If you are going to be a foreigner in Moscow, then an Englishman is a good foreigner to be. They like us here: we are Agatha Christie and Sherlock Holmes, the Beatles and Bertie Wooster. We’re not of course: we are really a money grubbing nation of shopkeepers who have been doing nothing good to Russia for about 500 years or so, but like everyone else, they don’t much read history.
Get in a taxi or strike up a conversation in a park and, having heard an accent, they ask “where are you from?” “England” you reply and they nod approvingly as though you have just achieved something truly significant. Really, this happens five times weekly. Or, you are chatting with a group of Russians and one of them randomly spirals off into a rant about foreigners in the city, again, five times weekly. So you say: “You mean me?” and everybody laughs at your witticism; “ho ho, the very thought of it, really, you’re such a card, with your famous English sense of humour.” The foreigners are the Tadjiks and Uzbeks.
If your Russian is a man, you can explain where your city is by telling him to look at a map of England, find Manchester, and then turn right. He won’t do so of course, but who cares, you have just mentioned Manchester and in doing so set the course of the conversation for the next 20 minutes. “Ahh, Giggs, yes, Giggs, and Rooney, hmmn, yes Rooney eh? Van Nistleroy? ohh, yes, yes, yes…” Most Russian men, like their English counterparts can keep this up for weeks.
And the cold war stuff doesn’t even seem to matter, they have the same demented love hate relationship with America that everyone else in the world does, even Americans, and so, depending on mood, and what was on channel 1 news last night, Americans can end up getting a tirade of angry condemnation. But, as ever, the British sneak along behind their colonial cousins avoiding most of the rotten tomatoes and brickbats flying through the air.
Students who cannot order a cup of coffee in English explain at length how it is important to them that they should learn only the British form of the language, for the Americans have degraded it beyond recognition. I used to try to tell them about Faulkner and Wallace Stevens, but why talk yourself out of a paycheck? A fool and his money are soon parted.
They love Thatcher too, without any understanding of who she was or what she meant for Britain, she is reduced to a cartoon character for most Russians, which is fine, we do that with Lenin and the rest. Granted, it’s hard to sit quietly while they rhapsodize about the “how you say…Iron Maiden, yes?” Especially if you left school in the north of England in 1982, but what do they care about old battles over privatization; they’re too busy recovering from their own encounter with supply side voodoo bullshit in the 90s to make the connections. And anyway, you can always mention Giggs.