Russia in transition –3: a difficult progress

Early in 1993 my friend Nini Baird, the director of programming for B.C.’s Knowledge Network, asked me if I would like to take a group of Canadians to Russia as a fund-raiser for the public broadcasting agency. Show them around, share what I’d learned. Why not? I said. Fix it up and I’d be happy to do it. I also had my own ulterior motive for agreeing: Continue reading


Russia in transition—2: fending for yourself in the new economy


In the fall of 1992, I returned to St. Petersburg for a month. Along with conducting interviews and research for my Vinogradov biography I was keen to compare the St. Petersburg of 1992 with the city that I’d started to get to know a couple of years before. This time, Susan came with me. It was a mild autumn that year in St. Petersburg; mists along the canals, deep russet tones to the sunsets over the Neva, soft grey light on the stones of Palace Square when it rained. Continue reading

Russia in transition—1: conditional freedoms

It’s always best to have work to do when you visit a new city or a new country. Being a tourist is too often an embarrassment; you look tentative, you don’t know where you’re going, you stick out. Being there to do a job lets you move with a different rhythm. You can slip yourself into the routine of things, you’re part of the scenery. You get a different, perhaps more authentic perspective on the place. Continue reading

Russia in transition, 1990-1995: introduction




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.”