“The weight of this sad time we must obey; Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say… And it’s thirty-six hours past Judgment Day.”In the mid-1990s, I lived in Moscow. It was the “Wild, Wild East” of Yeltsin time, in the post-Soviet breakup, the rise of the gangsters. Aged war veterans, their suit-coats heavy with military hash, selling watches and dried fish on the street. Gangs of homeless children roaming the city. Nuclear scientists and dress designers selling their labor cheap to Western firms as drivers and cleaners and gofers. Go-getters gunned down on metro steps, in restaurants, after falling out with their “partners.” Reporters letter-bombed in their offices for investigating army corruption. The sell-off of vast industrial combines to government cronies for pennies on the dollar. The collapse of civic society, of the structures and infrastructures that had knitted some kind of fabric – however tawdry in places, however ridden with its own injustices – for millions of ordinary people, who were now facing beggary, illness, epidemics, collapse and violence in the radical uncertainty of a world turned harsh and alien in what felt like the blink of an eye.
-William Shakespeare and Bob Dylan
As for me, of course, my withers were unwrung. I was an American, working at an English-language newspaper owned by a Dutch go-getter, and living on a salary that would’ve made me a beggar in my homeland, but in the desiccated moonscape of post-Soviet Moscow allowed me to live in humble but decent comfort, sharing a rented flat still stocked with The Collected Works of Leonid Brezhnev: volume after never-cracked volume groaning in the Uzbek owner’s glass-fronted bookcase.
I had come to Moscow from the radical collapse of my own life, with everything I still owned crammed into two suitcases, and the vaguest promise of perhaps landing a job at that English-language paper. I went there in pursuit of a failing romance and, with wild improbability, found another romance, with an Englishwoman, that determined the course of the rest of my life. I was in my mid-thirties at the time – how impossibly young that seems now! – and, unmoored from all familiar surroundings, in a land that was itself unmoored and uncharted, I found myself experiencing life with a heightened sensibility, a sharpness and vividness I’d never known before.