But Sasha was from Russia, where the sunsets are longer, the dawns less sudden and sentences are often left unfinished from doubt as how to best end them.-Virginia Woolf, Orlando
I’d been in love with Russia, off and on, since my teenage schooldays in the 1950s, when Russian ministers and their entourages—fierce, fleshy, jovial men who wore heavy overcoats and dark fedoras and drank too much—would visit London for important negotiations, and writers from the Daily Express would visit Moscow and complain about the absence of sink-plugs. I wanted to be with them, in this closed, mysterious, fascinating country, and it was at school that I began my lifelong course of combat with the dark, poetic Russian language. For a year I made Russian my main subject at university. It was there that I fell for the rich and languorous melancholy of Pushkin and Lermontov. I played the lead, execrably, in a university production of a Russian-language play about the misadventures of a hooligan. Going to the source remained my ultimate ambition.
So when I was invited to join the Royal Winnipeg Ballet on tour in Germany, Hungary, Ukraine and Russia in May of 1990 I didn’t hesitate. (I had travelled with the company on their Orient tour two years before and the partnership had paid off well for them in terms of magazine and newspaper exposure, and they were hoping for a similar media pay-off.) The trip would also give me a chance to do some on-the-spot research for my biography of Oleg Vinogradov, the artistic director of the Kirov Ballet, and he pressed me to take the opportunity while I could. Mikhail Gorbachev had introduced his famous reforms a few years earlier—perestroika, literally restructuring or reorganization, a shorthand word for his plans for the wholesale reshaping of the economy and the country’s living conditions, and glasnost, literally “voiceness,” or the ability to speak out, but widely understood as openness. Vinogradov said it was important to see Gorbachev’s reforms before they withered. “These improvements will not last long,” he said. “The pendulum is bound to swing back.”