The View From Afar

John Harrison

The following is an excerpt from the first chapter of a book on Russia, made up of different voices (about 20 so far). Here is mine, and the subject is how ideas of Russia and the Soviet Union were formed in our minds in the 1960s-1980s (editor).

I first became acquainted with the words the ‘Soviets’ on the newly opened MI motorway in 1962. It was October the 24th, I was 8 years old and sitting on the back seat of my father’s Ford Cortina estate, my mother was sitting next to my father in the front. The cars in front of us slowed down, soon there was a line of them crawling along the hard shoulder, I couldn’t figure out why. So I asked why, and my father mumbled something about there being trouble. Normally, cars weren’t allowed to stop on motorways like this, people weren’t allowed onto it to sell newspapers, or anything for that matter. Newspapers were being sold right there on the motorway. The drivers were lowering their windows, paying and getting their copies. My father bought a copy of the Mirror, he usually bought the Telegraph. I didn’t understand what my father was saying to my mother, but it was something about Cuba and ships. They looked very serious, the atmosphere was sad, like at a funeral. They discussed right there in front of me whether they should get my brothers and sisters and go to Scotland or not, my mother said we’d be safer there. My father dismissed her comments and said it wouldn’t matter, the radiation would kill us anyway. My mother cast a worried look at me, put her hand in my knee and said don’t worry, everything will be alright, and they changed the subject, at least they tried to. ‘Damn Soviets’ I heard my father say in Canadian accent, a few minutes later, then he added, quietly so that nobody could hear him, but we did. ‘Goddam crazy like the Yanks’. We drove to London in silence, the atmosphere was subdued, people looked frightened, but it all blew over a few days later.


All areas of the world that were ever part of the British Empire. Current British Overseas Territories have their names underlined in red. From Wikipedia.

That was the first I heard about the Soviet Union. The world I was brought up in featured red on the world map – the large embroidery above my bed, but it didn’t show the communist countries, it showed the extent of the British empire in its heyday, which was only a decade or so before I was born in 1954.

I didn’t think or hear about the Soviet Union until I entered the senior school at Kings College Wimbledon. Russian was taught, but only for the very bright kids, not me; only the ones who studied German first. If you do German, well, then you can do Russian my house master told me, looking doubtfully at me. My friend told me that they were learning the language, it was like German but with stranger sounds. They were going to read Russian books written by authors like Tolstoy he said with excitement, clarifying with a smile: “in English”. I asked him who Tolstoy is and he said a man with a beard who wrote about Russia and God; that’s what the Russian teacher, a retired army man had told them. I thought that beards must have something to do with God. I asked him once what the Russians are like and he said he didn’t know, he’d never met any, but they seem very serious. There were no cultural exchanges or anything like that in the late 1960s; there were no Russians walking the streets of London like there are now, no ‘Londongrad’, certainly no Russian on the underground, everything Russian or Soviet (we didn’t know the difference) was a very long way away.

There were ‘high culture’ moments though. My father took us to see Cossacks dancing on horses at the London Hippodrome, we heard the immaculate and deeply moving harmonies of the Red Army Choir singing completely incomprehensible songs, watched with amazement the beauty and of the Bolshoi ballet, which even I liked – the scenery was really amazing. But they were all shows, unreal, from the far-off place, everything from there was far-off. Then those performances were stopped after the Soviet rampages in Czechoslovakia, Africa, Afghanistan and Poland. I gathered, later, that Britain tried, not very successfully, to organise a boycott of the Moscow Olympics in that ominous year 1984, but ‘low level’ (as Margaret Thatcher described them) cultural exchanges had started and continued, you just had to find them.

Scene from Eisenstein’s ‘Battleship Potemkin’

At Art School at the age of 17 I came across Eisenstein’s films, we watched ‘Battleship Potemkin,’ and ‘Alexander Nevsky’ on our Foundation Year course in 1972. I found these films magic, full of impossible people strutting across the screen doing impossible things in another reality a long time ago, and yet it all made sense. Bold, imaginative, they were entertainment but also something else. We studied soviet Art and architecture, in our History of Art lectures and I quickly realised that the Soviet period in art was hugely important, and it looked interesting. Russia was more than Cossacks on horses, choirs and ballet. Then the student union organised viewings of fairly contemporary Soviet films.

The films I remember were very human, and thus outside the binary system of everything Soviet being negative in contrast to the good of the west. The first film I watched which got me going so to speak was ‘Moscow Does Not Believe in Tears’ (1971). It seemed very real. That meant that there were people over there, people who had children, went to school, worked and died, just like us. It might sound silly now, but that was a revelation. I really thought that the Soviets were some kind of other race of humans, bent on world domination or at least the destruction of the free west, or something like that. How strange it was that there are real people there as well. Andrei Tarkovsky’s ground-breaking masterpieces: ‘Solaris’ (1972), was Russia’s answer to Stanley Kubrick’s ‘2001’, released in 1968. But the technical language, the mise en scène all seemed completely different and really cool in a kind of primitive, really attractive, industrial grunge type way. The Soviets seemed to have been the original punks it seemed to me then. Tarkovsky liked long lingering shots; with natural sound, I could almost feel the wind rustling through grass, and feel the madness that spread like a disease over the Solaris space station. Kubrick’s 2001 was brilliant as well of course, but all the high tech and sophistication of Hollywood somehow didn’t get under my skin like Tarkovsky’s films did. That’s how it felt to me at the time, perhaps it was because I liked Soft Machine and not The Rolling Stones. ‘Andrei Rublev’ (1966), and ‘Stalker’ (1979) which I watched much later, tugged hard at my emotional and intellectual triggers. There was a strange and wondrous ‘kino-film’ about how a dog found its way home, through busy Moscow streets called Belyy Bim Chernoe Ukho which came out in 1977. I think these films were distributed by the ‘GB-USSR’ Association, which was a foreign office funded outfit which operated out of swish offices in Bloomsbury. I visited the library there a couple of times, and remember it was full of stuffy, older, Russian emigre types.

I was a very long way from being politically aware then, but I contribute my interest in politics as having started at precisely the moment when I realised that there was a stark contrast between these films from the other side of the thick dull titanium curtain, and films which we made about them. The Soviet films that I saw did not seem to knock the west in the way that we continuously went on about the Soviet Union in a light-hearted but bigoted way, for example in the splendidly male chauvinist James Bond films. In ‘The Spy Who Loved Me’ (1977), and ‘Moonraker’ (1979), the Soviet Union and Soviets were portrayed as a demonic force full of gestapo-booted, butch bullies, apart from Barbara Bach as Anya Amasova that is, but she of course was forced to betray her lover and saviour ‘Oh James daarrling’ at the end of the movie. It struck me as odd, when I thought about it, that in the Soviet films the villain was the Nazis, not the West as a whole, but we westerners didn’t beat around the bush and made it very clear exactly who the enemy was – the Soviet Union.

The goggle box only featured an ongoing commentary, like at the races, on how many missiles the Soviets had. It was them who were behind the many proxy wars that happened throughout the Cold War – like Korea, Vietnam and of course there was the Cuban Missile Crisis. We were the children of the Cold War. We grew up with it and into it, that’s all we knew, it was normal. It was normal to watch the eyes and hats on top of the Mausoleum in Red Square watching the tanks, missiles and athletic soldiers go by. Watching the watchers watching a show and taking it to be reality was normal.

When Russians were shown on TV, if they were to be portrayed in a positive way, they were Russians from before the revolution, or heroes who had defected from the Soviet Union like Rudolph Nureyev and Solzhenitsyn. I remember trying to sit through Tolstoy’s ‘War and Peace’ starring the young Anthony Hopkins as Pierre Bezukhov and Morag Hood as Natasha Rostova on TV. It was a 20-part series; and far too serious for the likes of a young Brit. I think I lasted three instalments. This was shown after the first showing of the ‘The Forsyth Saga’. Maybe the programmers thought they should go together. The 1935 American film adaptation of ‘Crime and Punishment’ by Fyodor Dostoevsky, the ‘Brothers Karamazov’ (1958), the ‘Doctor Zhivago’, especially Doctor Zhivago, did make an impact, a big impact on me. There was something about Omar Sheriff’s soulful expressions as he battered against himself, the ‘Red’s’ (Soviets therefore bad), and the Russian winter (although harsh was Russian, therefore good, if enigmatic). I had spent time in Canada as a child, my father being Canadian and I loved the feeling of open space which came across in the film, the same feeling I had experienced in Canada. Into this beautifully simple binary world, only love could cross boundaries, and as a counterforce for good against evil.

I got into Russia so deeply that I even read the ‘Brothers Karamazov’ when I was 20, and I think that one book probably got me hooked on Russia, so I blame my involvement with Russia which lasted all the rest of my life, on Dostoevsky. But back to the point about Soviet films. I read something recently that the three greatest filmmakers to come out of the Soviet Union – Eisenstein, Tarkovsky and Aleksei German never completed a film set in the present day. Russians have fantastic ability to tell stories in a roundabout way, rarely about present day events and yet at the same time very much about the present. Not because they made films about eternal themes in a religious way, but because they talked about themes which every Russian could relate to, and Russians, I was beginning to find out, were interested in very deep subjects. They seemed to live in a world of huge, serious, problems.  That’s why they looked so serious I though back then.

When I read the Brothers, it didn’t matter much to me if the story had taken place in the 19th century or Old Russia. The book was/is a page-turner.  Anyway, when the 1980s kicked off the box started showing more about Russians than usual. On Christmas Day 1981, a few hours after showing ‘Uproar in Heaven’ (a Chinese cartoon about the adventures of the mischievous monkey who is at the centre of the story of how Buddhism was brought to China from India), the BBC quite amazingly showed the Soviet film ‘Dersu Uzala’ (1961), directed by Akira Kurosawa. This film is about an old man who a Russian army unit came across when surveying a tract of forest on Russia’s Pacific Seaboard in 1902. They think he is a bit eccentric at first and the soldiers ridiculed him, but after he saves their lives by building a shelter under the snow just an hour before temperatures plummeted 15 degrees, and thus saves their lives, they came not only to respect him but love him. There was something about the way this film was shot, displaying the vastness of Russia that cut through all the politics and this, once and for all, set off an explosion of interest in all things Soviet and Russian in my mind. 

By that time a realisation started to dawn on people in the UK (I don’t know about anywhere else) that something big was changing in the Soviet Union. No longer did the country seen invincible. The policy of détente collapsed in late 1979 when President Carter, feeling deceived by the Soviets in Afghanistan, ordered a substantial rise in the USA’s military spending, then Reagan won the election, and the ‘evil-empire’ rest is history. All of my friends, I was then a language student then, even the lefties, sincerely supported the Polish trade union Solidarity, as it was leading strikes against the Polish government. All of this – the fact that Solidarity survived despite a Moscow-sanctioned coup d’état which put General Wojciech Jaruzelksi in power, led to awe at the brave warriors fighting against Soviet imperialism, and all of this only confirmed that the narrative of the superiority of the west was totally right. We were overjoyed by the spectre of freedom spreading across the planet to encompass the Soviet Union. After all, this is what the young Russians/Soviets that I met on my first trips to Russia wanted, what they were singing about and why they stayed up at night listened to the Voice of America and the BBC World Service.

If you are interested in acquiring a copy if this book when it is publsihed in January 2020, please send an email to: harrisonj@outlook.com  with the word: ‘Russia’ in the subject field.

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