Street Life Samotechny Lane Moscow: A soap opera revolving around cruelty, fatalism and wit

Helen Womack
Monday 08 June 1998 23:02

THE SMELL of smoke from real coal fires stirred something deep inside me when I first crossed the Soviet border in 1985. It took me straight back to my early childhood in working-class West Yorkshire in the 1950s.

I was entering a country that has always been and still remains unfathomable to foreigners, a state where totalitarianism was just starting to be dismantled, and yet, on one level, I felt instantly at home.

It is a mystery why Russian television now has to import foreign soap operas when life itself in Russia is one long soap opera, more satisfying even than Coronation Street. Despite all the changes under Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin, most Russians still live in the kind of poverty we knew in Britain immediately after the war.

It makes for a back-to-back community life that is at once cosy and stifling. In a way, I belong to that community as I am married to a Russian. I have a Russian mother-in-law and Russian friends.

My husband, Costya Gagarin (no relation to the first man in space), and I live on Samotechny Lane. The word is spelt "samotechny" but pronounced "samatyochny". It means "freely flowing", presumably a reference to the rainwater that runs down the street, which is on an incline. A looser translation might be "Go With The Flow" Lane.

To survive in Russia, that is what you must do - go with the flow, accept what life brings. In the West, people have a fair degree of control over their lives. Russians are more subject to arbitrary forces and cope by adopting an Asiatic fatalism.

Costya, being a "New Russian" businessman complete with mobile telephone, is able to provide me with a home that meets western standards. Our landlady is Galina Alexandrovna, a pensioner who has moved out to her wooden cottage in the countryside and gets by thanks to the rent we pay for her town flat. When she comes for the money, she always brings us jam or pickled cucumbers from her dacha.

Costya and I enjoy the luxury of space. The two of us have three large converted rooms, plus a kitchen and bathroom with Finnish fittings. But our neighbours still live in "communal flats", three families crammed into one apartment, each family with just a room, and shared cooking and washing facilities. You can imagine the range of possible passions in such confined conditions.

The entranceway and stairs leading to the flats belong to nobody and are therefore filthy and stink of urine. Graffiti covers the walls. Outside our door is an accurately drawn penis with the words "Torpedo of Ivan the Terrible". It sums up everything about Russia: the cruelty, the fatalism, the humour. It was probably drawn by kids from the "rough family" immediately downstairs.

That family's matriarch is Tanya, a frowzy but good-hearted single-mother, who is always ready to lend or borrow a cup of sugar. She feeds her kids by renting out her rooms to Azeri guest workers, who sell fruit on the local market.

The Azeris close their ears to the overtly racist slurs of other neighbours, work from morning till night, behave impeccably and are going up in the world. They have just bought a new car. But Tanya finds it difficult to control her own children. Her eldest son, Lyosha, has just come out of prison, where he served a short sentence for car theft. He is a yob.

Lyosha keeps me awake at 3am with his loud pop music. But with him around, I know that nobody will dare lay a finger on my battered cherry Niva or Russian-made jeep, essential for trips into the muddy countryside.

On Samotechny Lane, there is no equivalent of the Rovers Return. We all know that Russians drink, perhaps more heavily than any other nation in the world. But they do not do it in pubs, rather around the kitchen table, which is the focus of community life here.

Recently an English-style pub called the "John Bull" opened in Moscow. I tried it out. The barman pulled me half a bitter, served me a pile of crisps on a gold-edged dinner plate and charged me $10 - one tenth of the average Russian wage.

"Let's get out of here," said the Russian friend who was with me. Cost is not the only consideration for Russians, who have avoided eating and drinking in public since Soviet times, when you could never be quite sure whether or not the chap at the next table was a KGB informer.

Home is where Russian life happens, and in the back yard - and, to an increasing extent, in the new private corner shops. Next to my scummy local pond, delightfully named "Andropov's Puddle" - whether after ex- Soviet leader Yuri Andropov I cannot say - there is a mini-mart with smiling service, if high prices.

And behind the Children's Park is a pet shop where I have been a regular customer since my veteran ginger cat, Minky, went AWOL and the local kids brought me a series of stray Minky lookalikes. The owner is a mustachioed Georgian former space physicist called Timur Gagua.

When I went in yesterday to spend more on cat meat than the average Russian housewife would spend on a family meal, I found Timur almost crying into his drooping moustache. "The shop is closing down next week because we can't afford the rent hike."

And so, no sooner have I started this Russian soap opera than it seems I am killing off one of the characters. But I have Timur's telephone number. He is a very interesting man and I think he may return as a visitor to Samotechny Lane.

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