Moscow

Nine years ago I flew to Russia to pick up the body of one of my closest friends.

Roddy Scott was a freelance journalist. He was killed on 26th September 2002 by a Russian soldier. He was in Chechnya, travelling with a group of guerillas whom he was filming. The group was ambushed by Russian forces and Roddy was shot in the head. You can read an obituary I wrote for Roddy in The Guardian here.

Stina and Robin, Roddy’s parents, asked me to give the eulogy at Roddy’s memorial service. I remember working on the copy in the dining car of the GNER train up to Harrogate, drinking an awful bottle of shiraz. I remember dinner that night at Throstle Nest Farm, the dining room lit with candles and pictures of Roddy. The cigarettes we smoked; so many of us bedding down on the floor to sleep, the rawness of the next morning. I remember rehearsing my speech on a friend, and the difficult sections I was unable to finish. I remember the look on Robin’s face as he read through his address in an empty, afternoon church. The sensation of epicentre, of dumbfounded chaos that dried the mouth and closed the ears as the mourners arrived and the darkness fell on the remote village church into which filed men and women, face after face, dark-suited figures lining the backs of the church and the sides of the church. It takes a young man to die suddenly and far away to really fill a church.

I remember my own fear, and also my determination. I must not let go. I must not let go. Roddy’s cousin Alaric, barrel-chested, red faced, the tears pouring freely down his cheeks. Breathe deeply.  Breathe deeply.

Afterwards we all gathered in Robin and Stina’s barn for the wake. I felt empited out, my adrenalin spent. None of us had children then but Robin and Stina’s sense of loss was somehow imaginable, because of the hole his absence left in our own lives. The barn was icy cold and despite a noisy fan heater, grew no warmer as we drank and smoked our way towards a sort of celebration. We agreed that Roddy, who was indifferent to physical discomfort, was getting his own back. The girls cried and the boys laughed and swore and poured more cold red wine into plastic glasses, and handed round cigarettes and I remember I couldn’t get drunk, though I tried very hard.

Ten weeks later we flew out to Moscow. From my window seat I watched the frozen centre of Europe, the rye fields, the killing grounds and the burial places of the last century, pass beneath me. Industrial cities, like shrapnel scars against the snow, turning amber in the afternoon dark. The Polish forests, the Polish plains. Russia’s empty beginning. I sat drinking red wine and reading Churchill’s description of his 1941 meeting with Roosevelt in Placentia Bay, Newfoundland, balancing his heavy diaries against the sill of the oval window so I could read his wartime prose against the brutal backdrop of the eastern front.

Watching Cameron in Moscow earlier this week reminded me of my time in the Russian capital. It was so cold that the Embassy man we stayed with refused to allow me to walk out of his apartment until I had put on a hat. Crossing a wide bridge over the frozen Moskva river, the dark streets deserted, I was grateful for his advice – but cold nonetheless, in a deep-seated way I had never previously experienced. The dry air was heavily polluted, the shops poor, the churches full, the wide avenues thick with traffic. This was hostile territory.

Russia is failing, something a recent report in The Economist documents well. Its rulers (and they are rulers) serve the state, not its citizenry. So they serve themselves. If you are a Russian legislator you are likely to have a cash disposal problem – in 2010 $34bn left the country, much of it in small quantities as Russia’s elite turned their (often ill-gotten) roubles into property and cash deposits in Western Europe. Meanwhile, average male life expectancy is 63; the quality of life in Russia’s hinterland is low.

So although the Russian state killed my friend, I feel for its people. They are a long way from any kind of freedom or prosperity. The struggle required to achieve real change may well deter it from ever happening.

Here’s a poem I wrote about Roddy’s funeral.

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