A veteran British journalist living in Moscow talks to Passport’s Ian Mitchell
Helen Womack is from Yorkshire. After working for many years in Moscow as a correspondent for the Independent, today she writes mainly for the Guardian. She is the author of Undercover Lives, the story of 12 former KGB sgents and their adventures in the service of Marx and Lenin.
Photo Ian Mitchell
You first came to Russia in 1985. Why?
I started my career as a journalist working for Reuters in Vienna, which was one of the listening posts for the West in the Cold War. One way or another, I spent a lot of time nibbling at the edges of what Ronald Reagan called the Evil Empire and developed a great desire to see it with my own eyes. Did they really have horns and tails? Of course, as soon as I arrived I realized they were people like us, and I was fascinated.
What do you like most about living in Russia?
First and foremost, it is the friendships. Russian people are so good, so golden-hearted, and loyal. Russians are the most devoted friends you can have. If I had to have one friend in the world, I would like it to be a Russian. The other great thing about Moscow is the cultural life, the galleries, the music, the opera, the theater. I am a founder of the expat choir, the Moscow Oratorio, which is one of the ways in which I have made contact with the cultural life. But I think the key to having a good time here is not to think of yourself as an expat, someone sitting in some awful bar pining for home, meeting other expats, and being miserable. I try to think of myself as a temporary Muscovite. I’ve been a journalist here, but I’ve also been married twice — to Russians. I am still married to my second husband, a concert pianist, so I can vouch for the quality of Russian men. I should add that I am still best friends with my first husband as well.
Did you study Russian before you came here?
No, but it is true, to get into the culture of the country, you really have to know the language. I would urge any expats to try at night before you go to sleep to learn at least five new Russian words, and when you get up in the morning repeat them again. It doesn’t matter if your grammar is rotten. I’ve been here 20 years and my grammar is very bad, but my vocabulary is large. I can make myself understood and I can understand what other people say, so I can communicate, which is the key.
What are the downsides of life in Russia?
I have to say that after 20 years, there are many things that haven’t changed and still don’t suit me. The main thing I can’t accept is that any one of us is a potential criminal. That suits the authorities, and it often suits the people, too. But there is no rule of law, and there is no feeling of safety. An innocent person should have an absolute guarantee that he will never go to prison, but the Russian regime makes potential criminals of all of us. I cannot accept that, and the feeling that the people whom we all ought to be able to rely on, the police and the authorities, are the very people whom I and all ordinary Russians are afraid of. But, as I have said, there is a great deal about Russia that I like very much. Most of the negative things are happening in politics and business, and most of the nice things happen in private life.
How has Russia changed in the time you have been here?
Russia has changed in a vast number of ways, but in many ways it has not changed at all. Russia has tried to change itself, because people said it should, and also because deep in its soul it knows it needs to. But the results are meager because in reality nothing can change very much, anywhere. Our real task in life is not to change ourselves, but to know ourselves, to respect ourselves, which means to be at ease with ourselves. It is the point about King Lear: “He hath ever but slenderly known himself.”
What Russia is doing is not changing itself but finding out about itself, learning to know itself, to be self-confident, and then to be easy with the rest of the world. I still see a Russia that is full of inferiority complexes, one which is throwing its weight about because it is still not at ease with itself. But it’s getting better. I long for the day when it will be relaxed enough that people on the metro smile, not because the Americans say you have to smile and say, ‘Have nice day,’ but because they are inwardly free and easy with themselves. I love Russia, and I would like to see all Russia free.