‘I’m not a writer; I’m a dog. What’s it like being a writer? You got fleas?’
By Gabriel Gbadamosi
I was heading back on the train to Moscow from Domodedovo airport – they weren’t going to let me on the plane, but they gave me a free pass back into the city.
And I was still spinning the conversation with the check-in manager in my head. ‘You can’t fly today. Come back tomorrow.’
‘But I only have 200 roubles. What can I do until tomorrow with 200 roubles? What’s that? Two cups of coffee?’
She leaned over the desk to give me a rational, objective analysis of my situation as she saw it. ‘Where is your ticket? Do I have your ticket?’
>>> OK, stop. No clichés about being bolshy. The lady in the sky-blue uniform decides whether you get to go home today, or you get stranded in Russia with nowhere to go and no money to get there. I shouldn’t have said it… <<<
‘No, you don’t have my ticket. But you have my money and I want to go home.’
After she’d washed her hands of me, after the flight had gone and I was left in a queue of one at the desk, I wondered… how had I got Russia so wrong? Insisting on the rights of capital in a post-Soviet free-for-all?
Right up to the last minute, I couldn’t believe they weren’t going to let me on that plane. Where was I going to stay the night, or find 50 US dollars to pay a fine for losing my ticket?
‘I’m not a businessman, I’m a writer. What do you want me to do? Where am I going to find any money?’
One of the more soulfully compassionate of the check-in staff took pity on my 200 roubles and got me a complimentary ticket back to find my fortune in the great, bustling metropolis of the former Soviet Union.
Which was how I came to be standing all those years ago in Paveletskaya train station in Moscow with my bags, in the middle of the morning rush hour, the world spinning around me, staring at a stray dog stretched out on the busy concourse with one sleepy eye trained just on me. I imagined it was looking at me because I was looking at it. I wanted to ask, ‘So, what’s it like in Moscow when you’re on your own?’
‘Me, I… don’t know, I’m not a writer; I’m a dog. What’s it like being a writer? You got fleas?’
‘No, but I got cockroaches in the room I was staying. You know it? Hotel Minsk, the crumbling soviet block on Tverskaya – Gorky Street. They’re going to pull it down, so they don’t clean it. There’s hair on the carpets with the dandruff still in it. At least it was central; people said it wouldn’t be safe if I was further out in Moscow, because I’m black… these things are fate; it might not happen… I should always carry my passport and ticket with me, just in case. I’m here today, gone tomorrow.’
The dog wasn’t listening. Or didn’t want to. It let its head sink onto the floor.
I looked up at the clock on the concourse. What was I going to do to make it go fast forward?
What’s a dog with fleas do to stop cockroaches crawling over its face?
‘But they let you sleep here,’ I asked, ‘in the station?’
‘It’s… uh… the new policy,’ the dog said, looking a bit shifty. ‘They catch you, but they just give you the… operation. And let you go. They don’t bother you; you don’t bother them. Live and let live. We’re free now in Russia. It’s a kind of… wild freedom.’
The dog looked up over a hunched shoulder. To check the time? Maybe turn the clock back? But it was looking at me again.
‘What brings you to Moscow, anyway?’
‘Oh, I’m here for a writers’ meeting – the Lubimovka Playwrights’ Festival, writers from all over Russia – it’s been on television. You’ve seen it?’
‘No, I don’t do television.’
So I described, to a dog that occasionally yawned and scratched its ear and kicked up to lick its operation behind, how I came as a foreign writer to see my play translated into Russian and read by actors for a gathering of theatre bosses, critics and playwrights drawn from much of the former Soviet Union – from the Urals to Georgia and the Ukraine.
‘And do you know, the interesting thing,’ I said, ‘was that even though I don’t know Russian, I could understand everything they were saying. Line for line, I knew exactly where they were in the play and who was speaking and what was going on. It’s really something hearing your own play speak to you in Russian!’
‘Uh, yuh… Any money in it? They feed you?’
‘No, it’s an honour. They listened.’
The dog didn’t look convinced.
‘The writers explained it to me. They don’t pay you in Russia. If they put your play on, they don’t tell you. You have to find out yourself, then turn up and drink vodka until they decide to like you and maybe give you something to eat.’
The dog swallowed. ‘Hungry, huh?’
‘Well, no – yes. I don’t think they understood the play. They said it was bright, hot and foreign, nothing to do with us. Because it was set in Africa – I don’t think they got that it was a version of Animal Farm, George Orwell’s satire on Stalinist Russia.’
The dog looked bored. Perhaps it was too much information. I thought I’d better switch and ask a question.
‘What’s your name, by the way?’
It flopped an ear over an eye, suddenly wary, and thought for a moment.
‘Boris,’ it said. ‘You’re a playwright? Dramaturg? Where from?’
‘Ah… provincial. Never heard of it.’
‘But the provinces,’ I assured him, ‘the provinces are the powerhouses of contemporary Russian theatre writing. In the past, even Chekhov, especially Chekhov, saw himself as a provincial writer and refused to live in Moscow. And today, where are the centres of playwriting energy in the country?’
‘En-er-er-gy?’ I could have sworn the growl was almost a chuckle under that raised eyebrow and drooping chin as Boris shifted again onto the floor.
‘Yes,’ I said, ‘it’s not just the wolves and bears of St. Petersburg and Moscow who write plays. From Ekaterinburg in the Urals, there’s a group of writers, schooled by Nicolai Kolyada, who come from small towns 11 hours away from anywhere. Kolyada has taught them to write locally, out of their own experience and feelings. Vassily Sigarev was one of his pupils – and Vassily’s plays, Black Milk, Plasticine, Ladybird – all set in the Urals and all about post-industrial decay – are performed all over the world…
‘Or go to the Volga region – the new town of Toggliatti which grew up around the Fiat car plant and was named after the leader of the Italian communists. You can find radical young writers who challenge each other to be more extreme and really experiment with what theatre can do, like Yury Klavdiev or the Durnenkov brothers…
‘It’s an explosion of energy. The provinces, that’s where you can find people writing about life in Russia today!’
‘Me,’ said Boris, getting up onto his feet and shaking himself awake, ‘I would just like to ask, how do they eat? Where do I get a drink? I’m sure the critics tore into you for not explaining how you live. It’s good to be practical and try to keep hold of your soul. Anyway, directors don’t like writers in their theatres; they prefer the classics. Why can’t they be dead? Who wants to pay them?’
It was time to walk. So that’s how we spent the remainder of my time in Russia – man and dog, walking the streets, begging outside the old Soviet Ministry of Culture building where the Lubimovka Festival was still going on and maybe someone would speak to me – arguing about who gets to eat and have somewhere to sleep until it was time to leave again for the airport with my 200 roubles.
‘And do you know why everybody writes about their personal pain and suffering in Russia?’ said Boris, scratching again. ‘Because once they start, they can’t stop. Really, it can go on forever.’