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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

A Writer's Farewell

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This was Jo Durden-Smith's last column for The Moscow Times, published on April 15, 1997. He died of a stroke on May 10. He was 65.

I first came to Russia in January 1988. I was living in London at the time, after 15 years in America, and was feeling completely out of place. (I found I no longer spoke the local language.)

So when an editor of an American travel magazine called me to ask whether I'd write something for him, I at first grumpily declined. But then he said: "Oh, come on! You can go anywhere you want!" So after a while, I said reluctantly, "OK I want to go to Leningrad."

There was no particularly compelling reason for this choice, except that I'd been reading a lot of Dostoevsky at the time and had been talking with some filmmaker friends about a series they wanted to do on Russian culture. But it was the beginning of one of the most extraordinary periods of my life: a love affair with a country that was changing then at an almost unimaginable speed, in what seemed at the time a sort of passionate reprise of the Western 1960s.

At first I came and went, bringing curry powder and marmalade for Western correspondents, tights, cigarettes and malt whisky for my Russian friends, and Chinese mushrooms and vast bottles of soy sauce for a Moscow Chinese restaurant, which had neither. There were films to make: a film about the rock band Aquarium, another (finally) about Russian culture. I soon realized that I knew more people more intimately in the Soviet Union than I ever did in England.

Besides, by that time I'd met Yelena, at the first above-ground underground rock concert of modern times (at the now legendary venue of the Moscow Electric Light Bulb Factory's House of Culture). I'd become little by little a member of her family. So the visits -- films or not -- went on. Yelena and I traveled to Yalta together, to Vologda and Kostroma, Tarusa. And after we were married and Katya was born, we settled in a dacha in a cooperative village 55 kilometers outside the city.

There were new friends and great happenings all around us: elections, the 1991 coup, the outlawing of the Communist Party, the coup d'etat that led to the breakup of the Soviet Union, the siege of the White House. I wrote a drama series for the BBC. I worked for MGM. I wrote magazine articles and a book. And in October 1993, I began this column for The Moscow Times.

One hundred and seventy-one columns later, I no longer live in my little village -- or in Moscow. Yelena is today working for a London-based film company. Our daughter Katya is in school there. And now it is her grandmother Tatyana and Russian sister Ksenia who do the coming and going -- along with virtually all the friends I ever made in Russia. We are all, one way or another, part of the Russian diaspora now.

It seems time, then, to say goodbye to the little corner of this newspaper that I've occupied weekly for the last 3 1/2 years. It's a new age, a new country, and it's time for someone else who lives in Moscow to try and interpret it.

It only remains for me to say goodbye (in print, at any rate) not only to you, but also to the people who have given their stories to this little corner, and with them their friendship to me: to Fedya and Oksana, who today visit me in London from Canada; to Sasha, the founder of the great hallucinatory rock band Zvuki Mu, who's here today; to Artyom, the first fully paid-up Soviet citizen I ever met (who's just retired as founding editor of Russian Playboy); to Kolya, the classical pianist; to Boris, the guitar-poet; to Ksenia, my student-daughter; and to Vadim, the writer and editor, who remains probably the most clear-sighted, thoughtful Russian whom I've ever met.

All of these people's lives have changed utterly in the seven, eight or 10 years that I've known them. For some, it's been a hard and wrenching journey. For others, it was a journey that finally did them in: Sasha Kaidanovsky, the actor and film director, for example, who died of the neglect and relentless buck-chasing that followed the demise of the Russian film industry; and my closest friend (and Katya's godfather), Tomas Topadze, who was assassinated outside his apartment almost exactly three years ago today.

No reason was ever found for his killing. The murderer came, did his business and went. And Tomas quickly became a statistic. But there's not a day when I don't think of him. He taught me much about the bottomless sentimentality and brutality of Russian life; much, too, about fatherhood and loyalty.

These lessons of his, I hope, will stay with me always -- together with my Russian family and many, many Russian friends. Do svidaniya.