Saturday 17 December 2022

Nostalgia for Brezhnev

Download audio file read by Glyn Moody.

In 1982, I was trapped in Tashkent.  I had stopped over there after sightseeing in Samarkand, and was due to fly back to Moscow.  Instead, Intourist whisked off the few foreign travellers present in the city on a curious and palpably fake tour.  After driving around the centre, rebuilt without character after the devastating earthquake which presumably destroyed any original Uzbeki architecture, we were shown the spotless - and theoretically quake-proof - underground railway system.  It was almost as grand as that in Moscow, but without the chandeliers.  Then we were driven to the outskirts of the city which ended in a dusty and squalid shanty town; clearly Intourist had run out of things to show us.

The reason for this surreal non-tour of a non-city was that all Aeroflot planes had been commandeered for the day.  They were needed to fly politicians from the Soviet Republics to Moscow for an urgent session of the country's ruling body.  It was no ordinary gathering: they were meeting to choose a new President.  Brezhnev was dead.

Everywhere in Moscow you came across his portrait, raven-haired, white-skinned, always against a garish red background.  Like some Slav King Kong, his huge, craggy face peeked from walls and billboards between gaps in buildings.  Blown up to huge proportions, the Neanderthal cast of his features - the lower bony ridge of the forehead sprouting feral, bushy eyebrows, the deep-set eyes, the massive jowls - was truly frightening.  It seemed irrefutable evidence that physiognomy did indeed reveal the inner man.

It was some while before the world realised that this was the end of an era.  Even when Gorbachev was chosen after Andropov, it was assumed that, progressive and relative youngster that he was, his attempts at reforms would be circumscribed and cautious.  As we now know, nothing could have been further from the truth.  Each day has brought us new, ever more audacious acts of dismantling, of liberalisation, of risk-taking.  

But amidst all these enormous potential gains, I feel - totally selfishly - that there has been a loss.  As the communist world rushes to embrace much of our capitalism, our materialism, and our culture, the USSR is no longer the great, mysterious Russian bear, the Cold War behemoth, mapping out a unique destiny.  It has lost its old specialness.

The Brehznev era epitomised that lost world.  Russia was a barely open land; it was ruled by fear and bullying; its people eked out secret lives, fighting the state with magnificent tiny defiances.  When I had visited Moscow at this time, the sub-zero temperatures, the clogging drifts of snow, seemed climatic correlates of the iciness and inertia which gripped the country.  Today they are just weather.

In a world where you can hear the latest Rick Astley single within weeks of its appearance as you walk through the ancient bazaar in Kathmandu, there are few places which remain truly alien, truly elsewhere.  Even Romania has fallen.  Nobody wants Gorbachev's reforms to fail; but some of us are glad that we saw the Brezhnev era before it vanished.


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