The constant urge to eat – keep out the cold and comfort myself against the post-communist chill. One can do it in a group and inside away from prying eyes that might decipher disguise at the drop of a hot. And so, the “Communistic Buffet” as my dear host referred to them, became my mainstay for each meal – when I wasn’t being fed true Russian-mama style at in his home. Grab a brown plastic tray and help yourself to as many hot, cold, side and dessert dishes as you can manage. No menu or explanations needed.
Russia’s food is something heavenly. A perfect balance between the heavier, meaty, stodgy goodness it might be imagined to be and the delicate, fresh tastes of beetroot salad, herring, dill, borsch and sour cream. Boiled buckwheat with butter, pancakes rolled up with caviar and more sour cream, cottage cheese (a less wet, more solidified version of what we are used to) with honey and homemade preserves and lots and lots of black tea. And one of my favourite dishes – pilmeni. Dumplings filled with ground mince that make you feel you can withstand winter, the more rugged version of ravioli.
Moscow is softer and friendlier than I imagined. St Petersburg is said to be more European than Moscow, yet I felt more welcome and secure and at home and its size means places are easier to recognise and I didn’t get confused by labyrinthine streets. No wonder Raskolnikov – the mentally protagonist in Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment – lost the plot.
To enjoy Russia one really has to be with a friend. An interpreter, who guides and points and speaks the language is not enough to overcome and form a buffer against the hard surface that covers the culture. Those hours with Nadya – my friend with whom I spent two warm months doing yoga in Rishikesh – made me realise this.
Wandering the streets alone and by the Volga with no one for comfort and nothing to really excite or see it was like meditation. It was uncomfortable and I yearned for the comfort. But these times are necessary to know myself, my surroundings, the world and its people better. Maybe Russia is like India: stay out of the cities and head for the spectacular countryside where life and people are different.
And then I had my White Russian Moment. At the recommendation of a friend who had spent several months in the capital, I headed to the Krasny Oktyabr Factory (the old biscuit factory). A cluster of galleries, bars and a theatre space. An outdoor platform overlooking the heaving Volga is home to the Art Strelka bar. With its wooden decking and open air seating, it would not have been out of place in on a tropical beach. Save for being totally deserted on this crisp September day. I ordered a White Russian – bollocks to the price – and took my seat overlooking the water and a gold cupola-ed church and let the drink take hold.
“How gloriously alcohol changes your perception of the world. I’m wrapped up in Beluga blankets and babushka chic with the autumn sun in my face shining through dense, sculptured, steel clouds making the world sharp and bright and clear. Nutmeg on ice cubes laced with White Russian gliding down inside stomach warming from inside out – blood, belly, brain. Bells have begun, a circular joyous monotony of chiming and ringing from Red Square – or perhaps St Basel’s – dispels despair.”
Despite moments of comfort and warmth, being in Russia put me in a steady state of melancholy, doubt and frustration and boredom.
Russia – that time – was boring and inaccessible to me. Apart from landmarks and historical buildings there is very little contemporary culture, no room for artists to flourish in public and give its citizens things to look at and rejoice in freely. No wonder they had to invent so much literature in the past: to stave off that boredom and melancholy. And no wonder they drank. And drink. It made me think negatively about all aspects of my life. And then I wondered what was happening inside me to make me feel so and to see this country so ugly and cold and tiring. I left feeling I had the place all wrong, that I left leaving behind troves of undiscovered treasure hidden behind the suspicion and isolation. Of course I had.