Street Life: Where chars are the stars

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The Independent Online
RUSSIAN CLEANING ladies are like cats. They choose you and rule your life, not the other way round. I am not Lady Muck. I could easily vacuum my own carpets. But I have always had a charwoman in Moscow, a Hilda Ogdenskaya for the soap opera of Russian life.

When I first came to the Soviet Union in 1985, I was allocated a flat in a special foreigners' block, which came complete with a domestic servant. Nadia used to iron my shirts, make soup and dumplings for me and, when I was out, read my letters on behalf of the KGB. She was a nice woman. She was just doing her job.

When it became possible to rent an apartment in the private sector, I thought I might do without a home help but it was not to be. The landlord said I could have the flat, provided I kept on Nina, who came once a week to polish the antique furniture.

I think that at first Nina, a retired opera singer who had once performed for Nikita Khrushchev, needed the money but, as time went on, her son became a New Russian businessman and she went up in the world. She used to arrive in a chauffeur-driven car, take off her fur coat, give the flat a quick flick with a duster and then plonk herself down to show me snaps from her latest holiday in Sri Lanka or Cyprus.

After Nina came Tanya, a geologist who, like many educated Russians, has been reduced to doing menial work to make ends meet. She came to my three-room home as much for space and peace as for money. Tanya lives in a communal flat, which means she shares one room with her sister, the other two rooms being occupied by separate families. When she had finished vacuuming, she would sit in the lotus position and look at my art books for hours.

Recently Tanya got a better job and passed me on to Yulia, who is the new Hilda Ogden of Samotechny Lane, although she is too elegant to wear curlers. An engineer from an obsolete radio factory, Yulia has been with me for only a month but already she has me in hand.

"Right," she said three weeks ago. "On 25 December you can come to my son's school and hand out the prizes. You will be the special guest." I opened and closed my mouth like a goldfish. That would be Christmas Day. On the other hand, I was not really planning to do anything else so I went obediently to give the prizes at School Number Two in the town of Fryazino outside Moscow.

It was a delightful experience. Fryazino used to be closed to foreigners because of its defence factories. It retains a special atmosphere, as many of its inhabitants are scientists and intellectuals.

The prizes were for the best translations of English poetry into Russian. They had to be both accurate and lyrical. The poems included a Shakespeare sonnet, which the 16-year-olds had tackled with astonishing skill and grace. Even more awe-inspiring was Zoya Arnoldovna, the teacher. The last time she had been paid was in September. Yet, out of her own pocket, she had bought the prizes.

As luck would have it, Yulia's son Misha won first prize. I had brought little British flag badges for the runners-up and a giant silk Union Jack for the winner.Everyone laughed when Misha draped the flag round his shoulders like Superman.

On New Year's Eve, Yulia and Misha knocked on my door. "We enjoyed the prize-giving so much that we have come to wash your windows to say thank you," they announced. This was the last thing I needed, as I was up to my elbows in salmon and mayonnaise, making a Russian salad for guests who were expected any minute. But I knew it was useless to argue.