I have recently returned from my first trip to Russia and, despite being a Polish national of the post-communist generation, I feel able to say that I enjoyed my trip. In fact, I feel brave enough to say that I fell in love with the country of Dostoyevsky, Tchaikovsky and Perov.
But why, you might ask, bearing in mind the uncomfortable history between Russia and its Western Slavic neighbour, would any Polish person be drawn to the friendly clutches of the Medved (Great Bear)?
Well, that is my story.
In my case, I had always dreamt of learning the language, and using it in discussion with ordinary Russian people. It fascinated me – although my friends were less enthusiastic and thought me a madwoman. ‘Who would want to go there?’ they asked.
Well… I did. And this pipe dream became a possibility when I became a metal trader and my boss encouraged me to learn Russian and asked me to develop some minor metals business in that part of the world.
The point is that my desire to discover Russia is bound up in the fact that I am even alive at all. My grandfather, Jan Jackiewicz, now struggling with ill-health in the winter years of his life, was born on August 1st 1935. He was just a little boy of 9 years old, when in 1944 a Nazi expedition occupied Skalbmierz, my family’s little town in southern Poland.
As happened during that dark time, locals were rounded up to be shot in the main square and the family house was set on fire. Jan and the rest of the family, by some chance, hid behind a rampart isolating them from the town, hoping to stay alive, while 64 other people were killed. In fact they knew they would be found eventually by the 900 German and Ukrainian soldiers occupying the town. And that would have been that.
Except for what happened next... At that moment of greatest peril, a Russian tank turned up. Some say he was stationed in Wiślica - a small hamlet located 23kms from Skalbmierz, and bribed with a bottle of vodka, but other stories say that he was just a lone tank who had lost his regiment and his way. But, as he approached this small town in the middle of nowhere, he let off a round or two, and the German soldiers fled in panic, convinced that the entire Russian front was now approaching. So my grandad survived, and I was born 48 years later.
So, there I was last month, excited to be able to go to Russia for the very first time. Not only to see Moscow and Saint Petersburg with young, open, Polish eyes, but also to travel as far as the Urals and Caucasus in pursuit of business; and an agenda to break down the boundaries that separate my generation of Poles and Russians.
Unsurprisingly, my friends and family were concerned and, much to their surprise, I flew with Aeroflot with its unenviable safety record and, upon my return, was able to report that I hadn’t been abducted nor at any point of my trip had my passport been stolen.
Towards the end of a visit to one plant - producing a tremendously interesting range of the unusual elements in which we trade - the plant manager exclaimed ‘Она наша, а не английская!’. This literally means ‘She is ours, not English!’ I cannot hide the fact that I felt at home there because of these people and their hospitality.
Towards the end of my trip, I returned to Moscow from Saint Petersburg. Sitting comfortably in one of the astonishingly reliable ‘Sapsan’ trains on a sunny Sunday morning, admiring the views I was preparing for a formal business meeting with one of our suppliers, which was due to take place later in the day. What I didn’t expect was an invitation to a house full of guests, located in the suburbs of Moscow.
Following a discussion with the charismatic and passionate owner of the company, I was introduced to a homely Russian feast topped up with champagne and caviar. Before I had time to realise it, I was sitting on the back of a quad bike with the host, in a riding suit, which, in fact, was several sizes too big.
On our excursion to the forest nearby, we visited his friends living in the area, one of whom was a descendant of Ivan the Terrible. I need to thank my grandmother for my Slavic genes for being able to hold my drink – as we were kindly offered a sip or two of homemade liqueurs and wine with every single visit we made. Out of sheer politeness I couldn’t say no but spent the evening trying to figure out how I would summarise the meeting in my office memo.
In conclusion, what I witnessed is how Russia is changing. It has fallen undeniably under western influence. As the generations advance, the number of people speaking perfect English grows exponentially. The way business is done is changing too – always rich in natural resources, the country continues to become rich in knowledge about them.
Moscow for some has become the ‘London of the East’. People from Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Armenia and Azerbaijan have been drawn to Moscow, to try to make their living there. For many it is as far West as they can go. In a country where there lies a further 9000 kilometres of Russian territory to its East and seven time zones, Moscow for many already is the West.
Unable to travel further, Russia and Europe remain united only by a border but divided by so much else - divided by a political, transparent, but intractable, wall that Mr Trump could be proud of.
Of course, if you go as I did, you will meet a version of the Russia of our imaginations: where people smile at dollars and sell stolen phones at ‘Vagzals’, which means ‘train stations’ - the word, in fact, comes from English, ‘Vauxhall’, but I will have to save that story for another time.