This is another in a series of excerpts from my new book How the Future Worked, available on www.roperpenberthy.co.uk or on Amazon.co.uk. Here I talk about bribery in Russia and the role it played in my education.
Papa played the baksheesh system considerably better than Alfred Brendel plays the piano, but the trick was in finding someone in a position of influence to bribe. Had I decided to read chemistry or a related subject, it would have been no problem, what with my uncle a member of the USSR Academy of Sciences and my father quite well known in that industry. But languages? Who the hell did we know in languages? No one, as it turned out. But it just so happened that Papa’s old girlfriend knew this chap, a medical doctor of sorts, who serendipitously was head of the outpatient clinic at the very university I wished to enter.
Did he ‘take’? Of course he bloody well took; what did you expect the poor chap to do, live on 175 roubles a month? A contact was made and, after playing hard to get for three seconds or so, Dr Palatnikov agreed to mastermind my ascent to the ranks of the Academe for the very reasonable sum of 500 roubles, about Papa’s monthly salary. For that paltry remuneration, and believe him, he was only asking for so little out of a genuine desire to help an obviously worthy young man, Dr Palatnikov agreed to act in the capacity of general contractor, wherein he would undertake to establish a confidential contact between Papa and the appropriate examiners, with whom Papa could then make separate arrangements. Dr Palatnikov didn’t think the separate arrangements would go over 200 a pop, unless of course those thieves had upped their fees from last year, which he wouldn’t put past them.
As we found out later, the thieves not only hadn’t upped their fees from last year but actually had to kick half of them back Dr Palatnikov’s way. The latter’s professional credentials might have been weak but, as often was the case in Russia, he had more real power than his official status would suggest, since it was up to him to decide how many sick days professors were allowed to take, and how many free holiday vouchers they were entitled to receive. Power in Russia, as you’ll have plenty of opportunity to see, doesn’t derive from money or position; it’s roughly the other way around.
The 1,300 roubles Papa had to pay in total went not only towards offsetting the imperfection of my CV but also towards covering my nonexistent academic attainments. My English, though decent, was certainly not up to the highest standards; my literature was weak in formal terms, even though I had been a voracious reader for 13 years; my history of the Communist Party was frankly pathetic, and my really strong subjects, drinking, carousing and hustling chess, cards and pool cut no ice with the examination board.
Making up the deficiency of my training in the month remaining before the first exam was a clear impossibility; the prospect of spending a month pestering girls in the street and drinking with my best friend Volodia Anikeyev was a sheer joy. So while other applicants were buried in textbooks I placed implicit faith in Dr Palatnikov’s organisational talent and was buried in things that offered greater tactile delights, if less enlightenment.
The good doctor delivered, thus proving yet again that vice can always triumph over virtue, at least in this world. While my performance at three out of four exams was surprisingly not bad, meriting at least a four, if not necessarily the straight fives I did receive, it was the oral exam in Russian literature that made me appreciate fully Dr Palatnikov’s clout within the academic hierarchy.
Though widely read in the Russian classics, I was a bit of a dilettante, in that I knew only what I liked and, more to the point, didn’t know what I hated. As the luck of the draw would have it, the book whose literary and social significance I was expected to enlarge upon was Gorky’s The Life of Klim Samgin. That I hadn’t read the book was, in Russian parlance, ‘half the trouble’; but the fact that I didn’t have the vaguest idea of what the book was about spelled trouble with a capital T, as I wasn’t even in a position to cover my ignorance with the smokescreen of verbiage.
This sad state of affairs became obvious to the examiner, a mousy little woman in steel-rimmed glasses, after 10 seconds of my incoherent mumbling. ‘All right, young man,’ she said, ‘it’s obvious you need some help. The Life of Klim Samgin is a what? Starts with an N?’ ‘A novel!’ I exclaimed, happy to be engaged in some kind of dialogue. ‘Good, good, good,’ she said contemptuously and took her glasses off. ‘Now what kind of novel is it?’ she asked, squinting myopically. ‘Starts with an E.’ ‘Epistolary !’ I was on a roll, but her contempt for me deepened perceptibly. ‘No, no, no, have another go.’ ‘Enigmatic? Effervescent? Ephemeral?’ Desperation was setting in.
‘Listen, young man,’ my torturer said. ‘I have neither the time nor the inclination to go over the entire vocabulary of the Russian language you possess. That might keep us here for an hour. I’ll give you another clue. The second letter is a P.’ ‘Eponymous… Epic!’ I exclaimed in a flash of revelatory zeal. ‘Excellent!’ she smiled, which almost made her look like a woman. ‘Now tell me frankly,’ she glanced at the examination sheet, ‘Boot. Have you read the book?’
You know how it is. At some point a man must recover his honour at whatever cost. Honour can under certain circumstances be more valuable than life, which explains the charge of the Light Brigade and my answer to the mousy creature’s question. ‘No, I haven’t,’ I said. ‘And I can promise you that I will never in my whole life read, whatever the provocation, anything produced by that crushing bore Gorky.’ ‘A literary critic, are we?’ the woman became sarcastic again. ‘Dismissed!’ An English sergeant major would have a lot to learn from a Soviet professor.
I walked out into the hall, where Anikeyev was waiting for me or, to put it more precisely, for the drink I had promised to buy him if he stuck around. ‘How did it go, old man?’ Only noonish, but his speech was already slurred.
I replied with an obscene Russian colloquialism that can be roughly translated as ‘I don’t think I did at all well, actually.’ ‘Oh, well,’ said Anikeyev who had just been expelled from our night school for drink-induced absenteeism, ‘those are the breaks. How about Palatnikov though? The last-ditch man?’ ‘Listen,’ I said, ‘if the old bastard delivers on this one, I’ll lose whatever illusions of justice I have.’ ‘If you have any left,’ said Anikeyev affectionately, ‘you’re even a bigger arsehole than I thought you were.’
Ten minutes later, a man with a Chaliapin-quality basso announced the results: ‘Avilova, 4; Astafiev, 3; Astakhov, failed; Batyuk 4; Bauman, failed; Bolin, failed; Boot, 5…’ – and my faith in justice was for ever lost, a small price to pay for guaranteed admission to one of Moscow’s better institutes.