This is the first blog of a series that will recount my experiences in Russia over the last 25 years.
In December 2014 on a trip to Russia, when my friends were distressed and arguing with each other about the recent annexation of the Crimea by Russia, my friend Alyona gripped me by the shoulders when we were sitting in a bar one evening and said, "Klyem, you have been coming to Russia for nearly 25 years - this is incredibly valuable experience. You haven't written it anywhere - you must write it for me. You must promise!" I did promise, but I started, and then stopped. Now I will post the episodes I wrote for her here, and continue amongst my other blogs about more current things.
1990 Late Spring
My first trip to Russia was with school. It was 1990 and Russia was still part of the Soviet Union. We had been told to take chewing gum and jeans to swap with young Soviet people for badges, or just to give them, as they couldn’t get these lovely things themselves.
In Moscow we stayed in the 1960s Intourist Hotel on Tverskaya which has since been demolished. Its reception was decorated with great glazed ceramic tiles and shapes. I was only 15 and frankly I was far more interested in the other girls in my group than in what was around me. One of the girls in the year above wore smoky black eyeliner all around her eyes and she told me she never took it off, even at night, and that seemed rather shocking to me. Outside the windows was a cold Moscow, with a pale grey low sky, and people in colourless coats bustling up and down the street. I was too cut off from them to be at all interested in them. The meals were torture and we girls worked each other up about them. We were well behaved enough to try and eat things even if we thought they were disgusting. There were towering salads of pastel shades as the vegetables merged with the mayonnaise. This concept of making salad from diced up vegetables and cold meat and mayonnaise was new and repellant. As for herring with egg and beetroot - that was beyond the pale. I was curious about the tinned peas. Fast forward 20 years and I purposefully seek out places in Moscow that serve this kind of food. I was impressed by the way all meals were served as a banquet with lots of cut glass and rows of knives and forks - it seemed quaint and strange, as if from a fairytale in which everyone was very poor.
Our teachers got rather excited one day and took us to meet some ‘Soviet children of our own age.’ They were boys and as we were from an all-girls boarding school this made it even more awkward. I wanted to ‘make friends’, to know the right thing to say but, frankly, these boys were not like boys I had encountered before and I had no idea how to put them at their ease. Maybe some of the other girls did, I don’t remember, but I also remember being one of only a few from the group willing to meet these boys. They were agonisingly shy and, well, they were smelly. They smelt surprisingly strongly of sweat for boys of 15 or 16, they looked extremely unhealthy with alarmingly pale faces and little pimples, and their clothes were awful - ill fitting jeans and embarrassing jumpers that looked synthetic. I have a photograph of 3 of them standing shyly by the lifts, all turning away from me awkwardly. I can’t remember much about the exchange except that we gave them lots of chewing gum and they gave us badges and a couple of t-shirts that said Perestroika, Glasnost and Pravda on them (I still have mine). They put their swag into bags that they’d hung across their bodies - I hadn’t come across boys having bags before but on later trips I came to see that you had to carry a bag when moving around Moscow as you never knew what you might pick up. The string bags that some people carry in their handbag are called ‘avoska’, from the word ‘avos’, ‘just in case.’
We did the usual naughty schoolgirl things - we went to the bar on the top floor of the hotel and drank Soviet shampanskaya - someone must have told us about this phenomena - fizzy wine production of which started under Stalin, at a time when the elite was growing and enjoying more luxuries. This was a way of the entire population drinking champagne, even tho it was merely fizzy wine of the lowest quality. Our teacher who I think was a feminist, told us that Fins came to Moscow to drink cheap booze and pick up hookers. I remember staring at the hookers in reception and staring at the men, and condemning them in my mind. The Fins were a hard drinking, rough lot.
It was, of course, the matters of every day living that were of interest on that trip, and not what we were shown. The other running theme of the trip was the exchange rate - this was clearly uppermost in the minds of the russians we met, and it rubbed off on us via our teacher. We went to one of the currency shops and looked at the goods. I resented being shown the sights - they were shown with far too much self-consciousness ‘and this building has 3 million bricks and has used half a tonne of gold’ - I hated the self-satisfied statistics. SO WHAT!?!?!?!
GUM was wonderfully depressing - it was, basically, empty, like a huge forgotten vessel, inhabited only by a few slow-moving babushka in enormous fur coats. I am also delighted that I saw the swimming pool in the foundations of the Cathedral of Christ our Saviour - we drove by in our tour bus and through the frosty windows saw the steam floating up from the circular swimming pool that had been sunk into the foundations. I am fairly sure I saw people playing chess, semi-submerged, and brightly coloured swimming caps. And always droning on, the commentary ‘this was the site of the biggest cathedral in… it was to be the site of the biggest statue of Lenin…’ etc etc.
Another memory stands out from that trip - walking along the Arbat and suddenly smelling an orange! I gasped and looked round and saw a lady in a fur hat, elegantly peeling an orange as she walked along. The smell cut through the frosty air and lifted everything for a moment. Then I turned back to the dreary souvenirs.
We went to Leningrad by train and that city interested me even less. It seemed so sad, lying low on the wide Neva under a heavy, endless grey sky, and the sights imposingly showy and grand and dreary at the same time. The people seemed even more out of reach than they had been in Moscow.
We flew back to London with tales of salads and smelly boys, and, for my part, not a huge amount of interest in what I had seen. For that reason I don’t count it as my first trip to Russia, but rather as a preface to my first trip alone, 18 months later.