I grew up in the Brezhnev era – vicariously of course. My modern comprehensive school, newly built at the end of the 1960’s offered French and Russian as languages. I attempted both, but was sadly linguistically deficient – I still am. But it didn’t stop me having a lifelong passion for Russia.
Last week a packet of stamps arrived on my desk. They were a selection of postage stamps from the 1960’s and 1970’s, the decades when the History Department of my school was taking trips to Russia for the top students – I wasn’t one of the favoured few. So here were the little slips of paper I would have purchased through Intourist in 1973, to send a postcard to my parents, if I’d been on the trip. Here were drawings of a concert hall in Riga, battleships and space travel, Spartakiada and Picasso, the glass of Prague, International Women’s Day, Tashkent and a 100 year celebration of an anonymous theatre. And finally for forty eight kopeks I could celebrate the October Revolution a dozen times on one sheet of stamps.
There is a weird innocence about these sheets of poor quality paper with overworked illustrations. However abhorrent Soviet Communism was, it seems much more simple to understand than the strange Frankenstein politics of the 21st century. In the bad old days, “they” were the enemy, the pariah. Now they represent a cocktail of immense power, be that wrapped up in the oil oligarchs, the rebel Chechens, or the slick Novya Riche, sporting their Prada (or was that Pravda?), the chic Apparatchiks or the terrorists hiding in the former “Stans” of Central Asia. Churchill’s comment in 1939 "I cannot forecast to you the action of Russia. It is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma; but perhaps there is a key. That key is Russian national interest”, seems as relevant today as 71 years ago.
So tonight, remnants of an all powerful Russian Empire sit on my desk, neat little memory snapshots of an era, so far away, and yet so close to home. Oh, and as for treating them with respect, I will, once I can retrieve them from underneath a snoozing cat.