Out of Russia: The taste of fish and other things

Click to follow
The Independent Online
KHABAROVSK - In deference to the Nobel Prize winner sleeping on the 10th floor, the management of the Khabarovsk Intourist pulled the plug on a late-night floor show and disco one floor up. What else for such a distinguished guest who, in a 1990 manifesto called Rebuilding Russia, redefined human rights as the 'right of our ears to silence and the right of our eyes to inner vision?' Thank you, Alexander Isayevich.

Before Solzhenitsyn checked in on Wednesday, Russian music - mostly songs about Odessa and prostitutes - pounded out from the 11th floor well into the night. His arrival has brought two nights of merciful quiet.

Overlooked by the management, though, is a sign next to the lifts in the lobby. It is an advertisement for the muzzled night bar, written mostly in Japanese but interspersed with fragments of English in bold capital letters: 'open show with girls'. There is not a word in Russian. This is what confronts 75-year- old Solzhenitsyn when he waits for the lift with his wife.

The pollution of Russia's soul by the West is a pet theme. Another is the corruption of its language. 'If you do not learn to speak Russian,' he rebuked one audience, 'there will be no Russians left on the face of the earth.' Russians, he told them, should avoid words such as breefing, kholding, reiting, vaucher.

There is a lot in what Solzhenitsyn says. I needed a taxi yesterday to take me near the Chinese border, an hour or so out of Khabarovsk along the Ussuri River. The best offer there-and-back was sorok baaxsof from a plump man in a white baseball cap. I could understand the first part. Sorok means 40. But baaxsof? Prices are usually quoted in roubles or dollars.

Baaxsof - or its singular form, baxs - is not a word found in Solzhenitsyn's etymological dictionary. Webster's is the only place you find anything close. It means 'bucks', a linguistic import about as elegant as a newly- minted Russia term for murderer: keeler. To be killed by a keeler seems a lot worse than by a homegrown, Russian-as-cabbage- and-sausage ubitsa. English conveys a special sort of nastiness.

This is what Solzhenitsyn is talking about when he rebukes youth about 'liquid manure' flowing in from the West. The state of Russia's language, he declared a day after returning home, is 'horrifying'. A week later, his prognosis might be still gloomier. In Khabarovsk, the pollution floods in from all sides. It is not just English, but Japanese, Chinese and Korean that hammer away at the ears.

The place to be seen in Khabarovsk these days is the Sapporo Restaurant, an annexe of the Sapporo Hotel. Japan's financial newspaper, Nihon Keizai Shimbun, and back issues of gory Japanese comic books are far more plentiful at Solzhenitsyn's hotel than copies of Youthful Far Easterner, the Amur Register or any other products of an impecunious local press. For Russian- speakers the main reading material are antique copies of Izvestia from Moscow, nine hours away by plane. Tokyo takes only two hours, Seoul three and the Chinese city of Harbin less than one.

Many Russians, tugged East and West but unsure what it is to be Russian, feel overwhelmed and a bit frightened. Nuances easily get lost in translation. The Russian partner of Khabarovsk's best Japanese restaurant gave up trying to translate the menu. The recommended dish is listed as 'Fish and Other Things'.

Solzhenitsyn has no time for unnecessary other things, whether from East or West. He commends, for example, Icelanders who 'give up television entirely for at least a day each week'.

Thanks to Rupert Murdoch's Star television, though, television never stops in Khabarovsk or anywhere else in the Far East. Even when staff transmitting Russia's state programming 5,000 miles from Moscow go on strike, Star television keeps pouring out the liquid manure.