Review: Harald Lipman’s “Memories of Moscow: Memoirs of a Medical Diplomat”

Humanity and Humour

Nicola Ramsden 

“We were merely observers”, writes Dr Harald Lipman of the eventful years between 1983 and 1991 when, as 1st Secretary, Medical Attaché to the British Embassy in Moscow, “history was being made around us”. Dr Lipman did rather more than observe, however. He set up the Moscow Medical Association in 1987 to establish closer relations between expatriate medical staff and Soviet medical colleagues, arranged Anglo-Soviet medical exchanges, and helped to establish the ‘Friends of Tushino Hospital’ otherwise known as Moscow Children’s Hospital No. 7. Tushinskaya Trust, which grew out of this, oversaw a collaboration with Great Ormond Street Hospital that lasted until the Trust was wound up in 2020. By that time, Tushinskaya Trust had opened the first school of paediatric nursing in the Russian Federation, published a manual of paediatric nursing, and had funded almost sixty young Russian and Kazakh paediatricians to spend three months as clinical observers in London at Great Ormond Street Hospital. 

Red Square, Moscow, 1989

These were significant achievements, and Dr Lipman would clearly like to have done still more, had not Soviet inertia and suspicion stifled other attempts at medical exchange and collaboration, most tragically on AIDS. His description of the Soviet medical system in the 1980s is grim: an outdated and didactic system, governed by “artificial norms” and with minimal patient contact, so that “the holistic care of patients did not exist”. Doctors were badly paid and had low status, and this was reflected in poor medical treatment, compounded by low-quality nursing. Despite this, Dr Lipman notes in a typically wry aside that, “Rather like the situation in the West, the upper echelons of the profession had a different view of themselves”.  

Dr Lipman is a keen observer, perhaps reflecting his own medical training.  He ranges far beyond his primary responsibility of sorting out the medical mishaps of diplomats, business-people, students, and visitors to the British Embassy. Based on his diaries and recollections, his memoirs jump with dizzying speed – and in a manner that is more kaleidoscopic than chronological or thematic – from the diplomatic cocoon of the Embassy to hospitals, private apartments, restaurants, art galleries, concert halls, dachas, and distant Soviet republics. Many readers will recognise the fabric of everyday life that Dr Lipman records in passing: the heavy smell of petrol; dry skin from winter-heated apartments; cross-country skiing in parks; the sweetness of a spoon of jam with tea; itching eyes from poplar tree ‘pukh’; and yellow violets in the woods. He captures the disorienting effect of moving between countries – the “unusual pleasure to see cafes with happy people and displays of flowers” on a trip to Tallinn – and the paradox of feeling culture shock on visits back to London, followed by “an overwhelming feeling of coming home” when returning to Moscow.  

Cross-country skiing on the outskirts of Moscow

Dr Lipman’s sense of homecoming might have something to do with his own Russian heritage. His mother’s family left Orel and arrived in Glasgow two years after the 1905 revolution, and the family samovar accompanied him on his postings in Moscow. As an evacuee to Goring on Thames in the Second World War he discovered copies of Soviet Weekly in the station waiting room on his way to school, and was taught to sing a Shostakovich song by his chemistry teacher, who was a member of the local Communist party. Many years later in Moscow his curiosity is drawn to evidence of historic contact between Russia and Britain. He tells us that the ubiquitous little ‘fortochki’ windows (the only means of controlling centrally heated room temperature in winter) were said to have been introduced in the 19th century by an English engineer called Fortescue, and that TsUM – the Central Universal Store – had been the Scottish-owned Muir & Merrilees before the 1917 Revolution. 

Historically important events punctuate the memoirs: the shooting down of Flight KAL 007 in 1983; the explosion at Chernobyl in 1986; the Armenian earthquake in 1988; and the escalation of events leading to the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991. Well-known names turn up in Moscow: Dr Lipman advises Isaiah Berlin on a minor medical problem and dines with him and Alfred Brendel; he is entertained by Alan Bennett and Sue Townsend; he lunches with the author Chingiz Aytmatov at his Peredelkino dacha, and is on standby during visits of UK government ministers, royalty, and most famously Margaret Thatcher (“Nasha Masha” – “Our Maggie”). We trust his doctor’s eye when he notes that Boris Yeltsin “appeared to be very dishevelled and drunk” when they meet at a reception in the Italian Embassy. 

Pectopah, the Siberian forest cat

The parade of the famous is eclipsed by two engaging characters. One of these is Pectopah, the enigmatic Siberian forest cat who rules the Embassy grounds and “graciously permitted us to stay in [her] flat in the Embassy”. Pectopah’s name is down to a young English child’s recognition of misleadingly familiar letters in the Cyrillic alphabet. Despite occasionally sinking her claws into the hands of friendly visitors, Pectopah endears herself so much to the Lipman family that they get permission to bring her back to England after their final posting. The Russian vet who stamps the authorisation cannot understand it: “Why do you want to take a cat to England? Leave her behind and take me instead.”  

The other colourful character is Nahid Lipman, Dr Lipman’s wife. A qualified nurse and midwife, Nahid is prepared to step in when it proves impossible to recruit a nurse for the Embassy, and she helps to hand out packs of Marlboro cigarettes to guards and customs officials in order to extract a delivery of diphtheria vaccine from Sheremetyovo airport’s goods terminal. Like her husband, she has an eye for the interesting and absurd – she accompanies Embassy visitors to an unhygienic cake factory invaded by pigeons, and notes that the pigeon droppings are hard to distinguish from the cream going into the eclairs. A photograph shows her dressed magnificently as a Persian princess at a fundraising ball. One of her finest appearances in the memoirs, however, is her confrontation with an Embassy guard who unwisely refuses to let her enter the grounds and finds himself pushed into the snow. 

Nahid Lipman dressed as a Persian princess at a fundraising ball

The memoirs come to an end in 1991, and much of the work that Dr Lipman continued in Russia – on preventive cardiology as well as childcare – is to be covered in a sequel, Memories beyond MoscowShortly before his departure, The BEARR Trust was founded by Lady Jill Braithwaite, wife of the Ambassador, to “mitigate the catastrophic effects on the health and welfare of Russians and the people of the Republics following the collapse of the USSR”. Thirty years on, The BEARR Trust maintains its fundamental principle of encouraging small, local initiatives to improve health and wellbeing. Dr Lipman concludes that Tushinskaya Trust’s achievements were also at the micro level: “… we feel that in a small way, organisations such as Tushinskaya Trust have played a part in establishing an understanding and trust by the UK of Russia and the Russians, and of Britain and the British by Russia.” He acknowledges with sadness the absence of such trust at the macro level. 

May Day Parade, Suzdal, 1988

The memoirs are more than a record of a period of turbulence and transition. They are also the personal response of a man instinctively drawn to the humanity to be found even in dysfunctional systems. Dr Lipman shows that a sense of humour – in his case an appealing combination of Russian fatalism and British dry self-deprecation – can help an individual under pressure to stay afloat. Cat-lovers might not approve of his foray into veterinary medicine, with entertaining consequences for one of Pectopah’s Embassy associates following Dr Lipman’s administration of Valium. But they, and many other readers, might share his obvious enjoyment at the thought of hapless security service officials still trying to decipher, decades later, the pages torn from his diary by heavy-handed interrogators at Pulkovo airport in – at the time – Leningrad. His typical doctor’s scrawl might be difficult to read, but Dr Lipman’s memoirs show that it would be worth persisting. 

Memories of Moscow is available through Amazon

Dr Lipman is kindly donating 50% of royalties to The BEARR Trust. He and his fellow trustees wound up Tushinskaya Trust in 2020 and transferred the remaining assets to The BEARR Trust.  

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