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In conversation with Sophie Lewis

A is my scout this year in Wadham College. She is 47 years old and comes from St Petersburg, Russia. She worked for 18 years in an Institute in St Petersburg, as a research assistant, before coming to England. She told me several stories or anecdotes before I asked any particular questions.

In 1903 the Russian professor of literature and poet, Konstantin Balmont, came to Oxford with his wife Ekaterina Andreeva. They stayed for 9 months while he gave lectures, and she had plenty of time to observe Oxford life and compare it to what she knew of Russian university life. In her memoir of her husband, she recalls being most struck by the students’ apparently non-existent attitude towards work. They slept a lot, threw parties, played tennis and rowed, but did not seem to study at all. A laughed and sympathised with this lady’s surprise: she too sees students sleep far more than they seem to work, even after all the time that has passed between the two ladies’ experiences.

Andreeva also described meeting a black student from America, during her stay in Oxford. She was interested in him and began to talk to him. This was noticed by the other dons and she came under strong pressure to cease all communication with him, because he was black. A sees that this at least has changed since the 1900s. Oxford is now very tolerant of all races and nationalities. Such a situation could not occur now.

Here she is reminded of something else which she rather dislikes or finds disturbing in Oxford. This is that feminine emancipation has gone so far. It is good that women now have equal access to most jobs, having struggled for this so hard. But now she sees that in England they are forced to take on unfeminine work: they carry their own luggage at train stations, even in the company of their boyfriend. It is not that the culture has become careless and impolite, only that women’s independence has gone too far. In Russia, a woman would never carry her own suitcase. However, she might be subject to sleazy comments from men in the street – something that English women would never stand for. Women in England are so free, it seems, that they reject feminine accoutrements. They don’t want to look pretty in a feminine way – and so they don’t. Their dress demonstrates their chosen freedom but does them no favours in A’s eyes. In Russia, the trend is opposite: since restraints imposed as a result of the revolution, they now want to use all the resources they can in order to appear feminine and to rely on others for support.

When A came to England for the first time, in 1993, she saw how English women dressed more casually and thought she should try to emulate them, to assimilate. However, she felt that she was losing her pride and self-respect in doing this. When she returned for a year in 1996, she went back to dressing smartly on all occasions. She found that when she finally came to live in England in 1999, on taking her job as a scout and continuing to dress smartly, that the other female scouts noticed and began to copy her, dressing more smartly also. She felt the influence of her Russian standards.

In England people are so free and relaxed in public that they don’t seem to consider the presence of others. A is surprised and laughs as she describes how people might meet unexpectedly in the street and will stop to chat, thus blocking the pavement for everyone else, who is obliged to navigate around them. People also don’t seem to mind when someone boards a bus and spends a good while looking through their purse for money, holding up everyone else in the queue. In Russia, this would be sure cause for an argument and impatience.

People speak directly in Russia. They say what they mean. They would never invite you to come and see them, for example in their work at the Ashmolean, if they didn’t absolutely mean you to take up their offer. English body language is hard to read for a foreigner, yet it is important for the words are frequently ambiguous and unreliable by themselves.

In terms of priorities, A knows that she would love a job more suited to her love and knowledge of Russian poetry. She is an academic obliged to work as a cleaner in Oxford because her husband can work as a professor of Russian literature here, but her English is not good enough for her to get a better job. She cannot even work on tills in shops. She also has blood pressure problems which mean she needs part-time work. In a way this job has come to seem fairly ideal because it allows her to take extended unpaid holidays so that she can accompany her husband on his academic tours, yet she can also work overtime to support herself and her family back in Russia.

At first she was not embarrassed to say that she was a cleaner. Having encountered the reactions of a number of higher-class English people to this, she now never lets on what her work is, except to Russians. The English stopped talking to her when they knew that she did such poorly considered work.

Of course she would rather talk about literature and poetry, films and books at work, than about bathrooms. However there is no way that this could be part of her work. She could not improve the job, for she does it automatically, without love. She barely notices it any more. Her background does not suit her to this kind of work, or this kind of work does not suit someone like her, it comes to the same thing.

She used to feel lonely in England knowing that she was far from her family and friends in Russia. When her mother and brother died, her loneliness grew and she was lonely everywhere, without them everywhere. She comforts herself by reading books and by watching films. A year ago she met a professor of philosophy in Oxford to whom she began giving private lessons in Russian. He turned out to be very interested in her life, asking her many questions about her thoughts and impressions and her family history. This new opening of communication made her less lonely, as she found a friend on her own level, with whom she could talk easily and not have to feign any interest. He also explained the customs of England and Oxford to her, telling her the history of the place and peoples’ seasonal habits and practical ways. He opened the town to her so that she understood it better and felt more at home there.

She has had a lot of love in her life! It is wonderful and awful. When you love, you give your self – and you may get nothing in return. Quite often with women, they meet someone and straight away start to create a fantasy version of the person in their mind. The imagined lover does not exist, but the woman bases her love on her perception of him. Poetry is very important in A’s life and it plays a large part in her imaginative reformulation of her lovers. It gives her a second life of the mind, apart from the everyday life she lives with real people. In her imaginary world, she can build deep beautiful feelings around the person she has found and filtered and purified from real life. Men have said that she has transformed their lives for the better, but they could never live up to the ideal image she had created in her poetic life. She says that talented poetry needs a talented reader. She was like the Russian poet’s idea of ‘water’ – she is capable of giving as much as her recipient lover can take, which may be a glassful or an ocean. These have been very interesting experiences, have given her a beautiful life, but she hasn’t the strength for such powerful emotions now. She says that people’s ability to love is dependant to an extent on their culture and education. If they read books, explore the world, they can understand and offer more than others.

Money is the only reason she is working in England as a scout. When she took the job she needed money urgently, and still needs it. Even ‘though it is not well paid by our standards, it is better than what she could earn in Russia.

In what domains do you wish to lead? Etc.” These are questions for a younger person. She reads, listens to music, goes to the cinema – she wants a quiet life after what she has lived through in Russia. For her these questions don’t apply.

On a practical level, A would like to know more about teaching Russian as a foreign language. It is a new kind of work for her but something she can do here. After her experiences in Russia, she needs to work to learn nothing more.

She certainly does enough for others! She has supported and continues to support many people, friends and family, in Russia. She currently sends money home to clothe and educate her 17 year-old nephew, who completely relies on her earnings.

A is becoming more tolerant of difference between people. Strong nationalism in Russia causes power struggles beneath the veneer of everyday life. The different religious groups are always in conflict there. In England people are generally much more tolerant of every kind of person; religious/racial/any difference is not important. A was brought up Russian Orthodox and she does attend the Greek and Russian Orthodox church on Banbury Road; she doesn’t pray there, she goes to light memorial candles for her mother and brother. She does not consider herself religious but has experienced a number of miracles, which could only be explained as such, so she doesn’t know what to make of this.

She and her husband have no future in England. They cannot stay in retirement because their pensions will be too small and they have no property here. They don’t see a future in Russia either because they have lost their pension rights there too now, although they do own a flat in St Petersburg. The political situation in Russia also makes returning undesirable. They do not like Putin’s introducing capitalism into Russia but giving it the appearance of Stalinism – such things from the past are unnecessary. The couple don’t think about the future because they cannot see what it could be for them. Their only hope is to save as much money as possible while they can work in England. They are still better off than many other Russians.

In terms of wasting life or time – it is hard for A to answer this one. In a way all the time she spends working is a waste of her mind, but it earns her the money she needs so badly. The time spent working is ‘wasted life’, not good for the soul, but since we all waste our lives in different ways, it is difficult to say.

What do you need to do to make your life feel complete? Etc.” Here again, these are questions for young people! She doesn’t want or need to meet more people. She has found that even the scouts she works with are good people to talk to, she would not necessarily find any better if she worked in a job more suited to her capabilities. They don’t hide their feelings. A’s experience of English working class people has been good. In the afternoons, when she mixes with more middle class people, she likes their company too – she can’t say that one set is better than the other.

The sad thing about the couple’s life in England is that they could do so much but simply have not got the money for it. When they visit Russia they got to exhibitions, museums, the opera, concerts. They would do that here, and enjoy the side of England which is made for them, but it is all far too expensive. It is A’s private opinion that, ‘though it is a terrible thing to say, they are lucky not to have children. She has some friends who have two children and are obliged to spend all their money on them. They have an even harder life and even less hope for the future. She is lucky to have no children.