25 октября 1999
A.Alexander, сайт museumoflondon.org.uk, 1999
Seva Novgorodsev: An Interview
Перевод -- здесь.
Seva Novgorodsev was born in Leningrad in Russia in 1940. A jazz musician and DJ, he left the Soviet Union in 1975 and lived in Rome before coming to London in 1977. He works as a presenter for the BBC World Service.
Seva Novgorodsev was interviewed by Adriana Alexander in 1999.Photograph by Torla Evans
My name is Seva, S-E-V-A Novgorodsev, like town of Novgorod plus S-E-V at the end. I was born on 9th of July 1940 in Leningrad. My father by then was managing the Baltic Fleet, he was the Vice Chairman of the Baltic Fleet Company. His wife died one year previously and he had a son of - about '33 - about 7 by then. And so my mum remembers that he was courting her very dynamically. So within 3 months she was swept off her feet. And looking at his photograph I understand why. He belonged to that generation of Russians, he was Jewish, who had all the energy in the world. That was the time when the twentieth century was built I think, and he was extremely dynamic, extremely sort of virile and energetic person.
Now he comes from Kronstadt and the story of that family is interesting because in 1895 there was this Jewish family of Levinsteins who lived in Libava, which is now Lijepaja in Latvia, and I plan to go there one day. And in 1895 the family split, one branch went to America some went to Cincinnati and we lost all connections with them, but the other bit went to Kronstadt which is a small fortress, military fortress, just outside St Petersburg. It is essentially a naval base and you can see the town from there - the reason my grandfather went there because there was this Tsarist edict or bylaw whereby the Jews could not live in the capital proper. We have one relative who had 3 Iron Crosses for bravery and there was a special dispensation for him to live in Leningrad. Now funnily enough, a student of university and registered prostitutes were allowed to live in Leningrad, so many young Jewish girls were officially registered as prostitutes to be able to stay in town. Anyway, enough of that.
So he settled down in Kronstadt and opened a tailoring business, he was a tailor, but by the time my father was born he was part of a big naval academy and he was making all the uniforms and equipping the officers with all the paraphernalia that they had. So it was a sort of thriving business of about 12 or 15 people working, so the family was pretty prosperous. My father told me that in Kronstadt the main street was divided: one side was known as the velvet side and the other one was known as the calico side. Now calico side could be used by say ordinary sailors and cooks and cleaners, but the other side, the posh side, could not. And the family lived on the good side.
So my dad was okay, I mean I've seen his photograph in local gymnasium uniform, which is the highest kind of school, with silver buttons and beautifully tailored overcoat. And he said that their curriculum was absolutely identical for everybody but when they had religious lessons, religious education, he and other Jewish boys were taken to a separate classroom and the Rabbi was leading them. So I think it was pretty democratic at the time. However, he didn't want to become a tailor, he desperately wanted to be a sailor and a seaman so he can run away from home at the age of 14 and went to wash dishes and be a cook or whatever on a tug boat and he went on from there.
Another very interesting story about him, there was, after the Revolution in 1921 there was an uprising in Kronstadt which in Russian history is a pretty momentous event, whereby the revolutionary sailors rose against the Bolsheviks. This uprising was crushed with upmost severity and my father was involved in it by default, because he was a young sailor, part of the garrison. And his life and his family's life was spared because for some reason my grandfather was imprisoned by the mutineers for that week and so when the Bolsheviks came and he was released it was assumed that, you know, they were on the Bolshevik side. And from there on my father became a sailor and then a navigator and in the early '30s he was one of the youngest captains on the Baltic Fleet and then he became a manager of the whole Baltic Fleet. And then you know, he met my mum and I was born.
And then the war started. And so pretty soon the Germans were around Leningrad and it was besieged and as we know it lasted for over three hundred days and people were dying and whatnot. So everybody and everything that could be evacuated was evacuated and my mother and my father were split because dad stayed for the front and he was sort of managing some auxiliary kind of work, you know, managing supplies for the front and using all sorts of ship movement. So he was part of the headquarters. And my poor mother picked me up and we just went somewhere, or wherever we were sent, and we ended up in Siberia. There's this God forsaken place called Korgan and if you go any further inside there's this Korgan area, I think it's largely steppes, you know very cold in winter very hot in summer. And that particular collective farm was producing grain, it was just a grain, huge you know, like sort of Texas of Siberia. And of course my mum didn't have any agricultural skills, she was a young sort of town girl and there wasn't any work for her, and God knows how we survived.
Anyway my earliest memory when we came back finally to Leningrad and the family was reunited, is actually June 1945, it is my first visual memory, I don't remember anything before that. We're standing on the Nevsky Prospect, by that famous foodshop, and the troops are coming back from the front. It is absolutely, you know, the situation was not pompous but absolutely the other way, what I mean is there was no fanfare, no red flags, no victorious speeches. The whole thing happened in total silence. The troops were just in huge columns going down the middle of the street and there was no music, no cheering, no flowers, nothing. And what was amazing what impressed me most was that the troops were the colour of dust, everything was faded sort of greenish grey and the faces, those faces you can never forget, they were faces full of power and pride and extreme sort of tiredness. Most men wore moustaches and they were baked by the sun and frozen through their bones. Anyway this is something that you can never forget and that was the taste of what the War must have been like for these people, for those who survived the War. Because you know Russians got the rough end of the War, because of the number of them who died and they were treated appallingly by their own commanders, because Stalin's philosophy was not to spare people.
So then in 1947 I went to school. I began reading very early in life, probably three and a half, four years I was reading, so by the age of seven I was an experienced reader with three years behind me.
However, in 1949 in Russia there was a kind of semi-official anti-Semitic campaign, under the guise of I think they were called 'Anti-Cosmopolitanism'. It was Anti-Cosmopolitanism Campaign, everything was a euphemism under Stalin, and so my father was an obvious target, being a Jew. And the opportunity for the authorities to persecute him arose when there was a disaster.
One of the ships, he was managing like maybe two hundred ships, you know, thousands of people, it was a huge organisation, the whole Baltic Fleet. And on one of the ships the second mate, the second navigator, they were still using the magnetic compasses then and magnetic compass has what is known as a deviation because the magnetic field is changing, so you have to calculate, and he added this deviation with the wrong prefix, plus instead of minus or so. So the actual course on the map was altered by this amount and he was thinking he was going that way but he was going veering a little bit off the course. So they ended up on rocks and the ship ran aground and then there was a storm and the ship was banged violently against those rocks, they had to save the cargo and people, and my father was in charge of the saving of the operation. Unfortunately, one woman was washed overboard and some of the cargo perished because there were pelts or furs or something like that.
Anyway the justice was pretty harsh in those times, the captain got a firing squad, second navigator who made a mistake got fifteen years and my father was accused as well but he defended himself, he didn't have a lawyer. And it was proven beyond any doubt during that procedure that he did everything humanly possible and didn't make any mistakes. But the mistake he made during that court proceeding is when the poor captain was sentenced to a firing squad, my dad who knew him for many years gave him his last embrace publicly and they never forgave him that. So in the end he was chucked out of the Party, dismissed from work, ended with a complete nervous breakdown in hospital for a month.
And then friends in the industry organised for him to be transferred to Estonia and he began his career all over again as a simple clerk in an Estonian shipping agency. And this is what I remember vividly, after arriving in Estonia in 1949, in summer on one of those American Douglas Planes, you know with the two propellers, and lived in a tiny flat, and my sister was born, on the 1st of May 1949 and when she was born Mum fell and we moved, and poverty, what he was getting was a pittance. And so we lived in this tiny one-roomed flat for I don't know how many years. But then he got promoted and he ended his career being Fleet Manager again, so he kind of repeated his career twice, only in Estonia.
So I lived in Estonia until 1957 when I finished my school. And I was dreaming about going back to Leningrad because although Estonia was very 'Russified', it was part of the Soviet Union, still there were areas where Russians couldn't get in. There was a national culture, there was a national theatre there and intelligentsia they were all Estonians, because the kind of Russians who lived in Estonia then were mainly sort of workers. Small clerical staff, fisherman, that kind of proletariat type, and they were pushed to the outskirts to new building made of concrete. But the older part of town was still inhabited by Estonians and they kind of ruled the day. So it gave me my first taste of emigration, although I lived in the same country technically, looking back at it you realise that it was an emigration experience. So there was, you know, we were taught Estonian at school and I could sort of speak it a little bit. So then as soon as I got out of school I immediately went back to Leningrad.
By then I was a child actor and I had some prizes on a national sort of level, so they all thought I should go to acting school and the best ones were in Moscow. The way that entry exams are organised, acting schools test their students before the actual, you know, curriculum exams. So I went to Moscow and did one school and then the other. I remember that the chances were very slim, they were taking seventeen students that year and there were five thousand applicants. And many applicants came from the republic under the auspices of very powerful people, so it was, you know, just no go from the start. But when I was rejected I was still very, very distraught because that was my sole aim for the last sort of four or five years.
So when I came back home my father said 'well it didn't work out your way', you know, 'you might as well follow in my steps'. And so in three weeks I passed the entry exams to the Marine Academy, which is sort of higher Marine kind of school for Merchant Fleet, where I spent the next five and a half years, that was in Leningrad. So I was put into uniform and the first thing was pretty degrading because you know, you come from a reasonable school - I couldn't swear until I was sixteen or seventeen you know, I used to blush, couldn't do it, and I'm now in the midst of these rough and tough people who used to swear. So my family was pretty strict and I was well brought up, I didn't even swear at that age, I find myself in the middle of 120 crowd of rough sailors who swear like troopers and drink and smoke.
The first thing they do to you, they did to me anyway, they cut your hair off completely, they give you some awful sort of cotton clothes and we were sent to dig potatoes. Which was the custom in Russia in those days, that all students, especially all new students had to do their bit for agriculture. We were put on a ship and in 1967 it was interesting to see that this ship still had two wheels on the sides just like a Mississippi passenger liner of a hundred years before that. And we sailed across Ladoga and Onezhskoye Lakes, sort of towards north-east into the depths of Leningrad area. There was a small nation of Finnish tribe of gypsy lived there.
Now the village had eleven houses, eleven households, no electricity. The local farmer didn't have any chimney so they were doing still sort of 16th, 17th century stuff, whereby you burn your wood, made your stones hot but the smoke comes out of the door. So if you want to get in you have to crawl on the floor where the smoke hasn't reached yet because it tends to stay higher. And they were blacks almost, because there were no chimneys so everything was covered in soot inside. It was an eye opener for me you know, after forty years of Soviet Regime to find a village with no electricity like that. The ploughing equipment was on a par with a sauna, because it was a horse and a wooden crook and he would just open up a barrow of potatoes and we had to go behind him and just fill the sacks and you know put the stuff. Obviously we were not used to agricultural work, our backs were breaking, our hands were chipped and I remember my skin was cracked and you could see flesh through it you know, we were raw and bleeding. And I used to, on top of the things, I tore my towel into two parts and made two straw cushions which I used to tie to my knees. At least in that way I could sustain work for those eight hours. It was pretty much labour camp stuff. There was no accommodation for us in the village so I slept next to a cow who used to make passionate noises all night, and there were some insects crawling over me you know, the whole thing.
And the education proper began and it was difficult because I was not used to discipline. After the first year we were sent to do the sailing on proper old sailing ships, had to climb the masts and do all the tricks, all the tricks that, you know, a sailor is supposed to do.
And then after the second year I realised I wouldn't last long in that school and I had to do something if I wanted to survive. And there was this brass band and I was kind of leaning towards music. I wanted to play something and there was this brass band who was looking for volunteers so I joined them and took some lessons and played this small sort of tuba thing very soon. The perks of that business were that we lived separately in small quarters in the little, sort of, under the roof there were a couple of rooms and in exchange for our services the school gave us a little leeway. We didn't have to be checked every night at eleven o'clock in the evening, you know, all this role call, which I found pretty humiliating because you stand there for nearly half an hour until they check you. And the discipline was slightly more relaxed but you know we obviously had to rehearse and play and go through the lectures and do all the things that other people did.
And this brass band had a kind of an entertainment side and there was a jazz sort of dance band. And pretty soon my band leader, sending me off for the next sailing practice sort of trip, he gave me a clarinet and said 'you come back you'd better play it boy because you're going to play clarinet next year'. Now the beauty of that brass band was that all the boys who graduated and who were proficient musicians, they were leaving the school so they had to fill the vacancies all the time and this was how I got my clarinet.
I remember that year I was sailing for Archangel, a shipping company, and they didn't have any vacancies for a sailor for about six weeks so I had to be a stoker and I have the dubious distinction of sailing on the very last coal powered steam ship in Russia in 1959. And I can tell you this is pure unadulterated hell, because you go down and there are these furnaces that go 'whoo' they are burning coal violently and then the main stoker where the coal burned actually grabs it and there is a special sort of tool, he breaks it up first and he pulls it straight on the steel floor. And you have a pile probably four or five foot high, maybe a ton or maybe more, absolutely burning bright red coal. My job was to pour water over it, now you couldn't see anything for about five minutes, and the smell and all the sulphuric acid and all that. After it cooled down I was supposed to shift it to the end of the ship and there were special contraptions that would throw it bit by bit overboard. So by the end of the shift, which was four hours, your hands were absolutely, all the sockets on your limbs were pulled and your hand would go to sleep immediately as soon as you bent it at the elbow, so very little chance of playing clarinet.
Anyway I came back and I could play a little and so I became a clarinet player and by default a saxophone player in the jazz band, so they gave me a tenor saxophone. Another interesting thing about this school, I don't know how this saxophone got there but we had in our collection an 1871 French saxophone tenor, I mean you couldn't find an instrument like this for a million pounds nowadays but somehow it ended up being in our collection. It had a slightly shorter horn section - normally on a saxophone the last note is a 'B-flat' but this was just natural 'B' so that bit was missing. Considering that sax was invented by Adolph Sax in 1840, this instrument was just thirty years old from the very beginning of its time and it was fascinating to play it. Anyway, these music pursuits got me involved more and more in music and I ended up playing in a semi-professional band, sort of old town students. And then we were part of some television programme and I met people who later became my colleagues and, you know, brothers-in-arms in our travels across the country.
However, I graduated and I was sent for a military bit because we were all trained as military officers as well and my military speciality was submarine navigator, so I was supposed to go to one of the Arctic Bases and serve as a sort of under-Officer for four months. However, I didn't have the slightest wish to be on a submarine or go to sea or whatever, so we went straight for the local Officer's Club and said that we were jazz musicians and we could help them. And they desperately needed some expertise in arranging and organising things. Because it is a big base, you know we were talking about 15- to 20,000 people or maybe more, so Officer's Club was a pretty important place and the quality of music on weekends or sometimes on Wednesdays was pretty important too.
And because it's one big kind of family, you as an Officer you can move in and out freely. Nobody bothered whether I was part of the submarine or not, somehow they, you know, embraced us, and I was playing the first alto in the band and the friend of mine played bass. And we were writing some stuff for them. And used the Officer's Swimming Pool in the morning which was absolutely empty. So you have minus 25 centigrade outside, Arctic temperature, you're swimming in a reasonably sort of clean and warm swimming pool for half a day with nobody to bother you. And then maybe go to cinema, then have a rehearsal, then play in the evening. There was one snag, we didn't have a bed, none of us, because the way we kind of structured our lives, especially we were not part of any contingent within the troops. We were lost, we deliberately lost ourselves between the cogs, so we were perpetually on the lookout for a bed to sleep. No problem with food because canteen is for everybody, you know, you come for lunch they feed you, if you are an officer that is enough.
And so we had this blissful four months, well I got ill in the end, ended up in hospital and they were treating me for something they couldn't treat so they were giving me huge doses of antibiotics. Now you have to remember that that was happening in the autumn, and from October onwards, end of September, we have no daylight. I remember in November and early December the dawn comes at half an hour before lunch, at lunch it's evening again, so you have a greyish sort of sky in the east for half an hour and that's your daylight. Obviously it's stressful although you don't realise it at the time but the stress of this darkness for four months, looking perpetually, you know, for a place to sleep, and then being fed with these huge doses of antibiotics, something cracked in me and my digestive system has never been the same. Now sort of thirty five years later I'm still suffering. Anyway I got through that and came back and got my diploma.
And was sent to Estonia to work as a Ship's Mate. I began as a fourth officer and then became a third and after the first year, because on a ship you tend to work with no days off so I had about two months or more accumulated over the whole year. There were lovely stories from those days, wonderful. I was actually working for the Estonian Shipping Agency and we were on a line from Riga, Riga to Bremen in Germany, going through Kiel Canal and all that. I was amazed to see how neat nature was in Germany, you know grass cut neatly and mowed and it looked something out of a fairy tale because it was not real. Everything was so small and neat, and we come from these vast spaces of nature which is hostile to you, you know, if you are not careful it will kill you. And everything is, you know, tiny little factories and tiny little pathways and roads, it was an eye opener.
Anyway, in Bremen what does a Russian sailor do when he is off duty? You know you have to do something and we had a little fund provided to us by the government, I think it was 40 or 60p a day per person and then it accumulated and you can buy a ticket to the cinema or something. I was in charge of the money by the way, you know. There were certain mates on board ship who had to be the ship's cashier, so I had to do this, all these financial papers and accounts and how much I give out, and then all the money to do with the shipping agent, he would bring it. So we had a political officer who was a clever chap and he decided rather than to waste little bits of money on everybody he would put it in one pot and buy something that is worthwhile and lasting.
And they would go to the stern of the ship and just take pot shots on rows of matches or fix a potato and shoot at it. Now Russian sea ports are closed affairs, public cannot walk there because it's heavily protected - used to be and probably still is for the fear of people running away and such like. But in Bremen in Germany of course it was open and all Germans would bring their grandchildren to show them different flags of the world and, you know, give them a real lesson in geography. And so there was this old German who came up to our ship and saw us shooting at the target, and he was desperately trying to remember something and then a serene smile appeared on his face and waved his hand and he shouted to us 'I'll shoot you like a dog' in Russian. Which is something he remembered from his guards when he was a Prisoner of War. And it was a funny mixture of his kind of sentimental remembrance of his younger days and the awfulness of the sentence.
Yes I survived one fire, I was on duty when fire happened, because the electricians got these fuses blowing all the time and finally it was getting in the way of drinking. And so they put this huge, what we'd call a bug, you know, a fuse made artificially with a bit of wire that would never wear out. Apparently the electric supplies they were both for lifting cranes which was three hundred and eighty volts and ordinary lighting two hundred and forty, Russian design they were identical, so the ship burned down completely. I remember some member of the crew coming back in the morning, well I don't know where he has been, and finding his cabin not only empty of things that he was bringing back to the family but there was no cabin. There was a black metal box with two rows of bolts hanging from the ceiling, so, you know, that was a moral lesson to him, he should think next time where he spends his night I thought.
Anyway I went to Leningrad to see my musician friends after a year and I spent with them maybe seven or ten days going here and there, playing occasionally, and this chap gets an offer to put together a band to go on the road. We were pretty experienced by then and this music was fairly simple, just, you know, ordinary variety type of style, so we put together the things that we were supposed to play and passed the audition, passed the artistic committee. So they say 'Okay, just go to the Personnel Department, get yourself registered and off you go'. Now I couldn't do that because I was still a navigator working for the Estonian Shipping Company and Russia government gives you or they claim to give you education for free but in exchange by law you are bound to work for them for three years and there is no way you can get out of that. Well I did, it took me eight days and it took a falsified duodenal ulcer and all sorts of things but I was determined because I wanted to be a musician by then.
Anyway, sort of ten days later I was there again at the Personnel Department and here was beginning of my music career. Then after a year because we were known as jazz musicians as up-and-coming, so there was this famous jazz big band who deliberately play in a big dance hall, not perform on a stage and to be relatively free of the repertoire control. So they were playing proper stuff, they were playing sort of Stan Kenton, Count Basie arrangements, and we were invited, the little group of us. And you know I ended up playing in this band, which probably you know the most formative and the best years of my life, because that was kind of serious music you had to practice most of the day.
And I got married. And then about three or four years we went on the road because the band leader had some aspirations for glory or whatever, which in the end was probably a mistake because the travelling and dealing with cultural authorities ground us down bit by bit. And so you do a little compromise here, a little compromise there, and then before you know it the style has gone and you have a different kind of people working for you. But, part of us trying to be entertaining, there was this emerging pop music, there were the first musicians. And the first pop musicians in England were all failed students of jazz. I had several of them, there was one clarinet player who never made it, several who took up a guitar and several of his friends formed a pop band and they became pretty popular in the area. So there was this idea to incorporate them in our show because with a new band it was very exciting, which we did, and I wrote arrangements for them and they left pretty soon because they wanted bigger glory and more money but they spent about a year with us.
And so a year later they found me and suggested that I join them as a bandleader, they said 'we need someone who is experienced in cultural plotting and intrigue'. Because that was the main thing, you know, you can't get past the artistic committee unless you know the ropes - quality of music had nothing to do with it, you know, it was all bound with politics. And they wanted me to take them from the local philharmonic society they were working for in Siberia, where control was lax and things were possible, they had aspirations to go to Moscow. So in the end I managed to take them to Moscow to the Central Concert Organisations of Russia. But we suffered, God we suffered, because we found ourselves in the middle of all the political and cultural struggle all at petty levels.
For instance, our angle on the music was you couldn't just go on stage and play whatever you liked, you had to find a sort of modus vivendi, some sort of way of excusing yourself why you are doing this. And their line was they were playing old folk songs, Russian, very often forgotten or little or not well known in a sort of nice melodic guitar arrangement. And so they kind of reinvented Russian folk, which one would have thought should have been grabbed by both hands by the cultural authorities, but because the folk singers of the old school were very jealous they started putting hurdles in our way. And as a bandleader I had to kind of fight through all this. So we ended up playing eleven artistic committees, one every about three to four weeks, being smashed into smithereens every time and consequently couldn't work.
And if you don't work you don't get paid because performers in Russia are paid by the show, by the performance. And we were practically starving for eight months living in a luxurious hotel because by a quirk of the Russian system hotel is paid for by the agency, they can do that but they can't give you any money because you haven't earned any, so there was nothing to eat. So we were living in the hotel, which was probably the most prestigious hotel in the land with beautiful views of the Moskva River, and walking all these carpeted corridors and passing all these beautiful buffets with foreigners eating the most exotic things and being hungry as wolves you know. A friend of mine, the trombone player, survived on just a little bread roll a day and a packet of dry soup that was simply awful.
Anyway we got through that but the concert agency realised that we would just die of starvation, so they organised a semi-official kind of tour for us somewhere in Stavropol. Actually Gorbachev was then the First Secretary there when we arrived and the local philharmonia organised a tour of the sort of smaller places, although we played Stavropol itself a couple of times. And this is how it went. And then we became pretty sort of well known if not famous, playing stadiums and all sorts of things, but you could never be safe.
The further east you go the more backwards the local authorities were and they still saw this kind of music as the utmost stress to their control and power. And ultimately my bandleader's career ended on the Sakhalin Islands. Although they are just ninety miles from Japan, all the civilised ideas and tolerance and Western values seem to have to travel across Siberia before they reach that part of Russia. So they were simply livid seeing what we do on stage, especially they hated the fact that we had a foreign PA system. Well there weren't any Russian PA systems at the time you could work on so we had to do a black market deal with some Yugoslavs in Moscow and, you know, spend ten thousand roubles of our own money to get something to get a decent sound on sound. Obviously it bore some labels, I remember it was Italian sync called Montarbo or something.
The local scribes, the local hacks wrote that you know 'these people insult the essence of Russian music, performing on the Montarbo rubbish'. And next day having read the newspaper we sat down and wrote them a letter that every day thousands of piano players insult the memory of Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninov, Rubenstein and such like performing them on Blutner, Beckstein and Somme pianos. However they didn't find it funny and sent a letter to Moscow Ministry of Culture and you know how it goes, it's a vertical kind of hierarchy, if the Ministry says that you should do something, Concert Agency better listen to them. So I was summoned to the Head of my Department, he said 'look I have nothing against you and I'll tell you more. Please don't leave the band because we need you there, but we have to do something, we have to show that we have reacted, so you are no longer a bandleader'.
So I worked another year and then I got sort of slightly spiritual, I was reading a yogic book and fasting was popular among the musicians as a curative thing, kind of for all kinds of diseases. And I did fasting for three days, then for a week and then for twenty one days. Now on the sixteenth day one's flesh was fairly mortified, I had a spiritual experience, you know you're half dead so your flesh is no longer there to hold the spirit and you kind of fly free of it. And I saw myself. I asked myself, you know, 'what am I doing? Entertaining people, you know, playing silly songs' and so I just left the whole thing there and then and went home.
And I'd earned enough money to just stay at home for about the next five or six months, just playing a little, thinking and, but because I'd travelled so much and my personal life was in absolute disarray. We were divorced with my wife and then because there were strong ties between us and we had child then we remarried again, or I wanted to remarry, then there was nowhere to live but in the same flat. She lived in one room, I lived in another, trying to gain her favours again. And she wanted to emigrate now. She is a Tartar, Russian Muslim girl and she had some problems with the local KGB Officer. She worked for the Aeroflot in the ticket office and she dealt with foreigners, she spoke French. And the local KGB Resident Officer who is there to look after them didn't like the fact that she was looking elegant and probably fraternising with the foreigners, saying he wanted to get rid of her just to be on the safe side. So he organised an absolutely ghastly thing, a new book of tickets was stolen from her desk and they were trying to start criminal procedures for negligence and all sorts of things and she took it very, very badly. Because in the end this officer said 'look, I can forget this if you just leave, just write a piece of paper, write an application and leave', so she did. And after that she decided that we shouldn't stay in the country.
Now I had been abroad by then, I had been aboard a ship and I knew that immigration was not the answer to any problems. Because after all I used to tell them 'you are going to be the same Russian speaking people in a foreign speaking land, you are never going to be on a par with the local population, you are going to be second grade for as long as you live with your funny accents and your manners and being totally different'. But they wouldn't listen to me and they were sort of grinding me down bit by bit and after six months I surrendered.
And so we left in November '75. It was technically possible because I have this Jewish half in my matriculation papers and technically we were able to apply through certain channels and the Israelis sent us an invitation. And so we left in November '75, went to Austria, were interviewed by the Jewish Agency who didn't recognise me as a Jew because my mum was Russian and with my wife being Muslim Tartar and son being half Tartar, you know, we were hardly the best people for Israel. And so we were refused. We said 'no, won't go' and they pushed us hard for about an hour but in the end they relented, say 'okay well'.
There was another agency for mixed couples or for non-Jewish couples, it was called the International Rescue Committee and it was based in Rome, so we were sent to Rome and our papers were sent there. They would give us a little dole money, we would find a place to live and rent it and our papers were processed in the ordinary kind of, you know, just ordinary way. So they take down your professional qualifications, you know, what you can do. And I thought at the time that a saxophonist is a non-starter, you know, wherever you go. So I quoted my Marine diplomas and things and yes, I might have ended up being a tugboat probably skipper somewhere on the Hudson River by now, but luckily it didn't happen.
Now Italy, it was expensive to live in Rome so Russians tended to congregate on the sea coast. There was a town of Lido d'Ostia, which obviously had all the flats in the world standing empty during the winter periods, which is sort of from October onwards, and we arrived in December so it was a natural choice. And because we were long-term tenants these cheap prices tend to spread all across the year and there were probably about five or six thousand Russians there at the time. There was a little community, they congregated around the Post Office. They all had nothing to do so they were having a lovely time, although very little money and doing all sorts of things, you know, people were fixing cars for each other and whoever could do whatever were doing this.
Besides we all brought with us the legacy of our lifetime you know, whatever we have saved. Money couldn't be taken out of the country, just ninety dollars per person, but objects according to the list given by the Customs Office, you could take certain amounts of cameras and you know bed linen and whatnot. So no matter how you lived you ended up with all these suitcases of stuff which you brought especially just to take it out, and you don't need all these sheets and three cameras and, you know, whatever you brought with you, so you tend to go and sell it on the market.
Now the market was called Americana, it's no longer there, it used to be in Porta Popese Street in Rome. It was a sort of bombed down part of Rome and nothing was built there yet at that time. And there was a slum area which was transformed into a, just an ordinary sort of Portobello type, Portobello Market type, you know, all sorts of things were sold there and there was a Russian Section where you could buy. And Italians tended to like it because pension owners could buy good quality sheets for cheap and camera shop owners could buy new Russian cameras for next to nothing. The trade was brisk and we would start at four in the morning, arrive while it was still dark, bonfires burning you know. And in this dilapidated shack there was this tiny little Neapolitan prostitute who was old by then, with the most powerful voice you could ever hear, and she would rent the food boxes for us, a pound a piece for a day, so you had something to put your stuff on. She was making decent money I would say.
And that's how we'd spend our day every Sunday. Obviously we were not used to trade and it was pretty degrading, I mean we felt degraded anyway. So by 10.30 when the bars were open the three of us - me, the musician and navigator; the dentist next to me; and there was some sort of designer, technical designer - so we used to get sloshed on a bottle of vodka and spend the rest of the day being quite merry and irresponsible. But it gave me my first taste of trade, you're never out of pocket, something is always sold, there is always a tenner in your pocket, you know, there is a little money always to be made.
And I bought my first car, which was Volkswagen Beetle with Dutch numberplates, you know, sold by one of those travelling students. And I was quite blissfully happy because if you have a little stash you could go in the evening. And my family wasn't interested in that, my wife spoke French and my son was small, so I used to drive to Rome along this beautiful highway going from the sea through the pine forests to Rome, at night, you know the stars are shining. There was a small film theatre called Pasquina in the old Trastevere part of town which was showing old English and American films, and it was something I desperately wanted to see because that was a gap in my kind of cultural background. The fact that they were old didn't matter because they were all new to me. So the entrance tickets were about million lira, which is about a dollar, and it was shown always in parts because there was one projection, so they had to change it over. Wonderful, wonderful period, beautiful town and most romantic memories that I've got. I went there back about ten years ago and Rome wasn't the same, it wasn't as clean, it wasn't as fine as in '76.
And then strange things started to happen. Suddenly a gentleman turned up at our doorstep who recognised my wife, now they used to be in Leningrad in the same university together, and then he saw me and sort of screamed out 'what are you doing here?'. He was one of our jazz fans who knew me very, very well because he used to watch me on stage, who by then was working for the BBC World Service. And he came to Rome to meet his mother who was on her way from Russia to America, going to his older brother. So he instigated the whole process and he organised the entrance exams for me, but, because I was by then a certified translator interpreter, because I worked for Interace for a while and I also got the four year degree course from some, multiple courses or whatever. Anyway so I qualified, just scraped through this entry exam and I had an interview and then they checked my papers and in the end the work contract arrived.
But the problem was I couldn't cross the border, I couldn't leave Italy and go to England because we were refugees with no papers at all, and we left Russia with just the exit visa. So the Italians were supposed to issue a travel passport for me - you go to the Police Headquarters in Rome, they fill in your form. And the clerk who was filling the form was asking me questions, you know, 'your address?'. And then we lived in a street called Umberto Cogne, which I think is one of the Italian admirals who is well known in Italy but virtually unknown everywhere else. And Umberto Cogne Street is everywhere, I mean in every little town there is an Umberto Cogne. So my number was 21. So he says 'what's your address?', I said 'ventuno Umberto Cogne' he said 'ooh, I also live in 21 Umberto Cogne, obviously in a different town' and then he was asking about the family. Now my son, a Tartar, had a Tartar name of Renat, and he said 'I'm Renato as well', and this is how he remembered me. But on the next week when you come to see if there's been any progress you obviously, on rotation principle, get to see another clerk and there's nothing in the system so he says 'come next week'. So you come next week, nothing again, and those weeks were dragging on and on and on and nothing was happening.
So finally during one of those four hour sitting in a queue periods I met up with the chap who was sitting next to me, and he looked over my shoulder and I was as usual reading something in English, so we started speaking and he was an American sort of religious person, you know, some sort of priest, working with the Vatican and doing some sort of film distribution. And he said 'we have, I have in my collection four science films', you know science pop films, 'but which are not kind of leaning towards the sciences but towards religion, we just show how complex nature is and it could never have happened without a design', and he said 'the strangest thing, they're dubbed in Russian, So do you fancy showing them to your lot?', he said 'we just organise, I'll hire a space' and that's what we've done. The first night we had five people and then it started to grow and then we had a regular audience of as many people as could fit into the room, which was about three hundred and fifty. And he would speak after that and I would translate or interpret, he used to jokingly call me 'his interrupter'.
And we would distribute the Bible, and people liked the handouts because Bible was something that was prohibited in Russia, they would take it whether they read it or not. And obviously to be a better translator I had to read the Bible and then I had to read all this Creationist books that his friends gave me and over a course of several weeks it just grows up on you, grows on you. So, and I could see that I would never leave Italy until I made a certain decision, and there were voices in my head and so I said to this friend of mine as a joke 'I'm ready to accept the Lord, would you please baptise me'. Now he did it in an American sort of proper way, submerging me in a pool of water with a white sort of shirt streaming down to the floor, and it was marvellous. And the church, the Italian church, it was a marble pool with heated up water, and the church was nearly four hundred years old so it was a very, very stylish affair.
Now next week I go to Cristora and for some strange reason I get to the same clerk, there are over a hundred of them, and he looks at me, obviously several months have gone by, he doesn't recognise me. He said again 'oh, no answer, come next week', then he looks at me again, he said 'wait a minute, you're the bloke who lives in ventuno Umberto Cogne and your son is Renato like me?', I said 'yes', 'oh' he said, he went to the lowest drawer in his desk and for some reason my file was there put away. I can't explain why he did that. So he wrote in it ' urgenta' and I was gone within two weeks.
Now the divine intervention in my life could be seen from little signs they were giving to me, and the car that I mentioned was a Dutch license plate, had a Dutch license plate which normally begin with two letters. I didn't know that I was going to be a successful music presenter and virtually create the DJing within the Russian context, but the letters on my license plate were 'DJ'. I didn't know what it meant. And then I came to London, just studying and performing ordinary broadcasting duties, translating and reading on air all sorts of news and dispatches. And a few months later because of my music background they suggested that I should share it with the other presenter, and then he left BBC and I was left with the whole programme so from June '77 I was presenting it.
Now because I was touring Russia for so many years I could visualise the audience, because for twelve years or more I stood in front of them and you knew when the concert wasn't working, whether they couldn't understand the music or it wasn't taking them along or whatever reason. So you develop this sense of, well if you like, a responsibility, because you are performing, you mustn't let people down. So I was trying to be as entertaining as I could from the very beginning and I had to write jokes that were short and funny, so I used to stay 'til 2 or 3 in the morning in the office, testing them on colleagues who did the night shift. And I suppose, I don't know why I drove myself so hard but gradually over the months and the years I developed a style which defined the genre and became very popular.
I arrived in London and obviously there was a problem of, you know, where you live, where you stay, where is your place. For a while we stayed with a sort of British / Polish person who worked for the British Museum and the British Library. And she had a systematic approach, she was about to be married to a gentleman of means and she was looking for a house for herself, and being a librarian she kept meticulous records of what she had seen and what the potential of property, and there were some off-cuts. She found a couple of houses which she thought had a great potential and which were within our price range and she knew that they were in a nice area and the right size for us, so she suggested a couple of properties for us.
And I went to see one, it had a sitting tenant, near Mornington Crescent in Camden, wonderful address. I could use my bicycle, because I refused to take public transport in London, it was so unreliable I was late several times and I was still on my probation period and I decided it was not for me. Bus number 15, just forget it from Kensington, they used to play dominoes on the terminal stations so the buses would either not come at all or come five you know, zoom, zoom, zoom one after another to continue the game. So I was a cyclist very, very early on in London and my principle was within a five mile radius from Bush House and that address suited me very nicely.
Now the house was in a very poor state and with a sitting tenant, no building society would lend me any money. And finally I found a local building society, which consequently had been swallowed by a bigger organisation, who knew the area and who lent me part of the money that was agreed on paper with a proviso that either this, that and the other change, the electric system, renovate the roof, make good the wall that was falling down in the back of the house etc. So with no money left I had to do it all myself and I didn't have any skills for that either. However, I had been working as a sailor on ships so I could use my hands and had a basic idea how things were done. And so I embarked on this renovation programme and for six months I would get up early in the morning, on my cycle, go to the BBC do my eight hour day, on my bike to Camden, chop off plaster or whatever 'til one in the morning, come back home, sleep, and all over again. Six months later when just one floor, the kitchen and the living room were ready, I was covered with some unsightly sort of red sort of pimples all over. It was nervous stress plus over-work plus probably bad diet or whatever, but I did succeed, I did manage to get this house right and we moved in and I was just gaining more and more space in it as the years went by.
Now to earn a little more money I was involved in technical translations. Because being trained as some sort of engineer you have some technical know-how. And technical translations were plentiful at the time because Russians were buying lots of equipment and all the documentation had to come with it. Now the fastest way to do it is to work in a team: you have your typist and you get a dictating machine and you dictate it on tape, give it to your typist, she puts it on paper. Now if anybody tries to do that you immediately realise that a long winded sentence in a foreign language would probably translate backwards in your language and you have to juggle it about in your head. And in the beginning it was absolutely impossible, it's just, you know, your head would just burst before you could construct a sentence because you have to do it like in a virtual memory in computer parlance, because you don't write it down.
But a few months later when I managed to get the technique together it was getting faster, I could just read off the page, reading English, saying Russian into my microphone. My wife was spitting brass tacks at me whenever I was missing a comma or a full stop or my diction wasn't good enough, so under pressure from her I was more and more meticulous in my dictation. And now, more than twenty years later I write all my radio programmes this way, which appears to be ideal for radio work because you begin your script with something and it has a natural rhythm of the spoken word and all these little alliterations and the sequence of sound and everything is just right. And then when you type it off the tape, you do just editing, whatever, you don't like, you just change as you type. So out of need a technique was born, which was nice.
However this family life didn't work, because we were remarried again, and we spent some years apart and she probably had someone in that period and I did and it never quite gelled again. So the family didn't survive and we, and I left my wife in '82 because I met, by then I was working as film consultant doing all sort of things and I met some British actress who I moved in with in June '82.
But this film consultant business, because there were lots of productions done at BBC Television and if it concerned Russian reality they didn't practically knew nothing. They didn't know what uniforms looked like, what they were supposed to say, what the backgrounds should be, how the slogans should be written and myriads and myriads of problems for production teams. So I started helping and my kind of memory, because I've travelled so much and seen so much, tends to retain the, you know, insignificant details, sort of mundane stuff, and it used to prove to be very useful and successful. Then there was this film called 'Englishman Abroad' about Guy Burgess, with Alan Bates, and it got five BAFTA Awards and I was a consultant on it, so the film owed a great deal of its success to a great degree to what we'd put into it. And then the Americans got wind of it and they started approaching me and I began working for large productions here.
So beginning from '84, and as you are consulting and working with a director he suddenly needs something little said or a little appearance, a cameo appearance. So you do that and sometimes I did three or four parts, little parts within a film, and then it led to bigger parts and finally you end up sort of almost starring in a Hollywood. I have a dubious distinction of being shot down by James Bond in 'A View to a Kill', in the opening sequence I'm the helicopter pilot. I'm almost blown as a border guards officer in 'Spies Like Us', John Landis, et cetera, you know, one thing leads to another. So I did a bit of film work '84 to '85, then some television productions later.
Now when I was doing my rock programmes, because the jokes were on the sort of cutting edge and they were not really fitting within the BBC sort of image that they thought they were, some editors didn't like that and we had a bit of a tug of war around 1980. And I was frustrated, so out of frustration I started a record company. I just used to go round the clubs looking for an act to find and finally I found a reggae group from Grenada. Now they didn't know I was a musician to start with so I would produce the first single then started doing their first album. And then I brought my saxophone with me on one rehearsal and obviously, you know, I'd played in Russia and I was good enough for them, they said 'man, you can blow'. So I started playing with them, doing the college circuits and recording with them, so we did an album and a couple of singles, but because I had to promote them and do the sales and everything it was too much for me. I mean commercial, I have no commercial talents, I probably can conduct a meeting or two but looking after books is not my forte, I am not a man of any kind of system, and meticulousness and me you know we just don't go together. I can generate ideas but looking after the shop is not my forte. So we finally called it a day, but I still keep all those records and occasionally produce them to play my interviewees.
What happened then? After I'd left Russia, I communicated with my parents, I used to ring them and write to them. But as soon as I began working for the BBC and especially when my jokes of dubious character started to be on air, there was a concerted campaign in the Russian Press against me because I could tell then that the jokes were working. They were getting nervous - in the Soviet system you have to understand has highly trained psychologists and KGB Officers and Information Officers at their disposal. They could pass any so-called facts that were broadcast in their direction from the West but they couldn't cope with a joke, because a joke goes around all their carefully constructed defence systems. A joke goes straight to a person and he laughs and that's it, because in a joke like in a nutshell you get everything. Like there were food problems, obviously everybody knew about them, but the radio was blasting about the achievements of Soviet agriculture, so I mean it's not my joke it was invented by people and they said 'If you want your fridge to be full of foodstuff just plug into a cable radio system', you know, stuff like that.
But my main concern was that the Soviet media were killing the language. The language became very stale, lifeless, none of our leaders could speak and they invented this kind of what I suppose the nearest you get is a militant Trade Union of Congress speeches, you know, 'at this moment in time comrades', you know, which was satirised in 'I'm Alright Jack' film here in England. But in Russia it was much, much, much worse and so to twist that kind of silly stupefied language and make a joke out of it was fairly easy. Also we had our own demons like we constantly were bombarded with information about agriculture which was so specific nobody could understand it, all this 'yields' and, you know, all this kind of 'crop rotations' and whatnot. And also heavy metal production stuff was bombarded at us, which I used in Heavy Metal music, I kind of created a language built up of their converters and stainless steel kind of additives and all this kind of stuff that I cannot translate into English because it's a specific technical language that exists within the realm of Russian and which is incredibly funny if taken out of context. So people were splitting their sides open.
But the campaign against me in the newspapers meant that my parents were around some sort of attention. And obviously I couldn't go there for many years and it was thirteen years before I could see my mother again from the moment I left until the moment when she could travel and arrive there. I couldn't go there until 1990, which was, you know, fifteen years. By then I had a fan club and they came to meet me and they stopped the airport working and all of that. But yes, my first years in Britain were total isolation and you could just guess what was happening and the occasional conversation with someone who has been there, or sometimes you would call your parents knowing full well it's being monitored. And they used to write letters to me and I used to write to them, but you have to be careful of what you write et cetera et cetera. So you lived with an idea that probably, that you probably will never see your parents again, but it turned out quite differently.
I felt comfortable in England from the very beginning because it was my kind of theoretical motherland in a way. Because of appalling situation with the Russians, for the last seven years while I was in Russia I couldn't read anything written in Russian, unless you read Dostoyevsky or Chekhov, but they, you know, used to write a hundred years prior to you so the language is different then and the relevance of what they write about is not quite today. So my only escape was to read English paperback books, which would fit in a, so I lived in this virtual English language environment which I created for myself. So when I arrived in this country, obviously I always say to people who think they're fluent in English 'if you're fluent in English and Russian this is the very starting point at which you arrive', because you know the English they're obsessed with regional accents, they want to try and figure it out where you come from et cetera et cetera.
And living in England your English is never good enough, no matter who you are, so I realised that very quickly. But the stroke of luck for me was I wasn't working for Barclays Bank or something like that, I was working for the World Service and rather than being a second rate Englishman I became a first rate Russian, because here the quality of your Russian was something that you were employed for. And we have some English staff as well who spoke fluent Russian and were broadcasting as well, but obviously as months and years went by they could compete and they went and made their careers, while we stayed on the purely sort of vernacular level, being what we are. I was never uncomfortable here because people are nice and you know they obviously see who you are but they accept you as you are.
The sitting tenant in my first property, funnily enough, was a member of trade union and activist and a communist. So it was like, you know, from frying pan to fire.
Anyway he was paying a pound a week which I thought was unreasonable so I had to study the by-laws and I found the loophole and I invited the Fair Rent Officer so I managed to create at least some sort of parity. In the end, you know, he was paying something more than he used to for many, many years, which gave me a purely sort of moral sense of moral victory, because he was riding on my back as far as I was concerned, he was using almost half the house for one hundredth of what I would have had to pay to the mortgage company. In the end he made an invaluable contribution to family finances, because when he died the house, which was freehold, became our full property and that was a boom period in properties. We bought it for I think £14,000, well presumably I worked on it for the next six or seven years and we spent a lot of money, but we sold it for £122,000, so there was a bit of a difference. So [person name] was present in that chunk of money that we suddenly got out of sale.
There is always a problem for Russian emigre to find friends and to, you know, find people who you talk to. Now in Russia I had problems of finding friends because my criteria was: he must have some sort of higher education, be interested in Western culture, be a decent person, not be connected with the KGB, you know, and when you list all these things there aren't that many people. I mean probably there are but how do you find them? Now the first day I entered the BBC Meeting Room, there they are, all have higher education, they all speak English, they definitely are not connected with the KGB, interested in Western culture, so the BBC Personnel have sort of seized them for me. And you could become a friend with virtually anybody and all of them became my friends to various degrees. So that was wonderful, coming to work and not feeling a foreigner but rather feeling a first rate vernacular speaker.
So on the periphery, whatever I had to do to communicate with the English side of life wasn't to me intimidating or frightening at all, especially if you remember that I grew up in Estonia and the idea of a parallel culture where you're not welcomed is with you all the time. Obviously if I was just a Russian speaker coming from a purely Russian town where everything was part of me and I was part of everything and you get into a strange environment, you could die of stress you know. There are so many things to learn, there are so many things to get used to and in the end you probably never do. You see these old Polish immigrants from the World War Two period, they are unmistakably still Poles and they speak and they behave and they eat and they live and everything like Poles.
I made a concerted effort when I was a jazz musician to become a western person because I was playing western music, I was interested in that, I was reading this and I was trying to live that kind of life. And obviously you never become an Englishman but I was sort of, you know, relationships between people. It is no longer some abstract idea that some committee decides that you should go and do this and that. And I deal with these people because they are my publishers, former fan club you know, they are my publishers, they're reasonably successful, they survive on what they earn. And the country obviously is in disarray, the old system collapsed, the new one hasn't emerged yet. All these colossi of industry which used to employ thirty or fifty thousand people no longer working like huge slave dragons lying on their side with a little smoke coming out of the severed head.
And it'll take a long while before the new economy will just grow like blades of grass from these chunks of dead concrete, but it'll be new grass and new nature will emerge eventually. But the experiment that's happened in Russia is a tragic thing for the country and God know how many years it will need until it's all healed and mended and forgotten. But Russians are dynamic people, fairly talented, reasonably well educated, full of energy and initiative, they will think of something. All the recent troubles that have happened to the country is through deeply entrenched corrupt practices that exist around the government and all the subsequent levels of managemmanagement of the country. I don't know what's going to happen, maybe because there's no economy, there's no revenue to talk about, the central political leverage or power will dwindle and we will see in the many centres of self-rule emerging. And I don't exclude the possibility of the country being split into parts in one way or another and that will be a price to pay for breaking the moral laws that every government should adhere to if they have God in their head.
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