When I heard the news that the Russian Federation would host the 2018 World Cup despite a near-perfect bid from England, I remembered my Russian.
My Russian was one of the very few great men I consider myself to have met. You won’t have heard of him, and I won’t give you his name.
Our paths crossed when I was working in a public library in an impoverished area of north London. A huge, bearded man with a voice deeper than a Volga boatman’s sat down in front of me at my enquiry desk, and we got to talking. He had been a university professor in the Soviet Union, but had abandoned his home and career so that his teenaged son could have the chance to grow up in the West. His son was now tearing through his comprehensive school whilst the father kept their council flat clean and did what scraps of work he could find.
Like so many new immigrants, he did not consider what he saw around him as economic poverty. His ramshackle pad was worlds better than what his old status in the USSR had afforded him, and the Golborne Road market stalls kept him in what he considered to be the style of kings and presidents.
What did shock him were the drugs. Now, it’s not as though my colleagues and I were unexposed to this: it was around about this time that the mother-daughter prostitute team would come screaming into our building provoked by their failure to score, and we had our share of poor souls with ravaged arms amongst our regular clientele. But for my Russian, all this was new.
So it started to happen that, one by one, local street junkies would find themselves being swept up by a great Russian bear, emerging some weeks later clean, happily bewildered, full of soup and stew, the colour back in their cheeks, their clothes washed and their appetite for life mysteriously restored.
I don’t know how he did it: something about not having been told he shouldn’t, I imagine. Perhaps he felt the strength of his own new freedom in London, and wanted to share it with those who had lost theirs to a different kind of unelected power. Or just force of personality. At any rate, Â he sat in front of me one day months into our acquaintance and said,
James – in my country we have beautiful laws. In your country – not so beautiful. But in your country, people obey the laws. And that is the difference.
Aye, aye, that is indeed the difference, which is why even mild displays of corruption in the UK lead usually to extended or indeed permanent banishment from public life.
So it really couldn’t have been other for me, that when FIFA handed 2018 to Russia, a decision as demanding of Kremlinology as any from Kosygin or Brezhnev, Â I remembered my Russian.