I had just come back from a strawberry fayre deep in the Welsh countryside when I heard about the fatal shooting of Colonel Yury Budanov in Moscow.
The memory of strawberries and cream and elderly women biding for cakes faded fast as I read about Budanov’s death in the Russian capital. I pictured it all; the body lying on the hard, cold street, the inevitable grainy CCTV images of the suspect, the soon-to-appear rumors and conspiracy theories. Budanov became a hero to the nationalist movement for his drunken and brutal murder of 18-year-old Chechen villager Elza Kungayeva in 2000 and the aftermath of his slaying would, I feared, be particularly nasty. Suspicion was certain to fall on the Chechens, adding more fuel to rising ethnic tensions.
I can’t say I was overwhelmed with grief at the news of the death of Budanov, but the story got to me in a way I didn’t expect. I’d already been in Britain for my longest stretch since 1997, and after the initial buzz and novelty of the well-ordered British way of life had worn off, I’d found my thoughts turning eastwards. I’d begun to, if not exactly pine, then become curious about what was going on back in my adopted homeland.
This was what was going on, the news said. The same old story. I was surprised I’d even wondered. After all, it was hardly likely that Russia had transformed into a land of peace, harmony and enlightenment in the two weeks or so since I’d flown out from Domodedovo airport. (Perhaps if I’d given it a month or two?)
I walked out of the cottage and breathed in the fresh air. Somewhere, a goat bleated. A horse peered over the gate of a nearby paddock. I even thought I heard an early owl hoot.
It was, of course, an all-too obvious reaction to the pristine countryside and the news of yet another apparent contract killing in Moscow, but Russia, with all its accompanying tensions and conflicts, suddenly seemed much further away than a four-hour plane ride.
It was tough, even, to imagine that all the corruption, crime, and cynicism that plagues modern Russia really existed. For a split second, I entertained the thought that the country I have called my home for well over a decade was a mere figment of my imagination, a psychosis that I was slowly being cured of. Was this green and pleasant village a rest home I had been sent to in order to come to my senses? A gentle prod back to the world of reason and reality?
Like Dorothy at the end of the Wizard of Oz, perhaps I had simply emerged from a particularly deep and meaningful fantasy? Were Putin, Medvedev and the rest of the jolly gang simply my own version of the Wizard and the Wicked Witch of the West? Was the Kremlin my very own Emerald City? It was a tempting thought and one I ran with for a few minutes...but no, I told myself, eventually, Russia is real.
Russia is real. Russia is real. Russia is real.
It’s hardly surprising though that I had begun to doubt the existence of the Russian Federation. After all, the Budanov story was one of the few news items about Russia I had read since arriving in Britain. I was staying in a cottage in the remote countryside, cut off from the Internet, with only a daily newspaper to keep me in touch with the outside world. There wasn’t too much information about Russia on offer. And what news was to be found, was almost exclusively grim. (No, not “almost” – it was relentlessly bleak.)
I’ll be heading back to Moscow in a couple of days. And while I’m pretty sure now that Russia exists independently of my imagination, I still can’t be 100 percent certain. After all, as Fyodor Tyutchev said in his oft-quoted poem, “all you can do is believe in Russia.”
But what happens if you stop believing? Or at least express doubt? Does the whole place simply fade away?
I guess I’ll find out for certain on June 23. Watch this space for developments.
From lurid tales of oligarch excess to scare stories about Moscow’s stranglehold on Europe’s energy supplies, the land that gave us Roman Abramovich and Vladimir Putin is very rarely out of the news. But there is much more to modern Russia than billionaire tycoons and political conspiracy. Marc Bennetts’ weekly column, Deeper Than Oil, goes beyond the headlines to explore the hidden sides of the world’s largest, and often strangest, country.
Marc Bennetts is a journalist (The Guardian, The Observer, The Times, and more) and the author of Football Dynamo: Modern Russia and the People’s Game (Virgin Books).