When most of her school friends had gone to ‘find themselves’ in India or South America, Abi Roberts was in a faux bearskin hat in Moscow. Here she tells Standard Issue why 20 years on, she still loves sweet condiments – in her tea.
I was in Russia for a year to study opera at the Moscow State Conservatoire and I couldn’t have picked a more interesting time to be there. Perestroika and glasnost were in full swing, the Berlin Wall had come down, the first McDonald’s was open and as a Westerner, for the first time, I wasn’t followed everywhere by swivel-eyed KGB men whispering into their sleeves. Not that I know of anyway.
Russia under communism was an oppressive, bleak and closed totalitarian society. Nevertheless, what I remember best and most fondly is the incredible warmth of Russians and the strangeness of Russia. It’s a place of massive contradictions and weirdness. Anyone who lives there for any length of time will be totally transformed by it. You leave with a different perspective: on the human condition; on how cold the weather can actually be, and on tea. I came home in love with Moscow for the strangest reasons. Here are just a few:
Jam, tea and improvisation as an art form
‘Would you like some tea with jam?’ was the first question I was asked on arrival in Moscow. As a Brit, I said yes, thinking it meant tea with jam on a scone. It didn’t. It meant some jam with your tea. This is just one of the many wonderful but weird Russian things. They drink loads of tea – buckets of the stuff and sometimes with jam, because if sugar wasn’t available they improvised. Russians love improvising because it gets round the binds that the State imposes or that hardship dictates. No vodka in the shops due to shortages? No problem, brew your own. (A neighbour where I was living decided to brew his own and the vodka still exploded, destroying his entire flat. He and his cat survived and he was back three weeks later brewing another batch.)
Travel and the weather
The Metro runs until 1am, it’s not overcrowded, you never have to wait long for the next train and lines don’t close at the weekend. The underground stations themselves are astonishing. They’re like subterranean art galleries. Ploshchad Revolyutsii station near Red Square has 76 bronze statues carved into it. You feel like you’re on some Socialist-Realist acid trip compared with our stations, which are more like windy toilets covered in advertising. Also the tubes in Moscow have leather seats and the smell of leather permeates every carriage. In London, every carriage stinks of wee, fried chicken and farts.
If one snowflake falls in London, everything stops. In Moscow, the winter weather ranges from -10ºC to as low as – 40ºC. We Brits simply cannot conceive of that. I have seen Russian airport workers cleaning snow off plane wings with toothbrushes and Russian drivers building fires under their cars to get them started (yes, petrol can and does freeze there). The cold is the main reason why Russians drink so much, although there is no “pub culture” in Moscow because it’s often too bloody cold to go out.
No matter where you are in Moscow, you will find yourself at an impromptu gathering. When you arrive at someone’s house, there’s a three-act play that involves taking off your coat, jumper, hat and scarf. You feel like a bad burlesque act.
There is always much vodka, singing of songs and toasts. Not a toast. Toasts. Many toasts. These can last from 10 minutes to half an hour. They are often heartfelt speeches or may make a wider philosophical point about love, God or Olga’s bad leg. These get-togethers include any food that is available: cutlets, cucumber, tvorog and smetana (tvorog is a savoury curd that’s delicious with sugar and smetana is thick sour cream). In the 90s it was difficult to get basics like bread or milk but someone always managed to get something from somewhere. Hard to believe but it is true that until quite recently, there were shops that were for foreigners only called Beriyoski where you could go to buy imported goods with US dollars. Russians were forbidden from even entering those shops and certainly couldn’t buy stuff from them.
Nowadays, there are western shops everywhere in Moscow. The main Russian department store called GUM (not a VD clinic, but the Russian Selfridges) is now just opposite Red Square in China Town. But even today, ordinary Russians still can’t afford most of what’s sold there. They still haven’t got that bit right.
The smell of incense
The Soviet revolutionaries pulled down churches during the revolution. Religion was “counter-revolutionary” and even expressing a religious view could land you in jail or worse. I grew up going to C of E services in a sparsely populated parish church in Kent that were so boring that if there is a God he’d be asleep by the end. I’d rather have gouged my own eyes out with a spatula than go to Sunday service.
Not so in Russia. Enter an Orthodox church and your nose is overpowered by incense and your eyes by the candles and the massive congregations. Put it this way, the churches are so glorious and the Orthodox services so uplifting (even with such hardship underlining them), that I went to Moscow a religious sceptic and came back to London with an open mind.
What I miss most about Moscow is speaking Russian all the time and being surrounded by it. I can’t wait to go back. I feel lucky to have got to know Moscow so well and to have experienced the delight that is tea with raspberry jam.
Abi Roberts is a stand-up comedian. She trained as a classical singer in Moscow and worked as a session vocalist and recording artist before becoming a comic. She can be found treading the boards at the UK’s comedy clubs.