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Black Tea by Stephen Morris | Shortlisted for the RSL Christopher Bland Award 2020


For a time Russia meant simply somewhere cold. Beyond this thought were details: a fur hat, troikas speeding across the snow, bearded men in peasant smocks pulling on a barge – the Volga Boatmen – their heads bowed in physical effort, and also in a spiritual struggle. I began to wonder how it might feel to be enslaved, but this didn’t put me off. It seemed that one day, somehow or other, I would go there, and that this business would keep me occupied for a good while. 

On the hall table in the house where I grew up was a lacquered box painted with three horses rearing on thin legs, their long necks and muscular bodies straining with human eroticism. A factory name was printed across the base in odd rounded-out letters, an unpronounceable word that began with a P and ended with a long number, a slash, and then a dot. I could just reach to pull it towards me if I stretched on tip-toe and then, sitting on the bottom stair with the box in my lap, I took a look inside. It was empty, with dust gathering in the corners, but I didn’t want to let it go and ran my fingers across the polished top, over the orange and yellow forms of the horses and their jeweled harnesses, and over the velvet-black background that signified something remote and deep, like a night without an end.

Every so often, though probably much less frequently than it seems to me now, my father brought home toys from the Russian shop on Holborn. He chose them because they were nicely made of wood and had been produced in a Communist country, and because he felt he was helping the Socialist cause. I think he also liked them because they were cheap. Sometimes he brought books from the same shop, Russian fairy stories published by the Raduga press, with big papery pages and outlandish pictures. One of my favourite books from this time was an old hard-backed edition of Baron Munchausen’s adventures in Russia. I would get myself comfortable and read of that far-away place, of how the Baron crossed an endless snow plain where there were no people, no buildings, not even any trees. He tied his horse to a stump, worn out after a day of adventures, and fell into a deep sleep using his saddle as a pillow. In the morning he woke up in the middle of a village. There was a loud neighing and, to his astonishment, he saw his horse hanging from a church roof. What he had taken for a stump the previous evening had been a weathervane poking through the snow. During the night the snow had melted and the intrepid Baron had sunk all the way to street level, while his horse had remained stuck at the top of the church.

Much later, when I was beginning to find my own way in life, after many hesitations and delays, I arrived in Moscow for the first time to find a country on the move. I had travelled from England where the newspapers were talking of AIDS. They had done so before, but now the situation was worse and the story wouldn’t go away. Hirohito, the Emperor of Japan, had died of cancer, and obituaries showed him dressed like any normal guy in a suit and tie. A fatwa raised against Salman Rushdie for writing and publishing The Satanic Verses was followed almost immediately by book burnings in Bradford. George Bush senior was elected president in America, comfortably beating the nicer-looking Michael Dukakis. The news could be explained away, but the fear of AIDS had begun to affect everyone like a psychosis, and it was confusing and there was no right way to think of it.

In Moscow I forgot all of this very quickly. On the streets and along station platforms and at bus terminals, people marched resolutely, struggling under the weight of bulging bags. The bags were dark and nondescript, like the clothes people wore. They often looked heavy and unmanageable, and in the crowd there was a determination I had never seen before. When you stepped onto a trolleybus or tram you were caught straight away in a scrum, not only of bodies but also of bags. The bags rested on the floor between everybody’s legs, or they hung at awkward ankle-height, or they were clutched protectively with arms wrapped all around in a chest-high position and used like a brace, or sometimes, in the last resort, as a battering ram.

I had left my English life behind me and found something new. The novelty lasted but over the following months it became clear that trouble was on its way. You could feel it in the air, like a change in the weather. The system was falling apart, and everywhere you went people said the same thing, that their country was just the kind of place where you could never be sure what was going to turn up next and surprise you. They were quite firm on this point.

It was during this time, when I travelled frequently between Russia and England, that I got married. The ceremony was held in the small Buckinghamshire town of Beaconsfield, just down the road from the barracks where Muammar Gaddafi trained as an officer with the British army. Lyuba had lived all her life in Moscow. She was a graduate from the metallurgical institute on Leninsky Prospekt and with her tall figure, dark eyes, and pale skin, she was strikingly beautiful in a way that made people stop and stare on the street. I was always having to cope with admirers, either young men full of bravado, or older men who became bold and reckless, and ready to drop everything as if their lives depended on it.

She enjoyed making clothes, and had plastic bags full of folded Burda patterns traced on thin paper and stuffed into envelopes with instructions and coloured sketches of the finished items as they would look. Before our wedding she bought material from an old-fashioned haberdashery and made a red dress with cleverly designed folds that were supposed to conceal the fact she was pregnant. After we had signed the register and been congratulated by the usher, we stepped outside and posed next to our rust-spotted Volkswagen Polo while somebody took photographs. It was February, and a cold east wind gusting unpredictably through the carpark blew her thick dark hair to one side, and flattened the carefully constructed folds to reveal the obvious bump, couched in the tucks of satin like a giant Easter egg.

Our first child was born in Watford General hospital on a sunny April morning and shortly afterwards we moved to London, to a dark, damp flat that soon became known as an easy-going place where you would get fed and invited to stay over for as long as you might need. More and more Russians were taking advantage of the open-border policies, and in those first years we always had visitors, often with problems. Russians came and went until I lost count of them. They were directed to us by Lyuba’s mother in Moscow, and they came to see Lyuba, but in the end they always turned to me, looking for answers to the sort of practical questions they felt an English person should know. There were all kinds of people: chancers looking for work on building sites, scientists applying for university funding, business people, a whole bunch of musicians, a factory owner, children left to fend for themselves in expensive public schools. I remember a convention of bridge champions, a lone round-the-world cyclist, orthodox Jews. We had criminal types. Sometimes we saw more of one sort than another, but for a while they arrived pretty steadily. Some were friends but most weren’t.

Lyuba had brought her old samovar from Russia with its tin stove-pipe, and she set it up on the terrace on Sunday afternoons after boozy lunches, first filling it with water and then lighting the fire from the top with pine cones. I had learnt Russian with a book and a cassette, and the conversation swayed between Russian and English. Sometimes English words were mixed into the Russian, not for my benefit but to express something particularly English, or just to convey that one was talking in England, and of England, from a Russian point of view. While we talked a dense white smoke moved through the back gardens, smothering the yellow acacias and the lower branches of a lime tree that spread over our shed. When the water was boiled we pushed the hot pipe off with a stick and brought the samovar back in, clearing a space on the table with a saucer under the tap to catch the drips, and a pot of strong tea nearby for the refills and the top-ups. The tea drinking went with the cake eating, and there was something life-giving about both the tea and the cake after the vodka drinking that continued all through lunch with bottles still frosted from the freezer, and toasts that kept coming even when there was nothing left to say.

With the Russians came Russian food shops, Russian language newspapers, and headlines connected to the new Russian rich and their world of corrupt business. There were stories of sensational shootings, of shady deals with western involvement that always went wrong in the lobbies of upmarket hotels, or in the street in clear daylight in front of new car dealerships, or in the subterranean murk of Moscow night clubs. Soon it became clear that this was only a fraction of the goings-on, the tip of the iceberg of criminality, and that all over Russia turf wars were being fought over the right to conduct business and over who owned what. A lid had been lifted on a whole lot of rottenness, and greed was spilling out everywhere at once.

After Yeltsin stepped down, in 1999, the Russian government declared war against the oligarchs, a year-on-year attack prosecuted with simple ruthlessness by the security forces and the judiciary. The most sensational of the actions reported in the English newspapers involved the murder of Alexander Litvinenko, a former FSB agent who had moved to London and begun speaking out against the organisation he once worked for. Litvinenko was slipped a dose of polonium in a quiet bar in the Millennium hotel on Grosvenor Square, and a few hours later he woke in his apartment with terrible stomach pains. He spent three weeks in a London hospital, dying slowly and agonizingly. The papers ran a picture of him just before the end, his flesh wasted away, his hair fallen out, and his arms stretched claw-like, following the direction of his sunken stare. He looked like Rembrandt’s famous painting of Lazarus rising corpse-like from the dead, and afterwards, when it became known that he had died from polonium poisoning and that suspicion fell on the Kremlin, there was outrage. David Cameron invoked an image of old England, upholding the ancient rights of liberty and the rule of law. Russia went quiet for a while and people wondered whether this might not prove to be a watershed moment.

But it turned out that Russia didn’t need England with its ancient rights and rules. Beyond crime and corruption lay a different concept of value, more absolute and more mystical than England’s. It was not that a person meant less in Russia, rather that a person’s worth was not measured necessarily by his living life, or his living freedom.

It was around this time that I joined a Sunday morning swimming club in the pool near to where we lived in Herne Hill. I remember sharing a lane with a balding, grizzled man. He was one of the eight o’clock regulars, and half way through the session we both rested for a while in the shallow end with our arms on the side, getting our breath back. He asked me if I was going away for the holidays, and I told him that I was leaving for Russia the following week. ‘Russia!’ he said, almost choking with surprise. Then he began explaining how nothing had changed in that country, how it was as bad as ever, and how the state couldn’t bring itself to stop terrorizing its own people. I listened over the screams and splashes with my goggles pressed tightly against my forehead, wondering how this middle-aged Englishman, clearly exhausted after pushing himself so hard with his front crawl, had managed to find time to form so complete an opinion.

Sometime later I came across Marusz Wilk’s book in which he quotes from Tyutchev, the poet who wrote that Russia could only be believed in, that it could not be understood. Wilk went on to say that he wanted, as a true agnostic, to substitute Tyutchev’s word, belief, for experience. He wanted to experience Russia in order to satisfy himself that it existed.

I didn’t need to satisfy myself that Russia existed. I already had my family: my wife and children and my in-laws, both in Russia and in London, and their friends and acquaintances, a whole solid set of people all with their own lives and their own ideas of how things were. But for the time being Russia was still something people felt bound either to support or condemn. The man with the grey complexion who used to push himself so hard in the swimming pool had shared his opinion in the same way, or so it seemed to me, as those English people in the seventies who raised their hands in horror after reading The Gulag Archipelago and decided, without questioning their own commitment, that enough was enough. It was the same instinct that had stirred the souls of Victorian adventurers to help black Africans rid themselves of witches and demons, and it bothered me to rebel. It was a rebellion against certainty in the defence of principles, which had violence at its root and which I had encountered many times before in otherwise considerate people.

I felt like Hemingway when he saw a bone sticking out of a matador, and noted the hard whiteness and the soiled undergarments in the dust of the bull ring. Their certainty was like that bone, pushing through the warm flesh when it shouldn’t have been there at all.

Black Tea is available in paperback and ebook

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