Tuesday, 15 January 2013

                       CHOBA B  РОССИЯ 
                             ( Part one)

If you have been paying attention you may remember that my daughter had a pen friend in Moscow.
Misha, and later his mother Tamara kept writing and inviting us over to stay, which we did, twice, and Kate and I had a week of culture in  St. Petersburg as it had then become. After a further visit to Russia  we had a change and spent a great week in Ukraine with a mad group of people attempting to learn Russian and a wonderfully patient Russian teacher.
 I might save the Ukraine trip but for the lady in Canada I will dig into the memory banks and photo albums to tell her all about our stays with a real Russian family. Four for the price of one, Buy one, get three free.
 One spring afternoon Kate and I flew from Heathrow to dear Sheremetava airport just outside Moscow. We flew with Aeroflot. I had tried to book the flights at my local travel agent but it was not possible. The trip had to be paid for, in cash at the Aeroflot office in London. Fortunately I knew someone on a visit to the capital and they got the tickets.
It was a nice flight, on an Airbus, not a Tupelov or Ilyushin or anything, but it was delayed and it took such a long time to get through immigration, filling in the money forms and promising not to take icons or roubles out of the country that it was late when we finally emerged  from the airport, walked through the throng of locals asking if we wanted accommodation or a taxi and were recognised by our host Misha.
Misha had borrowed a rather tatty looking minibus( and a driver) which we were invited to board and were driven through the dark towards Moscow. i did wonder if this was all a scam and we were going to robbed and left on the roadside but after about twenty minutes we drew up outside a large block of flats and  were taken in to be greeted by Misha's mum Tamara. his sister Oxana her husband Alexei and their small son Alyosha.
 A large meal was set out on the table, chicken, salads, dried herring, bread, potato and bottles of vodka. It was my birthday and they knew because we had to submit information to stay privately in Russia.
After introductions and a meal we were shown the flat which was quite large and very warm. Two bedrooms a living room bathroom and kitchen. I wondered where everyone would sleep but the problem wa solved when Oxana and her husband said goodnight and left.Kate had a room, I had the settee in the living room, Misha had a chair.
Next morning demonstrated one of the realities of Russian life. If you didn't eat it last night you got it for breakfast!


The Ivanovs block of flats, guarded by the ubiquitous birch trees, still covered with snow in April.
The flats were in the area called  Kuntsevo. (Кунцево ?  ).  I was led to believe that in this area Stalin had his dacha, long before it was developed as a huge housing estate.  At one time Churchill visited the dacha, another time I have walked in the footsteps of a great man. Figure out for yourself which one it is!
Naturally if you visit Moscow the Kremlin is a must and next day we headed to the local metro station and headed to the city centre. The Kremlin seems endlessly fascinating; a mixture of old palaces and ancient cathedrals with the 1960s Palace of Congress as the communist contribution.
There is  so much to see,inside and out. For example this huge gun,the Tsar's cannon.

 The Tsar's cannon, with Misha and Kate defending it,and a cathedral behind.
Not surprisingly considering the importance of the Kremlin, there are several museums inside the complex. In Russia then and possibly now for all I know, a two tier system existed for museums and galleries, one price for Russians and one for tourists. This always seemed fair to me, my income was considerably higher than a Russians, I could easily afford the entrance fee. However it was fun trying it on and going for the lower price. For the Armoury Museum fwe managed to buy tickets at the lower price, probably about 20p and mainly because Tamara was with us.But as we stood in the queue clutching our tickets a voice shouted "Foreighners!" We were taken out of the line and sent immediately to the Gulag for 20 years. No, we were asked to return to the ticket office and told to pay the higher rate which was about £8. Serves you right for cheating!
The museums are fantastic, hundreds of years of history, coaches owned by Catherine the Great, and several hundred of her dresses, ssilver work from England and this:

      This is Vladimir Lenin's Rolls Royce, and me. I suppose if you are the leader of the proles you must have a good car! The Sunday Times once had a huge quiz and one of the questions was;
"What did Vladimir Lenin and John Lennon have in common?"
It was along time ago and I think only one person got it right. You should have guessed the answer by now; They both owned a Roller. I also suppose that V.I.L wouldn't really own his because all property is theft. Held it in trust like a Phillipe Patek watch.

There are, I think, four cathedrals in the Kremlin, the fifth was removed to make way for the Palace of Congress. They bare not huge like your standard western European cathedrals but are all old. To a well brought up Protestant boy, used to church walls being relatively bare, they are  overdecorated, every space being covered by an icon. Icons are central to the Russian Orthodox church and are venerated themselves. Originally austere and dark in the 17th century Simon Ushakov, famous icon artist, moved towards a more western style of paintin.
Speaking personally I don't particularly like them but I do object strongly to the way the word icon has been taken over in modern English and used to describe a footballer, rock star or furniture design.

The Cathedral of the Assumption in the Kremlin.
                                                   Icon inside a Kremlin Cathedral.

   One evening we went to a performance of Swan Lake in the Palace of Congress.I am not a fan of ballet but it was a terrific performance and all the important people died. We sat on the second row from the front and the performance was ruined by the small party of American ladies sitting in front of us who came out with classics like, "Gee they'll never believe this when we get back to Crumpled Horn Maverick Creek in Wisconsin": I suppose today they would have sat there calling out "Awesome".
I can't remember the tiny amount we paid to see the performance but I do remember the glass of Russian Champagne we had at the interval was more expensive, and very nice too.
Outside the Kremlin is an interesting obelisk which is engraved with the names of the great socialist thinkers.
  Marx and Engels are at the top  (Маркс и  Энгельс) but more interesting for me is the appearance of Gerrard Winstanley, eigth down.( Винщчлей ; this isn't quite right but  the transliteration just won't come up with that y!) Winstanley was the leader of the Diggers who set up a commune in Cromwell's day in Surrey. The Diggers argued that God had given the land to man (and woman) so they took some and got on with it. Cromwell wasn't too keen on the idea and they were driven off. Winstanley went off to Wigan or somewhere and opened a drapers.
Outside the Kremlin is Red Square (Красня Площадь )  with Lenin's Mausoleum next to the walls and the Museum of Russian History at one end and St. Basil's at the other.

The Mausoleum is on the left, behind are memorials to many Soviet leaders, including Stalin and a Scotsman.

On a further visit to the Ivanovs, with the gadgette too this time, we visited the Museum of the Great Patriotic War, the Russian name for World War II. Outside is a huge statue of Nike, goddess of victory and inside is the history of that conflict as the Russians saw it. A number of dioramas of the great sieges and battles in the 1940s, such as Stalingrad and Leningrad The domed ceiling is engraved with the names of the Heroes of the Soviet Union. It is incredibly moving. Britain and the US do get a mention but mostly, and quite rightly, it is about the effort made by the Russians.
Outside an oldman mistook us for Germans and started to shout at us but when it was explained we were British his mood changed immediately, he smiled and shouted "Bomb! Bomb1 Good!" What a sad world we live in.
Another visit was to the Monastery of the New Maiden near to the Lenin Sports Stadium (Now renamed) below the University. It was constructed in the 16th century and served as monastery and part of the Moscow defences.  Nikita Khruschev is buried in the grounds.

The gadgetova disguised as a babushka in the grounds of the Monastery of the new Maiden and outside a cathedral in the Kremlin. Yes it was cold.
                     The Monastery of the New Maiden.

 Russian trains are big. To start with they have a wider gauge with wider carriages. I have travelled between Moscow and St. Petersburg several times and also between Kiev and Yalta. Travelling overnight is a social experience.  In each compartment there are four beds, arranged in pairs of bunks, people usually change into pyjamas or whatever. At the end of the carriage on the first train I travelled on was a samovar, heated by coal and providing tea throughout the journey.
 Kate, Tamara and I decided to have a trip from the capital to St. Petersburg.(Still Leningrad then).
The big stations are named after their final destinations so we went to  the Leningrad Station to buy tickets. I was fascinated to have one sign explained. It listed the priorities for tickets. Top of the list came veterans of the Patriotic War, next Party  Officials, then Party members and so on, down to the plebs as Andrew Mitchell would say. And I have lefty friends who complain about the existence of first class carriages on British trains!
We dozed overnight to Leningrad; we spent the day on a coach tour of the city,  a trip round a museum (more later) a meal in a restaurant, a trip to see an "Art " film that turned out to be an American soft porn film with Czech subtitles and a Russian commentary. Actually you didn't need any dialogue to know what was going on. Then we caught the overnight train back to Moscow. Ever generous I paid; the whole trip cost me $25 for the three of us.
On the way home we caught a "Russians only" train. I was told to sit in silence until we left the station. The man sharing our compartment was wearing a leather coat and reading a book embossed with a hammer and sickle. I was very quiet.
The highlight of the whole holiday for m ehowever was a visit to the Kosmos Museum. I knew it existed and oneday we went to find it. In a huge park there was a pavillion devoted to the glories of each state in the union and one pavillion with KOSMOS (Космос )  in huge letters above its doors.
Outside was a rocket.

                                         Russian space craft launcher.
The building was closed, but moist and determined, I knocked on a door.A man opened it and asked what we wanted as the museum was closed. Realising that two of us were English and were guests of the other three he thought about it for 5 seconds and said we could have a tour for $5!
Inside was a paradise of boys toys, but much of it simply lying around on the ground.
A  US Apollo Space Craft connected to a Russian Soyuz in the Kosmos Museum, guide, Misha and Tamara.
                                                               Russian Space Craft
 I was allowed to sit in Yuri Gagarin's space capsule, granted it might have been a replica or another early craft but it was so thrilling. Having looked at all the exhibits we asked why the museum seemed to be in a poor state. It was closing to become a showroom for American cars. Why?
To complete the visit we were taken to see the boss. I can't remember his name but he was a former cosmonaut, and we all shook hands. And I took the souvenir badge I was offered of course.
 Kate and I were unaware that Tamara had a husband. Sadly he had died some weeks before we arrived. I got the impression that the Russian tradition was for the widow to visit her late husband's grave forty days after his death. So one bitterly cold morning we, along with family and friends caught a bus out to a cemetery.  First we went to an Orthodox Church. It's a long time since I went to a service but it was nothing like this. People appeared to come and go as the priest prayed and the choir sang, beautifully. Congregation members, mostly older women, kissed icons. Some prostrated themselves as the doors behind the altar opened and a bible was walked into the church. A tiny lady thumped me in the back and told me I wasn't doing things properly. There was no way a good protestant boy was going to kiss paintings.
We left the church before the service seemed to be over and went to the grave. Tamara produced bread and vodka. The bread was placed on the grave and alongside it a small glass of vodka. Then as guest I was invited to drink a shot of vodka. I'm not much of a spirits man and vodka hitting the stomach on a cold morning is not my idea of a drink, but I complied, as did every other person. We then returned to the flat where Oxana had prepared a huge Russian meal - with vodka.

Tamara had a friend, known to all as Aunty Panya, who lived in a dacha some miles outside Moscow.
One day Tamara, Kate and I caught a train and after about an hour got off at a halt apparently in the middle of nowhere. It had been snowing and we walked through birch trees for a while. It was like a scene from Dr Zhivago!. Eventually we came to a small village and Panyas dacha.
                                Aunty Panyas dacha.
It was a cosy little house with a novelty toilet - outside down the garden. It took me back to my childhood holidays on my uncle's farm. They also had a banya in the garden. We were tempted but declined. Panya's husband had a good line in home made vodka, probably about 80% and we drank quite a bit. Panya's husband spoke no English but a little German, picked up as a boy in the war. This did not stop the frequent toasts to Anglo- Russian friendship. Fortunately there were enough beds for us all to crash out and catch a train back to Moscow next morning, clutching my souvenir bottle which made it all the way back to the UK.
                               Kate, Tamara and Panya. Russian ladies are well fed.
 Speaking of souvenirs, the best place to buy them was from the stalls on the Arbat. Naturally we bought matrushkas. They came in a variety of designs, one had five Beatles, the seller was stumped when we asked who was number 5. My favourites, apart from the traditional ones were the politicians;
                     Boris           Michael          Leonid           Nikita        Joseph    Vladimir   Nicholas. 
We also liked the glass blocks internally decorated with items like St. Basil's. The gadgetova was extremely good at bartering for these and reduced the price by 50% effortlessly.
Sadly all good things come to an end and we had to fly home. On one occasion as we walked through immigration at Heathrow the young lady  checking passports said "Welcome back to the United Kingdom"," Even though we had had a good time it was nice to be home, hot water, orange juice.......
Having said that I have never felt threatened in Russia except on one occasion at an outdoor market which seemed to specialise in electrical goods. Two young men followed us for a while probably hoping to steal the gadgetovas handbag, but when they realised we were with locals they slipped away. Of course they could really have been with the KGB.
        Tamara Kate, me in the Ivanovas flat
Tamara and Kate at the entrance to the block of flats

         Misha, me in my super Russian sweater, Kate, Oxana.
Tamara had been making a sweater for her husband. She had patiently collected the combed out hair from their dog and spun it into a yarn. Mixed with wool she knitted a short sleeve sweater which she gave to me. (Not the one pictured above). I brought it home and the cat loved it. My mother told me that it was fairly common in her part of the world to do the same thing during the war. And not long after The Times ran an article on dog wool sweaters!