The Taste of Dreams: An obsession with Russia and caviar By Vanora Bennett

No wolves, no chandaliers, no oppressed poets
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The Independent Culture

For Vanora Bennett, growing up in a melancholy household that had once been full of exuberant émigré musicians, Russia evoked an image of excitement and dangerous living. At a turning point in this book, she was working as a journalist in Moscow and planning her wedding in London. Suddenly the date seemed far too soon and, shopping in the market, she started to "look at the light glinting on the caviar salesmen's teeth, and dream of making my escape to the wild south".

For Russians, Bennett argues, caviar is not just an exotic luxury but "edible azart". This is the quality, familiar from writers like Dostoevsky, which means, roughly, "the dangerous wildness of people living disobediently among the timid in a giant bureaucracy, glimmering darkly with selfish glee". The Soviet state did everything it could to suppress the azart lurking in the souls of its citizens, but with the end of Communism it erupted on to the streets.

This marvellous book interweaves a vivid picture of the corrupt euphoria of post-Soviet Russia with a sharply ironic account of the changing roles the country has played in Bennett's fantasy life. Her first impressions of Moscow were disappointing ("no wolves or chandeliers or sensitive oppressed poets"), but a course at a language school in Leningrad soon developed into a "brief career as a Russian gangster's moll".

This too proved a disappointment. On one occasion, Grisha, the charismatic gangster/ wheeler-dealer, "made rather perfunctory love" to her before declaring grandly: "I am not really interested in sex. Only in happiness. I want life to be full of fun for me and my friends." This was the prelude to a request for her to marry a tennis star who wanted to leave the country. Besotted, and wanting to appear cool, she agreed, although she soon rejected such "Russian madness" once she was back in England.

Bennett returned to Russia as a journalist in 1991. She relished the sushi restaurants, casinos, wild nightclubs (one in a military ice-hockey rink) and "non-stop, glittering, frenzied thrill" of life inside "the dollar bubble", where it was easy to forget the thousands of impoverished Muscovites outside. She soon realised that the "dark-skinned, gold-toothed, big-smiling" caviar poachers in the market made a perfect symbol of the "exciting, cruel new Russia".

She eventually made it to the "wild south", the caviar country round the Caspian Sea, to report on a possible coup in 1993. She interviewed the President of Azerbaijan "in a giant hall filled with brand-new furniture, some still in its wrapping... for form's sake he insisted on having my Russian questions, which he understood perfectly well, translated into Azeri; when it came to answering, he had nothing to say." She visited the nearby state of Dagestan, where much of the real power was shared by the head of the National Council of Muslims and the fisheries minister - who happened to be brothers. The former "looked more rap star than cleric", "walked with a big-cat lope" and received her with an agonising hangover almost four hours after the time they had agreed. The latter lived in a "ghetto-fabulous palace" and airily admitted: "We have no official economy here, just chaos."

In this whole region, caviar smuggling is among the few ways of making a living, and at least one horrific terrorist attack was probably committed by caviar mafiosi protecting their turf. Bennett interviewed a smuggler from the Soviet era who reinvented himself as a poet while in jail. He had also rebranded himself as a good capitalist (what had he been doing but satisfying customers - and enriching himself - by undermining an unjust state monopoly?). He recalled the sheer pleasure of life at sea, where he could breakfast on caviar by carving the roe straight from the fish. Yet he expressed horror at the wholesale massacre of sturgeon by "ministers, lowlifes and Azerbaijanis in big boats" which may soon drive them to extinction. There is something dirty about the whole caviar business, the author comes to realise, as she scrapes a large can of it into the bin.

Although increasingly disenchanted with Russia, Bennett was thrilled to discover a relative who had once worked as a miniaturist for Fabergé in Moscow. Back in London, she attempted to impress her semi-estranged father with news of this prestigious ancestor. "You must mean Uncle Horace," he replied calmly, sketching likenesses on to the napkins. Horace Wallich may have spent his working life "chasing dreams in Russia", but he ended his days in an old people's home in Richmond. "It had never crossed my mind," Bennett reflects, "that what I was looking for might have been here in London all along." She now leads "a blameless, bourgeois English life", but the last sentence of her splendid book (I am delighted to report) confirms she is still "dreaming dangerous dreams".