LITTLE did I suspect, back in 1970, when I first closeted myself in the school library for hours on end to teach myself Russian, that the rest of my life would be shaped by a country of which, at the time, I knew very little. It was communist, had put a man in space, and had athletes with CCCP on their shirts. That was about it. Oh, and everyone was scared of it.

But it was none of these things that first ignited a Russian spark inside me. No, it was a beautiful tawny wooden box that sat on my bedroom table, a Pye wireless set, with five valves, eight wavebands and four Bakelite knobs, which I twiddled ceaselessly, entranced by the world’s languages, voices and music. As a teenager, I lived a double life, half-hippy, half-nerd. I spent much of my time playing guitar in a rock band and glued to the side of a girlfriend through the rain-soaked summers of north-east Scotland, vainly trying to bring some of the Woodstock spirit to my home town. The rest of my time I spent in front of that Pye radio set, mind-travelling around the world and marvelling at all the languages I didn’t speak.

The signal from the USSR was the clearest and most powerful on the ether. Inexplicably, the very sound of it made my heart jump. The ten-note call-sign pealed like frozen iron bells being struck on a black winter night. At the start of every broadcast a voice would declaim: “Govorit Moskva!” Just two words, but they quivered with emotion: “Moscow calling!” Then a choir struck up a Russian song that haunted me almost as much as the spine-tingling opening bars of Good Vibrations. I didn’t know then, but I know now, that the song was a classic piece of Soviet propaganda. Here’s a rough translation:

Wide is my motherland

Full of rivers, fields and trees.

I know of no other country

Where people breathe so free.

The station – Radiostantsiya Rodina, or Radio Motherland – broadcast in Russian and was mainly targeted at what it called “our compatriots abroad”. I had no idea what was being said, but I luxuriated in the euphony of the language – its dark, soft, sexy vowels, the clatter of its consonants, the susurrus of its fricatives and sibilants, the music of its intonations. Folk songs spirited me to Siberia. Readings of poetry, even if I understood no word, left me breathless at their beauty. Perhaps my subconscious was telling me: lips that produced such heavenly sounds surely had to be kissed. I sent off for the booklets that accompanied the station’s Russian lessons. Meanwhile, in an Edinburgh bookshop I bought what must surely be the most unsuccessful textbook ever published. Titled Teach Yourself Russian through Reading, it aimed to plunge learners straight into the delights of Russian literature – to wit, in the very first chapter, a passage from Tolstoy’s War and Peace. Thus the first Russian sentence I ever tried to learn was: “When Prince Andrew entered the study, the old prince in his old-man’s spectacles and white dressing gown, in which he received no one but his son, was sitting at the table writing. He looked round.” From such texts one was supposed to “assimilate” Russian grammar, and by the end of lesson one we’d done reflexive verbs, past tenses, possessive pronouns and several conjugations – and learned interesting phrases such as “The splutters flew from his creaking pen”.

I struggled on for a few more pages, but was thankful when the Radio Moscow booklets finally arrived, and I was soon practising more useful sentences such as “Hello, my name is Viktor”, “This is my house”, and “My mum is a crane-operator”. It was the language itself that attracted me at this stage. The love of literature came later.

The USSR insinuated itself into my mind in other ways too. When I was seven Yuri Gagarin flew into space. A year later the West was on the brink of nuclear war with Russia during the Cuban missile crisis. The Soviet national anthem kept being played at the Olympic Games. Some of the most colourful postage stamps in my Stanley Gibbons Swiftsure album were marked CCCP, and showed men in welder’s goggles, women with sheaves of corn, athletes, sputniks, the hammer-and-sickle motif, and an earnest man with a goatee beard, gripping the lapel of his overcoat – whereas our stamps in those days rarely depicted anything but the Queen’s head.

The National:

I CAME from a politically engaged family – my parents were active in the Labour Party – but I knew little about the realities of the Soviet “workers’ state” ...until 1968. That August two boys from Czechoslovakia were staying with my family for a couple of days before they went off to camp in Perthshire with the Scottish Schoolboys’ Club. They were a year or so older than me (I was 14), and when they spotted my shortwave wireless they excitedly tuned in to Radio Prague. To their horror it was broadcasting a stark announcement that the country had been invaded by Soviet and Warsaw Pact troops and that the reforming “Prague Spring” government (thanks to which the boys were able to travel abroad) had been overthrown. The joy of two lads looking forward to a fortnight in the Scottish Highlands drained from their faces as they heard the announcer call upon the Czechoslovak people – including their parents, back in Prague – to remain calm and not to provoke the occupying forces into causing bloodshed. We heard the announcers’ voices falter, and the rattle of gunfire as Soviet tanks began to shell the radio building. Now I had another reason to learn Russian. What was communism? Who was Brezhnev? Why did they invade other countries?

A year or so later I had learned enough to persuade my school to assign me “self-study” hours in the library (there was no Russian teacher) so that I could prepare for an O-Grade exam, and perhaps go on to study Russian at university. After two years of memorising declensions and imbibing Radio Moscow, I found the written examination easy – but when I opened my mouth at the oral test I realised it was the first time I had ever spoken Russian to another human being. Only then did I discover how important it was to emphasise the correct syllables in Russian words: a misplaced stress could change the meaning altogether, or simply make your words unintelligible.

This was remedied when I studied Russian at Aberdeen University, and for a year in Zurich. Finally, with my degree in my pocket, I was ready to set off. Something was hauling me away from Scotland like the tugging tide of the North Sea, and it was Russia.

Angus will appear at Wigtown Book Festival on Sunday, September 24