Interview with David Morley about the 1970s in the Soviet Union
This interview with David Morley was recorded by John Harrison in May 2017. David very sadly passed away in April 2019.
David Morley was one of the ‘early birds’ who came out to the Soviet Union in the 1970s as a student, liked the people, found work in Moscow, and finally moved there in 1991. He was active in the British Business Club from its early days, being a highly sociable and very knowledgeable person with a superb command of spoken and written Russian. Conducting this interview, which takes his story up to 1991, David brought back many memories about the early days in Moscow and Leningrad. Another interview was planned, but he sadly fell seriously ill, and died in 2019.
David, please tell me why you decided to study Russian at university?
I didn’t choose to study Russian. I spent an extra year at school doing Cambridge entrance exams to read German because you had two separate exams in those days. I got through the exams, but I failed the interview. I didn’t apply anywhere else, so I didn’t have anywhere to go. I slipped off to France, and I think I was in Monaco with my mate Gareth. We had spent all of our money, and we were having our last beer at the Café de Paris, which is next to the casinos on the Place du Casino. He said “We’ll have a beer then we’ll have to go home.” Just then I got a telegram from home, it said that you’ve got a letter from UCCA saying you have been offered a place at Lancaster university to read Russian and Soviet studies. Do you want to do it? I thought, well I’ve got no money, it was September, and it starts in October, so I went. From Monaco to Morecambe.
When I was growing up, I had a mate called Stephen Kerensky, he was in my school sports running team. Stephen was a good guy, I liked him. He lived in Southport which is not far from Lancaster. I used to pop over on Sundays, for Sunday lunch. Obviously, his grandfather was Alexander Kerensky, but nobody in the family could speak Russian. His father was Gleb Kerensky, he was born in England, went to school in England and didn’t know any Russian at all. But Olga, the grandmother, the babushka, could. When we were having lunch one Sunday, Stephen asked me if I’d go and talk to babushka because nobody knew what she was talking about. So, there I was, with my first term Russian sitting with Kerensky’s wife, and listening. She picked me up like a long-lost son and talked to me for hours on end.
I used to go there quite often for lunch, and he was still alive then, I think he died in 1980, and she died about three weeks later. I loved him and I still love him. He was such a ‘babnik’ (Russian slang for a lady’s man). He told me about all the problems he had experienced, and about the trouble they had getting out, taking all the jewellery they had in 1918 to Helsinki, about how they went to Paris, then to England with the kids. I know the whole story.
Last year, Stephen popped up on Facebook. He lives in Morecambe now. And he writes children’s schoolbooks about Julius Caesar and things like that and writes poetry as well. He said he had been to St. Petersburg: “All my life I thought I was just an ordinary English bloke, until I went there, and I realised that I’m actually Russian. And I have a lot of papers belonging to my grandfather and about him that nobody has ever seen, I’ve read them, and the academics are all wrong. I’ve been having arguments with academics for a long time, and I’m going to write a book to correct the reputation of my grandfather.”
So, there I was at Lancaster University studying Russian and Soviet Studies, along with Central and South-Eastern European Studies. I set foot in the Soviet Union for the first time in May 1972. I had had a kind of precursor if you like, because I had a stint at teaching English as a foreign language in Czechoslovakia. But that was a completely different story. In May 1972 we were walking into what was really the height of the Brezhnev/Kosygin thing.
I didn’t do a lot of work to be honest, but I soaked up the atmosphere. Part of that course was spending time at a trade union sanitorium in the Baltics which was in a place called Solnichnaya, which is on the Baltic coast. There was a Russian language course there which I was supposed to be on. I turned up the first day and the last day. I was lying about on the beach or in the city the rest of the time.
I couldn’t actually spend that much time in the city very easily because getting back in the evenings wasn’t easy. Either the bridges had gone up or I’d miss the last electrichka (suburban train), so I was in Solnichnaya most of the time. The summer was brilliant. Everyday there were bright blue skies, and it was extraordinarily hot and lying on the beach was very, very nice, whereas the city was absolutely stifling. I probably spent more time wandering about thinking about Dostoevsky than I did about Alexander Blok, who I was supposed to be writing my dissertation on, because Crime and Punishment was also written about a scene unravelling in a hot stifling summer. I would wander through the archways, into the courtyards of the buildings and I could almost have been back in mid-18th century Russia. I was imagining what Raskolnikov was going through at the time. I got as most as you could as a foreigner from life there.
The four week course passed very quickly. And I thought – that’s not very long. Particularly as I wanted to work on my dissertation, and I had some research topics connected with that to investigate there. When I was in Prague, a little later, learning Czech, I got friendly, I think it was with the second secretary in the Soviet embassy, he was also the GRU man. We used to go out to the cinema and get pissed and have fun. I complained to him about this four week thing and he said, “Oh, nyet problema” (no problem). So, he made a few phone calls, and I was invited as a guest of a trade union, something to do with the Kirov factory in Leningrad. I stayed on and ended up being there up until the end of September, for five months in all.
I was living for a time in St. Petersburg at the Obshezhitiye (student hostel) on the campus of Tekhnicheskii Institut (The Technical Institute). I would go and get 50 roubles, the small stipend that I received every month. And I had to turn up at various meetings such as with the literary society, which was quite interesting. In summary it was very real and very good. I suppose I did get around to the subject that I was supposed to be looking at, which was ‘Alexander Blok, Romantic or Realist?’
I had forgotten that there is a parallel with poetry in the build-up to 1917 and afterward, with the developments in art. Blok wasn’t particularly influential in that but he did break the mould. Because his imagery, and it wasn’t exactly symbolism as I said earlier, was unusual. Blok at that time started to write about urban industrial subjects in a slightly romantic way I have to say, about love, unrequited love and unrequited lust. That romantic thing gets a little bit broken up, but I think he was influential, and a bit depressing really as well. I think he did end up committing suicide, you know. He wasn’t drunk on romanticism; he was drunk on the real stuff. So, I caught some of that atmosphere and it helped in writing up the subject.
Then you went back to university in Lancaster?
Yes, I did. I didn’t get a ‘first’ but it I was satisfied with my course.
Were you attracted to Russia for political reasons?
I wasn’t particularly enamoured by the communist idea. We were young socialists; 1968, the miners’ strike, we were on strike ourselves. I was involved with all of those ideas, and yes, I went on marches. Having been to Czechoslovakia in 1970 I think that knocked that out of me. So, I went into the Soviet Union with my eyes more open than they would have been had I not had that experience before in another communist-controlled country, particularly in 1970 when I was there. In 1972, when I was in the Soviet Union, you couldn’t avoid the political issues, the propaganda was everywhere, with everyone. Plus, we had to go to lectures on Marxism-Leninism and all that stuff.
I remember one incident when we went to one of these literary meetings, and the guy was actually talking about Solzhenitsyn. There were a few foreign students there as well, who asked questions, and we had all read some of the books. Cancer Ward and A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, we had read those. The guy was quite blatantly saying “You might have read Solzhenitsyn, but he’s just a terrible writer. He’s got absolutely no literary talent whatsoever.” And we said well, “We don’t quite agree with what you are saying.” It was rammed down your throat all the time. But we didn’t really pay any attention. It was an interesting time because I think Mr Kosygin had introduced an alcohol ban. Vodka was rationed and you could have it if you had a meal, but you could only have 100 grams. In the cafes and bars on Nevsky Prospect you couldn’t even get a cocktail. Well, that was easily dealt with. You ordered something like orange juice and with a wink and a nudge it was 90% vodka and 10% orange juice. As long as it was coloured it was alright. The beer factory was na remont (being repaired) which meant there was absolutely no beer all the way through the summer. As I said, it was a pretty hot summer, and no way you could get a beer somewhere easily. You could get a beer in the foreign bar in the Astoria though, but I didn’t really have the money for that.
I remember in September I was looking out of the window at my obshezhitiye (hostel) and I saw one of those beer vans outside. I poured the water out of a jug I had in my room because everybody was standing there waiting in line with their jugs, and I went and stood in the queue. But not only had the beer arrived, but for some reason so had the gypsies. I was standing in the queue and for some reason I was being hassled by them. I said, “Go away, go away.” This one gypsy woman said something I remember to this day, “Riba s vodou, dengi so mnoi” (a fish goes with water, and money with me). And she vanished. I got to the front of the queue and put my hand in my pocket to get my three roubles out to pay for my beer, and there was no money there, it had all gone! The man said “Nyet, Nyet, go away!” So there I was Kopeck-less, and I never got my beer in the end.
What were conditions like in the hostel?
Pretty rough but you just put up with it. I was still an athlete in those days, I was 70 kilos when I came back, I had put on weight, so it was a pretty healthy lifestyle, it wasn’t bad at all really.
Did that visit form your opinion about the Soviet Union?
Yes, it did. I saw no affluence whatsoever; except I spent a few nights in the Hotel Astoria which was nice after the obshezhitiye. I even got used to the bed bugs after a while. Those little red bugs which come running down the walls at night, and I’d think, oh hang on a minute, get my tapochki (slippers) out and dance round the room trying to get rid of them. But apart from that, it was bearable.
What about relationships?
I was in a relationship when I went there while at university in Lancaster, and she came over with her friends. I had already been there a couple of months, and that was the immediate end of the relationship. I don’t know whether it was a change in my attitude, but the thing that was so different, particularly in relationships with British women for example, was just how Russian women’s relationship to sex was so uncomplicated. For example, in typically gentlemanly fashion, I invited a girl out to dinner. I wanted to chat about this and that and to be honest to get my way with her. So, I invited her to the dining room at the Astoria Hotel, it was very posh, if I could get her in there which I managed to do. But she turned up with an overnight bag! I thought, well, this is going to relax the situation rather. It was either on or it was not. That was the end of the story. There was no in between. I wouldn’t say that it was in any way promiscuous or anything like that, it was just really, really uncomplicated. And it wasn’t necessarily that we tried to misuse that. You still had to chat and do all the stuff and be really nice and do the general manly thing, but it was very, very different to the British equivalent (laughs). I think a lot of people found the same thing. That’s why Russia attracted a lot of people here, rather than going to the States or somewhere because they realised it was a lot easier for them here than it was for them anywhere else, particularly if they weren’t very successful on their home territory. That’s the reason.
On the subject of sports, as I said, I used to be an athlete. At the obshezhitie, we used to knock footballs around, just playing around, having fun. Then one day, somebody turned up who asked if we’d like to play for a team and play in a match. We said OK. Then he said that we’ve got a match coming up on Saturday, and they took us off on a bus. I don’t where it was, but it was a stadium, and there were about 3,000 people who came to watch it! We got beaten 3:2, I remember it well.
What did the Russians you met think about the West at the time?
They didn’t really know much about it. In St. Petersburg, the only foreigners they had any contact with then were the Finnish tourists who came over. Most of them came to get drunk at the weekends. If you saw somebody wobbling or lying about on the street, it was a Finn rather than a Russian. But if you were Russian and couldn’t meet people, it was difficult. People were very wary of foreigners.
Did you ever meet Kolya Vasin in Leningrad; he had a whole flat, well it was a small flat, dedicated to the Beatles? It was full of Beatles memorabilia.
Unbelievable. No, but I was struck by people’s knowledge of things that I had never even heard of. I knew a bit about them, but nothing like what they knew. This was because their access to information was very, very limited. But what they did have access to they knew a lot about. I did various swaps of my music with someone called Alexei, I think. I’d swap music tapes for other tapes, most of which were bootleg, but that was all people had. He also gave me a medal, a bronze one I think, and a newspaper from 1916. It even had blood on it, and there was an article on Rasputin in it with his photograph. Unfortunately, somebody stole it from an office I was working in a few years later. I’ve no idea if it was worth anything or not, but it was certainly rare.
And he gave me a book The 12 Chairs by Ilf and Petrov. It was a very worn-out copy, but it was impossible to buy that book at that time. There was a club where people used to swap books. They used to put live music on, and it was run by a Norwegian. It was a really good place, a bit like what I imagine the Cavern in Liverpool must have looked like. They had live bands in there playing rock music. I do believe it had beer as well, yes, it had beer.
Sounds like you had a good time?
I did, yes.
You must have spoken pretty good Russian by then?
My Russian had improved no end and I was much more capable of understanding the work that I was supposed to be doing.
I went back to my last year, actually I took a year out and went to Prague and taught English for a year first. I thought I could continue to learn Russian there, which wasn’t a good idea in the 1970s. When I eventually got back, I complained that there were no real Russians teaching in the university, so the head of the Russian language department, Sir Cecil Parrott, did something about it, actually he already had. He got a knighthood out of Harold Wilson; he had been a minister in Moscow, and he had been our ambassador in Prague. He was actually quite a nice guy but was just a typical diplomat. By the way, I went to Cheltenham to try to get a job at the GCHQ listening post, but that didn’t lead to anything.
The person Cecil had found was called Galina, and she came from Prague. Galina was very nice, and it was good to have a real live Russian speaker, although she was Czechoslovakian. He got her out in 1968, before the Russians invaded. He went there and said, “You’ve got to go now.” She said, “I’m not ready.” He said, “You’ve got to go now.” She left a husband and children behind and left. I got quite friendly with Parrott and went up to his house a few times and met his family. He was a very good translator, his translation of Jaroslav Hašek’s The Good Soldier Švejk was definitive.
In those days, many of the Brits who were professors and teachers of Russian were connected to the army or the diplomatic service in some way weren’t they?
Yes, I wouldn’t say that were all ex-military, but some were. We had one of those, his name was Mike Waller. Big tall guy, but we also had some real experts, like Michael Kirkwood, who knew more about Zinoviev than anybody else I ever knew.
After college I got married to a Swiss lady and went to live and work there in 1977, and I didn’t like the place. I saw an advert in the Zürichsee-Zeitung, placed by a large Swiss trading company for a job, so I applied. They invited me for an interview. They invited me for a second interview, and they said that we can’t send you to Moscow because we have already employed somebody, a German who has been there already. I said OK, fair do’s. So, we’ll offer you a job in Lausanne, as part of the back-up team for Moscow. I said “No, I’m not really interested in moving from where I am now, I was only interested in what you were offering in Moscow.” They said “OK, let’s stay in touch.” About three weeks later I had a phone call, they said “Can you come and see us? Or better still, can you go to Moscow next week?” I said “Oh, what happened?” They said, “The man we employed has been arrested for icon smuggling and is now in Belgrade. He’ll be our representative there. So, the post is vacant, it’s yours if you want it.”
The company was called André & Cie, they were bigger than Nestlé at the time, one of the top three grain and commodity traders in the world. They had a representation office in Moscow which had opened at some time previously. They represented the crème de la crème of Swiss industry in the Soviet Union. The trading was not dealt with by anybody in the Moscow office, that was above our heads, but we were there in case we were needed. We were dealing with the representation.
There were big companies that were doing business with the Soviet Union then. I turned up. There were two Swiss and myself, and I counted as being Swiss because I had come from there. And about 15 Soviet staff. We started off living in the Hotel Volga, we were there for about six months waiting for somebody to give us an apartment. I arrived there, which was absolutely the envy of everybody – the Hotel Volga! I lived in two rooms which had been knocked together. And my wife was pregnant at the time, actually during the whole time I was here she spent most of the time in Switzerland, she wouldn’t come here at all. That wasn’t particularly good for our relationship. But nevertheless, for me the job was interesting because it was high level stuff, the contracts were large, and the involvement was large. At one time we had about 350 foreign experts building and supervising projects across the Soviet Union. We were building flourmills, tyre factories and all sorts of things. The trouble was sometimes, that this was more like a marriage bureau than a representation office because people would phone up from the regions and say, I want to get married; can you help with this… But the general problem was communication with the plants because telephones didn’t work, and if they did work, they didn’t work very well. And if they rang up from somewhere in the Far East for example, it was in the middle of the night anyway. The common problem was we haven’t got this, we haven’t got that. We arrived at the site and there was no building, no electricity, we needed this that and the other. So, we eventually arranged that somebody would come to Moscow once a week from some of these places and pick up what they needed.
There was one particular episode I remember; there were two Swiss men working in Riga building an animal feed plant. They’d been there for ages; everybody had completely forgotten about them because we couldn’t talk to them very often. They said, “We’d like to go home, but they won’t let us go home!” So, I spoke to the Soviet authorities and they said, “Well they can only go home after they finish the job!” I said, “No, they really need to go home and have a bit of a rest and come back.” Anyway, one of them got drunk and beat up a policeman, and I told them [the authorities] that something would happen if you don’t let them go home. Then one of them got blood poisoning, really bad. We had to fly in the Swiss Air-Ambulance to go and get him out which was an experience in itself. It had never happened before. We managed to get him out and we took him back home. They both left and then they pleaded and begged us afterwards to let them come back! Because they wanted to finish it. They came back but they were allowed to go home after that. It was a bit like that, we were dealing with problems all of the time.
Finding staff was really easy. We phoned UPDK and told them that we need an engineer who might know something about compressors, who speaks German, and one would turn up. And if you didn’t like him you would send him back and ring up and ask them if they could send another one, and they’d send another one. They told us that every week they had to go and report what we had been doing and what we had been saying. Oh, that was another thing. The company that we worked with was accredited to the State Committee for Science and Technology, which was run by a guy called Jermen Gvishaini who was the son in law of Alexei Kosygin. I met him a couple of times, good guy. We had to report to the Protocol Department. The protocol department was of course the KGB. We needed visas for this, that and the other, they would look after us. If you needed to go on a trip around the country, you had to have a visa to leave Moscow. It took about 10 days so you couldn’t just take off and go on a trip somewhere. I did do that once, I actually got into the boot of a car to go to somebody’s dacha, but that was only around the corner. We had to meet them once a week. The meetings took place in the Hotel National in the restaurant. They plied us with as much vodka as they could get down us, so that we would spill the beans and tell them lots of nice stories about this, that and the other. The more dirty jokes we could collect in a week the better.
Did they come in wearing black leather trench coats?
No, there was one called Misha and he is in a book about the KGB by John Barron. He was in there, there was a whole chapter on him. He messed things up a bit in Egypt. He did me a favour once. It’s quite a funny story. We didn’t like our boss in Lausanne. He was an arrogant French-speaking Swiss. He came over every now and then, gave orders and fucked things up for a bit. The protocol department knew we didn’t like him, and they didn’t like him either. So I had a call from Misha one day, and he said “Can you come and see me?” I said, “Sure.” They were in Ulitsa Nezhdannov which is now Ulitsa Brusova. I went there and he gave me an envelope. He said, “Don’t open it, go to Switzerland and give it to the president of your company.” I thought, “I’d better do what he says.” I took the envelope and went to see Mr Engre. I gave it to him on a Saturday morning. He looked at it and said I’d like to see you at eight o’clock on Monday morning. So I went there, and the whole department was there; he turned up and he said to the guy, our boss, that he had to be out of there by 10 o’clock. He fired him on the spot. I did know what was going on a little bit at the time because I had taken a sneaky look in the envelope.
One of the things we had going was a barter deal with a Soviet trading organisation. We supplied shoes and cosmetics and consumer goods of all kinds, and we were always thinking of what we could get in return. There was $5m-$10m in the barter fund which we soon used up. We got dried mushrooms, carrots and some other agricultural produce which were worth nothing in return. So finally, we said that to make it up, can you please supply diesel, that will reduce the budget deficit a bit. Diesel oil could be sold in The West quite easily and we could make money on it. So, we were doing this trade. The shoes were marked up as being produced in Italy, but they were actually made in Yugoslavia, which is a little trick; they swapped the labels over. Anyway, our boss switched the documents on one of the oil deals and transferred it to the name of his company. We knew nothing about that, but the guys in the Protocol Department did. And they nailed him. The guy was out of a job and he was in some kind of legal trouble. I don’t know if he worked for another five years. So, we came back and said, “Well that’s nice, we haven’t got a boss now.” We said to the president that we don’t actually need anybody, we can run it ourselves. And he said, “OK, you report directly to me.” I said, “Thank you very much.”
You were a Russian speaker then, and I guess you still had some friends from 1972 in St. Petersburg. Were you aware of any cultural changes that were taking place?
It was very different then. If you had friends in St. Petersburg, you couldn’t relate to them if you were in Moscow. We went there a few times, but we couldn’t have much contact. We couldn’t have much contact with anybody really. If you wanted to meet anybody privately it had to be clandestine. And we were pretty seriously watched. And listened to. The “cleaner” who swept the Swiss embassy also swept our office and our apartment; we were under surveillance constantly. And you just felt, well this is it. This is just one of the everlasting features of the Soviet Union, it was never going to end. It’s just solid as a rock. Thick as a brick, and it seems to be totally mindless, but that was it. But we had to live and survive, just like anybody else does anywhere else.
People who worked for us were privileged in a way. Their salaries were around 140 roubles a month, which was about right for people of that calibre then. But we allowed them to buy a certain amount from the Swiss or German mail order company that we used. It was breaking the law in a way, but for them it was a real perk. We had ‘D’ coupons which were diplomatic coupons which we could spend in the Beriozka shops. We had mountains of them, and we spent them in the shop near Belorussky Station. I don’t think I touched my salary for four years. We had everything.
It sounds great but probably a lonely existence?
We weren’t allowed to stay here for more than 10 weeks at a time by a company rule. They said, “Out, just go somewhere at our expense for a week.” Otherwise, they thought, we’d go native. We had that, but to be honest we didn’t really need it. We also had holidays, so every 10 weeks we had a week out, and we also had six weeks holiday a year. That’s why I didn’t want to leave.
There was one particular incident which was very strange. One of the companies we represented was Sulzer. Pumps and mixers, that sort of stuff. They were also seriously into the nuclear industry. They contacted us, there weren’t very many of them, there didn’t need to be, either you went there or one other place, that was it. If they had anything, they generally called us. I had a call; it was the Oceanographic Institute in Moscow. They wanted help in constructing a deep-water bathyscaphe. They couldn’t make it out of steel, because it would have been too big. It had to be titanium. It was designed like the segments of an orange. You had to weld these orange-like segments of an orange into a sphere. You can only weld titanium under a vacuum. And you need a very big vacuum chamber to be able to do what they were doing. So we negotiated a deal whereby the titanium would be taken to Switzerland where they know how to do this, and transported back. So it wasn’t a megadeal, only two to three million Swiss Francs. Sulzer agreed and said to the Russians that they should come to Switzerland to sign the agreement. We went into a meeting to put the final touches to the contract. The big boss from Russia came over with his family and they were put up in a good hotel.
One of the Swiss executives asked me to come outside the meeting room for a moment, and he said that we can’t do this; we have to break off the negotiations. He said that he had received a phone call. It had to be the Americans. The reason was something along the lines that the Soviets could place nuclear bombs at the bottom of the ocean in places where we can’t get at them, they could zap the whole eastern seaboard of the United States. Any kind of trade that involved military installations or equipment that could be used for military purposes was out of the question. Anyway, they stopped it. So I worked for two years on that one but it came to nothing. But that was unusual, in general, everything was good, if surreal, in those days before 1991, then it all changed dramatically.
Thank you, David, the band is striking up now, let’s take the interview on up to 2000 next time.