By indexer
2 years ago

A guest of the Embassy

For five weeks during the summer of 1977 I lived in Moscow while working on a temporary assignment at the British Embassy. My living arrangements were interesting, to say the least.

Five weeks in Moscow

I was working at the time for the British Council as part of its team of professional librarians. The Council maintains libraries at many of its offices (although a number have closed since I was involved with them). At the time, the British Council was represented in the Soviet Union by only one person, who doubled as the Assistant Cultural Attaché at the Moscow Embassy.

The idea had been mooted that the Embassy should establish a library that could be used to support the English teaching activities of the Cultural Section, which were supported by the British Council. I was given the task of making two visits to Moscow – one to work out what was needed and place orders for bookstock, and the other, after a short break, to get the stock organised and catalogued.

The first visit, of two weeks, took place in July and the second, of three weeks, in September. It was a very busy summer – during the interval between the visits I also got married!

Staying with the Cultural Attaché

For the whole of my first visit I was given a room in the flat that belonged to the Embassy’s Cultural Attaché. He was married with a family, but they were away at the time which meant that there was a spare room that I could use.

The two of us were therefore flatmates for two weeks. I soon discovered that he may have been an excellent Cultural Attaché, but his domestic skills were sadly lacking. We somehow managed not to starve, but it was a close-run thing at times!

NYJO pays a visit

One of the jobs of the Cultural Attaché is to organise visits by artists, writers, performers and others. This also involves arranging their accommodation and entertainment during their visit.

One visit that coincided with mine was that of the National Youth Jazz Orchestra. I have never been a great fan of jazz, but I have to say that these performers went a long way towards converting me. They put on a couple of public concerts in Moscow and also an informal “jam session” at the Embassy. After the latter, which was great, the Attaché invited them all back to his place.

Ah! By “his place” he meant the flat that he was sharing with me. His generous gesture was made off the cuff, and as soon as he had made it he realised that it was probably a mistake because he had almost nothing in the flat with which to feed twenty or so hungry young musicians!

It was time to call in some favours, so while I was sent back to the flat to do what I could with the little that was available, he dashed from flat to flat to see if anyone had anything to spare. The block was occupied by diplomats from all the world – you could bump into people from up to 70 nationalities in that compound, the sole exception being Russians – so what he came back with was a very mixed collection of edibles!

Somehow, given our extremely limited culinary knowledge, we managed to cobble together an extraordinary buffet of bits and pieces without knowing what went with what, or which items should have been cooked and which should not! As far I know nobody was made seriously ill by our efforts, and there are probably some well-established jazz musicians who are still telling stories about the extraordinary catering offered by two guys in a flat in Moscow in 1977!

Unwanted guests

One problem with the block of flats was that it was infested with cockroaches. The various embassies in Moscow were assigned a certain number of flats, many of which would be empty as and when they moved their staff from place to place. When a flat was empty for several weeks it became a breeding place for cockroaches that would then move through the pipework to the flats above and below.

Not surprisingly it was the kitchen where most of them would be found, but they did also get into the bedrooms from time to time. It was important to switch on the light before you stepped out of bed, because you risked stepping on a cockroach with your bare feet if you did not.

My worst memory was of returning to the flat one evening and walking straight into the kitchen. When the light was switched on we became aware that the walls and floor were black with coakroaches. This did not last long because they all fled for cover as soon as the light came on, and within a second or two there was hardly one to be seen. However, we knew that they were all still there, just out of sight in the gaps between the cupboards or in the drawers where the crockery and cutlery were kept. There was therefore a need to wash everything you used for eating and drinking both before and after you used it.

It was an interesting couple of weeks courtesy of our guests, both welcome and otherwise!

2 years
Explorer2017 Wonderful article
2 years