Thursday 10 March 2022

Slava Ukraini!

I haven't been to Ukraine, but I have been to Russia. Well, Moscow, for just a couple of nights, on our multi-hop return from NZ to the UK in 1980. We flew there from Delhi, and couldn't work out why, when we landed, there was applause throughout the plane - because everyone was thankful to have survived the ramshackle Air India flight? Or just glad to be back in the motherland? It was less than a fortnight before the Olympics were to be held there, so it was surprising that the airport immigration procedures were so slow and inefficient. And it was very unnerving, given Russia's reputation, when the OH was whisked away out of sight after I'd been admitted, because his new beard didn't match his visa and passport photos.

They did let him through, after a fraught hour and a half, but our nerves were shot and we never felt comfortable after that. It didn't help everything feeling so foreign that Intourist at the airport gave us no choice of hotel - it had to be the Soyuz, way out in the suburbs, where we had to pay in advance. 
Next day we took a smelly taxi to Red Square where there was a long queue of what looked like Russians waiting to file through Lenin's tomb. We went instead to St Basil's which, with its fantastic and colourful domes and turrets, looked very out of place against the high, brick walls of the Kremlin. It's all small chapels inside, not like a cathedral at all, and very disorientating. And of course it's a museum now.

I needed the loo then, and it was a mission to find anywhere. We ended up trying to get into the Hotel Rossiya, blocked by one of the suspicious armed guards who were absolutely everywhere. I was finally allowed in, without my bag. So it was unexpected, after wandering across the Moskva River and back again, to find ourselves entering, unimpeded, the grounds of the Kremlin. The cathedrals/museums in there were pretty spectacular, but we were most fascinated by a soda-water vending machine that filled a glass you washed beforehand.

We did an Intourist bus tour then around the city. Our guide was a uniquely slim and pretty young woman - honestly, all the other women we saw, like the men, were very fat and very dowdy. Everything looked neat and tidy, though that might just have been because of the Olympics, and despite Stalin's architectural efforts, overall it seemed a pretty city. 

Later, after a very average dinner, we went out into the rainy evening to watch the changing of the guard at Lenin's tomb. Squashed in the crowd, I heard everyone suddenly fall silent, and then the hissing tramp of boots on wet cobbles - very creepy. Three guards goose-stepped into view, paused by the tomb while the Kremlin clock struck the hour, and then swapped with the old guard with such machine-like precision that they made the Buckingham Palace lot look positively sloppy.

Next day we walked past people queuing to buy manky cauliflowers to brave the Metro into the city, and were very impressed by its meticulous cleanliness, cheap fares, and the stateliness of the marble stations. 

Back in Red Square, we went into Gumm, which looked elegant from outside, but inside was dripping with rain through the roof windows. We'd expected a department store, but it was instead three floors of tiny shops, many of them with very bare shelves. There were still plenty of shoppers, though, who seemed to have no concept of personal space, and bumped into me a lot. We saw lots of queues - one, of 40-50 people, was for toothbrushes.

We wandered along Gorky Street where we found actual department stores but they didn't have much for sale, and most of that anyway was behind counters so you couldn't see it properly. The rain didn't help, of course, but honestly, wandering the city streets was a depressing experience. Then our taxi driver got into a rage when we asked to be taken to the airport, and threw us out of his car; and when we got there finally, there was more tension throughout the departure process. We had to open our suitcases, the OH's books attracting much suspicion; and then at passport control the officer inspected every single page of my passport, and the OH had to give a specimen signature to prove he was himself.

It was a huge relief to board the SAS plane to Sweden, and this time we felt like applauding as it took off, suddenly realising how tense we had been the whole time in Moscow. It was interesting to see the city, but no fun at all. We were astonished how uptight everything was, and couldn't understand how they were going to cope during the Olympics. Stately buildings apart, everything also seemed so poor and basic, and even if it hadn't rained, my impression would still have been of universal greyness.

Since then, of course, oligarchs have become a thing, though I'm sure their riches are/were the exception. Life probably did become freer and more colourful for the general population for a while there; and certainly St Petersburg became a go-to destination, especially for cruisers. Now, though, with all the sanctions being imposed internationally, Russia will be going backwards. Tough for the people. Shame Putin won't feel it.

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