Jeffrey, an elderly potter of some distinction, has been invited to attend a conference – ‘Crossing Borders: The Arts & Human Rights’ – where he is to deliver a presentation: ‘Agitprop ceramics: El Lissistsky to Grayson Perry’.
He is staying, along with other delegates, in International House, where a minder named Olaf welcomes him. The date of the building is shown above the door: 1936. It’s Socialist Classicism, an early form of Socialist, or Stalinist, realism perfectly exemplifying the period. The building is two stories tall and fronted by a long Doric colonnade topped by sculptures depicting male and female industrial workers. The entire facade is yellow ochre with brown floral wreath-like decorations at intervals as well as Hammers and Sickles in red and gold.
What was this building before it was a hotel for international visitors? Jeffrey asks.
District offices, Olaf replies. It is repurposed. This is way we have make the past useful in the present – what you English say – waste not, want not, yes? I show you room and then wait in entrance hall.
Repurposing is not in Jeffrey’s lexicon and it never will be in spite of its enthusiastic use by the apparatchik, Olaf.
The bedroom he’s been allocated is full of ersatz rococo golden furniture and furnishings. He sniffs; the room is dusty and there is a trace of cheap perfume in the air. The flowers in the vase on the writing desk have wilted. The ensuite bathroom makes him laugh: the floor is marble while every wall is covered with highly decorated engraved glass. No secrets here then, he chuckles. Back in the bedroom he opens the minibar: it is stacked full of 35ml bottles of vodka. He checks his watch; he has fifteen minutes before the plenary session.
In the vast entrance hall Olaf waits. There you are. All good, yes?
A bit over the top, if you don’t mind me saying so. There’s enough vodka to party for a week.
We wish to impress, Olaf laughs and, much to Jeffrey’s surprise, his minder claps him on the back. You have good time, yes?
In the square, at a suitable distance, Jeffrey studies the building. You said International House was once offices. What sort of offices?
Olaf smiles. Tell me, Jeffrey, what is tallest building you see?
Jeffrey looks carefully at his surroundings. I’d say the telecoms tower over there.
Olaf laughs. No, it’s International House.
How can that be?
In old days, yes? KGB house. Only building in city where you see Siberia from cellar. Olaf laughs, unable to control his mirth.
Jesus. What’s the cellar now? The Gulag disco?
For a moment Olaf looks amazed. How you know? He gently punches Jeffrey in the chest. Just joking, English. Dark humour good, yes?
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© Phil Cosker 2020
Phil Cosker has asserted his right under the Copyright, Designs & Patents Act 1988 to be identified as the author of this work. All rights reserved; no part of this work may be reproduced or transmitted by any mean, electronic, mechanical, photocopying or otherwise without the prior permission of the author.