An Englishwoman on Homemade Burgers and Freedom in Russian Theatre

PHOTO by Varvara Lozenko / Afisha.Daily
A young theatre worker from London speaks about Moscow during the 2000s, dacha trips and interacting with Russians

Isabel Douglas-Hamilton

Occupation: International Projects Manager at Electrotheatre

Hometown: London, UK

I’ve loved Russian culture since I was a child. My mother told me how she came to Moscow during perestroika. She was 17 years old and someone in London asked her to bring books back by Sakharov, who was under house arrest at the time. She didn't even know who he was. I therefore associate adventure and romance with Russia and Moscow. Besides, my father was a pianist. He played pieces by Russian composers and they drove me crazy. Not to mention the Russian theatre, of course: Diaghilev, ballet, the whole thing.

When I turned 18, I decided to study drawing and I went to Muha [the St. Petersburg Art and Industry Academy] to get an old-fashioned Russian education. Nothing like that exists anymore in London. Our schools are very contemporary and I wanted a strictly classical training. Five years ago, it was difficult to find a place with normal food and reasonable prices in St. Petersburg. People then shied away a bit from foreigners but they still react as wildly.

Everyone was incredibly open and many people immediately wanted to be my friend. Casual acquaintances would invite me to a party at a former factory on the outskirts or to a club that had opened two seconds ago. It was all unexpected. I was frightened at first: I didn't know anyone, I didn't speak Russian, I had no friends and everything seemed very dangerous. I didn't know where to buy vegetables and I was afraid of the police. When I became friends with Muha students, everything started to be fine.

I visited Moscow for the first time when I was 18. I was here for four days and I was scared not of the police but of the pace of city life, its energy. When I came back to St. Pete after that, it seemed a bit boring.

Life there is so linear. I next came to Moscow when I was 22 and I already had some work experience, including with a theatre recruitment agency. I had a great time at Strelka, Solyanka and other clubs. Maybe it was the best period of my life. I was here for five months and then returned to London, and I incredibly, insanely missed Moscow.

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After London I lived in Paris, studied at the Sorbonne for a little bit and had an internship at Sotheby's. But so much more was happening in Moscow; it was flourishing in the early 2010s. The local contrasts are incredibly addictive and therefore many foreigners stay in Moscow. London is much more predictable and everything has its place in it. Paris is much more structured and clean in terms of design and architecture. London is a mixture of architectural styles and I love it just for that. In Moscow, you have huge skyscrapers, Khrushchev's blockhouses and old churches, a crazy mix that can look awful at one end of the street and incredible at the other.

What's unique in Moscow is the schedule. The city lives like a resort town. Everyone is working and having fun until late at night. If in London you call your friends to go bar hopping, they will say, "Lord, it's 11 pm! We have to get up early tomorrow." The answer in Moscow is "Of course." People have an interesting approach to time. In Britain, we've polished the art of exceptional courtesy that constantly falls into the trap of double meanings.

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Someone calls you for a coffee, never specifying where and when. Russians are straightforward and this can be both good and bad. When you're too pushy, you risk closing a lot of doors.

I remember saying thanks to someone at the theatre and hearing back, “You know, it's too early to thank me.” I asked what that meant and the answer was that you never know what else might happen. This is a feature of the Russian mentality. You are much more realistic. I like honesty, although I’m a little frustrated by the impoliteness of Russians.

You don't hesitate to say out loud what you think about people. For example, a Russian can ask how old I am and whether I'm already thinking about having children, or give advice. Some old lady once came up to me and said that I shouldn't smoke because it was bad for my health. Another time, I was taking a shortcut straight to a building and another old lady advised me not to go there because it was too dirty.

I live in the Patriarch's Pond neighbourhood. The streets are small here, everything is old and you can feel the spirit of the place. There are many cafes and shops, and the area seems much more European than others. Service here sometimes seems almost too European. And I love Georgian food! We don't have it in London and for you it's much like Chinese or Indian for us. As for strange Russian food, I love the "herring under the fur coat" salad. At first it seemed terrible, but with vodka it's not bad. I also love borscht, Uzbek pilaf and homemade burgers.

The host at my St. Petersburg apartment was always trying to treat me with huge portions of porridge with butter! I like that all the food, vegetables and meat is spread out on a table at a party in Russia. It's great that everyone arrives at a different time to lunch parties with a set time. Guests are quietly eating and the atmosphere is so relaxed.

There are many wonderful traditions in Russia, such as mushroom hunting. I love dachas; it's so great that many people have their own houses in a village. In England, you are lucky if you have a cottage. I like the small village of Petrushevo outside of Moscow. It's just five hours from the city but it seems as if it's at the edge of the world.

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When we got lost there, a man from a neighbouring village met us, seated us in his car and drove us home. Also, taxis in Moscow are great. You can raise your hand and catch a car at any time. Nothing bad has happened to me there. Well, except that one time a driver locked the door, but I ran away.

As for Russian men, they are good at opening doors and paying for dinner. It's not even a question for them; they just do it. It's a bit puzzling for me. I still don't understand why he has to pay for me, even though we have the same level of income. He's not my father or an old friend. On the other hand, if he wants to, why not.

Theatre in Moscow is incredible. It's more commercial in America and London, and there is more freedom here; no one is tied to offices or schedule. It's more like art, pure freedom of expression. I think sometimes it even has a negative influence on directors. They produce something that's pure madness, not thinking about the audience and its opinion.

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Still, Russians have the opportunity to see completely amazing performances that can hardly be found anywhere else. And it's unlikely that somewhere people would spend three hours at a show. British and American directors could only dream of such patience from the audience.

I'm working with a really cool company. The first thing I noticed when I came to Electrotheatre is that everyone says to each other, "Hello, welcome." I like Boris Yukhananov, a wonderful director who’s open to new ideas and able to see opportunities everywhere. How long I stay in Moscow will depend on the theatre. My contract ends this summer and then we'll see. In any case, I would like to continue working on cultural projects in Russia and the UK, to show your performances in my country and ours here.