Posted by philwhiteland on Tue, 28 May 2019
Part 1 of The Moscow Chronicles
The darkening skies all around the aircraft rather match my mood. It’s only 15.00 GMT but it’s already as black as night out there. This, I suppose, is only to be expected as it is November and I’m flying eastward, away from the setting sun.
I’m on a flight from Heathrow to Moscow - Domodedovo Airport to be precise. It’s the year 2005 and I’m not doing this for fun, as you will have probably guessed, it’s part of my work. This may come as a surprise to those whose last encounter with my work-related exploits was in 1976 when I was a Statistical Clerk at Harold Wesley Ltd. In Burton upon Trent. Trips to Moscow were not a feature of that employment. In fact I never even made it as far as their Head Office in Harlesden! 29 years have sailed by and quite a lot of water has been passed under the bridge since Wesley’s.
I’m now working at a leading university in the MIdlands. I’ve been doing odd bits for their Department of Human Resources ever since 1999, when I completed my studies there but now, as of 2005, I’m actually on the payroll and leading a course of my own. Why then am I flying out to Moscow? Well, there’s a bit of a scramble amongst the universities to set up overseas courses and attract foreign students, largely because they pay full fees and therefore help top up the coffers but also because there is a certain prestige in having the worth of your courses recognised abroad. Our Department has stolen a bit of a march on its competitors by establishing our Postgraduate Diploma in Human Resource Management course in Moscow with the blessing and authorisation of the Chartered Institute of Personnel Management (CIPD) whose professional qualifications this leads to.
The course has recently successfully completed its first cohort and the university and the Department are keen to involve as many of the Department’s teaching staff as possible in the delivery of the programme. I am not one of life’s intrepid travellers and never have been, so I’ve been trying to keep a low profile on this one but it has been made clear to me that it would do my new-found teaching career no harm at all to be involved with this.
I’m also at a disadvantage because, being new to the game, even with my course leadership and associated teaching responsibilities taken into account, I still don’t have enough ‘hours’ to my credit to match the amount that I need to fill my part-time teaching contract. Don’t think, for a moment, that I’m spending my days with my feet up on a beach somewhere. I’m actually working more hours than I’m being paid for but you only get so many ‘hours’ allocated to each activity and these don’t necessarily bear any relation to the actual time it takes to, for example, prepare lessons or mark students’ work. As a consequence, I need to find more teaching opportunities to beef up my notional hours, so I’m in no position to turn down the chance to teach on the Postgraduate course in Moscow.
A number of us in the Department expressed an interest in the course. Some because they relished the idea of foreign travel, others like me because they have been ‘guided’ towards this. One of the beauties of working for a university is that they are never short of experts on pretty much any subject and so a resident expert on living and working in Russia was wheeled out to give us a half-day introductory course on Russian culture, norms and values, along with some basic knowledge of Cyrillic script so that we could have a stab at understanding any signs we might come across. Never optimistic about my involvement, my gloom deepened as the course progressed and sank further when I bought the great man’s text book on the topic.
In the fullness of time, I was offered a Module Leader’s spot on the course. This was a good thing in many ways because (1) it meant more notional hours and (2) because it was a module I had already taught in the U.K. and therefore had lessons pre-prepared. Module Leadership often meant that you were in charge of a number of lecturers who were contributing to that module, but that wouldn’t be the case in this instance because I would be doing all of the teaching.
My module would be taught in two two-day sessions, the first in November and the second in January. The university would arrange my accommodation and transfers to and from the airport, I just had to arrange my own flights. The deal was that I could fly out on the Thursday, have a day to do whatever I wanted to do in Moscow on the Friday, teach on Saturday and Sunday and then fly home on the Monday.
Flights to Moscow from the U.K. could take you to one of two airports. Sheremetyevo was the oldest airport, I was told, and tended to be the one that indirect flights took you to, whereas Domodevedo was more modern (having recently been reconstructed) and direct flights from Heathrow on B.A. took you there. I don’t really like flying at the best of times and so the idea of catching not one but two planes didn’t appeal. Hence, on the relevant Thursday morning, I was being driven to Heathrow Airport by my brother-in-law, accompanied by my wife, who was to stay with her brother and sister-in-law in Ascot over the weekend whilst I was in the frozen wastes, and then return home with me when I returned on Monday.
Which brings me back to where we started. My flight left Heathrow at lunchtime and was scheduled to arrive at Domodedovo around 16.30 GMT, which would be around 20.30 in Moscow because of the four hour time difference. My day was being shrunk which the encircling gloom testified as we travelled remorselessly eastwards. I wondered what was in store for me? My knowledge of Russia had been framed, over the years, by spy films and bleak documentaries from the Soviet era. Was this what I had to look forward to? What would my Russian students be like? Would we understand each other? Would they laugh at my jokes? Would I be able to work the display equipment wherever I was teaching? What would I do if it all went wrong??
These and a whole host of other concerns were churning through my mind throughout the flight and I knew that only time would tell.