OUT OF RUSSIA: The smiles and trials of life at Sad Sam

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The Independent Online
Mosow - Upon returning to this city last week, I decided to visit the apartment where I had lived for almost three years from 1985. Those were the days when foreign residents were cooped up in special buildings, separated from ordinary Muscovites and under KGB surveillance. It was a bizarre arrangement, steeped in Russian tradition and designed, I think, at once to intimidate and depress the foreigner.

However, everyone agreed there was something different about this apartment building. Made up of three adjoining blocks, each with nine storeys, it stands on the Sadovoye Koltso, the Garden Ringroad encircling the Kremlin and the ancient heart of Moscow.Since this stretch of road is Sadovo-Samotyochnaya, we used to call our building Sad Sam.

The name conveyed the sentimental affection we felt, almost as if the building had a human identity. I also used to think it had an attractive melancholy quality, suited to life in the stagnant Soviet Union.

The building was special because it was small enough for everyone to get to know each other quickly. Britons, Americans, French, Japanese, Spaniards, Swedes, Danes, Indians and a Yugoslav military officer, who was always outrageously drunk, all lived andworked there in my time.

It was a source of pride to us that Sad Sam was one of the few buildings where hot running water lasted throughout the year. The pipes may have needed an annual clean in the rest of the city, but not at Sad Sam. Some of us wondered if that was because the building had been built by German prisoners of war after 1945.

Until the late Eighties, it was not easy for ordinary Russians to visit foreigners. A policeman sat in a sentry box at the courtyard entrance to Sad Sam and would emerge like a human road block every time you arrived back with a Russian.

In my experience, however, the Russians were usually allowed in. One winter, after a rousing evening at a nearby Kazakh restaurant, we brought back the entire restaurant band, including the singer. Another time, the then world chess champion, Anatoly Karpov, walked in.

The sentry box and policeman are gone now and, as a result, there have been burglaries in the past year. But other traditions survive. There is still a midsummer's night party in Sad Sam's courtyard.

There may even be a chance of reviving the open-air amateur Shakespeare performances that were staged in the courtyard during long summer evenings - remembering lines wasn't necessarily the most important aspect.

In any event, when I emerged from the lift, it was with considerable shock that I saw the words "Detsky Sad" on the door. The apartment had been turned into a kindergarten.

I could accept the disappearance of the sentry box, the policeman and the KGB men who monitored us from the top floors of the building, but to see my old home so transformedseemed like making too forceful a point about the passage of time. Even Russia shouldn't change that quickly, I remonstrated to myself.

But the area around Sad Sam is changing rather fast now. Driving home in the blackness of night in Soviet times, the best way of knowing when you had reached the turning for Sad Sam was to look out for the enormous poster celebrating the 26th Communist Party Congress. The poster was removed some time ago, along with the Lenin slogan across the Moscow river that said "Communism is Soviet power plus the electrification of the whole country".

A hundred yards from Sad Sam, the state baker's shop still sells its tough old bread, but not far away is a mobile kiosk with "khleb Avstralii" - freshly baked, warm Australian loaves. They are delicious and cost 1,500 roubles, or about 25p each. If onlywe could have had those in the old days.

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