Growing up in Moscow, Jack Beeston saw a different Russia to the one we know from the newspapers.
He tells Tin Can about the warmer side of the ice-hard state.
Second only to the USA, Russia is perhaps the nation which, over the last century has received the most coverage from international media.
Many find themselves intrigued by the vast, mysterious and harsh landscape that Russia represents. From the ‘red’ enemy of the Cold War to the new, secretive and aggressive Putinist state, Russia has never failed to fall out of the headlines for too long, and the media has never had to look too hard for a successful story.
Whether it be their archaic stance on homosexuality, their unashamed support for Assad’s Syria or the poisoning of Alexander Litvinenko, these headlines are, with good reason, almost universally negative.
Many people, including the students I find myself living around, have an entirely bleak view of the country and its people. Yet for me Russia has always represented something else, as it was the country I grew up in and the Russian people were the first that I can ever truly claim to have known.
At this point it is important for me to say that this article is not a defense of Russian politics or their system of justice, and I, like many around me, believe that Vladimir Putin is one of the most dangerous men in the world. There are however, 143 Million Russians living in the world, and, as is so often the case, the international community tends to associate all these people with the racist, homophobic, violent, drunken, thuggish and brutal individual presented to us in our daily lives. As a resident of Moscow from 1993- 1998, Russia dominated my very earliest memories. Amongst the bitter cold and bleak greyness of the Muscovite skyline that resonates in my mind, there are also countless instances of memorable and enriching experiences with Russians, whose kindness and humanity stands in direct opposition to the barbaric characteristics listed above.
The first of these people was Gleb, a six foot nine ex- basketball player who aided my father as a journalist reporting for The Times.
Gleb was, by all accounts, the most unusual man I have ever met. Once my father and him became friends, the birth of my sister meant that he was asked to be her godfather. Humbled by the request, Gleb thought about the proposition for 6 months – cutting himself off from my family in order to consider whether he would be a suitable candidate for the role. In due course he accepted and remains a part of our lives today. This type of episode is not abnormal in Russian society, a society in which friendship, and loyalty to that friendship, are valued above all non-familial matters. While it is true that many foreign residents complain about finding Russians hard to know, it is also true that once you are considered an insider you are treated with a degree of respect and loyalty that is exceptionally rare and deeply touching.
My other most prominent memory of a Russian was of Natasha Mali, the woman who looked after me when my mother was working. Natasha has, to this day, led an extremely difficult existence in an unfortunately typically Russian way. She dealt with the struggle of single motherhood and a son who recently died of a heroine overdose, an affliction all too common among the youth in Russia. Yet all these tribulations did not cause any bitterness or anger in Natasha, whose care I remain extremely grateful for.
Gleb was not an anomaly, and neither was Natasha, and my time in Russia is colored with many memories of a similar ilk. I am deeply envious of all those in my year who are preparing for a twelve month stint on their year abroad. On top of these personal experiences with Russia’s people are a host of happy childhood recollections of the country itself: its sparse physical beauty and dramatic natural landscape. It is clear that Russia is struggling with enormous social problems as well as a crisis of national identity, lost since the fall of the USSR. I am in no way defending the charges of homophobia, racism and brutality frequently leveled against Russia and some of its people.
I do, however, wish to urge readers to not have their views on Russia polarized, as it is still a country which, in my opinion, has a great deal to offer the world given the opportunity.
By Jack Beeston