Memories of Post-Communist Russia

By Paul Watson


      In 1992 I went to work in Vologda, 300 miles north of Moscow, on an EU project to help the Russians convert from their old, communist-style, command economy to a western-style market economy. Our project team members were mostly Irishmen, with a sprinkling of us Brits thrown in.

      One evening we were in a local restaurant with our young, attractive, female Russian interpreter. After a while a Russian man came over to our table and whispered in her ear but she brushed him away. Nevertheless, he came back again and pestered her until she finally agreed to step outside with him. She came back after a few minutes and we all looked at her expectantly as she sat down again.

      She said, ‘He showed me his ID and said, “Comrade, I am KGB and you shouldn’t be with these foreigners.”’  

      ‘What did you do?’ we asked.

      ‘I showed him my ID and said, “Comrade, I am KGB and it is my job to be with these foreigners.”’

      Later, quite drunk, walking back to our hotel through the thick snow, one Irishman and I became detached from the main group.  Two policemen in a Russian jeep stopped us and asked what we were doing and where we were going then, when we told them, they kindly offered us a lift. As we neared the hotel we passed a large group of drunken Irishmen falling about in the snow. One of the policemen said drily, ‘Your friends I presume?’

      A few days later I was drinking local beer with Sergei, the husband of our Russian Office Manageress. The beer was unpasteurised and it was said that one bottle in four would make you ill but you couldn’t know which bottle until you’d drunk it.  I gazed at the "10%" followed by some Russian letters on the beer bottle's label. I later found out that it was 10% “dry matter” but didn’t know that at the time.

      ‘What is this 10%?’ I asked Sergei. ‘I know it’s not 10% alcohol because I’ve drunk three bottles and not fallen over.’

      He thought for quite a while before replying, ‘Maybe it’s 10% beer.’