As a teenager in the old Soviet Union, I had a fascination with the poetry of Igor Severyanin, an early 20th century Russian symbolist, whose work was branded ‘decadent’ and ‘anti-social’ by Soviet officialdom. In all the 70 years of Soviet power, only a couple of his books were published. They immediately became bibliographic rarities.
Particularly enjoyable was Severyanin’s collection of poems under the title Pineapples in Champagne, which sounded ‘decadent’ and therefore irresistible – largely due to the fact that pineapples in the USSR were as rare as snowstorms in the Sahara desert.
I had my first pineapple at the age of ten at a friend’s birthday party. His father had just returned from Moscow where he acquired this exotic tropical fruit from a street vendor after four hours of queuing. We had never seen a pineapple before, only read about it in the poem by Vladimir Mayakovsky, which was compulsory learning in our school curriculum:
And munch hazel-hens,
Your final hours are approaching,
You vicious capitalist!’
The magical ‘capitalist’ fruit was cut into a dozen thin, almost transparent, slices – one for each guest. I will never forget the taste. How shall I describe it? Blissful? Divine? I didn’t know the word ‘orgasmic’ then.
My second, third and 55th pineapples came 20 years later, in 1984, when on a journalistic assignment to the town of Blagoveshchensk in the Soviet Far East, a ten-hour flight from Moscow.
Blagoveshchensk is a curious place. Situated on the bank of the Amur River, along which the border with China runs, it faces the Chinese city of Heihe on the opposite side. Back then, from my room in the Yubileyniy Hotel, I had a clear visa-free view of ‘Red China’, just a few hundred metres away across the Amur. I could see ramshackle clay houses with small blast furnaces on the roofs – the aftermath of the Great Leap Forward when every Chinese neighbourhood was forced to melt iron.
It was seven years since the death of Mao Tse-tung, and the Cultural Revolution was effectively over. That’s why there were no more ‘Let’s Pull Together’ slogans on the buildings, and the countless finger-shaped chimneys of the useless in-house furnaces were sticking out into the sky like peculiar phallic obelisks on the mass grave of human stupidity.
I could even see the people – all dressed in dark-blue or dark-grey fatigues and riding antediluvian bicycles. My first ever glimpse of the world outside the Soviet Union. Although visa-free, it was not particularly inspiring.
The shops in Blagoveshchensk were as bare as everywhere else in the USSR. Practically nothing was on sale. ‘Milk is available only to the sick in possession of a doctor’s prescription,’ ran the hand-written signs in shop-windows.
A couple of weeks before my arrival, however, a stray foreign freighter had been stranded in the town’s port. She was carrying a load of Vietnamese pineapples, which were starting to rot. There was little choice but to unload all several hundred tons of this sensitive cargo in Blagoveshchensk and sell it through local shops. That was how the godforsaken town – almost overnight – became the pineapple capital of the Soviet Union.
As a result of that sudden tropical windfall, pineapples were sold on every street corner. They were piled in the windows of all the town’s stores – even bookshops. The air smelt of rotting pineapples, which became the main (and often the only) component of the locals’ diet. Schoolchildren were having pineapple sandwiches for their lunches. Drunks in parks and gateways were munching on pineapples to chase their glasses of vodka – a substitute for herring and pickled cucumbers, not seen in Blagoveshchensk since the 1950s.
Whether I wanted it or not, I suddenly had to eat pineapples three times a day.
After a week of such enforced tropical diet my tongue felt rough and as rigid as a piece of sandpaper stuck into my mouth. I was also suffering from a permanent thirst that was impossible to quench: due to the breakdown of the town’s plumbing system, only boiling water was coming out of both taps in my hotel room.
It was then that I recalled the title of Severianin’s collection – Pineapples in Champagne – and decided to diversify the monotonous pineapple menu by adding a touch of ‘decadence’ to it. The immediate problem was champagne – not just unseen, but also unheard of in Blagoveshchensk. Instead, I had to satisfy myself with a bottle of cheap, sparkling plonk placed into an otherwise empty fridge in my room.
The pineapple was chopped into small rectangular lumps and tossed into the glass. The plonk started bubbling and foaming. You can observe a similar chemical reaction if you drop a piece of chalk into a cup of vinegar. The chemical composition of the alcohol was probably close to that of sulphuric acid.
Without waiting for the foaming to subside, I gulped the glass down, choking simultaneously on the icy liquid and a pineapple chunk. When the coughing subsided, it felt as if I had just swallowed an ice-cold grater made of stainless steel. Still, heroically, with a truly Soviet stoicism better known as stupidity, I carried on until both the plonk and the pineapple were gone.
By the following morning, a civil war between two utterly incompatible substances was under way inside my stomach. Lying on my bed, I was sweating, shivering and moaning silently.
I was saved by the editor of a local paper who popped in unannounced for a courtesy chat. Having appraised the situation with one quick glance at the mess on the table and at my wriggling, supine body that continued to be mutilated from inside, he asked briskly: ‘What have you drunk?’
‘Pineapples in champagne,’ I whispered.
‘Don’t move!’ he barked and rushed out.
Five minutes later, he returned with a bottle of vodka and a huge leaking packet of table salt. He poured vodka into a glass, added a generous handful of salt, stirred it violently with his rough, nicotine-stained index finger and handed it over to me.
I tried to protest, but he forced the glass down my throat. A flash of lightning pierced my brain. A Krakatoa volcano erupted in my stomach. I don’t remember how I reached the bathroom.
Two hours later I was cured and felt as fresh as a proverbial Russian cucumber. Looking through the window at the hardworking Chinese across the Amur River, I couldn’t help feeling that they were laughing at me. They obviously had no idea of what ‘decadence’ was about.
My own fruity (if not fruitful) ‘experiment’ was a success after all: it taught me that good things should only be enjoyed in moderation and that overindulging could be ruinous, even life-threatening. As Buddhists say, all in moderation, including moderation. I now know exactly what Mayakovsky meant.