Russia, Steven Gerrard and football’s babushkas

Posted by Farman on July 12, 2004, 12:19:40 PM

A few months ago I was sent out on a work trip to Moscow, in Roman Abramovich’s home country, on a mission to expand business opportunities for the private school I work for. In most countries I visit I find myself negotiating sharply with parents and agents alike over price, and usually end up giving hefty discounts – based on student performance – to my target audience of middle class families. However, what struck me most about my first experience of post-Soviet Russia was the near-absolute lack of a middle class. Everyone appeared to be either filthy rich or somewhere around the poverty line.

Abramovich is at another extreme altogether, but the sudden and spectacular transformation from communist to capitalist seems to have created an elite of mega millionaires who revel in a continually expanding cycle of wealth and power, whilst leaving millions stuck in the poverty trap they have always been in - but now without state support. Whilst the rich trade up Porsches for Ferraris and Limousines for Lear Jets in a crazy show of keeping up with the Jonesoviches, the poor have to get by in whatever way they can. Hundreds appeared to me to have set their sights on the tourist dollar (and it is dollars that they seek) through hawking their wares on little market stalls.

Among the meagre tourist tat of fake fur hats and Red Army trinkets these people struggle to peddle are babushkas, or Russian Dolls to you and me. Not only are these charming objects popular with tourists but also with the rich and poor of Russian society. Naturally they vary greatly in both the quality of the wood and the intricacy of the decoration, but even the cheapest ones cost a few roubles. That is as long as they are undamaged, consistent and complete. I was offered hefty discounts of my own for bastardised combinations of different sets. But of course no-one really wants one of those, even if the big outer doll is the only one that’s ever going to be on display, which is why sellers usually put the smallest model at the heart of the set on show together with the biggest one on the outside to show how big and consistent any particular set is.

At Liverpool, we have our own collection of babushkas, some fit to be called dolls, some fit to be called fine works of art. One in particular stands out, hand carved over a number of years from the finest Scouse teak, ornately decorated in blood red and 24 carat gold, the emblem of the family that made it sat proudly on its chest as a hallmark of quality, and with the glorious pattern repeated on each of the fifteen models within. On our market stall it has pride of place, with a sign hanging around its neck marked ‘FOR DISPLAY ONLY - NOT FOR SALE’.

Yet just a couple of weeks ago a wily Russian Doll collector approached our stall from the back. With a sly smile he removed the sign around our doll’s neck, and before we could protest, showed up something in our prized possession that mortified us all. Reaching out for that final fifteenth doll, he twisted and manipulated the wood this way and that, revealing finally a join that came apart, splitting the doll in two and uncovering a sixteenth doll that none of us suspected was there. The gold décor was immaculate as ever, yet the colour was, inexplicably and shockingly, blue. The very heart of our proudest possession was an imperfect imitation of the multiple models we had grown to love and admire.

How could we never have noticed this fundamental fault in our finest work? Why would it possibly have that fault when the rest of it had always appeared so perfectly red? And how could we have such an item on display when its very heart was flawed? The doll collector was ready with his roubles, ready to use his millions to add the finest piece so far to his collection. We’d just have to take the money and see what other dolls we could buy from fellow traders. Our new tradesman seemed to know a fair bit about dolls from further afield, and had some smart ideas about how to position them on our stall for maximum success. Yet, no matter how many dolls we got, and regardless of the quality and the price, none could ever match the pride we felt in our family’s finest possession.

It was only as we got ready to place doll into doll for one final time in packing up and selling that we noticed, yes, a join in the sixteenth doll. Inside, number seventeen, the last and final doll. And it was as red as the others.

So that sealed it. No need to sell. The red heart at the centre went on display with the glorious, imposing outer model, and that horrible sixteenth doll was tightly packed away inside all the others. The doll collector was politely told to piss off to the next door stall, where they have a popular potato-shaped babushka they were privately desperate to sell to avoid going bust and to replace a few struts on their rickety stand (silly fools still going on about a stall-share with us, and backed by the market inspector as well, surely a few roubles exchanging hands somewhere…).

And now we’re back to looking for new dolls to position on our stall, whilst trying to sell on a couple of dodgy dolls some French traders ripped us off for made of suspect Senegalese chipboard, probably back to some other Frenchman. This year we’ve also got the wealthiest European tourists to look forward to negotiating with, and there’s big money there.

Meanwhile we can hope to discreetly sand down that sixteenth doll and touch it up in its proper colour. Maybe when the time comes that our beautiful doll is looking old and tatty, or when our other products cease to justify keeping such a fine piece, we may want to sell it on. For now, to many of those outside our stall, it will be as if nothing has ever happened; after all the babushka will be back to serving its purpose as well as ever - and probably better than ever now it is an even more impressive display. But I for one will always be bothered that deep near the core of that wonderful babushka – perhaps not at the very heart, but somewhere – something will never quite be as I always thought and hoped it was. We were close to a sale, and the fact that we didn’t sell should never detract from the fact that, for all sorts of reasons, it should never have even come close to happening.

Perhaps the reason the doll collector was so attracted to the whole business of dolls in the first place was the parallels he saw with his own country’s fortunes. A few years ago, football too used to belong to, and be about, the people. Sure, nothing was ever perfect and the game was beset with problems, but it was still our game. Now, the lucky, happy few get rich off the back of the masses that actually got them to where they are, detached totally from the real world they inhabit, and it will keep getting worse until it reaches some sort of final breaking point.

We’ve learnt that there’s much that’s unpleasant within the babushka that is the beautiful game. Casual observers only see the superficial outer doll, showing simply a wonderful and intriguing sport, but those that care, that matter, have witnessed and endured the successive dolls within that affect real fans. This starts with commercialisation and television money, and within that the focus of clubs on profit, and within that the marginalisation of the working classes, and within that the abandonment of traditions, and within that the sterilisation of atmosphere, and so on. Each time the doll gets smaller, and football loses something. I, for one, dread to think what kind of little babushka is at football’s core.

© Farman 2004

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