By Tina Moskal
As a misanthropic and dithery Art student in 1968, I was inexplicably inveigled by the Edinburgh Students’ Union into an unlikely task: for a whole week to arrange, accommodate, entertain and cheer-lead, on the Edinburgh leg of their tour of Scotland, a group of sixteen or so students from Soviet Russia–– along, it transpired, with their two KGB minders–– and all on a rouble-rated budget.
To put this in context for readers who were not conscious at the time, the then Soviet empire lay shrouded under grizzled wraps. No bling-laden oligarchs in those grey days (at least none that poked their heads out). 1968 was the year their army had sent in tanks to crush a budding liberalisation in Czechoslovakia. In a first for the USSR, eight brave Moscow souls held up placards in Red Square in solidarity with the oppressed. They were brutally beaten and incarcerated for life in psychiatric correctional institutions or the Siberian Gulag. Such was the Soviet hush-up that I’m guessing our charges knew nothing of it.
Meanwhile the youth of the UK anticipated the next Beatles’ release. 1968 saw the band open their White Album with Back in the USSR, poking fun at USA culture and patriotism. Kremlin officials meanwhile condemned it as a sneer at the USSR’s stereotypical butch female labourers. Paul McCartney said he had no opinion of Russian womanhood; Russia was a place of mystery.
I had no trouble in recruiting a cohort of eager befrienders from my co-students to buddy up with our visitors. A sizeable group of us, arms full of flowers and with two pipers, resplendent in plaids and all the trimmings, were there on the platform to greet them as their sleeper drew in from London. We youthful Baby-Boomers were curious, keen to sweep aside the dusty drapes of the Iron Curtain. We might even help prevent a nuclear war!
So how was it that at every stage over the next few days an International Incident threatened? I had just been informed that during a brief stop-over tour of London their coach-driver had circled Trafalgar Square three times before finding the exit; such incompetence was deemed an “Insult”. Then during a socially-distanced observation of Hyde Park’s Speakers’ Corner, this little knot of strangers had been spotted by a stray Russian émigré who ran up to deliver them an anti-Soviet harangue; this lack of vigilance by my unsuspecting London counterpart was also an “Insult”. Even the struggles of London’s student interpreter with his Russian im/perfectives were seen as disrespect. Formal complaints had already been lodged.
But surely our big boisterous welcoming committee on the platform would have set them to rights? Unhappily, twenty minutes later we rolled up at the hotel to discover they could not gain access to their rooms; it was not yet 8 am. The leader upbraided me; this was yet another “Insult”. He had pale spectral eyes, a crew-cut, obligatory mackintosh and rimless glasses. He made no attempt to conceal his role as KGB.
The rank and file among our visitors seemed anxious to please, but how to twiddle thumbs companionably in the foyer until their rooms were vacated? Frantically we wound one of our pipers up again. There in the hotel lobby, he gave the bags a deafening squeeze as we launched ourselves lustily into a set of ill-remembered Highland reels. The dangers of Insulting our Soviets far outweighed those of scaring the daylights out of a hotel full of common-or-garden guests who might still be trying to sleep. Someone rushed out to find containers for our visitors’ bouquets (following more panic in the hotel, which didn’t have enough vases). The hotel’s putting up with all this shows just how unusual, alien and perilous the presence of anyone from the USSR seemed in those days. Fortunately, the skirl of the bagpipes soothed our Leader: he would lodge no formal complaint “provided nothing else went wrong”.
So what should arrive at that moment but a fresh “Insult”: the Scottish Student Union’s pair of interpreters. One was a pallid soul who has faded from memory, the other, Richard: brilliant, bouncing, beaming and shiny-black-as-your-hat. It occurs to me now that Richard, who had spent a study year in Russia, knew full well what the reaction to his colour might be, and was even enjoying it. But innocent wee me, I was taken completely aback when the Leader hauled me aside and declared that Richard “Just Would Not Do”. I had thought Communism considered all men equal. How could they be racist? “But you can’t be like that in Britain!” I squeaked. “It… Just Is Not Done!” Coming over as a stickler for protocol must have aroused his Russian respect for what is Kulturny*, for he agreed grudgingly to give him a trial period. Their rooms were ready and off they went.
Later that morning the Leader quite reasonably asked for a copy of the time-table of entertainments. We possessed no such thing (“Insult”) and tried to explain we had been waiting to get to know their personal inclinations first. But I showed him our ideas so far. There was a limit to what one could do morning, afternoon and evening for eight days on a budget based on small change. One bright idea offered them a more immersive cultural experience away from the herd. Enough of us host students had relatives in Edinburgh to invite the Russians in pairs for cosy dinners with real families. We could all get closer, we Scots would come across as super-hospitable and it would cost the budget nothing! What was not to like?
Dear Leader found plenty. He pounded McVitie Tea-Room’s shoogly** formica table with his fist and fulminated: “Nyet! Nyet! Nyet!!” It was down to Richard to whisper to us the facts of Soviet life: our Leader’s fury was fuelled by fear. He was not there to give his charges a fun-time; his sole function was to return them intact to the Motherland. Our family dinner scheme was a defector’s dream.
We had thought Russian defections were just a ballet dancer thing. A group of us stayed up all night grasping around for something else to do. It was my first true acquaintance with cortisol overload. But come dawn, Leader and presumably his bosses had relented. The home visits went ahead subject to a 9.30 curfew. We primed our family members “not to mention politics”, and everyone had a wonderful time; except for me, obliged as ever to host the Leader. He was as dull as he was daunting, but insisted that, as leaders of our respective flocks, he and I must be as One: sit always together, share the same table, separate from the peasants…
Perhaps this constant proximity eventually convinced him of my utter political innocence. It intrigues me today that his people let someone with my surname be involved. It means Muskovite … in Polish. My father’s family were anti-Soviet activists. They and their whole village were deported to Siberia during the war, but Dad slipped the net, came to the UK and ran a subversive newspaper from our basement in London’s World’s End. However, my mother ran back to her parents when I was three and raised me in the political doldrums of suburban Edinburgh. Presumably this showed.
We had another cheap night out up our sleeve. Another Richard, Rikki Demarco***, had recently opened an art gallery in the West End, with a strong international bias. An irrepressible educator, he would often invite groups of art students and expound upon his latest collections. Always a reliable host, he leapt at the chance to do the same with a group of exotic Russians. None of our Russian guests cared about art, but that was what was available. Anyway, if anyone could awaken an interest in art appreciation, Rikki was your man. We laid on Mateus Rosé and a buffet supper. As there were no chairs, we all sat on the floor and, surprisingly, this was not deemed an Insult. East-West relations were thawing.
Rikki launched into his exposé of the paintings, a balletic performance with sweeping gestures bringing to life the lines and rhythms of the works. Our flock were spell-bound, maybe, I thought, because Russians enjoy ballet, for their level of English varied from solid intermediate down to a smattering. But I had reckoned without the other Richard, our interpreter, who lit up. His command of Russian and the joys of interpretation were unleashed. The Richards danced a two-toned pas-de-deux, Richard following Rikki stance for stance, swoop for swoop, leap for leap; meanwhile their words tumbled out one after the other like singing a round, Richard’s pitch, pacing, even facial expressions a perfect mirror of Rikki’s.
When it was over, the room was zinging. I was about to count the evening a great success, when Rikki produced a bottle of whisky and said, “So, how d’you like life over here? How’s it compare to the Socialist régime?” Or words to that effect.
Half the assembled company froze in horror–– the British half. In the classic British sitcom Fawlty Towers, when some German guests turned up at the hotel, Basil Fawlty famously urged his staff: “Don’t mention the War!” We had been employing that thinking to our Cold War counterparts, falling over ourselves to avoid politics. Now Rikki had unlocked Pandora’s Box.
The other half of the company, however, almost cheered. It turned out they had been longing to talk politics. They had been well schooled beforehand on what to say and were anxious to try it out. The energy already released by the charismatic art class exploded into an extended evening of bonhomie, more like a Rasputin shindig than a Soviet committee meeting. At last I was able to shake off the Leader and talk to the others (especially the desirable Valeri –– who I later learned was the other KGB minder).
The Cold War was now radiated by the warmth of whisky and joy. After this evening all went swimmingly, except for one last hiccup. I still had not learned my lesson that Communism does not equal egalitarianism.
I had been tasked with getting them all goodbye presents from Edinburgh. Easy: we found a range of tasteful tweed ties for the men and for the women, Highland-looking brooches with furry bits of horn or dead raptor claw. These were to be presented before they boarded a coach to Dundee. The mighty panjandra of the Students’ Union had set up a small ceremony where they would appear and wish them goodbye. The speeches had already begun when an SU aide pulled me aside to ask about the gifts.
“And what have you got for the Leader?”
“Um well, sort of… a tie.”
“But he has to get extra! More than the others! They’ll lodge another complaint! Do something!!”
There were twenty minutes to go. No suitable shops nearby. So I did what young wannabe adults do when overwhelmed by responsibility. Run to Mum. It so happened that she worked in a clinic directly opposite the hall we were using. I legged it over.
“What silly nonsense,” she said. “Well, just draw a picture. Symbol or something.” She returned to syringing someone’s ear. As in a vision I watched myself clasp the clinic’s scissors and some sheets of foolscap, cut out a set of giant keys, Sellotape a ring round them, and make it back to the hall just in time to present to our Leader, along with his tie, and with sufficient flourish: “The Keys to the City of Edinburgh”. Deathly pause. He bought it. His face cracked into the first and last smile we ever saw on him, and he emitted a sonorous Santa chortle.
There ended my lesson in international diplomacy and Realpolitik.
*Russian for cultured or civilized, used during the Soviet period to refer to activities and behaviour that were considered enlightened and progressive.
**Scots for unsteady, wobbly
***According to Tina, “éminence grise of the Edinburgh International Festival and Fringe since day one, 1947, ‘national treasure’ 91-year old Richard Demarco, was, prior to his elevation to treasure-hood, called Rikki. He is well-known to both Edinburgh’s arty circles and visiting Festival afficionados as impresario, innovator, mover, shaker and historic thorn-in-the-flesh of the Festival establishment. His mission to switch men’s souls from stand-by to super-drive through all sorts of artistic experiences most famously saw him establish the first Traverse Theatre in 1963 and later initiate the hosting of ground-breaking theatre from beyond the Iron Curtain.”
Editor’s note: The photo is taken from englishrussia.com, with thanks, and is of a group of Russian students in the late 1960s but not the ones who Tina so splendidly squired in Edinburgh in 1968.