My friend N’s dacha in the countryside outside Moscow has been a refuge for 20 years. It’s actually two houses: the wonky Soviet-era one, built by her father, a screenwriter and relatively privileged Soviet intellectual, and the much larger, more comfortable but – to my nostalgic mind – less characterful one that she and her husband B built after the USSR fell apart.
The wonky house was my first proper entrée into Russian domestic life. I remember feeling extraordinarily privileged to sit at their long dining table for word games, meals that lasted the entire afternoon, fierce but bloodless arguments, and tea from a samovar.
N and I are corresponding over WhatsApp during the pandemic, sharing memes about the shortcomings of our respective governments. I send N a rude one about the prime minister. N sends one back, snarkily juxtaposing Chinese workers hosing down their streets with a truckload of disinfectant with a Russian priest shaking holy water over the afflicted.
When real life returns to normal, one of the first things we’ll do is set off east to pay N a visit.
During the lockdown, my family reminisce about trips abroad the way castaways on a raft fantasise about french fries and knickerbocker glories. The appeal of Moscow isn’t just N’s dacha and legendary Russian hospitality; it’s also about the long train ride east from London. After weeks of isolation, we no longer need to get anywhere in a hurry. The journey gives us the chance to enjoy the sensation that the world is healing itself. Incredibly, the views out of the window betray no hint of the turmoil we’ve all lived through. If anything, the landscapes are more beautiful than I remember.
On our first visit to Moscow, the children had no interest in the old buildings or stories of war and revolution. Coming back, they have a sense of their own connection to the place, and the epidemic has given them a vertiginous glimpse of their own place in history. We have travelled together through an immense historical event. It’s awakened a sense that travel itself is a history lesson, and that Russian resilience through extraordinary swings of fortune is one of the most remarkable monuments in history.
Sitting out in the long September dusk, nursing glasses of Armenian brandy, we toast the world’s good health and watch N’s grandson and my children play football. The children are roughly the same age. It makes me happy that for all the drama of the recent past, this year will also include warm memories of N’s gooseberry bushes, the stream behind the wonky dacha, and B’s plov.
• Marcel Theroux’s latest novel is The Secret Books (Faber, £12.99)
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