in Kaliningrad, except now his Russian was pretty good. She was amazed at the progress that he had made. They talked of literature, they talked of films and of the things that were important to them. They talked of everything except of where she was taking him and what would happen there. He had written to her with feeling for the longest time, but he was overwhelmed by his feelings for her now after such a long separation.  He was unprepared for it. He thought he could detect some sort of feeling in her, too. I think, he was right. Frequently when I first saw them together, there was something about them that suggested possibility. I thought David might have been just what Galina needed. Moreover, it wasn’t all one way traffic. I saw how she sometimes looked at him. Anyway, what woman would not be delighted to see a man who has flown from Aberdeen to Moscow just to see her?
So I understood fully why he wanted a room of his own. He was completely ripped off, but he paid willingly. His room was a sort of unused sauna with no heating. But it had a door and a lock. For this he paid the equivalent of a Moscow hotel room. He slept for the next few days in all the clothes he could wear and still froze. But he needed that room. He knew he would need it and in the end, and not only in the end, he did indeed need it.

Chapter five
The accommodation was all inclusive, but I could immediately see that the food and drink was a disappointment to David. We sat on benches and were served a sort of Indian tea without any of the plant that is usually described as tea and what I can only describe as a mess of pottage. It really was a mess. On plastic plates we were each given some stewed vegetables with a slightly Indian taste. Nothing remotely resembled what you might expect to find in an Indian restaurant.
Galina was busy with her friends. She knew absolutely everyone and they knew her. I saw David looking around and wondering what to do.
“Why not sit with me, David?” I said. “I think, she’s a bit busy right now.”
“I could really do with some coffee to be honest,” he said. “I’ve been up all night and now that the excitement has worn off… What is this anyway?”
“This is what we’re going to eat for the next few days.”
I saw his look of disappointment and disbelief. He was slightly plump and I guessed he had no idea whatsoever about deprivation. He could buy whatever he wanted at the supermarket in Scotland and never had to even think about it. The idea of a few days without any meat, without any tea or coffee filled him with horror.
“Don’t worry,” I said. “We can slip out for cigarettes and I brought some contraband with me. I had an idea that it would be like this.”
“You don’t mind?”
“I’ve been through worse.”
Indeed I had. When the Soviet Union fell apart the little enclave that was Kaliningrad suddenly found itself cut off from the rest of Russia. Whereas previously we had been able to travel freely into Lithuania and further into Latvia, within a short time there was a manned border. Now we needed a visa and it was not always easy to obtain. Over the years the border to Poland was sometimes all but closed. Sometimes it was the Russians that decided to search every car, sometimes it was the Poles, but the result was that it often took half a day to cross and nearly always took three or four hours.
In the beginning there were food shortages because the normal sources of food from all around dried up. The collective farms ceased working. Workers were unpaid and so did not work. People sometime think that when a country breaks up, everything that went on before continues to go on as if nothing had happened. This is untrue. We noticed the breakup of the Soviet Union and for the first year or so we noticed it every day. The shops were empty and anyway we might have to wait months for the next pay check. I remember gradually working my way through every tin in the cupboard, until there were none left.
My money from Cambridge continued. They were happy with the work I was doing and did not think it of any less value now that the Soviet Union had fallen apart. Unfortunately, in most of Britain the Russian/Soviet departments were gradually closed down until the subject ended up being almost as obscure as Sanskrit. But even if in the end, I had access to money, I did not always have it to hand and anyway, I did not always have anything to spend it on.
So we would go gathering what we could in the woods. We went fishing and hunting not so much for recreation as for food. We bartered and we shared. Most ordinary people back then were very generous. Nobody starved.
In the first few months after the breakup there was chaos. Petr did not know who he was working for now. The organisation that he had been working for ceased to exist and he waited to see what role he would have. Many of his friends and colleagues found themselves unemployed. The job they had been brought up to think was for life, was no longer needed, their experience no longer useful. Petr was lucky he got to stay. But he was paid much less and found himself earning less than taxi drivers, and he had less status than criminals.
There was a mad scramble to seize the assets of the Soviet Union and for the most part they were seized by crooks.  Petr’s grandmother ran one of the largest department stores in Kaliningrad and as the central power fell apart, it ended up effectively as hers. That’s how things went in those days. The party functionary who ran the factory ended up owning the factory. But he had to be willing to fight for it.
I remember Petr coming back one day to tell me that Olga, his grandmother, had lost the store. Some men had arrived and told her she must give them the shop and everything in it, and she must do so immediately. She made inquiries. Petr made inquiries. He was told that these men were untouchable and nothing could be done. He told his grandmother to give away the store. She did so without hesitation. That was how you became an oligarch at that time or failed to become one. Someone would say this one is untouchable, that one is not. The rich became rich because of connections patronage, luck and sometimes the willingness to fight or at least to risk things getting rather dangerous. Most of us did not think it was worth it. It was not.
It was better to be relatively small and insignificant. The initial risk involved in fighting for wealth was not worth it, because it would be liable to continue. There was always going to be someone stronger who was willing to fight harder and who did not fear any risks. There are always people who fear nothing, because they do not care and have nothing to lose anyway.  In the thirties the safest place to be was someone anonymous in a factory or on a farm. That was not always safe, but it was a safer than being someone important. So we did not envy those who got the store. They did not last long.
After the initial period of chaos, things gradually improved. But we had all been through a period when we eat just to obtain calories. We did not care what we eat. We would open a tin of stewed marrow for dinner and be grateful we had that. So I was fully used to eating vegetables and I did not mind doing without coffee.
When you live in Russia, you talk to people who have been through worse. It gives a certain perspective. I had been through the breakup of the Soviet Union. I had been through the default and the devaluation of 1998. I had gone hunting through shops when there was nothing. I had told my husband we did not have anything for dinner. I had received parcels marked ‘Aid’ from the USA and been very grateful.  It did not matter what was in the parcel, we ate everything.  I had gone through that sort of experience twice in one decade. It always runs together, perhaps, it was three times even four. We stopped following the news. It was always just one more story of parliamentary chaos in Moscow. The news did not matter. It only mattered that we sometimes got paid, and sometimes there were things to buy in the shops.
But there were always friends who rallied round and we all faced the tough times together. The thing is we all knew that times were just not that bad. So what if we had lost all our savings and so what if a loaf of bread suddenly seemed to cost a week’s salary? We knew that this was as nothing compared to what earlier generations had gone through. Everyone knew friends and family who had gone through the war years. We used the collective memory of this to give us strength. The war is much closer to Russians than it is to those in the West. It always seems very close indeed. It is not a matter of history, it is a matter of now. Those people are always with us. Their presence is why we feel their absence so.
So when I was faced with my cup of strange tea and my stew of vegetables, I simply ate everything while I watched David picking at his and leaving the most of it.
“Let’s go out for a cigarette,” I said.
“Sure.”
As I got up I saw Galina glance at us. Was it disapproval I saw on her face? It could not possibly be jealousy. I was at least ten years older than David, if not more. But anyway if she felt at all proprietal about him, why had she not sat with him while we ate. I wondered again about what she was hoping for and what she was looking for.
The cold hit me again as I left the warmth of the building. But it was not unpleasant to stand out there for five or ten minutes. It was dry and fresh and invigorating. It was only when you were out in it for half an hour or more that it became really unpleasant.
“Shall we talk in English?” I said. “I’m sure you’re tired.”
“Why not? You speak English as well as me. Where are you from, Zhenya?
“I’m from Kaliningrad.”
“But before that?”
“I lived in Scotland.”
“Are you Scottish?”
“Why don’t you call me Effie, that’s what all my friends call me? That’s what they called me as a little girl in school in rural Aberdeenshire, too.”
“I don’t get it. How can you have two names?”
“It’s as much as anything about declension. You know that. Effie doesn’t decline, Evgenia does. It’s much easier living in Russia if your name fits the grammar.”
“Did you learn Russian as a child?”
“I’d describe it more as a teenager. Now, David, stop probing. We’ve only just met.”
“I’m sorry. You seem something of a mystery.”
“Well, that’s very kind of you to say. Every woman wants to be a bit mysterious. How did you start learning Russian and what for?”
We spoke a lot about our experiences with Russian over the next few days. From these I am able to piece together much of David’s story, naturally, I also told him some of mine.
He’d been in his early thirties, single and working in an office in Aberdeen. He had liked his work well enough, but the last year or so had been rather the same as the year before. Most of his university friends were married and he seemed to have rather missed out. If there were a boat, it seemed to him that it had long since departed or else had sunk prior to arrival.
What he liked to do tended to be solitary and somehow he had become very shy. Holidays were a particular problem. He hated travelling alone as he was not at all good at meeting strangers without an introduction. He just was not the sort who could get chatting to someone he did not know in a bar. He never spoke on trains. But the few times he had spent some time abroad in a strange town all on his own he remembered with a shudder as being very dreary, lonely affairs, watching other people having fun while not taking part.
Somewhere he read an article about language schools. There was a built in social element. There was the chance to learn something and meet some new people. He looked at the pictures in the brochures. Everyone looked like they were having fun. They were all university age or just past. There were usually some pretty girls.
He liked studying and although had never seriously studied a language, school French somehow did not count, he thought it might be fun to try. He had been looking for something, perhaps, a new challenge would make him feel less despondent.
He thought of the languages he might learn. Chinese and Japanese were too hard and anyway, it would be far too expensive to go to there on multiple occasions. He thought of all the western European languages, but he reflected on those who went to evening classes in French or German, and it seemed terribly dull and unoriginal. Anyway, he wanted to do something difficult. To be honest, I got the impression he wanted to be able to show off a bit. Who can really tell about someone else’s motivations? We all deceive ourselves and the reason may be something quite trivial. It can be something as small as a book you read, or a film you see or a person you meet for twenty minutes. The first step that takes you on a new path may be made for a reason even more trivial than that. Usually the first step does not cost very much. It might turn out that it leads nowhere, but sometimes a few pounds can change your life.
David bought a “Teach Yourself Russian” book that cost about 10 pounds. Thousands buy such a book and never finish it. Some barely even start. They waste 10 pounds for curiosity’s sake and to half learn a strange alphabet. David was one of the few who persevered. He had no teacher, just whatever books and other materials he could find on the Internet. Those first few months were pretty tough. I do not know that I could have done what he did.
After a while as summer began to approach, he began looking a for a language school in Russia. He did as much research as he could but in the end, the information provided by the various schools was much the same. He chose to go to Kaliningrad, partly because he wanted to go somewhere relatively small, where people were unlikely to speak much English, but mainly because it had once been called Königsberg, and he had rather liked Kant.
The three weeks he spent there was a very pleasant holiday. There had been plenty of students from the school with whom he could go on trips and out drinking. The school arranged for him to have conversation partners with two Russian girls in their twenties. They had not spent much time speaking Russian, but it was the first time in some years he had been out with a girl even if it was only for conversation practice. Who could tell, maybe conversation practice would lead to something else, if not this time then maybe the next when he could speak rather better?
He had liked Russia. It was not that far away, but it was very different indeed. There was something exotic in everything being written in Cyrillic and he found the Russian people he met had a subtly different mentality to anyone he had met previously. They looked more or less the same as anyone else from Europe, but he found himself surprised by how they thought. It was not that different, but it changed things around in way that was sometimes similar to the way Russian sentences came out back to front. The whole experience in Russia was like some sort of “Oh, Brave new world that has such people in it” series of encounters to him. At times it was challenging, but it was interesting and he grasped onto what he had found there and did not intend to let it go. He resolved to return and in the interim he decided to study harder and improve his Russian as much as he could.
His three weeks had taught him what he needed to do in order to improve his ability to successfully complete the complex task of speaking a Russian sentence. He had bought a book recommended by a teacher there which had hundreds of grammar drills. He did every exercise in the book, then turned back to the beginning and did them all again. He drilled himself in grammar like learning to play the piano. Only by practice could the piano player learn to play without thinking about the notes. The same applied with Russian. He drilled so that he could stop thinking about the grammar, rather like a piano player can only play by ceasing to think about the fingering of the notes.  He did all that he could to immerse himself, even drown himself in Russia. He watched films, he read novels and he read books on history. He hoped that by somehow almost transforming himself into a Russian he would be able to speak like one.
When he returned the following February, there were only two or three other students, but he did not want to talk to them anyway. He only wanted to talk to Russians. His teachers were amazed at his progress. He began to show off a little in the lessons and performed the odd party piece like translating an English poem into Russian. But they soon put him in his place with a full speed Russian sentence that he could hardly follow. But they did take him seriously. Few students at the school every made any real progress. But this one could.
It was at this point he met Galina. Someone had the bright idea that it would be interesting to put them together. It was. I could still see that spark that had been evident from the beginning. No doubt, it was one of the reasons someone thought they might do well together. It might smoulder, or more likely flicker. It might be damp and struggle to catch fire, but there was something between them, and it kept bringing them back together and preventing them continuing apart. That same indefinable something had been when they first met and it was still there now. It was as if they at any point could have fallen into each other’s arms. There was something like a current fizzing between them and yet there wasn’t the connection. There was something hindering, some barrier that couldn’t be overcome. So there would be a look that was shared, and then the shutters came down and there was nothing. It wasn’t by any means only David who was involved. Galina looked, too. She lit up sometimes when she saw him looking. They were a natural couple, but the moment when they should have kissed had long passed and it wasn’t clear there would be another such moment.  That happens sometimes with people who ought to be together.
David now spoke very well indeed and I could see that the motivation had been Galina. Without her he would not have put in the hours. Without her he would have been stuck at the level of most undergraduates who know a lot of grammar, but speak as if they are working it all out in their heads. In the time since he’d last seen her he’d thrown himself into the subject returning as often as he could to Kaliningrad. He spoke only Russian while he was there and stretched himself beyond what he thought were his limits. There was a freedom in the way he spoke even if there were a lot of mistakes. It was rare indeed for a foreigner to speak this well.
We shared notes in the course of our conversations. Of course, quite a bit of this was technical stuff about grammar and strategies of learning. There is no need to go into any of this. In general, David told me rather more about his experience of learning than I told him about mine. I had the impression of someone who loved to talk so long as he was in the company of someone who wanted to listen. We spent a lot of time together in those few days, either smoking outside, or else we would sneak down to his room and I’d pour him some of the whisky that I’d smuggled in.
I told David that I began Russian at Cambridge, which was more or less true, but I felt there was no need to mention that my degree had nothing whatsoever to do with Russian. It was a sort of optional extra course I took with a Soviet émigré. It wasn’t something I was able to speak about while I was at Cambridge, and I had rather kept that habit ever since. Did I begin speaking Russian when I was eighteen or was it rather earlier? There were times when I had needed to be rather vague on this point. So I never went into any great detail about my origins. That still remained the case even if my initial reason for coyness had rather changed. So I let David talk about his initial struggles with Russian nouns. I mentioned mine only in passing. I did however describe some of my experiences when I’d reached a rather higher level.
When I went to live in Kaliningrad I was given intensive private lessons every day for a year. This was a special programme for those who already had reached an excellent level. I was very lucky indeed to be given the chance to work with some of the best teachers in the Soviet Union.
The lessons were strict, serious and austere. I remember an element of sadism sometimes crept in. The teacher would read a complicated passage of Russian. My task would be to copy it. Every mistake would be gleefully pointed out by the teacher and I would have to copy out each word I got wrong five times. I learned to hate dictation with a passion, but it worked. In time, too, there was something of a thaw. Eventually, I saw that my teachers were rather pleased with my progress and just occasionally I surprised them by doing something rather better than they expected. This drilling combined with total immersion in Russian life where I never ever spoke English meant that after that year I reached the stage where no-one much questioned my Russian. I sounded like any number of Soviet citizens who spoke Russian, not quite like a Russian did but near enough so as it wasn’t an issue worthy of comment. I began to fit in, and gradually I found my voice and no longer needed to be shy at parties. I no longer had to avoid conversation, I no longer had to pretend to be the shy little women to scared to say anything. But I retained elements of that persona as it meant that people took me for granted and sometimes let their guard down.
Chapter 6
When we went back inside, everyone was already beginning to gather for the first session. Galina had already gone. Vera came up to us. She looked uninterested. Indeed, she had looked uninterested ever since we’d met her that morning.
“Galina had to get some things ready” she said. “She asked me to tell you that she’d gone on ahead. But you know where to go, right?”
“I think so,” said David. “The big room up the stairs.”
“That’s right.”
“Aren’t you coming?”
“I’ll help out in the kitchen. I’m mainly here for the company anyway. Why are you here?”
“I’m here to see Galina,” he said.
“Better say Garudi while you’re here.”
“As I said, I’m here to see Galina.”
We went up the stairs and found what must once have been a sort of conference room, except now there were no chairs. Around the edges there were some cushions and at the front there was a slightly raised area that seemed somehow more luxurious than everywhere else. There were some mats, a microphone stand a little table on which was some bottled water and a glass. Beside this was another place, though not quite so luxurious.
David and I sat down next to each other. Galina was a little in front of us but there was no place on either side of her. She glanced round to see that we were there. There was a sort of smile on her face, but a frown, too that went with it. Too late she seemed to say. Look what happens when you go outside to smoke cigarettes. A few minutes later however she came back to us for a minute or two. At this point I noticed that she had some markings on her face and especially on her nose. It was quite pretty I thought, though rather odd looking. Makeup was out, but face painting was in, but it didn’t matter: the whole effect still worked.  She hadn’t done anything to her hair. There wasn’t much she could do, but somehow the combination of yellowish markings on her nose framed within the blackness of her cropped hair just worked delightfully.
“We’ll talk some more afterwards,” she said to David.
“That’s OK”, he said.
“It’s just I have to concentrate and focus during the meeting. You understand?”
“Of course, don’t worry, there’s lots of time.”
“This is all very important to me. I wanted to show you.”
“I’m very pleased I came.”
“You might find it interesting. I hope so.”
“I hope so, too.”
The room was filling up and Galina returned to her place. She had given us each a little printed pamphlet. It contained what looked like songs. I guessed they were in Sanskrit, but transliterated into Cyrillic. It would be interesting indeed trying to figure out which song to sing.
In the corner stood a table with what looked like some dolls on it. At some point something sounded, chimes or bells or a sort of mixture of both, and two or three people approached the little table and lit some candles and said some words. A buzz went through the room and at that point we were ready.
A man entered the room from a side door followed by a woman. He was dressed in the sort of white loose clothes that Indian men sometimes where. Many of the men in the room were wearing similar clothes. The woman had on some sort of sari type clothing as did many of those who had sat there waiting. Galina’s sari had looked authentic, but somehow I had ignored the dark blue cloth with elaborate embroidery because of how it had enhanced what the cloth had contained. It was all a bit like dressing up, but I had noticed the effect that it had on David. So, too, this woman who was now entering made a similar if rather different effect.  Her beauty was of a different kind, her sari was pale and everything about her seemed light as if she were about to play Kriemhild in the Nibelungenlied. What she wore was all very simple and quite austere. She looked modest, and it was as if she would always walk one or two steps behind her man. But I could sense that she was proud of her role and happy to be there on what amounted to a low stage. She was happy to be part of the performance even if she was not the star. She knew that she would get some of the attention and she did.
The man had some kinds of marks of distinction that set him rather apart. The mark on his nose was somewhat different and somewhat more elaborate. But it wouldn’t have mattered what he had been wearing. He had a look that set him apart. His eyes were wild and he smiled like he had recently smoked grass. Perhaps he had, but I doubt it. His high came from a higher source.
He sat down in his place and welcomed us, and mentioned who he was. He spoke English with quite a refined southern English accent. The woman who sat next to him translated every word into Russian. I instantly forgot his name, or rather didn’t bother putting it into memory. It was one of those long Indian names. I didn’t try to store it because I already knew his real name. It was a typical English name that was far easier to recall. I was almost certainly the only person in the room besides him who knew this name. So he was just the guru to me as indeed he was so described by most of the acolytes. He was our guru. So that is how I intend to describe him, too.
The woman was obviously Russian and very beautiful indeed. She looked about twenty-three or twenty-four and I found out later that she was the guru’s wife. Sex was usually discouraged as tending towards acting as a barrier to enlightenment, but an exception was made in the case of the guru. It made sense to make exceptions, otherwise the tendency was to go the way of the “shakers” who died out because they banned procreation. The guru had seen what he had wanted, a rather lovely blonde Russian girl who was devoted to what he was saying and in a way devoted to him. She was one of those Russians who looked as if she might have stepped off one of the Viking boats that first sailed down the Dnepr. Even her eyebrows and eyelashes were blonde as is sometimes if rarely, seen in Finland and Sweden. I knew a little of the story. She had turned up at one of the guru’s meetings. He discovered that she spoke rather better English than his translator at that time, but it wouldn’t have mattered if she had spoken rather worse English. He began giving her some private instruction in meditation and soon the previous translator was dismissed. An added benefit was having married his translator he now had all his translation done for free. But that was not why he had married her. I could see exactly why he had married her.  
It was hard to tell how old the guru was. He had the sort of English, slightly aristocratic look that ages well. He might have been thirty five, he might even have been forty. He had blondish hair and a fresh complexion. He was just the sort who would have been considered very eligible a century earlier.
He looked sincere, he looked like someone you could trust. He had a certain charisma. Perhaps, he even believed what he preached. There is always a certain double mindedness in all of us. Matters of faith are never psychologically straightforward. How could he have been so convincing if he did not himself believe? So yes, no doubt when he talked, he did believe and yet it seemed to me even then that there was something about the whole performance that was a masquerade. There’s nothing so fair and false as a guru.
And yet I don’t want to be overly critical of these people. What they experienced and what I experience is not so very different. I, too, believe some odd things that I can in no way prove. Worse than that, the central tenets of my faith I consider to be beyond reason. They are contradictory or at least contradictory from the only perspective I have which is my own. But what is the difference between believing in a contradiction and believing that the moon is made of green cheese or in a god who is painted purple. I may try in the pages ahead to show the difference, but I’m not at all sure that I shall succeed in a way that is not hopelessly circular. Insofar as I attack anyone else’s beliefs, I am fully aware that as I thrust my knife I leave myself open to the same attack. Yet I can do no other.
The meeting began with some songs. People on either side of David and me helped us with finding our place and we both began stumbling through the, to us, meaningless words. Most of those there however sang with enthusiasm and with understanding. Galina told me later that she had been studying Sanskrit and had the goal of reading these ancient texts easily and even speaking with fluency. I told her that I had read some of the Vedic literature in translation. She emphasised to me however that it was necessary to be very careful as the stories could not be understood directly but only through the mediation of people like the guru. I had probably therefore gained a false impression. It all seemed rather pre-Reformation. These were just the sorts of arguments used against people like Tyndale when he wanted to translate the Bible into English. But then again, perhaps, she was right. I had made nothing much of the stories I had read, beyond that they were ancient stories from a culture that was strange to me. Perhaps, what had been lacking in me, perhaps my lack of understanding had been precisely that I had lacked a guru. We were about to find out.
After the songs the guru proceeded to interpret some of these ancient stories from Sanskrit literature. The songs had been enjoyable in a strange sort of way. After much repetition they became familiar and even I with a little practice soon was able to find the right place just from the first few rather strange notes. They had a way of getting into your head so that a familiar tune and set of words was greeted with pleasure at its repetition. I saw everyone including David, including me, light up eventually as we got to sing one of our favourites again.
But then would come the lecture. The carpeted floor that had seemed rather lush in the beginning became harder as the lecture went on for two, sometimes for three hours.
The guru rambled through various sacred texts explaining stories, going on and on. He would speak a sentence in English that was remarkably bad English, which was then translated into even worse Russian. I gave up trying to understand him quickly as there was nothing to understand.
I’d read quite a few of the central texts of Hinduism, not in any great detail and not with any great expertise, but I paid attention and my academic training was in this sort of subject matter. I was familiar with the basic ideas of eastern religion. But I couldn’t follow anything that the guru said. He’d take some minute little theme and stretch it and twist it and all to no purpose. I began to wonder if he saw his task as one of numbing us into boredom.
When I’d been reading a few of the texts about Krishna in preparation for the trip, it struck me that it was as if the religion of the ancient Greeks had continued to the present day. The stories of Krishna’s exploits with his friends struck me as primitive. They were rather similar to stories of Zeus and Aphrodite and so on, but rather less interesting from a literary perspective. The Greek myths could touch me in a way that these ancient stories about India simply could not. Perhaps, that was simply because I am European and India is an unfamiliar culture, which does not much interest me. Then again I didn’t think it accidental that the Greek myths were rather better known worldwide.
I found polytheism hard to take seriously. There was a god of this and a god of that. There were gods who were monkeys, gods with many hands, gods who looked like elephants. This was the sort of thing that we had chucked out when we chucked out paganism. I know that it wasn’t straightforward paganism, I know that in the end the gods were manifestations of the one god. But it struck me as if we could have retained belief in the Greek gods in the same way by building on those foundations the same structure of everything being one. In this way Zeus, Aphrodite, Poseidon and so on could all have been manifestations of the one god. I thought this was a way of having your polytheist cake while somehow pretending to be a monotheist.
In the end, it was just idolatry and no more worthy of serious consideration than the worshiping the golden calf. They had Krishna on their little table, but it might just as well have been Hermes. In this I’m afraid I sided with Nietzsche. Belief in the Greek gods was a dead issue. I just differed from Nietzsche in the next step he wanted to make. Perhaps, from his point of view I was still stuck with the Greeks. But I never thought he had adequately shown belief in the Christian God to be the dead issue he thought it was. He no doubt would simply say it was a matter of time. But the point he was making about Greek Gods did not then and does not now apply to the God of Christianity, at least not in my eyes. I couldn’t take seriously anyone who earnestly claimed to believe in Thor or Zeus. It would seem eccentric at best, comical at worst. The only argument necessary would be to laugh. In just the same way I couldn’t take seriously anyone who believed in Krishna. It was faintly ridiculous to believe in this mischievous purple little naughty boy, playing tricks and peeking at girls bathing naked.
There was a depth to eastern mysticism especially in the Buddhist tradition, which was quite similar to aspects of belief in Krishna. If you stripped away all the stories, you arrived at the idea of losing yourself in the one or of finally merging yourself with that one in Nirvana.  There was the idea that this world was a distraction, even an illusion and that, most importantly, the self was a hindrance to enlightenment. The self was considered part of the problem rather than part of the solution.
Of course, this sort of philosophical/theological tradition was a matter for serious thought and consideration. Monism, or the idea that everything is one has after all a serious place in philosophy and some of the greatest minds have advocated it in one way or another. But I had rejected that path long ago.
For me the foundation of everything was the self and to merge myself into Nirvana would simply be to die and to cease to exist. I had long before arrived at the fork in the road where one direction pointed to Hegel and nearly everyone else who came afterwards. The other path pointed to Kierkegaard. That was eternal choice: either Kierkegaard, or Hegel, either the individual, or the collective.
In this sense I could take seriously the path these people all around me were taking, but I thought it was profoundly the wrong path. The guru wanted his acolytes to lose the one thing I thought they must above all other things retain. He wanted them to lose their sense of self. That was the purpose of his interminable lectures, that was the purpose of the songs; that was the purpose of the mantras that were chanted.
But for me the loss of self was the loss of the soul. If successful and the self was lost, there would be nothing for God to grab onto, nothing for him to save. Even the one good deed, such as the gift of an onion, which Dostoevsky suggests, might be enough to save a soul, could not be efficacious if there was no soul to save. The onion could be used to pull a sinner out of hell so long as the sinner was generous and was willing to allow other sinners to be dragged out, too, but what if there was no soul to grasp onto the onion? I shuddered at the loss of self. I looked around me at the vacant eyes and the mouths silently repeating their mantra. The guru had succeeded. All around me were minds that were blank. Even David began to look blank, but that had more to do with his tiredness. I sat there and wondered what would happen next, now that all minds were empty. The guru stopped and began filling all the minds, and I saw that he had a power. Now they would not just whisper their mantra they would sing in a sort of wild release. I got up and found myself joining in. Not just as part of the role that I was playing, but finding myself swept up into it all. I realised then that I was up against a force that was very powerful indeed. I would need help if I was to have any chance of succeeding. I would need David as he had with him the only force that was more powerful than the one the guru had. He had love.
Chapter 7
I hadn’t realised that the guru had finally stopped speaking, so lost had I become in not listening, until he stood up and picked up the drum that was beside him. His translator wife stood up beside him and looked at him expectantly.
I don’t know what conclusion he had arrived at as I had spent the past hour and more thinking of other things. I played the role of the interested person who was there to learn, but it was just like any other undercover job, my thoughts were my own. Just as when I had sat in the Marxism-Leninism lectures, just as when I went to the Komsomol meetings, I silently thought of what I wanted to think about and paid only enough attention so as to stay undercover. Silence was my weapon of choice. But I was used to the role. I had been undercover my whole life. I remember gazing out of the window in school thinking my own thoughts, but when my teacher tried to trap me with a question, I would always know the answer.
Everyone began to stand up and so I stood, too. There was a look of anticipation. They had all sat so patiently, they had listened devoutly, but it was for this moment they did so. The guru began to sing the mantra and beat the drum. He started what was a sort of pied piper conga routine. Everyone followed, joining in the words ‘Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna’. The rhythm got faster, the singing more ecstatic. People ceased to be aware of their surroundings as they lost themselves in the music. It was quite intoxicating, much more so than mere alcohol.
In order to play my role I, too, had to at least momentarily go with the flow. I always favoured a more or less method form of acting. Part of me would become what I was supposed to be. If I had to pretend to be a communist, then I would in part became a communist, just as Marlon Brando tried to become Terry Malloy when he played him in ‘On the Waterfront’. Only by becoming a washed up former boxer could the actor convincingly play someone who once had a chance to be a contender. In the end, it’s the only way for me to be persuasive in the role. It needs to not be a role. This is especially so if the role goes on for years. If you don’t become it, you’ll always slip up somewhere along the way. So as I danced and joined in the singing, I became a Hare Krishna devotee, or at least a part of me did, while the other part looked on. To understand a problem you have to understand it from within. It has to be your problem, touching you personally. The abstract approach to the problems of philosophy and theology is deadly dull and produces nothing of interest.
As I danced and sang, at least for that short time, I became one with this group of revellers. I forgot who I was and it was as if I could see myself fading away in the face of all this oneness. But still I was only the actress who had worked herself up to the state where she felt her hands were such that nothing could wash away the blood. She was one with the role, but it wasn’t as if she actually was going to go out and buy all the perfumes of Arabia. I still could look on myself acting and yet there were moments during these bacchanalian dances when I became drunk without drinking. I saw how extraordinarily powerful it all was. It was fun. We’d been sitting patiently. The others, too, must have been bored. Maybe that was the idea. Anyway, they’d all been concentrating on difficult concepts, trying to understand their guru, who didn’t exactly make it easy. Perhaps, that too was the point. The basic philosophy behind his views is relatively straightforward to explain, but I don’t think he wanted to explain; he wanted to make everything complex. In the end, he wanted to make everything dull, so that then there would be this release. He had been building always towards this. Suddenly, there was no longer any need to understand. Now there was only the need to feel.
I saw Galina lose herself in the ecstasy of the dance. Her face swooned. She reached a peak of emotion. It looked as if she had never reached such a peak in any other way. She was dependent on no-one. This peak she could reach by herself. She ceased to follow the guru as did many others eventually who moved to their own inward music always chanting with their minds and with their mouths ‘Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna’. That was all there was in the world. Just that mantra endlessly repeated. They lost themselves in the chant, and I think they thought they were glimpsing eternity. Who knows, perhaps, they were.
The song drew to a conclusion. The guru slowed down his dance and came to a stop in the midst of us. At this point we all simply murmured the mantra and the curtains around the Krishna idol were closed, the candles put out, and like Bagpuss he went to sleep. It took people some time to come down from the high. No wonder they banned alcohol, caffeine and cigarettes. What need had they for such drugs which could only inhibit this intoxication.
I saw David looking blank. He, too, had lost himself in the revels, but I wasn’t sure what role he was playing or whether he had a role at all. I snapped him out of it.
“Let’s go for a cigarette,” I said.
When we were outside I asked him what he thought.
“I couldn’t follow much the lecture, but the dance at the end was quite fun. Rather like losing yourself in the music when some sort of techno rhythm keeps pounding.”
“Is it what you expected?”
“To be honest, I hadn’t a clue what to expect. I wasn’t even completely sure that Galina was a Hare Krishna.”
“You know now. I think she wants you to be one, too.”
“I’m not sure she knows herself what she wants. There is something between us, we’ve been writing for a long time, but I’m not sure what it is. I flew here to find out. It was a gesture.”
“You have no interest in Hare Krishna?”
“No, none at all, I’m a Catholic who rarely goes to church, but I know what I believe.”
“All the same, be careful with these people, David. It’s powerful stuff.”
“I saw that. You kind of feel something in the dance. Did you?”
“Yes. We all felt it. It’s why we must be careful.”
“What do you think I should do?”
“About Galina? It’s not easy. She only seems concerned at the moment with the Hare Krishna stuff. Let her talk to you about it. Show interest. Talk to the others as if you are interested. Why not? It is interesting. Find out, but very gently stick to your own beliefs. Don’t concede anything. Tell everyone that you are here to see Galina. But that you’re happy to find out about something important to her. Take that line when you speak to her. But try to get her alone. I don’t think she wants that at the moment. But find a time when you can go for a walk and then make your offer. Say what you’ve come here to say.”
“Just like that?  I’ve made hints, of course, in my letters, but she doesn’t always pick up on them, perhaps they are too hidden.”
“Believe me, David, she knows why you are here. Why else would a man fly all the way from Scotland to Moscow? She’s used the fact that you love her to get you to come. So no more hints. Get her alone sometime and tell her how you feel. Make her an offer. Surprise her. It may just shake her out of this.”
“Why are you here, Effie?
“I’ve known Galina for years. I haven’t seen her for a while. She’s a sort of friend and I wanted to see what she was up to.”
We went back inside and saw that preparations were being made for dinner. I didn’t expect anything much different from lunch. I wasn’t disappointed.

Chapter 8
I sat with David at dinner. He was the only person there who I even vaguely knew apart from Galina, and she was pretty much unavailable to either of us. She’d talk for a minute. She asked the usual questions about how we were getting on, how we were enjoying ourselves, she’d introduce us to her friends, but after a few minutes there was always something she needed to do. What she needed to do fundamentally was follow the rules of the Hare Krishnas. She had to spend her time meditating, chanting her mantra incessantly and serving the group in any way she could. Moreover, the group was wary of outsiders and those who didn’t follow Krishna. It was fine if you were on the way to Krishna. People like us who it was assumed were interested and potential converts were most welcome. But people who definitely were not interested, people who believed other things were at best distractions, at worst harmful. It was for this reason that Galina had left behind all her old friends in Kaliningrad, it was for this reason, too, that she had ceased contacting her parents.
Galina was helping Vera in the kitchens and then came out to serve the food. Whether she really needed to do this was unclear, but it meant that the benches had all filled up by the time it was her turn to sit down and eat. David would glance at her and smile, but the smile he got back was pretty much all he got back.
He had made it clear to everyone he met that he was only here to see Galina. This simple true statement had been met with incomprehension by some.
“Who is Galina?” someone had said.
“You may know her better as Garudi,” said David.
“Where have you come from? You’re not Russian. “
“I flew from Scotland. I just study Russian.”
“You speak awfully well. But you’re just friends with Garudi, aren’t you?”
“I’d say that was her business, wouldn’t you?”
This sort of conversation went on frequently. He always said “Galina” even to her and only used her Indian name to avoid confusion. He maintained that he wasn’t here to learn about Krishna, though, of course, he was interested in new subjects and experiences. He saw no harm in being an open minded person and was happy to chat about anything, but that was not why he was here. He had been invited by Galina and that was why he’d come. Without her he would not have come.
I could not give the real reason for my coming and it was not plausible that I should be there to see a former student. So I had to rather maintain the idea that I was there because I was tempted onto the path to Krishna. This limited what I was able to say. I mainly sat in silence, which was my usual role, and one in which I was well practiced. Sometimes it’s much easier being a woman. People accept that you are shy and meek and quiet. Passivity goes with the role. They don’t know and don’t expect what is underneath. I have used this fact all my life. It can be the best form of maskirovka [camouflage] that exists. The trick in any battle is to get into the rear areas without them even knowing you are there.
After dinner the conversation started and it looked as if the Hare Krishna top team was ganged up on David. There were some really friendly, really kind people who I chatted to over the next few days. They had degrees from some of the better universities. They often had very good jobs in Moscow. One or two were actually academics. Outside of this gathering some of them lived undercover. They never mentioned their occasional few days away being Hare Krishnas. Some even had families and friends who were completely unaware that they also had Indian names. Likewise, Galina did not go into her office asking to be called Garudi. She did not wear her Indian makeup, she did not talk about her beliefs to anyone there. She was Galina Fedorovna. She looked and sounded like any other Russian. It wasn’t really possible socially to be anything else in Russia. For an ordinary Russian to say they were anything other than an ordinary Russian, would tend to invite incomprehension, ridicule or worse. In that sense all of us to some extent were undercover. It’s not so very different anywhere else either. There is a conformity in Scotland also, things that must be said and things that may not be said, roles that must be played, at least in public, if not always in private.
I couldn’t help David much in the discussion that we all had in the next few days. I helped a little with translation. I told him a word he didn’t know, or helped him find a Russian word that he had forgotten. But he didn’t need my help much neither with Russian, nor with philosophy. I was reminded of when I had applied for some sort of fellowship in my college. I had been presented with some of the best minds and most senior academics spread round me in a semi-circle. For half an hour and more they had asked me whatever they pleased about anything they pleased. The trick, I think, was to answer in a similar fashion. I just said what I thought was true, without thinking whether it would impress. I just let my thoughts flow and became unconscious of thinking. Rather like later I would become unconscious of grammar when I spoke Russian. In this way I could think freely without inhibition and sometimes come up with an idea that was new.  I gave reasons why I thought someone most eminent had said something incorrect. The fact that my reasons were unthought out meant that they could be rather hard to counter, for they had an immediacy and a naivety that can be the best counter to when thoughts have too long gone through the process of mediation. What else is academia than mediation and recycling of the same old scholarship? Directness and something a little surprising often leads to academic bluster. But I remained calm even if someone else became flustered. David did something similar.
He continually reiterated that he was not here to learn about the Hare Krishna movement, that he had his own beliefs, but of course he was willing to discuss with anyone in a reasonable fashion. He said that his fundamental disagreement was that Eastern religions like Hare Krishna took the person on the wrong path. They led to the death of self, indeed, that this was their goal. They viewed the whole of the ordinary world as appearance while reality was something none of us had ever seen. This he considered was an essential part of the “everything becomes one” school philosophy. For ordinary experience suggested the opposite, that everything in fact was many. His alternative was that the world we see is perfectly real. That the self we experience in our freedom is real and we are really free. But by means of this self we can reach the divine through looking inwardly and by accepting that the divine can only be reached when we accept that it is beyond reason.
His criticism was much more subtle than they had expected. He did not attack the stories about Krishna. He instead pointed out that many stories about Jesus are likewise hard to understand. We need to go beyond reason to believe miracles. So in the end, it is a choice. You can pick Krishna if you like. It is equally a choice beyond reason. But don’t try to come up with proofs. They won’t work in any case.
Someone pointed out that Jesus and Krishna were the same.  He answered, in that case why not follow Jesus? Moreover, they clearly are not the same, for the essence of the teaching of Jesus is that our selves, our souls will be preserved. So, too, is the self preserved in reincarnation, someone said. Perhaps so, but if I have no recollection of my being a rabbit previously in what sense is my self preserved? Moreover, that is not the place towards which it is all tending. The goal is to lose the self in Nirvana, rather like throwing a cup of milk into the ocean. The goal is to become one rather than to preserve the individuality of the individual.
I saw how when necessary, David’s Russian kicked into a higher level than he usually used. It was like he had a series of gears. He would not always get the grammar right, but when necessary, he could get the point across very clearly and very cleverly. Meantime every day as these discussions continued he continued to attend the services. He sang the songs enthusiastically, he listened patiently to the guru. He took part in the dance at the end with enthusiasm and then he put up every evening this extraordinary defence of his own beliefs. I began wondering what role he was playing. But I also knew that he didn’t need my help. Far from it, I was very grateful sitting beside him that he was defending so ably what I believed, too.
Each evening after these discussions, we would go back for a drink and a debriefing to his room. I was careful not to give away too much of what my role was. It wasn’t so much a lack of trust as simply following my usual practice. But as we sat drinking and smoking cigarettes in his freezing room, I showed that I was sympathetic to the arguments that he had been making, and pointed out one or two of my own which might prove useful to him.
We talked about Galina. She sometimes observed the discussions that continued over a number of days, but she didn’t take part. Sometimes she would come up to David and act in a slightly flirtatious, affectionate manner, but she never spent long with him. It was as if she wasn’t allowed to. I saw her sometimes deep in conversation with the guru and his wife. Galina’s English was very rudimentary so they couldn’t talk without a translator. The guru at times looked rather worried. I wondered if they were worried about David. In the debates no one seemed to be landing any blows on him. He had successfully circled the wagons. He was here to see Galina. He was a Catholic. What he believed was not founded on reason. Therefore, it could not be attacked by reason. He respected what the others believed, but it was not the direction he wanted to take as it tended towards loss of self rather than preservation. They charged round like Indians, but they couldn’t land any blows. Meanwhile, he picked them off one by one.
But David was getting frustrated.  The whole experience was taking its toll and he was becoming very tired.
“What’s the point, Effie? I don’t even really talk to her. I just have these endless discussions about something that isn’t very interesting.”
“I think the time may be right when you confront her with her lack of attention. After all, she invited you. You came. She owes you. If it’s a nice day tomorrow, ask her to go for a walk between the morning and the afternoon sessions.”
“I already asked her, she said she was busy.”
“Tell her that you came to spend some time with her. If that isn’t going to happen, you might as well go.”
“You think that will work?”
“I don’t know. But if she won’t go for a walk with you, you must leave or at least you must make all the preparations to do so. But I think she will go for a walk with you.”

Chapter 9
I’d noticed with approval David and Galina’s absence from the afternoon secession. So too I think did certain others. Was it just my imagination, but I thought I detected some rather Victorian looks of disapproval from some of Garudi’s friends. It was only later and indeed not only by means of various conversations, but also by letters from David that I found out what happened that day.
He’d been fairly passive with Galina up until that point and had accepted the few scraps that she had thrown his way, but he was sick of the whole situation and minded to get out. For the first two or three hours when they had first met at the airport, it had been great and he’d been delighted that he’d made the trip, but since then it had been a disaster. He told her straight that if he had in any way guessed it would be like this, he would never have come. He was paying a fortune for a room that was freezing. He slept in multiple layers of clothes and still woke up from the cold. He could barely eat the food that was served. But he would have endured all this if only they could spend some time together.
Galina explained that it was an important time for her, a time that she treasured. She worked in a rather dull office job and saved all her money so that she could go on these retreats. It was the next best thing to being in India. He asked her about what it had been like there and she described a nunnery somewhere with an old nun who had acted as her guide and her friend. She had spent months there, hardly able to communicate and yet they had found a special bond and a way of understanding each other.
David did not wish to be critical of her beliefs. He said that there were parts of the service that he enjoyed. He liked the songs, he liked the dancing. He even liked, to an extent the discussion, but he felt under attack. From her e-mails he had in no way imagined this. He had guessed that she was interested in eastern religion, but he had thought he was going to stay with a group of friends who were going to chat. He had thought that the two of them would have had time to be alone, time to become the friends they were again, time to find out about what they had been doing. He told her it was as if he had invited her to a revival meeting with the intent of converting her to follow the Lord. He felt deceived.
By this point he’d got Galina back. Her eyes were flashing. She was speaking Russian quickly and by default she had agreed to go walking with him. They were walking. The day was sunny, but desperately cold. She pleaded with him to be patient. She would try to spend some more time with him, but it was difficult. For one thing, she had to focus on saying her mantra and on Krishna. She couldn’t make any progress if she was continually thinking of him. All of that sort of thing was Maya or the Veil of illusion. She told of her life in Moscow. How she was regularly asked out by men she came across, but that none of that interested her. She tried her best every day to break through this Maya and spend time with the truth. It was difficult in everyday life. But here where she could say the mantra all day, here where she could listen to words about Krishna, here where she focussed only on these things, she felt herself make progress. So it wasn’t as if she was ignoring him, rather it was that she was focussing on what was most important to her.
“Then why ask me to come here,” he had said.
“Because I wanted you to share what I had found.”
“But why write at all? You remember how I left you in Kaliningrad? I was happy for that to be the end. It was a good end. Why write to me again?”
“I had feelings for you. I couldn’t bear the thought that I would never see you again.”
“You understand why a man writes to a woman for a number of years? You understand why he flies thousands of miles to see her?”
“Yes. I’m not stupid.”
“But you’ve used that fact to get me here. I wouldn’t be here otherwise.”
“Why not just say what you mean to say, David. We may as well now that we are in the woods. You spend your whole time writing letters making hints that are fairly obvious, just say what you have on your mind.”
They continued to trudge mechanically through the woods. The snow in places was deep, but it was all clearly man-made. The paths were straight and there were piles of logs neatly stacked, and there were fences. But they focussed only on their conversation.
“I left you never expecting to see you again,” he said, “but you wrote to me. I took that as a sign, that what I had felt was at least in part reciprocated. I thought this thing was worth pursuing.”
“We’d only spent a few afternoons together.”
“I know, but anyway, I was willing to put in the effort to write to you. Do you know how difficult it was in the beginning?”
“I remember your letters were long and more correct than I thought possible.”
“It’s only because of you that I can write.”
“It was your effort, not mine. Come on, David, you’ve already made your preamble. Just say what you want to say. What is it that you want?”
“I want to marry you.”
This shook her. She stopped and he looked at her face. She had expected something like that, but not that.
“It’s impossible, David.”
“You don’t like me?”
“I hardly know you. We met a few times in Kaliningrad and we wrote e-mails, and now you are here. I do like you. Perhaps, more than that.”
“You, too, write to me sometimes of your tender caresses.”
“I do and I mean it. I do think of you in that way. I’m a woman and I sometimes need to think of a man tenderly and I like the idea of a man thinking of me in that way.”
“Is that why we’ve been writing?”
“We started because I couldn’t bear how you had left. I felt humiliated. It was like some sort of defeat. Politeness can be quite a weapon.”
“But writing has given you something you wanted.”
“It has sometimes. You remember when I was in India, I didn’t write for months.”
“Yes. I worried. I didn’t think I’d hear from you again.”
“I wasn’t sure I would write again. I was so focussed there. I didn’t think of Maya, the world, you, hardly at all.”
“And then sometime after that you begin thinking of me again. But still inviting me here doesn’t make a lot of sense. You knew why I was writing and that I wanted more than just letters. You knew that I wrote because I’m a man and you’re a woman. Why else? You invite me here and know that I will come because I have hope, but you have no intention of fulfilling that hope. It looks a bit like a deception.”
“I don’t think I can fulfil any of your hopes.”
“But why, Galina?”
“I don’t think I can bear to be touched.”
“Then there will be no need for you to be touched, I promise.”
“My God! You are willing to offer that? You would offer marriage without the one thing you desire from me?”
“I want to spend time with you, love you. There are different ways to love.”
“I know, but, David, this won’t work. What could I do in Scotland? And you would tire of this arrangement very quickly.”
“We could go to India, much more regularly than you can.”
“But you don’t want to go to India. What is there for you there?”
“There’s you.”
“David, this is not going to happen. You would marry me hoping that in time I would relent and we would sleep together. What other purpose would you have? As you say you are here because you are a man and I am a woman. It has nothing to do with friendship. Yet you want an arrangement that amounts to friendship. This would make you unhappy and it would make me unhappy.”
“Perhaps, but then why am I here?”
“It’s something we are asked to do. It’s a duty. We must try to get our friends to come to a meeting.”
“So it is a deception?”
“It’s for their own benefit. It’s an act of kindness. But it’s not only this, David. I do like you. I like you in the way not so very different to the way you like me. I wanted to see you. But some women feel differently. We don’t all or always desire in the way that you desire. It wasn’t a deception.”
“I know that, Galina. I know that very well. Don’t worry,” he said.
He saw that he wasn’t going to get any further with this conversation and he was beginning to get cold. But he thought they had made some progress. He knew that she did have some feelings for him. He thought if perhaps they could just spent some more time together, he could bring her round to his way of thinking. He looked for ways of finding hope from this conversation, picked out a word or look that he could latch on to. The main thing is that he had been talking to Galina again, rather than Garudi. She had talked to him as a woman talks who just might come to love. She was reluctant, but he didn’t see her “No” as final. He hoped to overcome the reluctance. He could be patient. He could wait. If only he could spend forever demonstrating his devotion, surely, eventually she would come to see him as a worthy suitor. 
Both of them were deceiving themselves. Galina thought she could make David a Hare Krishna through her love, while he thought he could make her a lover through his love. But love is such that it deceives all of us, especially when it is at its height. In that sense it can indeed be a veil of illusion, but a blissful, though sometimes painful Maya that makes us ignore reality. She had said “No”, she had, practically speaking, said “No, never”. In a nineteenth century novel this would be the moment when it wouldn’t be quite honourable to ask the lady again. But David loved such novels, precisely because even after a definite refusal, it was still sometimes possible to find a happy ending.  So combined with his disappointment, even his sense of futility and devastation, he preserved that tiny spark of hope. He would journey with her, he would try to spend as much time as possible with her, he would write to her, because his love meant that he couldn’t cease to believe in a happy ending. Not yet anyway. He was good at argument and he always thought that logic was the way to woman’s heart. If only he could find the right argument, if only he could find the words to persuade her. There was just some unknown obstacle hindering them, but in romance it was the task to overcome, to view each quest the lady set as a challenge to confound. This dark lady with her raven hair had sent him out into the world to find something. He didn’t even know what he was looking for and she didn’t know either, but it was the condition that would enable them both to love as they both wanted. It would reconcile all difference and bring a happy ending. After all, there had been no deception. There was feeling. There was a chance. But where to look when there are no sign posts and you don’t even know what you are looking for? But no matter, that after all was the quest. That was the riddle the dark lady had set him.
They soon found themselves coming back to reality and the here, and now was that they were in a snowy wood. She asked him which way they should go. He didn’t know. The paths were straight and after a time you came to an intersection, but there was no way of knowing which was the correct path and which was not.
“You’re the man, David. You should know the way back.”
“I wasn’t paying attention. I wasn’t even focussing on what I was saying.”
“We really must find the path. This isn’t a good situation.”
The situation indeed was quite dangerous. It was minus thirty and already the light was beginning to fade. People in Russia frequently die if they get lost in the woods.  Neither of them had brought with them a mobile. A mobile going off was very frowned upon when the guru spoke, so Galina had left hers in Moscow. David only kept one in his rucksack in case of emergencies. But he naturally didn’t take his rucksack with him for a walk in the woods. So they trudged up paths to see if they could find something that was familiar. But each pile of logs looked like every other pile of logs. They found at one point what looked like an expensive luxurious dacha, but it was deserted.  Besides breaking in there could be no help here and, anyway, breaking into an expensive Russian dacha was not necessarily a straightforward task even for someone skilled in these matters.
The trudging through the thick snow made them both tired and the cold and the emotions they had exerted in their conversation had drained them, but they each knew that they had to keep going. It was an absurd situation. They were less than a mile away from warmth, but they had no idea how to get there. They pretty much chose paths at random. For the first half an hour of the search, David wasn’t particularly worried, but as time went on he began to feel fear. This really would be an absurd way to die, but he began just to sense the possibility of it.
It wasn’t as if they had searched for the way back systematically. Neither of them had been in any sort of state to think clearly. But perhaps someone did guide them back. It might have been Krishna, but David did not believe in purple gods who set out to deprive you of your soul. Who knows what it was that took them back. It may simply have been their own initiative. It may be that they just were not that far away and that mere chance was enough so that within the time span allotted they were bound to make it back in one piece. The situation may not therefore have been in fact so very dangerous. The difference between what is dangerous and what is not dangerous, after all, can amount to mere chance. Which of us has not stumbled on some stairs and thought nothing of a situation which could have been falling head first to who knows what? So this walk in the woods may have been only fleetingly dangerous.
Nevertheless, it was with some relief that they found something that pointed the way back. Here was a woodpile with piece of wood in just that special position that he remembered from when they first began talking of love. That was the path forward, or rather here was the path back to the warmth.

“This way,” he said. “I know where I’m going now.”
“Thank God!” said Galina.
Within ten minutes they were in the warmth answering questions about where they had been. There were some looks of disapproval. But David thought Galina only cared about being warm and safe.
Something had changed that afternoon, not merely because they had had one of those conversations that happen rarely in life, but because they had shared an adventure. What had been unspoken had been said and that changed things utterly.

Chapter 10
When David described some of this to me later I encouraged him to continue. I emphasised the positive and downplayed the negative. His mood was mixed and as we smoke and drank he began to confide in me. He needed me at that moment and, I too, needed him. I knew he was one of the best chances I had of fulfilling my task. Galina was deeply in. I couldn’t even reach her at all. We had barely even spoken. She had been pleased to see me, but my story had always been that I was interested in finding out about meditation and Indian mysticism. I had written to her that I’d found my own path dull and finally a dead end. I wanted to try something else and had met some people in Kaliningrad who had showed me something about yoga. I described some of the books that I had read, some of the classics of Vedic literature. She’d suggested that I come to this gathering of like minds. But then that was my cover story. I was an interested participant. I hadn’t come to see her. She had only done me a favour by helping me to find this meeting. I had some more cards that I could play, but I hoped that that might not be necessary. If David could win her round, that would be altogether better in the long run. My leverage, at that point, with Galina was limited. I could only really talk to her in passing. We were friends, but not so close that she would have expected us to talk incessantly. Anyway, her role now was as a devotee instructing an initiate. Whenever I started talking to her about life outside, she reminded me that we must focus on our inner life, on saying our mantra and on listening to the guru. I couldn’t argue against her position, as that would have blown my cover.
It was only David who could argue, for he didn’t need any cover. He’d been clear that he was there to see her. But I couldn’t take that line. Even David could not attack directly. His goal was similar to mine, but also different. Imagine if he had fallen in love with a girl from Japan, he would have done everything he could to respect her beliefs and her culture. If they had gone together to a Shinto temple, he would not have criticised her beliefs and practices, rather he would have respected them and discussed them in a friendly way. He would have said that he wanted to learn and would have listened patiently as she told him of each little thing she did in the temple. Indeed, such a person, in love with a girl from Japan, would have tried to eradicate from his mind any negative thoughts about Shinto or Buddhism, because these would be negative thoughts in part about the girl he loved. It is for this reason people sometimes convert when they marry. But even if they don’t convert, they treat the beliefs of the loved one with respect. A lover doesn’t make jibes about idols and ancestor worship.
David’s goal was not to turn Galina away from Krishna. When every day there were discussions, he knew that Galina was either listening, or probably would later hear what had been said. Therefore, he was careful in how he argued. He did not attack, he only defended and if that defence contained a veiled attack, he veiled it very carefully with his excellent maskirovka. He didn’t care what Galina believed so long as she believed in him.
I continued to help a little with the vocabulary and as we sat together in his room at the end of each day our discussion would range over the issues involved. In this way his thoughts developed like in a tutorial. In this way I was able to describe some new defensive formations and ways of outflanking attacks. I told him, for instance that it was only by focussing on externals that people felt they had the need to travel to India to find enlightenment. Boethius or Bunyan after all could find God in a prison cell. Though, let alone faith need not be influenced by surroundings. So why travel all the way to India to sit in a nunnery? Galina had exactly the same mind in Kaliningrad as she did there. Why choose someone else’s religion if you are seeking mysticism and that which is beyond the ability of all of us to think. Wittgenstein found this in a prisoner of war camp. It is not as if Christianity lacks mysticism. I thought these people were looking for something exotic, something strange, but this exoticism only masked the shallowness. They were imitating someone else’s practices and doing so rather badly. It was as if I went to Japan for a while and looked on as people performed the rites of Shintoism. I might read some books on the subject and then return home and set up a Western branch of Shintoism. But it is likely that I would miss something. What I would miss would not necessarily be a lack of understanding, but I would miss the mundaneness of every day Japanese life. Shinto would be something that was integrated into Japanese life, something that was done more or less automatically without necessarily too much thought. With my newly found enthusiasm and obsession I could easily change this into a cult.
So, too, here. There were millions of Hindus in India who went about their daily lives and sometimes went to the temple. But it was just that. It was a part of everyday life. It wasn’t an obsession. These Indians did not say a mantra all day long. They did not listen to endless lectures about whichever God they focussed on. Their Hinduism was therefore mild and gentle and the reason for this is that it was theirs. It was their culture. This western imitation however, was as far away as possible from ordinary life. I saw a lot of intelligent Russians dressing up in face paint and wearing saris, pretending to understand something that they were not. They imitated and aped what they thought Indians would do, but they were all deeply undercover. They all played a role, just as much as I did. They all had their funny sounding Indian names, but in a few days they would return to ordinary Russian life. For many of them this was just a sort of role-playing game. They came here because there was an emptiness in their life and this somehow filled it. Many of them I knew did not take it all that seriously. I had had a few words with Vera and she’d made it clear that she was just interested in Hare Krishna as another form of esotericism.  It went along with her ankhs and her crystals and whatever else she could dream up. She was therefore quite safe and in no need of rescuing. She still lived with her parents, I think.
But Galina took these things seriously. There was an intensity about her. There always had been. I think also there was a greater emptiness in her than in the others. Her need was greater and so she had searched harder. Only love could fill this emptiness. Only David could.
He could get through to her. I knew that during their walk in the woods he had got through to her. The Hare Krishna smile had gone. Her eyes had flashed like they had done when he’d first met her. She’d stopped saying her mantra. Only he could make her stop saying it forever.
The mantra was the key to the brainwashing. There had been a discussion one night about the difference between telling the rosary and saying the mantra. David had said that when he said his rosary, he focussed both on himself and on the object of his prayer. He didn’t lose his self and that was not his goal.  That was not his tradition and it was not his path. In this way he explained the differences between what he believed and what the others believed without criticising. This was always his way. The criticism was implied, never stated. He defended his beliefs ably and showed how they were incompatible with the Hare Krishna beliefs.  In doing so he pointed out where following Krishna led, but it was always up to the Krishna follower to conclude that this wasn’t the path and this wasn’t the direction.
Yet, despite his able defence, I worried about David, too. I saw him get rather too involved in the practices. Even if he was only there to see Galina, I saw his eyes glaze over like hers did during the singing and especially during the dancing. Sometimes in the discussion he was willing to concede a point that I would not have conceded. Sometimes I wondered how far he would be willing to go for love. I didn’t think he had any limits.  Galina had got him to come in the first place because she knew that he loved her. How much was she willing to use that leverage? If she offered love in exchange for following her path, would he take the offer? I wondered. I rather thought that he would. But then I also thought he would just be going under deep cover. Yet I worried for this was a very dangerous game to play. His love could rescue Galina, but it was a two- edged sword. Her love, or even perhaps the promise of her love, could take him places that were not quite safe. Even if he was in deep cover, there is always the danger of going native. At what point does pretending to be a Hare Krishna amount to being a Hare Krishna? Saying the mantra all day will block out any other thought and any other self. Eventually, the person who infiltrates the mafia, finds that all their friends are in the mafia and their assumptions, even their actions are mafia actions. At this point the cover can become so deep that it ceases to be cover at all.
I told him a little of my own love for my husband as a way of expressing sympathy for his difficulty. The path of love is not always easy and it can be necessary to do what it takes. I described how I had met Petr in Denmark, how we’d got together and how we wrote letters after that when he’d gone back to Russia. But our situation had seemed hopeless. I couldn’t visit him and he couldn’t visit me. But he had been able to arrange it so that he could get back to Denmark some months later and I had faced a choice. I didn’t know him terribly well. We had spent only a few weeks together and I would be going to a place I had never been. I had to face some rather difficult moral choices too. I had to gain permission from some people in Cambridge who had invested a lot of time and effort in me. I had some rather difficult and intense discussions with Russians both in Copenhagen, and later in Moscow and Kaliningrad. It wasn’t easy for our love to find its place. I took some risks. There were times, especially in the early years, when I was frightened. I have faced some very scary people over the years, but I picked a path through them, because I knew what my path was. But most of all I knew that I had love.
It was because of love that Petr and I were able to find a way to be together. Without that I would not have even considered going to the Soviet Union.  But given that I did have love, I would not have even considered not going. It is love that changes everything. It motivates in a way that nothing else can. But the point is that I knew that Petr loved me. I could see it. It was not a role that he played, nor was it a role that I played. You can’t fool someone on this, not for long.
I told David some of this, both as encouragement, but also as warning. If he could win her love, it would be worth doing anything for Galina. Of course, it was worth flying to see her, just for the chance of it. But it must be two-way traffic. There was a feeling between them, but after all, in the end, she had said ‘No’. The realisation of this sometimes hit him. It wasn’t always, but when tired, when our conversation became full of feeling, I could see that he had found a sadness here, outside Moscow. Part of him wanted to stick it out, but another part was inclined to give up and go. After a couple of drinks he began once more to express regret at coming. I thought it worth him staying on and seeing what might happen.
“A proposal sometimes does something to a woman,” I said. “It makes it clear that you are serious. You have flown a long way and now you have proposed.”
“But she turned me down.”
“Yes, she turned you down. But she will feel flattered. And, moreover, she will be thinking about that proposal. Give her a chance. Sometimes women need a little time.”
“It’s like something out of Jane Austen.”
“Do you mean this turning down a proposal as a matter of form? As if it’s necessary to say ‘No’ two or three times, because that’s the way it’s done?”
“It used to be that way I think out of a sort of feminine modesty. It was expected. It was part of the language game that they played.”
“I rather think Galina is a little like that, but also like a heroine in one of these novels: she is scared of love. It must have been something like the great unknown in early 19th century England and rather scary, too, given the chance of death in childbirth. I don’t know how far you can take the analogy, but it’s not a bad one. That’s why she loves Krishna so much. It’s a way of loving and, perhaps, being loved without being touched.”
“Is she scared of that side of things?”
“Something happened to her one summer a few years ago, she went from looking like a model to more or less looking like she does now. She went from being someone who wanted to attract a man to someone who wanted to repel all advances.”
“She does that with me, too.”
“No, David, I suspect you are closer to her than any man alive. You are the one chance she may have of ordinary love. She is very close indeed to loving you intensely.”
“Do you really think so?”
I said I did, but I wasn’t sure. But I thought there was a chance. He was the best card I had to play. Otherwise, I would have to play the last card. I thought he could save her. Anyway, I had seen that she, too, sometimes glanced at him. She was less indifferent than she sometimes pretended.

Chapter 11
There was an odd tension between David and Galina over the next days, but nothing fundamentally changed. I saw however, that he was getting more and more tired. He wasn’t sleeping well in his room. He hadn’t regretted getting a room of his own. I, too, was glad that there was a place that we could sit and drink late at night and smoke cigarettes without standing outside. But when we sat there, we kept on our coats and it still felt cold. He wasn’t eating very much and the whole experience was grinding him down.
In essence, everything was a repetition. Just as they repeated the mantra endlessly, so they repeated everything else. The songs were repeated. The little ceremony with the Krishna idol was repeated. The guru repeated what he had said before with slight variations on the theme. The dancing was repeated. The group assembled to debate with David was always the same. It was relentless. People were friendly, but they were most concerned, not so much with him, as with how he would continue his relationship with Krishna when he went back to Scotland. He was vague about it just to get them off his back. He said that there were lots of Indians in Britain, perhaps, he would find out about these things from them. But this was met with incomprehension.  Above all, he should avoid Indians. Their form of religion had been corrupted long ago. He had to find a Hare Krishna group. People offered to put him in contact with others like them in Britain. David thanked them, but hoped they wouldn’t bother. He was struggling. The line that he had been taking that he was just there to see Galina, that he was a Catholic who was curious about eastern religion, had been beaten down. They had begun to make him engage with the actual beliefs. They had seen him taking part in the dance. Perhaps, they sensed his weakness.
I think David sensed it, too. It is so easy to get caught up in cult-like hysteria. Even I, who knew a lot more about some of the cult–like aspects of this particular group of Hare Krishnas, found myself caught up in it. This is after all, a part of human psychology. I know that if I had been a German at one of their rallies in the 1930s I, too, would have been shouting “Sieg Heil” or anything else everyone there was shouting.  Even when I knew the truth, I had still felt myself going along with the dominant view in the Komsomol meetings and also for that moment believing it. It is perfectly possible to believe something we know not to be true.
The moral superiority some of us feel about the SS or the NKVD is wholly misplaced. Given the choice between self-preservation and doing something awful that everyone else is doing, few of us part from saints choose self-destruction. The best we can hope for is to go along with the crowd and contribute as little as possible. Given the right circumstance all of us are equally guilty.
While I had arrived at this gathering of followers and devotees fully aware of its cult like status, fully aware of the real nature of the guru, I, too, found myself swept along in the dance. Part of it was just to be able to stay undercover without giving myself away, but not all of it. It wasn’t only an act. I sang the mantra “Hare Krishna” and I meant it, even though I knew the truth. This is why all this group psychology is so dangerous. It is very powerful and when a person is weak, when he is unhappy, it can be easy and so delightful to drown yourself in that dance which washes away all other thoughts.
There can only have been a couple of days left when David rebelled. He asked one of the people, who looked after the building, to arrange a taxi. He was packed and waiting. The word went around very quickly. Suddenly, everyone was very kind to him; suddenly, everyone was very gentle, telling him how much they would miss him if he went. He just kept telling everyone that he was tired, he was cold, he couldn’t eat. He was quite determined. Perhaps, he sensed the need for self-preservation. Perhaps, he was fully aware of his own weakness and felt the need to get away or else, give in.
I had guessed that something like this might happen. I didn’t disapprove. He had done all he could. Galina had not really changed in any way towards him. She had spent a little more time with him than before, but she was still fundamentally only involved in her own mantra. She had gone back to being Garudi. Her eyes had glazed over. A smile continually spread across her face as if she was high. She was high with her mantra. He had been able to break through to her on the snowy path away from the building, but when they had come back to the warmth, she had more or less gone back to blanking it all out from her mind. She kept repeating Hare Krishna, until David no longer entered her thoughts.
At what point does someone give up the search for love? Some people are willing to wait years in the hope that a best friend will become a lover.  Who has not come across the case of someone who loves without getting anything back? It is common enough. That person frequently thinks if I’m just a little bit nicer, if I wait just a little bit longer, then she will change, she will come to love me. But it rarely works out that way. Once the path has been set that one party loves and the other does not, then it normally continues that way. But usually at some point the person who loves without hope realises this and gives up. David had with Galina in Kaliningrad. He had realised that the relationship was going nowhere and so had said goodbye not expecting to see her again. It was she who had resurrected things. Now as he sat waiting for the taxi to arrive, she chose to resurrect things again.
Was it her choice? I think, it was at least in part. Yet a sort of panic had spread through the building with the news that David was packed and ready to go. I saw many people talking to Galina. I even saw the guru and his wife in a little group with Galina. It may be that they were persuading her, or it may be that they were giving her a dispensation. I didn’t really understand how they dealt with human relationships. There were few obvious couples except the guru and his wife. Everyone slept in separate dormitories. But after a time Galina came to where David was sitting and everyone else left, and left them alone.
“I hear you’re planning to leave,” she said. “Weren’t you going to say goodbye?”
“Yes, of course. I’m sorry, Galina, it’s just I can’t take it anymore.”
“Can’t take what?”
“The food, the cold… I’m tired.”
“That’s not the real reason though, is it?”
“It’s not what I expected. I’ve given it a good try, but there doesn’t seem much point. I didn’t come here to listen to these lectures.”
“I wanted to you to find out about something that is important to me.”
“But for what, Galina? For what purpose?”
“Well how else can there be a relationship without understanding?”
“But we don’t have a relationship, Galina.”
“I’m not ready for what you want. I can’t make any promises and at the moment I have to focus on this. It’s important to me, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t something important between us.”
“I don’t understand.”
“It means a lot to me that you came here and I want us to continue writing and seeing each other.”
“I don’t think I could bear another of these retreats.”
“It wouldn’t necessarily have to be that way. It’s just I was a little scared of meeting you alone in Moscow. You have to be patient with me, David.”
“You’re scared?”
“Yes, I’m scared.”
“What happened to you?”
“It doesn’t really matter, does it? Perhaps, nothing happened, or else I just realised that I didn’t like how I had been living. I looked for something else and found this.”
“But can I fit into this?”
“That’s what we’re finding out. There may be the chance to find out further.”
“What chance?”
“I may be able to go to India again. You could come, too. We could find out a lot that way.”
“And would we be together?”
“In a way. Let’s not rule anything in and let’s not rule anything out.”
“I’ve never been to India. I never had any desire to go. It was never a culture that particularly interested me and people say it’s dirty and you get ill.”
“It’s tough, David. It’s much tougher than spending a few days in a large building outside Moscow. The food will be worse, too. If you can’t pass this test, how could you pass that one?”
“I have my own beliefs.”
“That’s fine. They are more or less the same. Just so long as you are open to new experiences.”
“You want me to stay?”
“Yes, I do very much. I’m sorry, I haven’t spent as much time with you as you would have liked, but why don’t you sit with me today? Everyone is so glad that you are here, and everyone is happy that I have someone special with me.”
Of course, he stayed. What else could he have done in the face of such persuasion? He could see that she meant it, too. The eyes were the same as they had been on the snowy path. They were the same as on their first afternoons in Kaliningrad. She was like she had been when they had first met at the airport, happy to see him and to be with him. The tenderness was real and the caresses while not physical, were felt as if they had been. He saw that there was feeling in her eyes. It wasn’t quite the same feeling that he felt, but it wasn’t so very different. He felt there was a chance and a man in love will endure much for a chance.
I, too, was glad. David had become quite dear to me, but he was also my best chance of rescuing Galina. If he had gone, I would have had to act alone and that would have been harder. I was still ready to do so, but I knew that my course of action, while powerful, might also do harm. I was very aware of the responsibility, especially the long-term responsibility.
I wondered what she really felt. I think, Galina really did feel something. She loved David in her own way. There was some sort of problem she had about doing something about it, but time and patience could overcome that. If he could only get her on her own for a while, I thought he had a pretty good chance. Love and spending time alone together will usually result in two people finding a way of expressing that love. The problem was that when Galina retreated into Garudi, when she focussed on herself and her mantra, it wasn’t clear that there was any room for anyone else. There wasn’t even any room for Galina.

Chapter 12
David began sitting with Galina throughout the day and I tended to see him only at night when we continued our practice of reviewing the day and sharing some illicit cigarettes and alcohol. He was happier and yet nothing much had really changed. They sat together. She helped him find his place when it was time to sing. He would glance at her and she would glance back. But they rarely actually spoke more than a few words. During lunch and dinner she sat next to him, but they were never really alone. The same discussions continued.
It was interesting that no one came up to me to ask me about my progress towards enlightenment. No one asked me why I was there. No one attempted to persuade me.  Perhaps, it is the manner that I have developed throughout all my years in Russia. There’s a certain look that I have developed. My husband has it, too. Many of our friends and colleagues likewise know how to look in such a way that discourages conversation.  I remember at one point in the film ‘Doctor Zhivago’, Alex Guiness walks into a room in the middle of an argument. He snaps his fingers and everyone ceases speaking. It’s not so much because of how he snaps his fingers, but because of the look on his face and the fact that this look tells everyone exactly who he is. When I first arrived in Russia, it was very necessary that people did not ask me too many questions. I could not have people delving into my past with small talk. There was a surface persona that worked, but it was more or less only on the surface. If you dug a little deeper, you reached Effie and Effie had no business being in Kaliningrad. So I became shy, I became reticent and I developed my look that said ‘Don’t ask me any questions’. And so people were friendly enough to me. They were happy that I was there and asked a little about where I was from and how I had become interested in Krishna. But when I pulled down the shutters on the conversation, they dropped me and soon went off looking for someone else to talk to.
I’d talked to David about his plans. He was glad that he had stayed on. He was looking forward to going to India. This was the excitement and the changed path that he had been looking for all those years ago when he had started learning Russian. Above all, he was looking forward to having Galina on his own as she took him to the airport. He thought they would have the chance to talk of other things. He might be able to allude to their relationship. He might even be able to make a little progress. Then after a few months, he would be with her again. There was a lot to look forward to.
I wondered how real his dreams were, but I didn’t say anything negative. When faced with a difficult situation years earlier, I hadn’t listened to anything negative, I had done what was necessary to fulfil my dream. In this David was like me. He was willing to act. He didn’t just sit back passively waiting for his fate to happen. He made it happen. He knew what he wanted and was willing to spend some money and endure some hardship. The problem is that he knew what he wanted, but I was entirely unsure that Galina knew what she wanted. She had twice intervened to keep the relationship going. She had invited him to come to Moscow, she was now inviting him to go to India, but did she accept the logical implication of these invitations. You can’t invite a man to travel in that way and then expect him to act towards you just as if you were any other acquaintance. What was going to happen when they were confronted with desire? What above all would happen if she found that desire in herself? I worried, but I said nothing negative.
I questioned him about the ideas that we had been exposed to. I was concerned that he was getting just a bit too close.
“Don’t worry, Effie, I’m not about to turn into one of them, but it will help me with Galina if I understand a little of what she believes.”
“I imagine this trip to India will not exactly be sight-seeing,” I said.
“Again, I’m pretty vague about details. I suspect it will be something like this only with a warmer climate and worse food.”
“What if she doesn’t change in the way you want her to? You’ll be a long way away from home.”
“I don’t make plans. What’s the point? But I’m hoping we will be able to spend some time together.”
“Do you think she’s worth it, David? It’s an awful struggle for an uncertain end.”
“Did you think it was worth it when you went to Russia?”
“But I was married, David, and I knew my husband loved me.”
“What would you do?”
“I’d do as you are doing. I’d go.”
“Why?”
“I’ve known Galina quite a long time. She’s worth it and not because she is beautiful. I’ve seen how you look at her. You’re right to do so. She’s stunning, but she’s much more than that. When her mind is not clouded, there’s something quite special there.”
“I think so, too. When she writes, there is suddenly a sentence that touches me, even if the rest of the letter is nothing special and sometimes just mumbo jumbo. While now, for the most part, she is glazed over and thinking only of her mantra, I can sometimes break through and find the Galina I knew. She’s hurt in a way that I don’t understand, but I think I can heal her. I’m going to try.”
It was the last evening and he was happy sitting beside her. The discussion had been toned down. They all knew that David was willing to go to India and in that sense there was no need for further persuasion. He wasn’t quite one of them, but he had shown that he was willing to go a long way along the path to meet his Garudi. I saw people acting towards them subtly as if they were a couple. Those people who had been disapproving when they heard that he had come to see Galina, were accepting, even enthusiastic, to admit him on those terms. I heard little bits of gossip about Garudi and the man from England. In Russia everywhere in Britain is called England. Some people were rather disapproving, but others said the guru had agreed and approved.
I was sitting across from David and Galina. He was being conciliatory about the whole experience. He said he’d enjoyed himself. They talked a little about India, about when it might happen, what it would be like. He was optimistic and whenever he heard of any difficulties, he dismissed them. It was just as things should be at about 10 O’clock on the last night.
“David,” she said. “I have a favour to ask.”
“Sure, anything,” he said.
“Would it be OK if I didn’t go back with you to the airport tomorrow?”
“I don’t think I can manage on my own.”
“But you can get a taxi, it won’t cost much more.”
“I’d rather been looking forward to that time.”
“I know, but I’m going to stay on for a few more days here. We’re planning some quite important discussions tomorrow morning.”
I could see the devastation on his face. He was willing to do so much to be with her, and it seemed she wasn’t willing even to take him to the airport.
“Why do you keep looking at me like that?” she said.
“Like what? I’m disappointed that’s all. But, in the end, it’s not that big a deal. I can get a taxi.”
“But must you keep looking? Every minute you’ve been here you’ve been looking at me. I look round and your eyes are on me. It’s as if they look through me or imagine what’s underneath.”
“Galina, what’s wrong, we were having a nice time thinking about the future and suddenly you are angry?”
“Because I’m sick of it. I’m sick of seeing your desire. You always want to talk to me. But it’s just spam. I want to focus on what’s important and you, you’re always there with your distractions and your trivial wants.”
“When have I ever?”
“But I know what you’re thinking. I know what you want. I know why you want to go to India. You want me. That’s all you want. But I’m going there to find out and to learn. I’m not interested in this thing that you want.”
“Then why on earth did you ask me to come here, Galina? It’s not serious. I was happy to walk away two years ago in Kaliningrad, but you wrote to me. I was happy to walk away again two days ago, but you came and talked of India. Enough! It’s not serious!”
At this he got up and walked out. I went with him and we smoked a couple of cigarettes outside. So it had ended this way, I reflected. It was always likely to. They wanted different things, and I could scarcely imagine how she could change. In the end, if she wasn’t willing to even take him to the airport, what chance did they have of finding something together in India? If they couldn’t find it in Moscow, why would they be able to find it there? If she didn’t really want to spend time with him, if she valued one more discussion as more important than that, then really what was the point?
I saw that he was all choked up, there may have been tears flowing down his cheeks. It was hard to tell in the dark.
“We’ll go for a drink in a minute,” I said.
“I need one.”
But then Galina was flying out of the door. There was a scene where both she and David were almost hysterical. She spoke Russian so quickly that even I struggled to keep up, but there was nothing much to keep up with. He answered as best he could and somehow through the hysterics came a new reconciliation. I have no idea what happened inside while we were smoking our cigarettes. Perhaps, she calmed down a bit. Perhaps, it was at the point when she might lose him that she suddenly realised that she must act and act now. It was all very strange and bewildering even for me. What it must have been like for David I can hardly guess.
They squabbled about who said what and why. She told me to leave and what business of mine was it anyway.
“You’re always looking on, aren’t you, Zhenya? You never say very much about yourself, but you find out about others. There are people in there who are a little scared of you. Did you know that? They wonder who you are.”
“Calm down, Galina,” I said. “I’m happy to leave the two of you to it. Why don’t you go and sit together for a few minutes and sort things out? These tiffs are nothing much. But think calmly. Good night both of you.”
They went off together to David’s room. Of course, nothing happened. They sat for a while, chatting. She was sorry that she’d lost her temper. He asked if she still wanted him to go with her to India. She did. He told me later the sort of things they said.
“You must be patient with me, David. I’m a little confused. I’m tired. I want to learn, I want to keep on this path, but another part of me enjoys ordinary things.”
“You don’t know quite what you want,” he said. “Or else what you want is incompatible with something else you want. That’s fine. You can have both. There’s no need to choose.”
“I don’t know that I can give you what you want.”
“All I want is the chance for us to find out. We need to spend some time together.”
She began fussing about in the room after a few minutes as if she was getting nervous. She saw a book he had been reading and dismissed it as rubbish and that he should not pollute his mind with such things, nor, indeed, should he smoke or drink.
“I think that Zhenya is a bad influence on you,” she said.
“She’s been a good friend to me, but why don’t you call her by her real name?”
“Zhenya is her real name. What do you call her?”
“Effie.”
“I think that’s some kind of pet name her husband uses.”
“Oh, well, it hardly matters.”
“Look, I must go. I’ll see you off in the morning. You don’t mind, do you?”
“No. I never really did, Galina.  Do something for me, would you?”
“What?”
“Embrace me.”
She looked dubious, but they did embrace and held for a few seconds. He could feel her discomfort as he held her close towards him. He could feel the closeness of her body and enjoyed the sensation, but he wondered what she was feeling. He sensed that the experience was difficult for her and yet, perhaps, she, too, had wanted him to do this. But there was a slight tremble that he could sense as he held her as if holding an animal that is scared and wants desperately to be let free. So very soon he released her. There was no question of any more, not even a kiss on the cheek.
“Good night, David,” she said with Galina’s eyes and with no mantra going through her brain. She smiled with her whole face and yet there was also that hint of Russian severity that he rather liked.
The next day I saw him briefly and we exchanged e-mail addresses and telephone numbers. I would talk to him quite a bit over the next few weeks.
With Galina in those last few minutes before the taxi arrived there was nothing really said. She was neither distant, nor affectionate and they only talked of general things, of how he would write to her and of how they would organise their trip.
As he got into the taxi, he looked at her. Her face was pale, her hair was ragged and uncombed, but it was the Galina who he had known. Somehow through all the ups and downs he had been able to communicate to her.
Now even though he expected to see her again in a couple of months, it somehow felt like he would never see her again, and so he carefully photographed the image that she presented to him on a cold sunny Moscow morning. He looked once more, and then she was gone.

Chapter 13
The meeting in the end had not been difficult to arrange, but it had required some thought on my part.  I could stay out of things, more or less observing, from the side but with a little bit of direction, or I could act. I chose to act. I had been pondering all along this action, but the night before had determined my course. I had to act. The alternative was just too uncertain. I didn’t think the alternative really had a chance. Galina wasn’t going to change. It had been worth seeing how things had played out. But I had to make a judgement call, and there came a moment when I realised that I had to play my card. It may be that I was wrong to do so. But there is always a moment when a choice has to be made. I had reached that moment the night before when I left David and Galina. It’s a terrible responsibility we have sometimes when our actions can have outcomes that are unforeseen and affect lives in ways that none of us can guess. But failure to act is also an action so there is no ducking the responsibility. What right did I have to act? I had been asked to. Galina’s mother had been desperate. I promised to do all I could and I kept my promise.
Galina came into the guru’s rooms. She had a look of bewilderment on her face. She just did not expect to be there. She could think of no reason why she might have been called there. No-one ever went to the guru’s room. It just wasn’t done. Here was where he needed to prepare and relax. She looked around her shyly. She took in some of the luxurious décor. She noticed me. Our eyes briefly met and I saw a mixture of confusion and hostility. Above all, I saw the question what are you doing here?
The guru spoke and as usual his wife translated. I don’t think I said a word.
“Please sit down, Garudi,” the guru said.
“But what?”
“Don’t worry, you’ve done nothing wrong. It’s just we need to have a little chat.”
Galina sat in such a way that it was as if she was trying not to touch the seat with her bottom. It was obvious that she felt intensely embarrassed to have been chosen to come here. I understand she had been performing her usual tasks, helping serve lunch when the message had come down to her that she was wanted in the guru’s room that instant. Again the whispers went round the community. There were one or two smirks from some of the men. But these immediately received glares. It was unheard of for the guru to meet someone in his rooms, but there were occasional whispers. But then again, the whole morning had been unusual. Some of them remembered how I had approached the guru after the lecture and spoken a few words in English to him, very quickly. I heard later how this had excited some gossip, especially when soon after Garudi had been summoned to see the guru. The Hare Krishnas were just like all of us, just people who talked about each other and speculated about those in the group. Where would any of us be if we couldn’t talk about our friends a little maliciously now and then, especially when they are not there?
Galina bowed her head and made a sign of reverence.
“What can I do for you?”
“I have been your guide for some time and I’ve come to think of you as one of my best, one of my most devoted followers. You have always done what I said, without asking too much, knowing that I have a reason for asking what I do.”
“Yes.”
“Are you willing to do what I tell you now?”
“If I can.”
“I want you to go with this woman right now and fly with her to Kaliningrad. I understand a flight will be arranged as soon as you get to the airport. You are only to take with you what you have here. We will send someone to gather together what you have at your flat.”
“What am I to do in Kaliningrad?”
“You are to live with your parents, get a job, live normally.”
“And what about those things we have been learning together. What of India? What of the next trip that we are going to take together?”
“I’m sorry, Garudi, but we are going to have to part now. I have been called elsewhere and my services are needed far from here.”
“But why? Why so suddenly?”
“I’m unable to tell you all of these things.”
On her face was a mixture of anger, confusion and even betrayal.
“But you yourself told me to leave my home and to come to Moscow and to follow you.”
“And now I’m telling you to go back. Garudi, I tell you these things because I am further along the path and can best judge what is best for you. That is why you follow and I lead.”
Galina looked at me with hostility.
“What has this to do with you? What have you done?” she said in rapid fire Russian.
When this was translated for him, the guru answered as I had not said a word.
“Evgenia Ivanovna was kindly sent here to observe. She is a friend and most highly respected in our community. She was sent by people who guide me.”
Galina looked absolutely dumbfounded at this new revelation.
“I don’t understand. I have known her for years. She hasn’t been involved. We used to talk, she always rather disapproved.”
“There are many things you don’t know, Garudi. For the moment you must simply accept. Will you?”
“I will reluctantly.”
“Will you go with Evgenia Ivanovna to Kaliningrad and then agree to stay with your parents?”
I saw Galina hesitate. It was all too sudden. A few minutes ago she had been lost in her trance and dreaming of India. A few more weeks of hard work and she’d be able once more to forget the snowy pavements of Moscow and she’d be once more in the din and the crowds of India. She’d find her cell in the nunnery and the old lady who was her friend. They would communicate more or less with their hands, but they would communicate. All day long she would have peace and quiet to say her mantra. But then she remembered that David would be along, too. She had agreed, or more or less agreed. Wasn’t that where they had left things last night? Where would he fit into the nunnery? It was this, above all, that had caused her to rebel the night before. And yet another part of her wanted to be with him. She wanted those talks they sometimes had. She remembered even in the beginning how even with broken Russian he had been able to get some idea across that she had never thought of before. She liked the idea that he loved her, she wanted that to continue. It made her feel, but then she shook of the idea of what it made her feel.
Now she was faced with going back to Kaliningrad in January. She knew exactly what it would be like, with much of the harbour frozen. She would find some dull job, but this time there would be little to look forward to. There would be her parents and some friends she had dropped some years ago, but what would happen to all the things she had valued these past couple of years? What would happen to Krishna?
“You are asking me to give up a lot?” Galina said.
“I am doing what I think is best for you.” I could see that the guru was looking just a little desperate.
“Can’t you explain a little?”
“No, Garudi. I can’t. But I can tell you a little. I have to go where you cannot follow. I have other work to do. I want you to listen to Evgenia Ivanovna. I want you to treat her as your guru”
Galina looked at me with surprise again. How could the guru be saying this? What did it mean?
“But she’s not.”
“You don’t know what she is, who she is. But if you have any respect for anything I have told you over the past years, you must do as I say. Will you?”
I saw the struggle even in the slight pause, but in the end, she had no choice and so she said the word.
“Yes.”
“Now goodbye, Garudi. I doubt that we will see each other again and I won’t be able to write to you. I have to take a different path.”
I saw the relief on his face as Galina agreed to go with me. For one brief moment I’d seen doubt cross his face. Would she obey? Everything had depended on that.
A few hours later I was on a flight to Kalingrad. Galina was sitting next to me. I had helped her gather her things together and we had ordered a taxi. We sat more or less the whole way in silence. She was still in shock. What had happened to her was the equivalent of a car accident. She had been on a path, everything had been more or less planned. Her future had stretched ahead in a known way. That path had been set by her guru and knowing she was tending towards her goal had helped her over the bumps along the way. It had been difficult for her to leave her parents, but she had done what her guru had told her. When she had explained to him how they had tried to persuade her from the path, he had shown her why she must drop all those with views that differed from complete devotion to Krishna. It had been difficult to leave, but really life was easier surrounded by those who also were on the same path.  But why then had the guru told her to go back to her parents? She kept looking across at me. She thought it must have had something to do with me. But what could I have done to make the guru act in the way that he did?
At around this time, the guru was on a flight to London. He had quickly assembled everyone who was still there and told them that he had been called away. When someone asked about his return, he was vague. He told them to keep saying their mantra, but I understand that he wasn’t that bothered anymore about keeping up the guru act. He had washed his face and was dressed in western clothes. He just said ‘I’m sorry I don’t have time for explanations’.
I understand his wife went with him to the airport. I’m not quite sure what he told her, but I doubt that it was the truth. She obviously could not join him immediately as she didn’t have a visa. In fact, she was unable to join him at all. I’m not sure at what point she realised this. It may have been at the airport, when he looked into her eyes and said goodbye. She might well have sensed that this was the last time that she would see him. Would it have been then that she began to first feel doubts about the guru? Or would she have kept waiting for “un bel di”. She had been picked out from the crowd of followers because of her face, but above all, because of her eyebrows and her eyelashes. For just such a reason Lavrentiy Beria would pick someone he came across in passing. She would be taken to him in the Lubyanka and if she was lucky, she would emerge later not too much the worse for wear from the experience. She had been chosen because the way she had looked had satisfied the demands of the day, but really she was a victim of her beauty.
I wonder sometimes whether the long blonde lasted after the departure of the guru. His wife had been very beautiful indeed, but I wonder if later she looked in the mirror and rather regretted that beauty. I wonder if she might at some point cut it with dress making scissors, or if she would just move on to the next guru. Either way, she was just one more casualty of the power she no doubt most valued when growing up, the power to attract.
Names, too, have a power that people don’t always realise. I had approached the guru earlier and asked to talk to him in private. He had been dismissive and arrogant. 
“I’m afraid, I don’t talk in private. If you have something that concerns you there are many people here who can help. They can convey a message to me.”
I approached him closely and whispered.
“I think you really ought to talk to me in private, Robin. Otherwise, I might have to tell everyone what I have to say.”
He turned pale and looked at me. I gave him my special look that I had refined over those years. The look and the slight nod, said ‘yes, I do know who you are and I do know what you have done’.
It had needed a few weeks of work both in Russia and the UK. I had travelled to Cambridge to discuss things with old friends and colleagues. I’d been put in touch with some other people who were remarkably helpful. I did the same in Russia, sharing what I had found out and comparing it with what they knew of the guru. I gathered together a dossier. There’s no need to go into it in any great detail. Suffice it to say that it included financial irregularities, visa irregularities, the use of false names and multiple aliases around the world.
It seems that Robin had rather a number of wives who were sometimes also translators. Some sort of ceremony had usually taken place, but it wasn’t always a legal ceremony and even if it had been legal according to local practices, it would have been illegal anyway as he had a living wife in the UK. He travelled the world and received donations from the faithful and he lived rather well. I had no idea what he really believed. Perhaps, he actually did believe in Krishna, but he also had holidays from all that, which involved him living as plain Robin somewhere near London, where he had the sort of fun that his friends did. During these times he never once mentioned Krishna, nor said any mantras.
In his room, when we were alone, I had described some of this evidence. I told him about the various names he had used in various places. I told him about the bank accounts, the false accounting, the bigamy and the children who had been deserted. I told him, moreover, of the laws of the Russian Federation that he had broken. I saw that he was scared and so it had been hardly necessary for me to point out that these might be rather unpleasant consequences. Russian jails are not exactly pleasant places to stay in.
We made a deal. He would get out of Russia that day and he would persuade Galina to go with me and stay with her parents. He would try to persuade her to listen to what I had to say. He would keep up his act as that would be the best way for him to influence her. A confession that he was a charlatan would hardly help Galina. Quite the reverse, then he would have no leverage on her at all.  Finding out that the guru is a sinner, even a charlatan does not after all mean that the devotee ceases to believe. How many reverends have been found to not exactly practice what they preach? How many have cooked the books? Some many fall away from the path, but most forgive the sinner, especially if he shows the least sign of tearful repentance. I knew that Galina’s faith did not depend on the guru, but I also thought he was the one person who could get her to do what otherwise would have been impossible. 
He was remarkably pragmatic. He didn’t even try to fight it. Most likely, he had been in this position before and he was simply grateful for a way out. I told him it was highly unlikely that he would be given another visa to visit Russia, and, indeed, that if he had any sense, he would break all contact with those he had met here. I think he was only too grateful to do so.
He knew, of course, that he might have to face some of these charges in the UK. But better there than in Russia. Who knows, perhaps he could manage to get off some of the charges or else maybe he would just find another name. As long as he could find another name, all would be well. It’s only when someone whispers in your ear your real name that you need to worry.
That day I took Galina home. Her parents were delighted. They thanked me profusely and Galina understood that I had been sent to rescue her. But she had no idea whatsoever how I had done it. Nor indeed did her parents. It wasn’t my business what happened to the guru. I didn’t care. My mission had been to get Galina home. I had succeeded.
But I already knew that it would probably fail in the long term. It was for this reason that I had encouraged David. Only he could have saved her. I could get Galina home, but what could I do to make her stay. She would stay for a while, because her guru had told her too. But as the weeks passed and there was no word from him, she would look for another guru. I doubted very much that it would be me. I just might have been a high level Hare Krishna in deep cover as the guru had suggested, but I don’t think, Galina ever really believed that. Once the guru was gone, his authority, too, was gone. She had no reason to follow me, not least because if I hoped to influence her, it would be in the same way as before. Could I have argued for existentialism from the deep cover of the Hare Krishnas? That would indeed have been deep, all too deep. Galina knew very well what I believed and she knew that I was on a different path to hers. So I had little enough influence. She had rejected what I had to say long ago. Meanwhile, I reflected she would keep saying her mantra. She would keep learning her Sanskrit. She would keep singing her songs and reading her stories about Krishna. Within a short time she would be off again.
But I had given her a chance. I had given her parents a chance to talk to her. I had also given David a chance. Perhaps, he could meet her once more in Kaliningrad. There was something that joined them, but there was also something that separated them. I had seen both of these things. Galina loved David, or at least she loved him as much as any living man except Krishna. She wanted David to love her. It made her feel like a woman. Perhaps, it was the only thing that made her feel that way. He made her feel beautiful in a way that didn’t depend on how she looked. He didn’t care at all about her clothes or her hair cut with pinking shears. This was already a lot. It was more than many couples have and yet when he had embraced her, even though their embrace was close, even though there was practically no physical barrier, yet there was an infinite distance, because she could not quite bear to be held so. He felt this also even as he felt the hint of her desire that was unable to compete with her slight shudder at being held.
Could Galina love David back? He had been patient with her. More patient perhaps than any man she was likely to find. He was probably her one chance of really being rescued. I could do nothing further. When I returned home that night exhausted, I already knew that I would never see Galina again. When I had left, there was a look of hatred in her eyes. She didn’t know what I had done, but she resented it. She resented me.
“Who are you?” she had said to me. “David called you Effie.”
“Some people do.”
“But who are you? What do you do? Where are you from?”
“I’m from here, Galina. You know that.”
“What right did you have to interfere? I was happy.”
“Your mother asked me to.”
“What right did she have?”
“This looks like rebellion, Galina. Your guru told you to come back here.”
“But he did so because of you, Effie.”
“I think Zhenya works better in Russian. Don’t you? I simply told your guru that your parents wanted to see you. He’s a reasonable man and he agreed. Why don’t we meet for coffee some time? As I recall, he appointed me to take over.”
“I don’t think so,” she said. “When I see that look in your eyes, I rather tremble sometimes. Goodbye.”
She said the word that means goodbye forever in Russian and so I knew that I would not see her again.
“I’ve failed,” I told my husband. “This won’t last.”
“You have done all you could. You achieved more than I expected. Besides there’s, David. There’s still a chance.”

Epilogue.
I met David years later in Aberdeen. We’d written a few times after the few days we’d spent together in Moscow and I’d even spoken to him on the telephone. I’d let him know what had happened. I didn’t go into any great detail, but he knew that Galina was in Kaliningrad. He’d told me some of his side of the story. I’d also written to Vera. She too had been worried about Galina and that was one of the main reasons why she had gone with her to the retreat. She told me some other things that I would not have known otherwise. It is in this way that I have been able to construct the story and include the occasional conversation that I could not have heard.
Eventually Petr and I decided it was time to move on. Life in Russia gradually became more difficult. We had both hoped for something rather better when I moved there and had both done our best to help bring this about. But there comes a point when you realise that there’s nothing more than you can do. It’s like building a dam in a river when you’re a child. You pile up the stones and you keep piling them and the dam has a sort of shape. But the river keeps pushing the stones away. It all just keeps collapsing and if you return to the spot the next day it’s hard to notice quite where it was that you were building your dam.
Someone wanted Petr’s job. It was rather a good job that paid quite well by Russian standards. He did a good job, too, but somehow he had lost some of his connections over the years, or else it was noticed that he had not quite moved with the times. He didn’t like taking bribes and tried to act honestly. Of course, he had to make compromises as we all did. But he had limits. Eventually, when it became clear that there was going to be some sort of fight, he went to see the person he usually saw in those circumstances. He was told that this time, unfortunately, he could not be helped. The person who wanted his job was too highly protected. At this point he knew it was best to give up the fight. If he gave in gracefully, he would be given something in return. At the very least he would be left alone.
I told my friends in Cambridge that it was time for me to come back. They agreed. I had been in Russia a remarkably long time. It must have been nearly twenty years. These things never go on forever. Now was as good a time as any to move on.
I was given the choice of where we could move to. I could go back to Cambridge or more or less anywhere I felt like. Something would be found for Petr, too. We discussed it a little bit. We wondered about going somewhere like Australia or New Zealand, even the United States. But it all seemed so far away and anyway, he didn’t want to be so far from Russia that it would be a major journey just to go for a visit. I didn’t want to be too far away either. We had an idea that perhaps we might retire there. People look on Russia with a lot of misunderstanding. They see the news about the politics and think life is somehow awful. It was never awful. They were the best years of my life that I spent in Russia. I loved nearly every day, not merely because I was with the man I loved.
We chose to go to Aberdeen. I might have chosen to go elsewhere if I’d known about the battles I would have to fight here. But I probably wouldn’t. This is what I do. This is where I am from. After all, I was born nearby and my parents still lived in a little village in the countryside.  A job was found for me, that didn’t involve too much teaching. I was more or less left alone. I turned up every day at the University, found my office and wrote more or less what I felt like writing.
Most people who come across me assume that I’m Russian. It was far easier for me to be employed with my Russian passport and so I’m called Zhenya by most of my friends. That is if they can pronounce it. One or two people who are rather closer to me call me Effie. My Mum and Dad do, so does Petr and so does David.
I’d lost touch with David some years earlier and so had no idea how the story ended. I never saw Galina again. I tried calling her parents a few times, but she refused to take the call. I might have seen her in the street one time. I couldn’t tell from a distance, but something always made me want to look out for her in crowds on the pavement and when you do that, it’s very easy to be mistaken. You end up seeing people who couldn’t possibly be there, people from a past that is already long ago.
David told me that he had continued his correspondence with Galina after leaving her in Moscow. He kept trying to get to Kaliningrad to see her. But she always found some sort of way to put him off. He tried to revive the idea of going to India, he was willing to pay for both of them to go. During the course of a few letters they made some plans to do so. It even went so far as him getting an Indian visa. He was just on the point of buying tickets. The date was all but set. In the meantime he had been finding out as much as he could about what he thought she believed and so began reading a book that she had mentioned she would like to read, only it wasn’t translated into Russian.  It was a long poem called the Gita Gavinda, translated into English as the Love Song of the Dark Lord. It was a sort of love story involving Krishna and some female cowherds especially one called Radha. He rather enjoyed it. There was a sort of eroticism rather like the Song of Songs. It dealt with Krishna’s faithlessness, but how in the end, he returned to his Radha. David suggested that he could read it together with her on their trip and that he could help her translate it into Russian.
Galina wrote back rather dismissively. He had understood nothing of the text. He had taken it all too literally. She had never read it, of course, but even if there were no language barrier, she was at far too low a level to be able to understand it. Only by reading with the guidance of someone far along the path would it be possible to read such poetry without falling into error. Perhaps, it was that David had hinted at a similar intimacy that was possible if after all it was possible with Krishna and Radha. Perhaps, he had hoped in the process of translating together that they could have written their own love song. I think rather he did hope this and for this reason he was so enthusiastic about this poem. He wasn’t interested in the Dark Lord, but he very much loved his Dark Lady. He kept hoping against hope that she would sing her love song to him. But it was too much for Galina. She saw where this was going. She felt how he had held her. She remembered how he looked at her. She shuddered. She could not sing.
She wrote to David about their trip together and made certain necessary conditions. She would only travel with him if he accepted that the purpose of her travel was the study of Krishna, that he didn’t continually pester her with his spam about love. Most important of all she could not bear the way he continually looked at her with his eyes so needy and so desperate. She felt undressed in his presence and it was a distraction from what she considered important.
It was always this way with Galina. Despite cutting her long dark hair so violently, despite trying to look as unattractive as possible, she liked that David made her feel attractive. She liked to be loved, but there came a point when she couldn’t quite bear it. At this point the barriers went up.
David was a man of great patience, but it was enough. He wrote back. He wrote back very carefully in the best Russian he could manage. He thought about what he was going to write for two whole days. At the end he used the word in Russian that means goodbye forever.
David and I shared what else we knew about Galina. It didn’t amount to much. I saw her mother some time later. She told me that Galina had gone back to Moscow and that they did not know any more than that.
David had spied on her Russian Vkontanke/facebook page for a little while after his last letter. At one point he seems to have received some sort of random message from her, but he wasn’t sure if it was deliberate or just one of those computer generated messages that sometimes happen when you interact with someone online. In a moment of weakness he had written to her, but didn’t get a reply. Perhaps, she didn’t even receive the message as by that time or soon after, she, once more, changed all her accounts.
That was it really. After a while we both forgot Galina and it was better so. She was destructive to him. She hindered him from finding what he was looking for. She had the potential to draw him into her cult, just as much as he had the power to draw her out of it. I asked him about this, but he was non-committal. Would he have joined the Hare Krishnas if that had been the price he had to pay? I think he just might have taken on a new name, he might have played along, but in his heart he would always have kept his own faith. It was in the end far stronger. It had protected him during those few days when he had defended his faith so very, very well.
When I came back to Scotland I looked forward to a well-earned rest. There had been a sort of low level strain for the past number of years. Both Petr and I had lived a life of being careful and had walked a fine line whose goal was to help both our countries reach a better understanding.  But we had seen our work fall apart when relations between the UK and Russia deteriorated beyond our ability to help. We saw the dam break and something approaching a new Cold War begin. It took a number of years before everyone recognised it for what it was, but those of us on the ground felt the frost from the beginning. We had to come in from the cold or be left outside frozen like towels stiff from frost hanging on a washing line in January.
I hoped to be able to write some papers, perhaps a book. I hoped to have a few students who I could help with areas that particularly interested me. I looked forward to giving a few lectures. I was lucky, as because my funding came from elsewhere, I wasn’t as scrutinised as some of my colleagues and I didn’t have to do quite all the nonsense that they sometimes had to do. For the most part I am left alone, one of those anomalies in higher education that for the most part don’t exist anymore, but occasionally still do.
We go to David’s house occasionally. He lives quite near to us. He has a Russian wife and we all go there to speak Russian, or else we meet in Aberdeen in our favourite Indian restaurant on Belmont Street. There are statues of various deities, but I’m rather pleased to say that I’ve not seen one of Krishna.
I don’t feel sorry for David in any way. His wife is far better for him than Galina could ever have been. Lena loves David. That’s the difference. That’s the only difference that matters. She knows a little about the story, but only a little. After all, it was a long time ago now.
It was David who suggested I write this story. He thought it would be of interest for people living in Scotland today.
“Why do you think anyone would want to read about our little adventure in Moscow?” I asked.
“You’ve become quite well known you know, Effie” he said.
“Hardly. I’m read by a few thousand people who are interested in the debate about independence. Do you know, I told some people online that I was a prominent blogger and was absolutely slaughtered for it.”
“They slaughtered you because it was true.”
“Perhaps, that is so, but what has our story got to do with Scotland today?”
“There are some parallels with Russia.”
“There are some I agree, but I wouldn’t overemphasise them,” I said. “We need to be careful that we maintain our democracy. It’s much more fragile than people think. Nationalism doesn’t always end well. But Scotland isn’t, in the end, that much like Russia. But then a comparison often involves just as much that is dissimilar as familiar.”
“There are some parallels with Krishna,” said David.
“You mean Hare Alex, Hare Nicola?”
He laughed.
“It’s funny, of course, but there is something just a touch hysterical. Doesn’t it remind you?”
It did. Just a little. The emptiness that I had met in Russia all those years ago, I likewise have met in Scotland. Somehow the writing of my story brought into focus some ideas that perhaps would not have come to the surface otherwise. I described some of these ideas to David in the course of a few meetings and he suggested I form them together into a whole.
When the Berlin wall came down, nearly everyone in Europe and, indeed, the world accepted that socialism didn’t work. Even the Chinese while keeping the form of the Party gave up the substance. Gradually, there were only really two places that continued to believe though in rather different ways. One was North Korea, the other was Scotland. But Scotland continued to believe in a rather odd way. It wasn’t as if we enjoyed the fruits of capitalism any less than anyone else. But somehow our socialism was what made us different even if we didn’t quite believe in it.
I remember years earlier enjoying the novels of J.M. Barrie set in and around the town of Thrums, which was Barrie’s name for Kirriemuir. In one of these novels ‘Sentimental Tommy’, there is a journey from London to Thrums. The difference between the two places was only a few hours on a train. But those few hours separated places that could scarcely be more different. The Londoner would have found life more familiar in France.
The language of Barrie’s Thrums was very different indeed from London. English was spoken, more or less and certainly understood, but there was a rich vocabulary and grammar that was not English. Moreover, the whole mentality of the people living in Thrums was quite unlike that of someone from London. It was a mentality and a morality that had been determined by the Kirk, or rather the kirks. There were endless disputes about churches that have now been forgotten. They were called strange names like “Auld Lichts”, or the rather contradictory “United Secession Kirk”. If you delve into Scottish church history, it is a history of continual secession, for reasons that today seem trivial. The question of how to govern a church was deemed as vital as were theological issues that today seem at best arcane and at worst irrelevant. The Marrow of Modern Divinity which was so endlessly debated in Scotland, hardly deals with the essence of the issue at all, but comes across today as rather silly hair-splitting about issues that are of no consequence, because no-one but a hair-splitter would think they were issues at all. In Scotland there were sometimes small villages with four or five kirks, which all more or less believed a variant on the theme of Presbyterianism. But the debates that kept splitting the churches kept everyone very occupied indeed. There was absolutely no need for Scots to assert their Scottishness in those days. It was apparent in everything they said and in everything they did.
Move on one hundred years and the language of Thrums has more or less died out apart from in some small pockets. It has been killed off by Scotland being less isolated. It has been killed off by people moving here from elsewhere, but above all, it has been killed off by television. Now the language of Scotland is English and nearly everyone speaks it with a somewhat different accent and occasionally a rather different way of saying certain vowels. The Church in Scotland is in retreat just as everywhere else in the UK. But with it the Scottish mentality has been struggling to maintain itself. Whereas the people of Thrums were fiercely frugal and careful about how others behaved, now like much of the rest of Western Europe, we preach the idea that anything goes. Whereas the people of Thrums believed in individualism and endeavour and above all, in sin, we believe in collectivism and that there should be no negative consequences for lack of endeavour.
Scotland in the hundred or so years since Barrie has become more and more like the rest of the UK. We have the same shops, listen to the same music and drink the same lager. We watch the same programmes and have more or less the same views about more or less everything. But whereas when we were really different, we felt no need to assert it, now precisely because we are the same, we have to shout so loudly about our difference. This is the emptiness that is at the heart of Scottish nationalism.  It’s the same emptiness that people felt in Russia.
A few months after the referendum result was not accepted by the nationalists I wrote something that likened them to a cult. I described briefly what I have described here at great length. I think I may have been the first person to have come up with the cult simile, but I may be wrong about this. All I can say is I didn’t read it about before writing my article. But it is an obvious enough connection to make, so others were, no doubt, thinking on the same lines at the same time.
In any such comparison it is important to realise that it is just that. I was saying that there were similarities, not that these things were the same. But I still think it’s worth exploring the issue, not as a means of insulting supporters of the SNP, but as a way of explaining a phenomenon that has been taking place in Scotland. The year or so prior to the independence referendum and the time afterwards has been like a revival meeting that has spread around Scotland.  That’s great if you are part of the revival and want the revival to continue and to grow. But what if you stand on the outside of the tent and think it’s all a fake?
Why didn’t Scotland move on like everyone else in 1991? The answer I think is two words that still have extraordinary power. They are “Tory” and “Thatcher”. Thatcher has become the Wicked Witch of the West, the goddess Kali and Oliver Cromwell all rolled into one. The myth of Thatcher has been passed on to Scottish children who are too young to remember her and she is thought of as if she were General Sherman marching through Georgia destroying everything in her path. She was a Tory. Think of how Nicola Sturgeon says that word. Think of all the loathing that goes into her pronunciation. But not just Nicola, not just Scottish nationalists, most Scots pronounce the word ‘Tory’ in just the same way and with just the same intent. But it was Tories or those like them all around the western world who were proved right in 1991. The ideological struggle between left and right was won decisively by the right. The intellectual foundation upon which the left built its beliefs fell apart back then, and there was nothing much remaining of the old ideas to believe in. Since then what has the left been left with? It has had protests about globalisation, it has had protests about banks, it has turned green and it has fought a battle to make everything permissible. The main successes of the left have been in forcing us to think carefully about the words we use and above all, the pronouns. They have successfully changed the meaning of certain words to make them more inclusive. At times it seems that we are ‘Through the Looking Glass’ in a world where Black can be White, Male can be Female and words can mean what we want them to mean.  But this success has mostly been on the surface, because underneath ordinary people outside of universities, no doubt, believe just what they always have believed, only they are careful what they say in certain forms of company.  These victories of the left, however, have for the most part been trivial. They have made some people be careful about what they say, but they haven’t really changed how people think. But while the left has been playing with words, the right has won on the issue of how to run a country. On the fundamental issues of the economy no-one sees old style left-wing economics as a matter worthy of serious concern. The left may try to tinker around the edges of economics, but socialism as an ideology has been dead since the wall came down. It was an experiment tested to destruction and in the end, people voted with their feet.
But Scotland had to stick to the old religion, for without our hatred of Tories we scarcely would be Scots. But gradually as Labour moved into the modern world, as Tony Blair accepted some of what the Tories had said was true, people in Scotland more and more felt that the true religion was being tainted. How could we be against Tories (Nicola’s accent) if we agreed with them? So finally it was necessary to hew off Scotland from all taint of infection from the south. How could we keep Tories out of Scotland if they were already inside the Labour party? We had to root out the heresy in Labour. They weren’t in fact Labour at all, they were Red Tories. We had to revisit our old habit of secession and debate endlessly matters that were arcane.
What could have destroyed Labour in 2015? What force could have made Labour go from being a monolith of safe seats to being all but wiped out? The answer lies not in politics, but in religion.
There is a new religion in Scotland. It is called Scottish nationalism. There is a new promised land called independence, where all things are possible, where there will be no poverty and no inequality. What those of us on the outside don’t get is how joyous it is to take part in this dance of Scottish nationalism. Suddenly, you are surrounded by likeminded friends who all believe the same things that you do. You are forced to not think any negative thoughts. You must fill your life with hope and get rid of all fear. You must repeat “Hope over fear”, “Hope over fear”. You must repeat. You must repeat.
There are gurus who have vast numbers of followers. These followers believe every word the guru says and are willing to be sent to chastise anyone who questions the one true religion. They work for the guru, even though the guru has no particular qualities or qualifications that would suggest he was suited to the role. He is self-appointed, but then so are all gurus.
What use would it be if I could expose the guru? Another guru would come in his place. Anyway, no-one would believe my exposé, for the guru can do no wrong.
Just like a televangelist, just like the guru in Moscow, the acolytes are willing to pay for the pleasure. The guru only has to say ‘Give me money”, and it pours in. Well, why shouldn’t he be paid for his work? Why indeed? But it is precisely this, that he gives little and gets much, this fact that he can live off the payment of his followers that makes him a guru. It is the defining quality. It is also this that makes his cause religious, rather than political.
No-one on the other side of the debate could raise a penny in this way. We have no gurus preaching, precisely because our side is not a religion. It is both our strength: we use reason, and our weakness: reason is powerless against religion.
There are mantras that the acolytes are carefully taught to repeat and the repetition keeps them from thinking. That after all, is the purpose of a mantra. The most important mantra of all involves the repetition of the word “Tory”, always pronounced with that precise nuance of loathing, that also contains just a hint of self-loathing. “You’re a red, you’re a blue, you’re an orange Tory. Tory, Tory, Tory.” It’s like a playground chant.  Other mantras involve words like “scaremongering”, others still involve “talking down Scotland”; one of the most repeated mantras is that opponents of the SNP think that Scotland is “Too wee, too, poor and too stupid”. But no-one, but a nationalist has ever said this about Scotland, precisely because this mantra is something that he must repeat endlessly in his head until it becomes an accurate description not of Scotland, but of the nationalist who has lost his ability to think because of the endless repeating of such mantras.
There are simplistic pamphlets that are produced with easily digested pieces of optimism. Anyone who comes up with a reasoned argument, pointing out the errors in such pamphlets is being negative. Above all, nothing must be allowed to damage the hope contained in our new religion. Pointing out facts cannot damage the hope. There are in fact no facts on the side of fear. The only facts are on the side of hope. Our hopeful facts will always trump your negative scaremongering falsehoods. The truth is in faith, and hope and the charity of foodbanks, which tell everything you need to know about Tories. There will always be foodbanks so long as there are Tories, not least because they are so desperately needed to remind us of the wickedness of Tories. The falsity of statistics and economics lies in its negativity and how it contradicts our hope. Hope over fear. Hope over fear. Repeat endlessly.
Defeat in September 2014 did not damage the hope, it made it stronger, but then the lions did not damage the Christians. The lions may have eaten the Christians, but shortly afterward the Christians ended up ruling Rome and whatever lions may have been left out there. If they had wanted to, the Christians could then have eaten the lions.
Nothing else can explain the recent phenomenon that is Scottish politics than that it is a revival. The SNP keeps having open air meetings and rallies. Which other party in UK history has had quite so many open air rallies in quite so short a time? The mantra of the rally is always the same, but it gains a certain power by being repeated together in a group. We weren’t really defeated. That moment of grief when we expected to win, but instead lost, was not real. We did win. Don’t have any fear that we soon will win. Look around, everyone else here feels the same thing. It’s inevitable. Those unionists are doomed. They’ve already lost. We will bury you. It’s hope in the face of every set back.  It’s a refusal to listen to the small voice of fear that must sometimes whisper doubts. But the way to quieten the small voice of doubt is to repeat the mantra. Thousands of voices join in unison to share the triumph of hope over fear. Any waverers immediately fall into line. Fear once more is banished. Hope once more triumphs. Hope over fear. Hope over fear repeats itself continually in the minds of the followers.
Which other UK politician than Nicola Sturgeon or Alex Salmond could pack out a venue with thousands of devotees? Could Clement Atlee do this? Could Winston Churchill? Could Margaret Thatcher or David Lloyd George? But then, they would not have wanted to. But then, Scottish nationalism isn’t about politics anymore and its leaders are not politicians at all, but rather gurus.
It isn’t as if the SNP have done such a staggeringly wonderful job of running Scotland. It isn’t even as if they actually want independence any time soon. I suspect many quite senior SNP politicians are secretly very glad indeed that they lost the referendum in September 2014. You see, the numbers just don’t add up. But none of this matters, because independence is no longer about politics, it is no longer even about achieving independence in practical terms. It’s an ideal. After so many incarnations and reincarnations we may just be worthy of a part in the national collective. At this point our individuality will cease. The Maya, that is our sense of individuality, will be merged with all the other Scots who have been journeying towards this loss of selfhood. Finally, we will merge with Alex, we will form a union with Nicola, or at least, we will be worker bees scurrying around the queen. When we die, or at least when we have achieved the requisite level, after perhaps many reincarnations, we will reach the end point, the goal and the telos towards which we have for so long been tending. Some have described this as Nirvana. But in Scotland we have another word for it.  We will live forever in independence.
I cannot rescue Scotland. How can I put half of Scotland on a flight and take it back home to its parents? And what good would it do anyway? Sometimes such rescues succeed, but as in my example frequently people are beyond rescuing. In the end, I could not compete with religion. I cannot compete with religion.
But I’m not unduly pessimistic.  A cult is always less powerful than it thinks it is. This is not least the case because it has lost its relationship to truth. When the foundation is a mantra that does not correspond to reality, it can easily all come tumbling down. The hysteria will cease, the emotion will quiet, the guru can always be exposed, and the leader shown to be not quite so perfect and indeed quite capable of error. One hundred years from now people will write about the oddness of the great revival that took place in Scotland.
How might the history of the years between 1980 and 2030 eventually be written? There might be something about the collapse of the old social structure of the Central Belt. When the heavy industry of coal mining and steel works ceased and when Christianity became more a matter of sectarian division than church going, there was an emptiness that needed to be filled. The old certainties whether they were provided by the Kirk or by the idea that you would do the same job as your father did became more and more uncertain. Finally, faith became a matter of weddings and funerals and few believed any of the words that were said at such ceremonies. It was the lack of faith that people had in the old religion that left the room for the new religion of Scotland. To fill up the emptiness in peoples’ hearts they were promised a new promised land where there would be abundance, where there would be enough for all and there would be equality. This didn’t require any sort of hard work, it didn’t require anyone, but the rich to pay higher taxes. It required one single word. You just had to say ‘Yes’.
When I compare those days I spent with the Hare Krishnas with the past years in Scotland, I see similarities. But it wasn’t the same. How could anything be quite like those dances we danced in Moscow where everyone had glazed eyes and minds full of only a mantra. But I have come across enough closed minds in Scotland to be worried. I’ve seen what nationalism has done to the Soviet Union, and I’ve seen what a closed mind could do to someone I once cared about quite deeply.
I had set out to rescue Galina and I succeeded. I could not have done more, but I knew even at the time it was never going to be enough. My rescue failed. So, too, did David’s. In the end, he was glad that it failed, for she had the power to take him with her. Moreover, it was only his final ability to stand up for himself and say ‘no’ to Galina that led him to find Lena, who I came to admire far more than I ever did Galina.
There was something close-minded about Galina, that hindered her thought. Finally, it became dull. She just repeated what she had been told, rather than discovering and thinking for herself. There would be flashes of her old self, when she ceased her mantra, when her eyes flashed instead of being full of dull clouds. But soon enough she would be Garudi again, soon enough she would just repeat the same old mantra. It was boring. I meet this every day in Scotland. I endlessly meet those who simply repeat what they have been told from nationalist crib sheets. I hear the same old arguments endlessly, the same old insults and the same old pattern of hive behaviour. Nationalists on the war path, offended by something that I have written, buzz and try to sting, but it all becomes very tedious very quickly.
It rapidly ceases to be interesting when opponents are close-minded without even realising it. It gets to the stage when you begin to know exactly what they are going say next. There will be a point in a conversation when the usual clichés will be repeated. No matter how often you make a counterargument, it has no effect and is simply ignored. I find myself repeating the same arguments endlessly and to no purpose. The conversation becomes a matter of jabber jabber Trident, jabber jabber Westminster paedophiles, jabber jabber foodbanks, jabber jabber next part of the SNP crib sheet.  It all became very glib, and I find myself tuning out as if I was watching a Gaelic programme on television and only heard words like “helicopter” that were not translated.
I worry about Scotland when so many people have lost touch with reality, when the relationship with truth has become something that is mediated by politicians and who treat the public as if they were infants unable to face the truth.
It sometimes scares me living here. There is something impotent about online abuse, but everyone who is attacked by a mob sometimes worries that it could become offline abuse. Even then it can be stressful and psychologically exhausting to be under relentless attack. So even if for the most part I find it boring, it does scare me when I am attacked for speaking out. It scares me when reasoned argument is met by hatred, for I worry about a cause that leads people to behave in this way. The nationalists take my criticism personally even if it is only directed against the party they support. It’s this identification of person with party and party with country that scares me the most. But then I reflect that I’ve been through much worse and faced much tougher opponents than any of these “gnats”. They simply can’t imagine. By comparison, Scottish nationalism looks rather trivial. So bring it on. I can take anything you throw at me.
But long term I won’t live in a country that has closed its mind. It would be too much like those few days in Moscow where all I could hear was people whispering their mantra. It’s all somehow like the worst aspects of life in the Soviet Union, but at least they didn’t vote for a one party state, they had it forced upon them.
In the end, my solution to every problem is existential. We always used to say that the solution to the problems of the Soviet Union is to leave. Sometimes this is the only answer. I will keep piling up stones in the river, but sometimes the dam just breaks. In that case I would recommend Russia. I’m trying to persuade David and Lena to come, too. It’s relatively cheap now that the rouble has collapsed; you just have to spend a little while learning the alphabet and the grammar.
Hare Alex, Hare Nicola. It’s Scotland that needs rescuing now. I will continue to put forward the case for the UK. I will try to write reasoned considered articles and I may just be able to have some influence beyond those who already agree with me. I don’t expect independence any time soon if at all, because really the whole idea of independence in our ever more interconnected world is close to being meaningless. It all rather misses the point. But that, no doubt, is to look at the whole thing far too rationally. I’ve already realised that my arguments have no power, perhaps, even no point. That is one of the main reasons why I’ve written this story. Perhaps, just perhaps it will be able to get through to people in a way that argument can’t.
My powers of rescue have already been shown to be limited. My words have no power against those of the mantra.  When I brought Galina back to her parents, they were delighted and surprised that I could do what had seemed to them impossible. I had brought back their daughter and during those moments I must have felt a sense of success. But I also saw she was too far gone. Only love could have brought this dark haired lady back from her dark lord and perhaps, no human love was strong enough to compete. So there will be no more rescues for those who are too far gone. This dance must continue or stop of its own accord. Even when the guru is a charlatan, his followers still follow.

2 comments:

  1. With a bit of skillful editing, this could make a rattling good yarn.

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  2. Nevertheless, this heartfelt memoir is a usefully revealing exposition of a certain sensibility.

    ReplyDelete