“In an uncertain world, all things are ‘usually...’”
So said our guide on our first morning in Moscow in response to the question: “Is it usually this cold in November?”
He followed this philosophy with another Russian gem:
“Take wodka on waking then you von’t have to vorry all day what time to have your first drink.”
Russia has always held a macabre fascination for me. Both sets of grandparents were Russian Jewish immigrants chased out by the Bolsheviks in the late 1800s during the pogroms. One uncle was thrown in the Volga with rocks tied round his ankles. Another was cut off in his prime by marauding horsemen wielding sabres. No ‘Mother Russia’ gathered my family unto her breast and so they dispersed in the diaspora to Buenos Aires, Brooklyn and Bayswater. Yet here I was returning to the land of my forefathers.
I’m not sure what I expected of Moscow but it wasn’t what I expected. I’d seen the footage of grey-coated, fur-hatted armies marching across a snow-brushed Red Square while grim-faced generals took the salute. I knew about the poverty and deprivation, families living ten to a room with barely a bowl of barley soup between them. I’d heard of dissidents being tortured by the KGB and youngsters yearning for a simple pair of jeans. But when Communism collapsed, Moscow went West to bring bling to the people.
Moscow is the capital of the world’s biggest country, the beating heart of European Russia. The architecture is a fusion of splendour and austerity: affluence in the shape of ornate Belle Époque classicism battling for supremacy over inevitable Cold War concrete. Lavish cathedrals with golden cupolas stand serenely in the shadow of thick set apartment blocks. Flashy shop fronts house French and Italian franchises; restaurants serve Asian Fusion cuisine and late-night Karaoke bars proclaim the shaking off of state-imposed imperialism.
The centre is spotless; wide avenues called ‘Prospekts’ are lined with grand baroque buildings reeking of Tsarist times. Dark forbidding structures in which 007, 8 and 9must surely have been interrogated seem less sinister with a branch of McDonald’s at street level.
Our agenda for Day One offered a City Tour but it omitted the word ‘walking’. The implied coach, minibus or private car was, in fact, Sergei, on time and on foot. We set off into the cold crisp morning ill-equipped against the Siberian wind that whistled through our very bones within minutes of leaving the overheated comfort of the National Hotel.
The pavements around the Kremlin are kept pristine by a militia of lady cleaners diligently disposing of every stray fag end, waste paper or leaf that dares to fall. One of them was beating the hell out of a tree so her co-worker could rake up the remnants and cart them away. Autumn and its attendant untidiness is not welcome here...
To be continued...