Wednesday, 30 November 2011


“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...


John said...

I was a cold warrior who thought the Russians were 7 feet tall and mean as hell! My first trip was in the mid 70's where I found the Russians to be warm, friendly and more like Americans than the French! Since then I've been fortunate to travel in Russia, have many wonderful memories such as seeing the eternal flame on a 25 below winter day and on a beautiful early summer day surrounded by flowers. More important I have wonderful Russian friends who showing me the basement of their office and the blast door commented: "we were as afraid of you as you were of us!" There is so much to see and learn -- I hope you have a wonderful visit! If you are interested I have a bunch of photos from my last trip to Moscow and St. Petersburg available on the Internet.

Wendy Salisbury said...

Thanks so much for writing John. Apologies for not replying sooner. As you'll see I've just come back from India and was so keen to write about this that I've put off finished the Russian story till a bit later. How can I access your pics of Russia? I'd love to see them.

John said...

Probably more than you want to see but this was a first trip with a reasonably good camera, lens and weather. Itinerary was Moscow, St Petersburg by train, Helsinki, Tallinn ending in your fair city.

Many memorable events including the early morning bridge opening in St Petersburg. Hope the link works.


John said...

Link appeared cut off but tried and it worked -- at least for me! You will find a lot of photos but they are sort of organized so as not to be completely overwhelming. You might start with the Kremlin in Moscow and Bridge Opening in St. Petersburg. I had been in the Kremlin couple of times, once to see The Nutcracker in the Palace of Congress, but never in summer with flowers everywhere. Hermitage photos will give you an idea of this gorgeous and overwhelming palace.

Tower Bridge is a favorite photo spot, you'll find a rather nice photo, if I do say so myself, in the London album.

Visited Calcutta once and in this case once was quite enough. I know it exists but it tears my heart to see little children in such grinding poverty without any chance at a real life. Of course at a young age they don't know that and most seem outwardly happy. A recent memory was observing small children playing beneath a Jakarta motorway in total filth. Another, a beggar child about the age of my grandson walking along the road with a big sack over his little shoulder. Wanted to give them all a hug! Again, I know it exists but hate to be reminded.

Hope your book is doing well. I just completed ghost writing part of a book to be published in January and have a contract for another to be delivered mid next year. Both boring non fiction -- not a trace of sex!

Wild Willie o' Orkney said...

Did you visit/travel on their underground? Absolutely spotless, and puts London Transports to shame!

Wendy Salisbury said...


Please forgive my delay in responding but I just wanted to say I thoroughly enjoyed your photos some of which were very similar to mine! Thanks for sharing them. All fascinating! What memories...Good luck with your writing too. It ain't easy but one gets there in the end with tenacity and dedication!! All the best to you.