Russian . . . ish

Blog post by Ratan Vaswani, Freelance Project Curator at Wellcome Collection India Initiative

‘Here I feel myself free!’ yelled Rasputin. I spat out his hair as it streamed behind him from under his helmet. Roaring through deserted streets in the dead chill before dawn, I felt free, too, but free in a terrified kind of way: he was way over the limit.

It was all so exhilarating. Any Russian you met in London in 1982 was a sort of zoological oddity, intriguing for their rarity value. Rasputin had served time in a Soviet jail for opposition to the regime. That winter morning he could have landed us both in an English jail. Or hospital. Or cemetery. But riding pillion with him piqued my 21-year-old self’s appetite for risk taking, and I had immediately accepted his offer of a ride home. Rasputin wasn’t his real name, just the name I remember him by because of the black mane, wild eyes and bear-like physique. Ivan? Boris? Vladimir? … Can’t remember. We’d met earlier at a mutual friend’s house. The dinner party had morphed into four people discussing human nature all night long over a bottle of vodka. Just back from a semester in Moscow, I was enthralled by all things Russian: the beautiful language, the encyclopedia of the human condition that is Russian literature – and the great, sad warmth of a people making do in what, by that time, it was clear, was a failed political system.

Yevgeniy: I’m from Central Asia. My wife is too. She’s a Tartar, a non-practising Muslim. I’m Russian Orthodox. We met in London at the doctor’s.

Yevgeniy first came to South Woodford in East London for a charity fundraising event. He liked it so much he decided to make it his home.

Fast forward 30-odd years. London in 2014 is liberally sprinkled with Russians, or rather Russian-speaking people. We’ll return later to that important distinction. You’re thinking oligarchs, billionaires, owners of Premier League football clubs. But Inna, an ethnic Russian from Latvia, cleans the communal spaces in my block of flats in East London. And the people who have moved in across the hallway are also Russian-ish, from Central Asia. ‘Are you rich?’ is not the first question I ask Zhenya when he invites me in for tea (served, Russian-style, without milk), but it is the first that springs to mind in the wake of some research I had just done into the capital’s new Russians. In a London that, far too much for my liking, now has zones set apart for the world’s super-rich, Russians are among the super-richest. My neighbour, it turns out, hasn’t chosen South Woodford by mistake, when he could have got somewhere in South Kensington. He works for the financial elite but is not a member of it. A software engineer working for a firm in the City, he’s here, ultimately, to plug a gap in our workforce. The UK can’t fill all its vacancies for highly technically skilled personnel with British-born appointees.

Affable Yevgeniy, in his early thirties, is impressed that I know Zhenya is the standard, familiar short form of his first name. And that I can read and write Cyrillic script. But I’m much more impressed by his language skills. His English is slightly accented, in a way I love, and grammatically almost flawless. His first language is Russian but he also speaks the language of the former Soviet republic he grew up in and some Danish from a spell in Copenhagen. His story is very different from the Russians I knew in London in the 1980s. They were émigrés, the posher word applied to posher people who migrate because they face persecution in their homelands. If they’re here for that same reason but are poorer and come from cultural backgrounds considered less glamorous, the now loaded term ‘asylum seeker’ or ‘refugee’ is applied, increasingly spoken in Britain with disdain. Zhenya is neither émigré nor refugee but plain economic migrant, as most first-generation, Russian-speaking people in Britain now are. There are about 150,000 Russian-born people in the UK and almost the same number again of ethnic Russians or mother-tongue Russian speakers from other parts of the former Soviet Union. If you know a little Russian, you’ll overhear them on the tube. London is where they mostly live.

Famous Britons with Russian ancestry include actress Helen Mirren. Her grandfather was stranded in London during the Russian Revolution in 1917. He became a cabbie. Her father Vasily changed the family name to Mirren from Mironov. The photograph above is from the Daily Mail. She’s with one of the relatives from the ancestral village near Smolensk that the newspaper in 2007 helped her trace.

I’d love to know whether Rasputin ever fulfilled his dream of returning one day to a non-communist Russia. If I could remember his name I’d look him up on Facebook, a medium of communication as inconceivable in 1982 as the collapse of the Soviet Union. Zhenya isn’t in permanent exile from his homeland, as Rasputin and the Soviet-era émigrés were. He goes back to see family and friends. He could, if he wished, enjoy a reasonable standard of living in Moscow. Or anywhere, really. But in a few weeks’ time he will be taking his citizenship tests as the final act of applying to become officially British. Why has he chosen us? Partly the good salary he can command here, partly the cultural diversity, partly his fascination with British history – he thinks, and I agree, that our history is a motor of world history. One more thing: Zhenya isn’t becoming one of us to escape a political system but he does admire our easy-going society. ‘In Britain,’ he says, ‘I feel myself free.’

Ratan Vaswani