November Diary
What is Derb doing in Russia?


John Derbyshire

Midnight in Moscow. Which, as I write, it very nearly is. We — Mr. & Mrs. — arrived here the evening of November 29, so this should really be December Diary stuff. Readers have been e-mailing in to ask what the heck I’m doing here, though, so I’d better explain myself.

There is a Russian monthly magazine named Vokrug Sveta (“Around the World”), a fairly precise equivalent of our own National Geographic. (There’s a Hippie-pedia page on it here.) The magazine is celebrating its 150th anniversary this month, and they’re holding a festival here in Moscow to commemorate the event.

Vokrug Sveta has always been a window on the outside world, though in the worst of Soviet times it was necessarily a narrow one. It has thus been a player, at least in a comprimario role, in the centuries-long tension that has shaped Russia’s national life: the tension between, on one hand, the introverted, autarkic Mother Russia of the birch forests and steppes and full-bearded priests in old wooden churches, and, on the other, the desire of many Russians — by no means only educated urban types — for their nation to be a normal European country having normal relations with other peoples.

In that spirit, Vokrug Sveta invited some foreign pop-science writers to the anniversary bash. One of my math books has sold quite well here, thanks to a superb translation by Alexei Semikhatov. So here I am, enjoying a week of hospitality from the good people of Moscow, in return for three public lectures and some media interviews.

Nothing but nice. What hospitality it is, too! Everyone has treated us like royalty: not only the Vokrug Sveta people, but waiters, chauffeurs, lecture-hall technicians, and random people on the Moscow streets when I have stopped them to ask directions in my rudimentary Russian.

If our experience is anything to go by, you can altogether forget the old Soviet stereotype of the surly, suspicious Russian. We have met nothing but courtesy and kindness here. Also a surprising level of English proficiency. Even those met in random street encounters will manage a few words of English at least one time in three; if you go into a store where there are a dozen customers waiting, you can be sure one of them will speak excellent English.

The downside of Russia was well advertised to us before we left. Over-advertised, perhaps: I have no doubt the Moscow police are to be avoided at all costs, and that con-men, muggers, and pickpockets (categories that, we were told, intersect considerably with the gendarmerie) do lurk around every corner. We just haven’t encountered any of that: Whether by sheer luck or otherwise, I can’t say.

Past and present. The very first thing I saw in Moscow was the manufacturer’s name on the plane’s disembarkation tunnel: Thyssen Krupp.

Bearing in mind the relationship Krupp Industries were having with the people of Russia 70 years ago, it’s hard even for a temperamental pessimist not to think the world has improved some.