Thursday, January 29, 2009
My Universities: Canadian Diplomat
Canada is seen as being an America for losers. While the Republic got the Mafia, Jews, film stars, atomic boffins and Beyoncé, the Dominion ended up with Ukrainians, Eskimos, lots of people called MacKenzie and the French.
Maybe it's because I'm Welsh, but I've always been fond of this Transatlantic also-ran. I've not been there, and don't want to ruin the fantasy of gruff Québécois skating home across the tundra from the 'ockey-stick factory with a plate of poutine in one hand and a Labatt Bleu in the other, pausing only to pleasure Margaret Trudeau over the back of a moose. Dressed as a Mountie.
I'm proud to have served that noble federation as an informal consular official in Moscow in 1988, although I'm not sure whether my efforts were fully appreciated in the Ottawa doughnut shops of power.
I was at one of those frequent crossroads in my life, where one track led to serious achievement in the academy and the other to dicking around with my mates in a grubby dictatorship. Naturally I found myself in the Soviet Union, my thesis on homosexuality in the Tsarist Navy rightly abandoned, and so skint I was reduced to smoking Gitanes.
The switch to spontaneously-combustible Soviet fags was only days away when the Canadian cultural attachée asked to see me. I'd befriended this fine lady out of curiousity about her job - how many Denys Arcand film festivals can one person organise? Or did she spend her time ushering rat-kings of Soviet schoolkids around exhibitions of Inuit penile gourds?
The answer was that she ran a lending library of Mordechai Richler's novels and, like all Canadians, spent much of her time appeasing her Québécois colleagues. She asked whether I'd like to earn some money helping out at the consular section, and arranged an interview with the Consul.
This chap, who really was called something like Guy de Gardebois, assumed I spoke French and hired me on the spot. He passed the next four months muttering asides to me in the gritty gibberish that passes for the language of Cantona up there, and I'd grunt the odd reply in Welsh. We were so happy.
Next day I turned up at the embassy, which nestled next to the house where Khrushchev had spent his grateful retirement, if only to find out what the job entailed. That was when Guy set out the whole horror of perestroika.
"A little while back we were like pigs in clover," he began. "Perhaps a dozen Ukrainian peasants and a Latvian gravedigger would turn up a month seeking tourist visas. They had notarised invitiations from the League of the Avenging Sword of St Adolph the Unreasonable in Winnipeg, and their nieces had ingested the dialectic of various Carpathian policemen in order to obtain their brand-new Soviet passports.
"Then it all changed. M'sieur Gorbachev gave Soviet citizens passports on demand, and our Department of External Affairs decided to double the disfavour by handing out visas to anyone who turned up with a letter from their Uncle Bohdan saying 'Gee, Slavko, it would be neat to like see you and the guys over here sometime, eh?'
"C'est affreux, ça, M'sieur Boyo! Now the embassy lobby is packed daily with a hundred Hutsuls and their hand-me-down breath, and the Russians won't let us bring over any more diplomats to cope with the rush. Now that's where you come in."
Little did I know that this was the beginning of a long and lubricious association with the Ukrainian people.
I had a couple of Soviet lady assistants. They had performed acts of acrobatic self-degradation with KGB underlings in order to land the plum job of being allowed to humiliate their fellow-citizens on foreign territory, and were not best pleased to be doling out precious visas to provincial crones who made their own underwear out of twigs.
As a result they lost no chance to close the consular section because of overcrowding and wiggle off to the Café Arbat for a faceful of compensatory cake.
I dealt with this problem by circumventing protocol and talking to the Soviet policeman outside. Constable Nakeroff was also tired of herding Haidamaks around his shiny pavement, and readily agreed to my proposal to let only ten people into the embassy at a time.
Guy was happy, the travelling Cossacks were happy, the police were happy, and the Soviet female staff were livid. My days passed in a blur of grateful peons clutching scraps of toilet paper with scrawled signatures on them, punctuated with interpreting for Guy at immigration interviews.
Canada operated a high-minded immigration system based on accruing points. Having a useful trade like computer programming or bear-trapping helped. Quebec had its own criteria, among which the ability to speak French and nurture a grievance won you dix points and your own snow plough.
I enjoyed an interview with a glossy young Nicaraguan Communist. She was studying economic mismanagement and electoral fraud at the Patrice Lumumba International University of Ineptitude, and worried that the forthcoming ouster of the Sandanistas back home would harm her prospects of getting a job as a complete bitch in some dusty Managuan ministry.
Guy asked why she wanted to emigrate to Canada when, as a Communist, she would be made most welcome in the Glorious Soviet Union? She pointed out that Russia was a "terrible place", but assured us that she would try to turn Canada into something similar through the Magic of Marxism.
"Heu, l'évêque chauffard, tabarnac', sur la main, hein?" whispered Guy, from what I could tell. "Application denied! Au suivant!" I translated.
The social life of a Canadian diplomat was also most agreeable. The embassy bar welcomed Mounties, senior political officers, grease monkeys and the occasional student in a democratic debouch.
The British embassy's "Britannia Club", in contrast, was as insufferable and impenetrable as Princess Anne. It was staffed by members of the Sunningdale Golf Club c. 1954, transplanted to modern Moscow by some malign sprite.
British diplomats were easily the most unplesant people in the Soviet capital, which is saying something. These slovenly and snobbish drunks served only to provide shrill but slatternly wives for the jaded postgraduate community to bed.
Summer drew to a close and soon I would have to return to London to explain myself to the university authorities, British Academy and various parents, as usual. Just before I left for the day Constable Nakeroff stuck his head round the door. It was nearly five o'clock and I'd just packed away the John Bull Visa-Printing Kit, so I wasn't best pleased.
"Can you squeeze one last old geezer in?" he asked. "He's just turned up from fuck knows where and he smells like he walked the whole way through the sewers. He's spoiling the entire nice pavement thing I've got going on here."
I agreed, and in tottered an ancient Ukrainian bearing the regulation passport and a letter from a nephew saying "come and visit if you're not dead and those Communist bastards have worked out how to fly a plane without bombing everything in its path".
The application form has a question asking whether you've ever been to jail. It should include a note explaining that we don't care whether you're a war criminal or not, just write "no" and spare us bureaucrats any bother. The codger had written "yes".
"I'll tell you what happened," he began, settling his brittle buttocks on our helpless upholstery. "It was after the war, and the Soviets were rounding up Bandera rebels. They had a quota of four arrests per school, and I was unlucky. They gave me ten years. I was 16.
"Then Stalin died, and they let me out. I got a letter saying I'd been wrongfully arrested etc, and everything was ok."
I stamped his visa in relief, as Canada welcomes victims of Stalinist repression. He gazed at the visa for a while, then said "Best part is that I was a rebel - a sniper, in fact - evenings and weekends. And the buggers never knew. You're the first stranger I've told that. Thanks, son!" And off he went.
I'm all for encouraging healthy outdoor pursuits among the young, and I hope the Canadian forests provided opportunities for him to revive his dormant marksmanship.