The souls of generosity, my host family in Tula are not from this area. One day at breakfast, Yekaterina tells me that they came to Russia from the Ukraine at the invitation of some relations for her to work in a private shop belonging to the ex-Prime Minister Chernomyrdin. She is an accountant and used to work in that role in the Ministry of the Interior which controls the police and the traffic inspectorate.
Her husband, Iosif, is now the deputy director of a building company which employs 125 people. But in the Ukraine he was the director of a State Farm and mayor of the local town. He shows me a picture of himself with the Orthodox Patriarch Irenaeus at the laying of the foundations of a new church in the Ukraine for which he helped to raise the funds. He often gets calls on his mobile at home involving tense and sometimes shouty conversations. I imagine that all is not going smoothly on some of his projects.
Iosif is always trying to make me feel at home. One day he takes for a drive round the city and for some reason we end up at a church. It’s very modern, clearly not Orthodox, more like a Lutheran or Baptist church. Inside we get into a rather bizarre conversation with an old lady and a young girl about God. They seem to be very fundamentalist and when Iosif says that he is Orthodox, they are quite critical of his religion. His big mistake is to mention monks – a bit of a red rag to evangelicals in my experience. It’s hard to tell whether he’s deliberately winding them up. When the ladies calm down a bit they try and invite me to a service, but I plead lack of time: we make our excuses and leave. In retrospect, I think Iosif was trying hard to make me feel more at home by showing me what he imagined to be the sort of church I am used to in England.
On another occasion, near the market I suddenly spot something which up to that point I had only seen illustrated in Russian language textbooks – a kvas wagon.
Kvas is a specifically Russian non-alcoholic slightly fizzy drink, made from water sugar and dried rye bread. The rye bread helps to make it start fermenting a bit, hence the fizz and sourness. On a hot day it’s really refreshing. Iosif tells me a story about a container falling off its base and splitting open in the street to reveal loads of worms. I gingerly sip my plastic cup full of kvas, which he notices, because he hastily tells me that this one is fine.
My hosts have very strong views about the state of Russian society. Putin, they think, is weak. Good at the talk and making promises, short on delivery. Everything’s going from bad to worse. Agriculture has completely broken down. The fields are not being sown, nor the land looked after, and a lot of food is being imported (eg potatoes from Argentina). Since the alleged Chechen attempt to blow up blocks of flats in Ryazan [exposed by Politkovskaya as an FSB plot to blame the Chechens], people have had metal doors put on the outside of their flats: “We live in cages!’, they tell me. Crime has gone up and in fact a man was robbed and killed in the entrance to their block.
“We need a strong leader like Stalin who can make things happen and get rid of people when they don’t deliver.” My blood runs cold. How can they possible want that tyrant and murderer back? I try to make the case for the importance of an opposition in a democratic society, but they sweep that aside: “What good would that do? Only a strong man can sort this out.”
It suddenly makes me aware of the gulf between us in terms of our history and political outlook.