When my parents left Moscow for London with me in 1995, they packed pretty lightly and unsentimentally. Part of the emotional baggage they left behind was a box of photos and videos of me, taken on a much-passed around sacrosanct camera.
I was born in Moscow in 1991, the month after the official collapse of the U.S.S.R, the first month they started issuing Russian Federation birth certificates. Daria Pavlovna Lisitsina, baby of collapse and chaos, child of the future. The 90s had a newfound sense of freedom and infinite possibility, but shelves in stores were once again empty. The basics were hard enough to come by as it was, but one friend of my parent’s – the son of Soviet bureaucrats – had used his status to acquire something completely out of the ordinary: his own personal video camera. This was practically absurd at the time, like owning your personal 3D printer today.
The stuff shot on that camera was the only evidence I have of my pre-London life and I’d never seen it. With my sisters’ photos adorning the walls of the house I grew up in, I felt almost a bit cheated – cheated of the opportunity to master my own narrative. My past was dusting in some unknown godforsaken Moscow attic.
But last year my dad got a call from a friend. Seriezha was clearing out his mother’s flat – the one where they used to hang out and listen to black market Beatles records in their acid-wash black market 501 Levis – and under fading yearbook photos from pioneer summer camp – rows of kids with red neckties and toothpaste ad smiles – he found the box of videotapes.
When I came home for Christmas last year, there was a bubble wrapped cardboard box in our living room marked “Caution: Fragile”. When I opened the box, it was full of these tiny videocassette tapes – these exotic specimens of analogue technology –little bits of frozen time waiting to be re-winded.
Exhibit A: I’m leaning on a miniature rake, in paisley shorts, pretending to help tend to the pumpkin patch outside my grandma’s country house. In the background two lean men are fixing the window of the wooden house. I can’t help thinking that the clip looks like propaganda for how to raise a socialist worker child. Maybe it’s the grainy quality of the film, maybe it’s the familiar iconography: homemade vodka, gherkins, the communal vegetable patch.
Objectively, the home videos are terminally dull to watch. I was addicted though. I guess it was a mixture of narcissism and psychic archaeology. I wondered what my life would have been like had my parents stayed in Moscow. How different I would have been, what I would have been doing now. Sliding doors, missed trains.
Last summer I travelled through Russia on the Trans-Siberian Railway. It was supposed to be a back-to-my-roots type trip, but the result was quite dissapointingly the opposite. The psychic landscape of the place – the brutalist soviet architecture, the days of monotonous mesmerising forest, the ice cream brands – they felt familiar but I didn’t feel a real connection beyond sheer recognition. Though I’d heard and read lots about them, these were not the streets and parks I grew up in.
And people found it difficult to place me. I was travelling with an English friend and someone asked me if I was a translator for one of the Spice Girls, who are still popular on Siberian radio. My Russian accent was near faultless, but my habits and mannerisms, gave me away. I said please and thank you and sorry way too much for one thing – a particularly British tick –, and my pathetic slang was at least a decade out of date.
I ended up feeling more estranged. Perhaps that shouldn’t have come as surprise. The whole trip ended up being an anthropological excursion rather than a pseudo-homecoming. I was just a glorified tourist, of a memory that only ever existed on tapes.