Gashead's Blog Wonders


Way Back In The USSR

From Precious Things

A very long time ago, the late 70s to be a bit more precise, I was a student of Linguistic And International Studies or Russian as I told women before utterly failing to impress them at parties. The University of Surrey way was to send people out on an industrial year, the problem with Russian was the lack of collective farm combine harvester placements available to foreign students from The West. Failing that a month of study in Moscow was available over the Easter holidays, so no holiday, no Easter eggs, sounds pretty wasn't.

Regular readers will know how long it took just to get there in 1978 and as promised this is a collection of tales from when we finally made it. I went again in 1979 and some of the adventures may have taken place then, forgive my vagueness.

Our base was the Hotel Tsentralnaya on Gorky Street, about half a mile up from Red Square, a comfortable old fashioned hotel staffed by an army of women of equal height and waist measurement with Dairylea blonde hair and expressionless faces. The daily routine was lectures in the morning either in the hotel or at an institute followed by an intended afternoon's research in The Lenin Library for my dissertation, yeh yeh! So I did the mornings as required. If it was an external venue there would be a speaker at the front with the inevitable sinister person at the back, usually taking copious notes and wearing a raincoat and dark glasses, unlikely to be a student. One morning we went to The House Of Culture where various groups treated us to scenes from Chekhov or Pushkin's poems, unfortunately they asked us if we could perform something in return. In this instance I took the initiative and it was agreed we all knew the lyrics to Jilted John. On to the stage we went and launched into "I've been going out with a girl, her name is Julie" rather more football terrace than a capella. In my role as artistic director sticking it up to Brezhnev with the tail end of punk I felt it went rather well. I had my eyes fixed on a particularly attractive girl in the front row so, from the stage, asked her what she and her comrades thought of the song only to get the reply "we're from Leeds!" Oh bollocks.

As for the afternoons researching my dissertation, OK I went to the library once but as I didn't even start my dissertation proper until two years later about a fortnight before the deadline using what appeared to be a pre-revolutionary Cyrillic typewriter on Banda stencils during a heatwave with a desk facing the sun my heart wasn't really in it. Instead I would dress up in the dourest possible clothes and walk the streets trying not to look like a westerner lapping up Soviet austerity and boy was it austere. There was no branding anywhere, shops did exactly what they said on the sign, chemist, bookshop, repair of watches and not a western brand or product to be seen anywhere beyond the European butter mountain going for extortionate prices in Gastronom #1. The bookshops were good however, apart from Shakespeare, Robert Burns and Jack London it was all local authors but they did a cracking line in political posters that would take up an entire wall in the hall of residence. An enormous one of Lenin with the slogan "Lenin Lived, Lenin Lives, Lenin Will Live" was a must to impress the cleaning lady with when I got back. They also had lifesize and handily doorsize Lenin posters with Pravda poking out from his jacket pocket, only to be replaced with The Sun back in Blighty.

In GUM, literally state universal shop, there was a record shop selling the state-controlled Melodiya (as in the record shop in Clockwork Orange) works but crucially Beatles and Rolling Stones EPs. They had picture sleeves but no cheeky mop tops, certainly no Mick Jagger, just various trees in full blossom. Either way I bought every one I could find though the real bargain was a 12" single of the Soviet national anthem at 2p. The biggest problem with shopping was that you had to pay in advance, get a receipt then take it to the counter in the hope the item hadn't sold out by the time you had negotiated the two long queues. They were very quick at adding the prices up on an abacus then punching the total into a very modern Sweda till to produce the receipt. They could have used the till but that wasn't the Soviet way. Other purchases were a Communist Party membership card holder which looked very impressive when brandished and endless badges of a political or sporting nature. I trust my set of 21 badges for each of the 1980 Moscow Olympics events in a cardboard presentation folder will recoup me a fortune on eBay one day.

The alternative to walking the streets was going on various trips arranged by Intourist to monasteries, castles and other dostoprimechatelnosti (places of interest to tourists apparently!) Unfortunately they smiled when I asked the price in roubles, it was pounds or dollars only. Roubles I had a long position in but not sterling. I took 5 punk EPs with picture sleeves bought from the reduced bins at home for around 10p each and sold to a black marketeer stood literally in front of the armed guards at Lenin's tomb for £15 but in roubles of course. Spare jeans again attracted £50-60 having been bought from Dickie Dirt's for a fiver, but again in roubles. So I wasn't short of cash, just the right kind of cash.

The first period in Moscow I was picked to join a group of other students either learning Russian on a one year crash course diploma or doing a 4-year degree, both from zero knowledge of Russian whatsoever. This seemed a bit odd as I had been studying Russian for 6 years at school and was now refining it in my second year at university, but they said they were making a film so why not hey? The concept was to enhance learning by giving people scripts and audio tapes of a play for us to learn then improvise around, the improvisation supposedly removed formality and we would learn quicker. We went on regular trips to a top floor penthouse at the Hotel Rossiya with an amazing view of The Kremlin and Red Square where they would film us acting out the scenario of the day. Unfortunately I wasn't too keen on the morning shave and they refused to film me whenever I had stubble! On a couple of occasions we were taken to MosFilm up in the Lenin Hills overlooking Moscow. Around us we saw uncharacteristically beautiful, well dressed people in the studios, these were big stars we were told. This may have been the Soviet equivalent of Hollywood but in the toilets they used cut up sheets of Pravda in place of toilet roll, I kid you not! The finale was an event in front of an audience of academics, again filmed, at the main Moscow TV studios. They were impressed with our progress considering we knew so little Russian when we started, I was a complete fraud but it was fun. A couple of years later some friends went to see a popular film in a cinema in Moscow on their study trip and were astonished to see my picture in the adverts outside for the scientific-educational B-movie. They said they laughed throughout, I have no idea why!

One day a friend of mine asked if I would like to go along and have a drink with some Russians, he had been approached in the street as an obvious foreigner and asked discretely if he could post a letter when he got home. I was in there, Adventuresville, USSR. That was when I met Yura, Tolya and Zhenya. In the weeks that followed we met up every night and again the following year...well apart from Yura who had been called up to the military, didn't fancy it so disappeared into the background. It was a great symbiosis, they knew places we didn't know but equally they knew that only by being associated with our passports would they get in. There was an unlikely looking underground club called Sinyaya Ptitsa where our passports got us through the long queue to discover a den of spoiled Politburo kids drinking Soviet Champagne and dancing to Boney M. Next up was The House Of Actors which stayed open beyond the standard 11pm curfew, OK so we were making a film but again it was their blag and our passports that got us in. Slightly less exclusive was the beer hut in Gorky Park they took a few of us to. The beer was very cheap, the locals very drunk, every now and then a fight would break out and police would appear from behind the trees and escort the pugilists away. A particularly memorable evening was when they took us what seemed like miles across Moscow to see a film they insisted we would love. It was in black and white and around 5 minutes in I realised it was the same film I saw four years previously when the school took me to Leningrad, except it was in colour then. But I laughed along as the lion ran across the square outside The Winter Palace, hilarious no doubt.

One Sunday Zhenya invited a group of us out to his flat where he lived with his parents. At the time there was, I believe, a 30 kilometre limit beyond which foreigners were not allowed to go. This seemed much further. We asked about train tickets but Tolya just laughed and pulled me away from the machine, nobody in their right minds buys train tickets, OK. If somebody asked us where we were from we were to say Lithuania as their version of Russian was roughly equivalent to ours and the accents similar, or so we were told. There were signs everywhere on the train for no smoking and no drinking of alcohol, Zhenya cracked open the first bottle of beer and insisted I share a cigarette with him. There then followed a series of Russian jokes which I followed well until, every time, the punchline. One I recall which he had to explain involved what would they do when Leonid Brezhnev died? They would paint two dots over the E on Lenin's tomb and place him there. OK so this would change the pronunciation to Leonin and apparently that was a popular diminutive used for Leonid in certain rural areas, it was the way he told them! A couple of beers later my bladder was troubling me, unfortunately this suburban train had no facilities so I was directed to the area between the carriages. Having left an obvious trail up the wall and lighting a cigarette a policeman approached me. "Have you got a light mate" or words to that effect and we stood there smoking together, me on the point of needing a more robust toilet facility, fortunately he wasn't an inquisitive man.

We made it to the local station where Zhenya lived and were asked to speak nothing but Russian and speak to nobody who approached us. We walked through an apparent wasteland, very unlike the immaculate streets of central Moscow, in between high rise blocks that all looked exactly the same. Approaching the entrance to Zhenya's block we were asked to say nothing whatsoever until we got up to the flat, neighbours got jealous if people had foreign visitors and reported them to the police or the local party officials. As soon as the door closed, a very thick door, things changed and the party started. Considering the food supplies and the cost of anything decent what we were offered was the equivalent of a Soviet banquet. Zhenya's mum and dad made us very welcome despite the risks they ran having us round and we talked into the late evening about England, Soviet bureaucracy, music, the war and the price of fish. Zhenya pointed out a lump in the snow below, it was where his car was parked under a tarpaulin from around October to April when the snow cleared. He had no job but his black market activities appeared to stretch to a car. As we left we were all presented with elaborate lacquered wooden spoons, such wonderful people.

One evening Zhenya turned up with a surprise. My room was particularly large and I had a full sized reel to reel tape recorder for the tapes we used as part of the film making. Zhenya had gotten hold of reel to reel tapes of Pink Floyd's Ummagumma along with some Rolling Stones and Bad Company. For the rest of the month my room became Party Tsentral. Gastronom #1 was just up the road and had a particularly well stocked off licence by Soviet standards i.e. not much and no alcohol could be sold beyond 6.30pm. So once the tapes had arrived I would head up the road every teatime with my room mate carrying a couple of sports bags to stock up on the evening's wine and beer. Some nights there would be no wine or very little beer but we always got enough for ourselves at least and selected friends. But as the cut off point arrived and the other customers saw our bags filling up with precious stocks shouting would start from those unfortunate enough to be behind in the queue facing an alcohol free evening. Oh those Moscow nights, as the month went on less and less of us seemed to make breakfast the next morning and lectures were missed but our heads were filled with Interstellar Overdrive and bad Georgian red.

Late obe evening my friend Jackie and I decided to treat ourselves to two finest Havana cigars. My one day of library research had turned up the fact that the USSR's exports in military and agricultural equipment to Cuba were almost exclusively paid for by sugar and cigars and the cigars were resold at a very attractive price. As we walked down the street in the snow an old lady clocked us and shouted "young lady" to Jackie "don't smoke cigars in the street!"  We carried on regardless but people were not averse to stating their opinions in public. Whistling in public places was equally likely to attract denunciation. The military and police kept their uniforms on off duty and being a military centre it was very common to see generals on the underground. All tube trains had bench seats and the passengers had no adverts to distract them so they would stare straight ahead, it was rather disconcerting to have a general staring straight into my face for the entire journey. Had I committed another breach of social etiquette?

One particularly interesting fellow student was a mature man by the name of Paul. He had been banged up prior to taking the one year diploma in Russian, supposedly over drugs. He told tales of traffickers who went in transit through Moscow, were forced to go through customs and ended up in gulags. In another tale he had been part of a fake Tour De France team travelling from Morocco through France to Britain with bicycles on the roof and the kind of drugs even the competitors would have turned their noses up at. One night he told me how he managed Pink Floyd in the early days, being a bit anal on the subject I mentioned Peter Jenner "oh yeah, I worked alongside Peter" but copious research through my Floydian literature back home never turned up his name. But back to the subject and Paul had a large sum of roubles with just one day to go before we returned home and they could only be changed back to sterling with official receipts from the Soviet banks for an earlier exchange into roubles. Paul had been selling his sterling at 4-6 times the official rate but bizarrely had also got a job when he was out there, or so he said, translating for the English language Moscow News. His Russian was poor but when he said he would host the mother of all leaving parties in my room I didn't question it.

The plan was hatched. On each floor of the hotel the floor keepers (dejournayas) had samovars which were used for heating up warm water to pour onto Balkan tea leaves. We sourced four of them along with a catering bag of dried fruit and several bottles of vodka. All that was needed for the final kick to this Moscow Mule was around 30 bottles of red wine, 30 bottles of white and beer for the lightweights. Up we went to Gastronom #1, Paul with his fistful of roubles and me with two extra large Adidas sports bags. The staff, to say nothing of the queue behind, were highly pissed off with us for cleaning out their wine supplies but they didn't dare refuse to sell to people with foreign passports. As we walked back to the hotel an apparently sensible looking man looked into my bag and said "I didn't know there was a shortage of wine" and rushed off to the Gastronom, everything my economics teacher told me about Soviet panic buying was completely true it seemed!

It was one hell of a party, memorable even to those incapable of remembering it. The next morning one of my lecturers told me I had spoken my best Russian ever that night in my drunken state, rather disproving the film makers' theory that improvisation was the way to develop linguistic skills, the only way was alcohol. As I returned to semi-sobriety one of the Leeds students with sideboards like Mungo Jerry and Engelbert Humperdinck combined with well rotted manure was unconscious on the floor of my room. Six of us took a limb each and a couple of other bits and carried him up to his room. he was very heavy and we stopped for a breather in front of one of the floor keepers. Next thing she was on the phone to somebody saying there were some English with a body on her floor and the Dawn French Lookalike Society appeared from all other floors to investigate. I think the warm urine over his jeans convinced them he was not a statistic. We got him back to the room, I nipped back for my rarely used shaving kit, returned and removed those awful sideboards. On the coach next day a well shaven man was heard muttering "bastards" repeatedly while nursing a banging headache.

One last surprise was a visit by Zhenya with a large bag. He knew I wanted a proper leather Soviet Army belt rather than the cheaper linoleum type they sold at Voentorg (Army & Navy). He apologised for his lack of success but proceeded to give me an officer's hat, shirt with two pips on the epaulets, a beautiful pair of leather jackboots and a full length First Leningrad Rocket Regiment greatcoat complete with badges and shiny buttons. Thank God I wasn't one of those searched leaving the country. Back at Heathrow I got changed at baggage retrieval and walked through customs looking like a one-man Soviet invasion. I was not stopped.

From Precious Things