Street Life Samotechny Lane: Youngish, gifted and in the black

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The Independent Online
I DECIDED to give the Russian Booker Prize dinner a miss this year. It is a worthy event, instituted by the organisers of the British Booker Prize and carried on by the Smirnoff vodka company with the aim of encouraging Russian writers. But the winner is usually some ageing novelist, receiving belated recognition for a work he was prevented from publishing in Communist times, and the critics all stand around bemoaning the lack of young writers able to interpret chaotic post-Soviet life. That was why I passed on the invitation to eat fish in aspic with the Moscow intelligentsia at the ceremony.

What a fool I was! The next morning, I switched on the television to see that one of my oldest friends, Mikhail Butov, had won the prize. "Butov's won the Booker," I yelled to my husband. "Who, Misha, that mad poet who was at our wedding?" The very same. And he had not even told us that he was on the shortlist.

Straight away, I rang to congratulate him. He said he had won the $12,000 (pounds 7,500) prize for Freedom, a novel he had been writing quietly on the side for three years.

"It's about, well, you know, contemporary Russian life," said Misha, who is still on the right side of 40. "Now, don't worry about having missed the dinner. Vera and I are having a couple of parties at home, one for the literary types and one for old friends. You'll be coming to the old friends, of course." I am used to not being able to recognise old Russian friends. Those I remember having long hair and working as dvorniki or caretakers, the sinecure job for artistic dropouts in Soviet times, now wear sharp suits and are in "biznes". Or they have become raving fascists. But Misha, a great bear-like man, has remained the same.I first met him in 1986 at a rehearsal of a then daring new choir called Rospev. We sang chants written by Ivan the Terrible. Misha's voice boomed lowest among the basses.

The KGB was still active in those days. They desperately wanted to know who my Russian fiance was. They promised Misha a place at film school if he would inform on me. He pretended to know nothing and afterwards warned me that the KGB had been showing an interest.

Misha never went to film school. For years, I felt guilty about being the cause of his disappointment. Eventually, we talked about it. He said he had never really wanted to go anyway but for years, he had been afraid that I thought he had betrayed me.

Rather than pursuing a career in the cinema, Misha concentrated on his poetry. He sang some poems to the guitar in the tradition of Russian bards such as Alexander Galich and Bulat Okhudzhava. He came with his fiancee, Vera, to our wedding and presented us with a handwritten book of poetry.

Misha was always as poor as a church mouse. Back then, he lived in one room with his mother. After he married Vera, he went to live in one room with her and soon there was also a baby in that cramped space.

He took work in the Russian equivalent of "Grub Street", as an editor at Novy Mir (New World). He still works there now, earning a pittance. Now overnight, his life has changed.

I have yet to read Freedom and cannot judge its literary merits. But I rejoice in the good fortune of my friend, who succeeded by remaining true to himself through difficult times when it was far easier for a Russian to sell himself.

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