BBC Newsnight 2018. The presenter declares Russia to be “our principal enemy”. In the sleeping district of Hove, Sussexski, we shake our heads in disbelief. I am now a principal enemy in my own country. A year ago, Tanya, my wife, moved to the UK with Stepan (12) and Emily (1) from Moscow. Now we are the enemy within. For the first year of our residency in the UK, Russia dominates every headline of every news programme on every channel. It is relentless. The Salisbury novichok ‘highly likely’ story; the ban on Russian athletes competing at the Olympics for systemic cheating; the Russian naval ships sailing through the English Channel en route to the Mediterranean; the war in Syria; alleged cyber-interference with the US Presidential election; Russian collusion with Trump; Russian interference with the EU referendum in Britain; Putin, Putin, Putin. Every ill of the West is traced back to Russia. And by implication, all Russians are evil agents intent on the destruction of life as we know it in the West.
My wife worked for Google in Moscow. She speaks fluent English. She studied in the UK in the nineties for a year, lived and taught in a school in the North East. She is an Anglophile – can quote vast tracts of Shakespeare and Jerome K. Jerome and knows Kipling’s ‘If’ by heart. She has travelled extensively throughout this land. As a language student and trained linguistics teacher, she knows more about the mechanics of how the English language works than me, a native born Brit – by a country mile. Which is why it is so sad that on meeting her for the first time, so many of my English acquaintances’ first question to her was the v-e-r-y s-l-o-w-l-y spoken enquiry: “Do you speak English?” She loves nothing more than a walk in a National Trust garden and loves the Turner-esque paleness of a hazy English morning. None of that counts. She is an enemy agent, apparently, and must be made to feel like one every night on national TV.
To come live in a new country is to leave all that you know behind. It is to burn your boats. It is disorientating, dislocating and incredibly brave. Millions have done it and tens of thousands are trying to do it everyday. Most of us haven’t got a clue what it feels like to uproot yourself and re-plant in alien soil. Glibly, we welcome new comers and expect them to fit right in. Our way of doing this is odd. I have seen that we Brits are a very uncurious lot. In every conversation (bar one, marvellous exception) when my British friends and relations have met Tanya for the first time, they ask her “how are you finding it here?” They mean well. They are, in their British way, trying to make her feel welcome by enquiring. But there isn’t a single enquiry along the lines of “tell me about Russia, I’d love to know”. What could be more welcoming than to ask about the country someone has come from? Provide them with a chance to talk about home and for you to learn something new. When I visit Russia, all the people I meet ask about the UK. They are interested. Many of them have visited the UK more than once. Russia isn’t a country most Brits have been too. In spite of this ignorance, it is a country we think we know well. “Cold. Cold people, too – they don’t smile, you know. ” Er, that’s about it. All our images are rooted either in the Soviet days of thirty years ago – grey men on the balcony of the Lenin Mausoleum taking the salute from row upon row of goose stepping soldiers, missile launchers and tanks at some Communist parade, queues for food in empty shops and tractor production quotas – or in the person of Putin: a stereotypical Bond villain. Our mental image of Russians is either as boot-faced, muscle-bound female shot putters or nubile, gold digging catalogue brides. As for the men, all oligarch gangsters. Or ignorant dupes. As a nation, we are content with this and think we understand everything there is to know about Russia. People ask Tanya how she is finding the UK because we are endlessly fascinated with ourselves and want others to talk about us, too. After all, we are fascinating whereas foreigners are, well, foreign. And their countries are therefore not very interesting. Especially Russia, which we genuinely believe we know all about. And even if we don’t really know all about it, we’re just not that interested in it. People have even said to Tanya that they suppose her parents must be very pleased she has escaped and made a fresh start in the West. Yes. To come to a new country is disorientating, dislocating and incredibly brave – especially when you are confronted with this level of ignorance.
Tanya is no longer a casual visitor, she is now a resident. The glister of postcard-pretty Britain, of fish and chips, country houses, friendly bobbies on the beat, red letter boxes and Brighton Pier has been replaced with a very different face of Britain: a hostile and officious Home Office; endless form filling to get set up as a resident; banks who treat you with suspicion (where previously, as a high earner working for a world famous company in Moscow, you enjoyed extended credit lines and were treated as a very valuable customer); daily hostility to your country of birth in the news media and from the UK government, and a political backdrop of xenophobia stirred up deliberately in the Brexit debate.
On top of which, Tanya now has to deal with the daily exhaustion of “new-ness”: navigating the bureacracy of setting up home in Britain, registering with a doctor’s surgery and navigating the NHS (it is a mineflield if you have never encountered it before), working out the education system (we have a teenager to put into a British school), getting a bank account when you have no credit history in the country. Everything requires concentration and effort because she is learning a brand new system – a system I was brought up with and is therefore second nature to me. But for my wife, it is confusing and different. Different to what she has grown up with all her life. Different rules, different approach, different assumptions, different behaviour, different expectations, different etiquette, different streets, different geography, different social mores, different, well, different everything. And because she speaks fluent English, no one makes any allowance for these different expectations. They just expect her to know how it all works – because, surely, that is how it works everywhere? It is exhausting because everyone around can’t see why it’s all such a big deal. After all, this is how everyone does it, right?
Until you have lived in another country, you cannot appreciate how quirkily odd and peculiar your own country’s assumptions and beliefs, ways of being, attitudes and institutions really are. Stuff we were raised to believe from birth causes us no problems if we were all brought up with broadly the same set of assumptions and experiences. But when our assumptions clash with another culture’s assumptions, and you are the odd one out, it is very discombobulating. It is also why immigrants tend to stick together – they are seeking those familiar bonds of life understanding and belief. It is also why, when Brits colonised the Empire, they congregated together in ex-pat communities. Isn’t it a little hypercritical to accuse Asian immigrant communities in the UK of not integrating properly and of living in Asian ghettos, speaking their own language, cooking their traditional food, worshipping in their traditional way, when we Brits work all over the world and stick together in little British enclaves, drinking gin and tonic in the traditional way, cooking Sunday lunch, hosting Christmas parties, using locals for domestic staff and failing to learn anything more than a smattering of words in the language of our host nation? But we expect others to do it when they move here.
Tanya was brought up with different values. For example, Brits think that foreigners are filthy. We make jokes about the French smelling of garlic. I have travelled around the Greek Islands with some Brits who I had to virtually force to eat at a traditional Greek taverna. “But it’s filthy, Dave!” they complained. It wasn’t, it’s just that their pre-judgement was that it must be filthy because it was full of locals not tourists. We think our standards of cleanliness are world beating. And yet, we think a bit of dust here and there or a splash of mud on a child’s knee is perfectly fine, and anyone who says different is an obsessive compulsive. We are blissfully unaware that other nations regard us as filthy and very unhygienic.
Our cultural norms are so deeply ingrained that we believe certain behaviour is perfectly natural – behaviour which causes disease transmission amongst children and adults alike and which makes our homes hotbeds of infection. We believe that all young children everywhere catch colds and that it is good for them to do so because it builds up their immune system.Just look at the statistics of how many fewer infections are being bought to doctors now that we are all being reminded constantly to wash our hands! Maybe our behavioural norms, our assumptions are wrong.
In Britain, we don’t wash our hands as an automatic ritual when we come inside from being outside. In most other cultures, they do. We go out into the world, touch all manner of objects that have been touched by hundreds of other people, come home, get ourselves a snack, contaminate our food with germs we have picked up from holding onto to the poles in busses or trains, the escalator handrail, and the money we received in change from the shopkeeper, and chomp away on our sandwich, happily oblivious to what we are putting into our bodies. We don’t wash our hands before eating. We don’t wash our hands at all, really. Until coronavirus came along and we had to do what the rest of the world does anyway, as a matter of course. Result? Fifty per cent less everyday infections than normal reported by doctors’ surgeries. A terrific by-product of having to be more hygienic generally as a result of a very specific threat.
We also think nothing of coming home from work, or shopping, or walking the dog or exercising, putting the key in the latch and walking into our homes in our filthy shoes. We traipse all around our homes, depositing anything and everything on to our carpets that we’ve brought in from outside on the soles of our shoes. It never occurs to us that we are bringing all kinds of muck and dirt and disease into our living rooms and bedrooms. I now look in horror as my fellow Brits walk into our home, have to be reminded to take off their shoes (which they resent) and then, when they leave, fetch these same shoes, sit on the sofa to put them on and tramp back through the house to the front door, negating the purpose of taking them off in the first place.
When I first met my wife, she noted that as I was searching in my pockets to find the front door keys, I often put anything in my hand such as a train ticket or wallet, between my teeth – to free up my hands for the rummaging. In her eyes, I might as well just get down on my hands and knees and lick the pavement. ‘Why would you do that?’, she asked, painfully. ‘You’re going to make yourself ill.’ And, to be fair, it is worth noting that she and our son were hardly ever ill when they lived in Russia. Since moving to the UK, my wife in particular has had several appalling bouts of flu, a series of colds throughout the winter – usually brought home by our toddler, more of which in a minute – and her immune system has taken a battering. “Ah”, I hear the Brits say, “it will make her stronger, get her immune system working better.” Hogwash. The only thing getting nasty colds and flu does is make your life miserable, weaken your immune system and make you more susceptible to the next one that comes along. We trot out this nonsense which we have repeated and heard others say so often that it has become, in our minds, true. But it is nonsense to say we are building up our immune systems. We aren’t – scientific fact. The consequence of this dangerous myth is we are the sickliest nation in Europe. We don’t operate on the principle of prevention is better than cure – we don’t treat hygiene as something related to our sickliness – and the reason our NHS is crumbling under the strain is that it has to cure so many people from illnesses they could have easily avoided with a bit of basic hygiene. Some of our precious national myths aren’t worth keeping.
When we moved to the UK, we had to find a nursery for our toddler. My, that was fun. Nurseries in Russia are purpose built. They are cleaned top to bottom twice a day. All the toys – hard toys only – are sterilised at the end of every school day. Children have a bed on which they take a nap every single day. Their bed is for one child only and that child uses the same bed every day. Each child has a locker in which to keep their stuff. The children are raised to take off their outdoor shoes in the locker room and wear indoor shoes only inside the nursery. When they go out to play they play in a play area specially designated for their specific age group. They do not mix with children from other age groups. They wash their hands as soon as they have changed their shoes, and again every time they come back from outside, go to the loo or are about to eat. Every nursery has a specific entrance for each year group. There is virtually no cross contamination and if your child does get ill, you are forbidden by law from bringing your child into nursery for three days. And if they do get ill, which is much less likely than in Britain where none of these hygiene protocols exist, you will attend a children only doctors clinic so that your child does not have to share a waiting room with adults and is therefore not exposed to even more bacteria or viruses.
Imagine my wife’s horror as she was shown around nurseries by proud proprietors in buildings that were old and dirty, watching children and adults tramping around the floors in their outdoor wear, with not a hint of hand washing hygiene. She was despairing. Exhausted – not just from the inevitable illnesses that our daughter brought home week after week, but from the alien behaviour and philosophy of a culture she felt was blind to its own stupid way of doing things, and even proud of it.
Our home now is a ‘Russia house’. We keep it the Russian way. Not just to make my family feel at home but because it is a more sensible way to run a home and it is a better way to live. But try telling that to Brits and they pooh pooh the idea. British is best, everyone knows that; even if we are bankrupting our NHS by living in a way which actually increases our likelihood of getting ill, and by refusing to learn from the healthier cultures that come to live amongst us. Well, that’s unfair, actually. We in Britain did take a very valuable lesson from another culture once upon a time. Back on the 5th July, 1948, we founded the most loved, precious institution in Britain today: the National Health Service. Where did the idea come from? It was inspired by the world’s first model of providing universal free healthcare for all – the one they pioneered in Soviet Russia.
Yes, it is exhausting to be a Russian in Britain right now. But, when you strip away all the politics and the British exceptionalism, we have more in common than that which divides us. It just takes a little tolerance of other’s attitudes and opinions, the courage to not to be blinded by the belief that we are always right and the humility to remember that they are just trying to get along in the world the same as us.