Thursday, 6 December 2012


I have  been interested in the Soviet Union and Russia since my English teacher gave me a Penguin edition of Das Capital when I had read all the books in the form room library. Reading it was a struggle and I was not sold on most of Karl’s ideas. My college library took a magazine, Soviet Weekly (or monthly, I can’t remember) and it painted a picture of ideal life. And this from a country that was “the enemy”, the nation that threatened to wipe us out, surpass us economically, technically and ideologically.

Our history lessons, up to O level, ignored Russia apart from mentioning in passing that there had been a revolution in 1917, they had helped a bit in World War II.  We were not told about the Russian suffering. I do not put this down to bias, we studied British history. Yet this country, lagging behind the West managed to launch the first satellite, put the first man, and woman, in space and won lots of medals at the Olympics.

As a young adult I read books by Alexander Solsenytsin and Boris Pasternak. The “invasions” of Hungary and Czechoslovakia, the building of the Berlin Wall were disturbing the Cuban Missile crisis frightening.  But still I wanted to visit the USSR.  Married with children and a mortgage took most of my money so a trip to the “Evil Empire” seemed out of the question until the Education Authority said if you could persuade some sixth formers (years 12 and 13 in Newspeak) to sign up for a trip you could go along. As a sixth form tutor I managed to persuade several and so, sometime near Easter one year 150 students and 15 staff flew into Moscow from Stanstead Airport. Not exactly  Miami Beach and certainly not BOAC but about 10 am we landed at Sheremetova Airport, once the main international air terminal for the city.

The airport was built on land that, before the revolution belonged to the Sheremeteva family, possibly one  of the richest families in the world. At one time they “owned” 2 million serfs and lands throughout Russia.

We were not greeted by loyal family retainers however, but bussed to the terminal building where we stood in line to go through immigration, having first filled in a form stating how much money, we had and in what currency. We were told to keep the form until we left the country so that we could fill in the other side telling how much we were taking out. And under no circumstances were we to take roubles out of the USSR, or icons.

Next we had to stand in line before a row of glass booths and move forward beyond the red line when called. Our passports were checked by unsmiling officials who compared us with what appeared to be a rather large collection of undesirables.We all passed and went outside to be shepherded onto a small fleet of coaches to be taken to our hotel.

This is the view from my hotel window in Moscow

The hotel had been built to accommodate visitors to the Moscow Olympics, (1980) and was in need of a little refurbishment. I can’t remember its name although it began with M. (Not the Molotov, it didn’t have a cocktail bar.) One night it didn’t even have any beer. There are few sadder sights than half a dozen male teachers sitting in a bar drinking  lemonade.  We dutifully handed in our passports so we couldn’t escape and were promised they would be returned when we left. And then we were taken to our rooms which were  in need of decoration but were comfortable enough.

Once installed we had to return to the hotel reception area. There were a number of young ladies, heavily  made up, hanging around the elevators, perhaps they were waiting for a lift.

The hotel also had a “bereoska”, a shop for westerners which sold items not generally available to the Russian public. It also had a bureau de change which was useful, we were advised not to change money on the street. It was illegal and we could well be cheated with monopoly money.

Back on the coach  we were introduced to our guide, a young man who spoke good English. It was his job to point out the sights of the city, answer all our questions and make sure we had a good time.

Naturally we headed straight for the Kremlin a place we would visit the next day, and after driving round the city seeing such things as the statue dedicated to the glorious USSR space exploration we finished up outside Moscow University, one of Stalin’s  wedding cakes. From nearby it was possible to look over the city and see the Lenin Stadium where the Olympics had been held. It was late in the evening, we returned to the hotel and had dinner and went to bed.
                                      Moscow University.

                             Just part of the Kremlin Walls

Next day we were taken back to the Kremlin.It really is a magnificent place, a complex of old palaces and  medieval cathedrals with one large modern building, the Palace of Congress, thrown in. I think there are four cathedrals, quite different from western European ones in that they are smaller. And for those of us living in Protestant countries and used to relatively plain interiors the walls covered with icons look strange.  Outside the Kremlin, which means a citadel within a town and not castle, is the huge Red Square with the famous Lenin Mausoleum on the Kremlin side and the equally famous GUM store on the other, with Saint Basil’s Cathedral at one end and a museum of Russian history at the other.

                          St. Basil's Cathedral  (Cathedral of the Intercession), begun in 1555.
The statue commemorates Kuzma Minin and Dmitry Pozharsky who drove a Polish and Lithuanian army out of Moscow in the early 17th century.
                          Palaces and Cathedrals, the Moscow Kremlin.

We watched the soldiers march up and down before the mausoleum and then, with precision worthy of the Grenadiers they changed the guard before Lenin’s resting place. Along with several hundred others we joined the queue to see the mortal remains of the great man. We were informed to put anything decadent like a Walkman or camera back on the bus before we were allowed in. We were not to step off the carpet or laugh as we shuffled past the waxy looking body which was protected by a glass case and some pretty tough looking soldiers.
                     Lenin's Mausoleum.

Once back outside we were given some free time. With the teacher I was sharing a room with we wandered behind the Mausoleum to look at the busts and name plates of the heroes of the revolution whose ashes were placed inside the Kremlin walls. Interestingly the only bust adorned with flowers was that of Joseph Stalin. There was a name plate to a British revolutionary I think he was a “Mac” but would probably be able to find him on Google.
                   The Guards outside Lenin's Mausoleum
            One of the cathedrals in the Kremlin.

And across the square to GUM. It was like a British market hall but three floors high and each stall sold something different and I would have to say, poor quality. The most interesting stall was the one with closed blinds, our guide informed us it was for the use of comrades higher up the social scale. There’s equality for you. I watched a lady with a huge box of ball point pens. She tested each one, if it worked, on the stall, if not, in the bin. Quality control at point of purchase. Well the check out girls at Sainsbury’s always look at your eggs.
My daughte, who had been on a similar trip a year earlier, and had  had been studying Russian as one of her A levels taught me the sort of phrases that are useful to a man abroad like "Two beers please: I have lost my suitcase: How do I get to Red Square and How Much?" the last been spoken in a Yorkshire accent and with much incredulity.
She had also acquired a Russian pen friend and had made up a smallparcel of gifts for him, which I was to post. Recognising a почта or post office I entered with my well rehearsed phrase. The lady behind the counter was screaming at somebody down the phone. Finished she slammed the instrument down, turned to me shouted something and my well rehearsed phrases vanished. I gave her the parcel and offered money in silence. She took it, stamped the parcel and I left with a muttered thanks.
                            Inside GUM
We travelled between the museums by the Moscow Underground, the best way to move around the city and always busy. The stations in the city centre are like art galleries themselves, beautifully decorated , mostly with scenes extolling the vitrues of the political system and glorifying the hard work of the people.
Komsomolskya Underground hall. The lines are through the arches. On the right is one of the decorations, St. George, who is patron saint of Russia.
  In the evening we went to the Moscow Circus. Fortunately, as it was cold, it was not in a tent but in a large well constructed building and it had three rings! One an "ordinary " ring for animals and people to run  round in and clown about. At one point in the show this ring went underground and was replaced by an ice rink which swung into place and was then raised hydraulically. Once the ice skating was over this ring was replaced as before by a water filled ring. I am not a circus fan but there were few animals in this one and the way the rings changed was fascinating.

  On the following morning  we were back on the culture trail and visited the Puchkin Museum of Fine Arts with  its great selection of European treasures and  the Tretykov Gallery. Given a little free time I visited the ДОМ Книги , or "House of Books". Well stocked though it was I must say that it did not compare favourably with the Waterstone's in Newcastle or Foyle's in London. I spotted a book about the city in English and took it to the counter, offering it with a mutter to the girl. She gave took the book,  gave me a slip of paper and pointed to the cash desk across the room. I walked over and handed in my slip and money. I was given a receipt which I then took back to the counter and exchanged it for my book. This is where ARGOS got their ideas!

A subset of our group of students were the Northumberland Guitar group and in the afternoon we visited a school of arts. Our guitarists gave a short recital and in return the school's balalaika players gave a short but wonderful concert.
We had been advised to take gifts on the trip, mainly blank tape cassettes, ball point pens, coloured pencils and the like. They were gratefully received and in return we were given badges, usually with the standard USSR symbols on them.

 The Russian "Unknown Soldier " Memorial outside the Kremlin.  Following their wedding couples came to lay flowers on it, something that touched us all.
 Back to the hotel to pack and collect passports. At this point the hotel admitted that one student's papers were missing, presumed stolen but he would be permitted to continue with us...........for now.
That evening we were bussed to the railway station to transfer to Leningrad. The good thing about Moscow Stations is that the name tells you where the line goes so we were taken to the huge
Ленинград  воксал to board the overnight train. If you look in an atlas you will see the line between the two cities is pretty straight. Legend has it that the Tsar drew a line with a ruler between the two cities and said that was where the railway should go but his thumb was over the edge so there is a bump in the line.
The train had compartments with bunks for four people and about midnight we set off on the next stage of our journey.

                                  Me and Vladimir.

At the end of each carriage was a coal fired samovar supplying hot tea, a little different from PG tips but very nice. There was also a toilet,you could see the track through the floor!
We rattled along through the night arriving about 9 am in the Moscow Station. Buses transferred us to our hotel which was, to be honest, a little worse than the one in Moscow, I was given a sinle room with a single bed but at least it was warm.
  I think Leningrad, now back to its original name of St. Petersburg, is the most beautiful city I have ever visited and I have managed to get to most European capitals.
  Peter the Great's "window on the west", founded early in the 18th century became the capital of Russia and remained so until the revolution when the communist leadership returned to Moscow. The world can be grateful that the new regime did not destroy Peter's city but preserved its historic buildings and rebuilt them after the long and bitter siege of World War 2.
 We were first given a tour of the city by bus, still with the same Russian guide who pointed out the Winter Palace and Hermitage to us, plus the great Cathedrals. Most of the buildings are western in style, the exceptions being some of the churches which were constructed along the traditional orthodox lines with "onion domes" 
There is so much to see and do in this city that I can't possibly do it justice on my blog.
Naturally we went to the Winter Palace and the Hermitage. The
Palace was built between  1754 and 1762 to the design of an Italian architect. Today it is one of the world's great museums and galleries and needs more than the morning we had to visit it.

The Winter Palace, home of the Tsars, now a museum and art gallery.

Behind the palace is Palace  Square, complete with column to Alexander I. It was built in1830 and stands 25.6 metres high.

The Alexander Column in Palace Square.

 We also visited the cruiser Aurora, moored in the river Neva and reputed to be the vessel that fired the opening shot of the revolution.
                                          The cruiser Aurora................

                    ...........................and the starting gun.
    On another day we visited  a school for the arts and were given another concert in exchange for our remaining  badges and cassettes. As in Moscow the musical quality was high, the students friendly and curious.
 Leningrad is an industrial city and the school we visited was in a residential area.
                  Leningrad flats, shops on the ground floor.
When Peter the Great founded his city he first built, not unnaturally a fortress, the Peter Paul fortress across the river from what is now the main part of the city.

              SS Peter and Paul Cathedral in the original fort.
The fort was started in 1703 to protect Russia from the Swedes, how things have changed. The last Tsar and his family were laid to rest in the cathedral a few years ago.

Another magnificent monument in the city is The Bronze Horseman erected in 1782 on the order of Catherine II. Unusually, I think, it is inscribed in Latin and Russian.

 Monument to Peter the Great, the man who worked in Chatham Docks, came home and built a navy.
The unusual cathedral in the city is The Cathedral of the Resurrection (Our Saviour of the Spilled Blood),  built on the spot where Tsar Alexander II was mortally wounded by a terrorist bomb in 1881. More like the traditional Moscow cathedrals than the rest of the classic buildings in Leningrad.

 The Cathedral of the Resurrection

                   Not St. Pauls, St Isaacs

Eventually are short stay came to an end and trouble for one student started. The boy who had had his passport stolen was permitted to travel as far as the airport but no further. Although we had a full list of passengers and passport numbers he was not allowed to leave the country but forced to have a few days extra holiday, with a member of staff. They returned to Moscow and stayed at the British Embassy until a replacement document arrived.
For the rest of us it was goodbye to the USSR after an amazing week.
As far as I was concerned it was a revelation and I have returned several times since. At the time the political system was beginning to crack.  Products of the decadent west were much in demand but in extremely short supply.
One of the noticeable things was clothes.  We were stared at more for our clothes than our good looks and on reflection it was not surprising. Most people wore clothes that were poorly made and drab looking.
I visited one mens clothing stores to see what bwas on offer and an assistant told me, in good English, that I could have any item in the shop in exchange for the anorak I was wearing. I declined.
Another thing we noticed was the cleanliness of the streets, there was nothing to throw away. The food shops were not overstocked like Sainsbury's and there certainly wasn't the choice.
On the plus side there was no advertising! Posters extolling the system but apart from пепси* on the sides of the buses there was nothing. The same on the TV station I tried to understand.
However the people were wonderful and friendly, curious to know about life in Britain, did we have a car, how much did we earn and so on. I am aware of how things have changed, the city has reverted to its original name too but it remains a fantastic place.
* Pepsi!
Watch out for CHOBA B РОССИЯ  coming to a blog near you.