By Struan Hamilton
Hardback. 2006, 312 pages plus 12 pages of colour photographs.
The sequel to St Petersburg: The Early Years, giving the next few years of the author’s experiences in diary form. Very readable, and the final section in particular is truly emotional.
LETTER FROM RUSSIA
ST PETERSBURG, THE EARLY YEARS
It is one of life’s most magnificent injustices that so many of the great things that can happen to us are purely the result of being in the right place at the right time. Talent helps. Energy and determination too. But without the combination of serendipity and a bit of bluff I would never have ended up in Russia and had the happiest and most fulfilling eight years imaginable.
The serendipity was the offhand comment made by a good old friend, Betty, that an erstwhile pal of mine had opened up a branch of his computer company in St Petersburg. The bluff was me saying to her to tell him that I knew Russian when I had only had 10 night classes. It worked. I landed a job there to start in July 1996 and was given only a few weeks to part with friends, possessions and a super sign language translator’s job in Scotland. Was there any looking back? Surprisingly enough, no. Fast approaching the dreaded 40 I had few qualms about altering my life so radically. It was what I had always wanted to do, as a Jehovah’s Witness, to be able to work part time and then in my spare time be free to be a volunteer worker for congregations in Eastern Europe. Over the years friends had yawned as I repeatedly spoke of this dream to them. More cynical ones merely smiled patronisingly. But I knew it would happen one day. How, I could not work out.
But why had Eastern Europe such an appeal? From the early 1970s my close association with two Polish Witnesses in my Edinburgh congregation had interested me in all things Slavic. I even learned Polish though I spoke it disgustingly badly. However, it set my sights on the east while my generation of friends dreamt of and went to Italy, France and sunnier climes. But Slavic culture fascinated me more.
Then came 1989 and the fall of the Berlin Wall. In one country after another suddenly Jehovah’s Witnesses were free to practice their faith after 40 years or more of a cruel catacomb existence. I inquired at the newly established branch offices of the Watchtower Society in Poland, Bulgaria and even Hungary. But no one was able to help me realise my dream. I knew of no one in these places who would be able to help me. I meanwhile obtained a certificate in teaching English so I could work in one of these countries. What one needs is a foothold, a contact who can help you get established. Through a mixture of naivety and discouragement the dream seemed to be fading.
In 1995 a Witness I knew moved to Estonia and I cheekily called him and asked to stay for a couple of weeks. He said it was no problem. I dipped into Estonian. Mind-bogglingly complex. Russian too was horrendous but more attainable. After a wonderfully instructive three weeks in Estonia and Latvia I knew that this was the life for me. No visas required, teaching English possibilities too seemed alright. Back in Scotland I took Russian classes but in the Baltics there seemed no one able to help me. I was entirely on my own. In these situations you have to prove yourself and I appeared to be just a dreamer. The realisation of my dream was once again postponed, indefinitely, perhaps forever.
Finally came this completely unexpected offer to work in St Petersburg. It may sound glib and contrived but it did seem as if it was the culmination of all my years of effort. I had in fact earnestly prayed about the matter just days before the offer came. Considering all that has happened in the intervening years I think it was indeed an answer to my prayers. I have no regrets. I only wish that the opportunity had come along sooner. Life in Russian simply gets better as the years roll on. Truly.
As of this date the diary which I have kept runs to over half a million words, not including extra essays I have written on specific topics. The first 326 pages have been the basis for this book and there was much internal debating and heart rending indecision as to what to include. Even more difficult was what not to include. I also wanted there to be enough content to interest not just Jehovah’s Witnesses but a general reader who has been or wants to go to Russia and know more about its people and culture. Other writers and journalists write about the politics, the history and the crime and corruption. There is some of that here. But I have attempted to get under the skin of the Russian character, to show how ordinary people live. Their economic struggles, their joys and successes. How people exist in the smaller towns and villages which, after all, constitute a good proportion of Russia’s people even today.
I hope you will find these jottings satisfying to read. Not didactic nor preachy in any way. Maybe a little inspirational, moving, slightly revolting in places and of course, humorous.
Many of the people I have written about have been given another name as they were unable to be contacted for permission to use their story. Other people have moved on to other parts of Russian and even the world. Some details and places were also changed to make identification less possible but I have endeavoured to be as true as possible to the people and the events. Nothing has been exaggerated or over dramatised nor taken out of context.
Having said that, one’s imagination has to have full reign, without which no published journal or diary would be worth the reading.
Stepanopel, Central Russia, July 10th 2004. –This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.