Gashead's Blog Wonders

12May/120

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 crap...it 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

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19Sep/094

To Moscow And Back

18th March 1978. It was simple really, a month-long study trip to Moscow, all meet at Heathrow, get on the plane, get off at the other end a few hours later.

Because of the nature of my course I had to leave my accommodation the day before as I would be working in Sweden for the summer term. Mum came down to Guildford to pick up all of my gear, including a copy of Elvis Costello's This Year's Model, hastily bought that morning to ensure I got the free EP that came with early copies. She dropped me off at Heathrow and headed home, I spent the night at the airport expecting it to be an exciting, vibrant place, it wasn't.

After a long, tedious night of listening to linoleum polishers the rest of the group began to arrive at the airport and we took our bags to be checked in. Once done we struggled to find empty seats and waited for the call to boarding. Bad news, the flight was delayed by over an hour. Eventually we boarded the British Airways flight to Sheremetyevo, settled down, took off then heard the good news "British Airways apologises for the delay to your flight today. The stewardesses will be passing through the cabin and offering a selection of complimentary drinks." Result! The word was out that drinks were free all the way on flights delayed by an hour or longer so I asked if a double Scotch and Coke was in order and the stewardess told me all drinks were doubles. There was a pleased hum coming from the group of thirsty students sat at the back of the plane determined to make the most of the 3 hours of free drinking time. We had a reasonably tasty lunch of roast chicken, boiled potatoes and vegetables which helped to absorb the repeated doubles all round.

Eventually we started to descend into Moscow. Everywhere was covered in snow, typical for March. You could see sparse vehicles driving along white roads, make out the houses, we would be there very soon. But why was the plane ascending again, was this some fiendish manoeuvre to position the plane correctly for landing? The captain announced that we were not currently able to land at Moscow airport and he would give us further information when it was available. A few minutes later we were told that the plane would be flying to Helsinki for refuelling and to await further developments. Oh well, time for another double, we all hoped there would be enough left to keep us ticking over. A while later we landed at Helsinki and waited, then waited a bit more, drinks were off the menu as we were on the runway. It was getting rather stuffy if not smelly. One of the stewardesses opened the door and we were allowed to stand there and get some fresh air. I didn't last there for long, fresh it was but also 10 below zero. I returned to my seat. After another half an hour an apologetic captain informed us that Moscow airport would be closed for the foreseeable future so we would have to return to London.

This was a blow, I was looking forward to seeing St Basil's Cathedral and The Kremlin, not blessed Heathrow. I asked a stewardess why this was, couldn't we stay over in Helsinki, but it was airline policy to return passengers to base under these circumstances. Fortunately the bar was sufficient for the passengers who should have been travelling to London on the return flight, unfortunately they were also to be treated with roast chicken, boiled potatoes and vegetables. Oh well, doubles all round. In fact several doubles all round, having taken five hours or so to get back to London from Helsinki a little bird in American tan support tights told me the airport in Moscow had re-opened shortly after we left Helsinki. The captain had decided he would surprise us by heading back to Moscow, but at the last minute the airport had closed again. There had been a crash at another Moscow airport that day, Aeroflot blah blah so all airports were playing things very cautiously.

Around 10 hours after we had left we returned to London all scotched and chickened up. One of our party was a haemophiliac and carried his potions with him in the cabin so he had to go through a long process of proving to UK customs his drugs were legally dispensed, the rest of us were waved through with our duty free bags. That was all we had, our luggage had gone on an earlier flight and was in Moscow. So we waited in line to be dispensed overnight bags with paper pants and heelless socks and a selection of toiletries. By the time I got to the front of the queue the blue bags for boys had run out but they still had supplies of the white ones for girls, tomorrow morning would be fun. So the evening's task was to consume the duty free in a soulless Heathrow hotel to allow another bottle of the chosen brand to be bought the following day. I didn't attempt to smoke 200 cigarettes. One girl rang her boyfriend in Reading who turned up and made off with her duty free with indecent haste. Sitting in the lobby I overheard a phone conversation between the striking Times's Michael Binyon and The Observer Magazine. Apparently he was sat next to Boris Pasternak's sister on the flight and events had afforded him the opportunity to talk to her in depth, were they interested in running an article? If they did I missed it.

The following morning I was glad I had refreshed my underpants in the shower as the paper female equivalent were unable to comfortably accommodate my pride and joy. The socks were a bit high in nylon content as well but I had refreshed my cotton rich ones in the sink. We returned to the airport, no bags to check in and got on another morning flight to Moscow, free drinks, doubles of course, all round and the day's in-flight meal was roast chicken, boiled potatoes and vegetables. Lovely, I had developed quite a taste for that washed down with double scotch and British Airways had a 3-day food rota so we had to like it or lump it matey boy.

We made our way over the North Sea but soft, what captain's announcement on yonder speakers broke? Oh dear, one of the engines had developed a fault and we would be stopping in Copenhagen for the fault to be investigated. It seemed this was an understatement, as we landed every fire engine in Copenhagen appeared to be following us along the runway and somebody swore they could see flames. So into the terminal building we went and we were given £5 vouchers for food and drink. In 1978 Scandinavia was a tad more expensive than the UK so this allowed me an open sandwich and a third of a bottle of Tuborg to wash it down, the rest funded from my Moscow kitty. After a couple of hours of tedium we were given a choice by the BA staff. The plane had to be taken out of service, there was room on a flight to Leningrad for some of us but the rest would have to return to London in accordance with their policy. I didn't whine loudly enough and probably as well as the Leningrad party were unable to continue to Moscow due to a further airport closure and spent the night sleeping on the airport floor. So for me it was back to Heathrow, this time on a TriStar, no window seat but still doubles all round and a menu choice of roast chicken, boiled potatoes and vegetables or salad. The stewardesses ran out of salad such was the uncommon enthusiasm of these boozed up students for it.

Back at Heathrow we knew the score, the haemophiliac had to go through the usual customs checks, the boyfriend from Reading came to pick up another bottle of cheap booze and 200 fags from his girlfriend and this time around I managed to score a male overnight bag. Things were desperate on the T shirt front, 2 days on an aeroplane and hanging around it had to be drip dried in the shower back at the hotel. Were this to go on for a third day Marks and Spencer had a warehouse at Heathrow though whether they could satisfy my penchant for jumble sale chic remained to be seen.

Day 3 in The Big Heathrow House and there was a change to our routine, we were put onto a Japanese Airways flight to Tokyo which was scheduled to stop at Moscow but most of us rather fancied adding Tokyo to our passports. My shirt was still damp, airport hotels are not renowned for the gusts of drying air flowing through their bathrooms. Sadly the stewardesses resplendent in their Geisha outfits, heavy on the facial make up and without a hint of American tan support tights were not of the opinion that the doubles all round should continue, that was BA's issue not theirs. I decided against ordering a cup of tea as they are wont to make a song and dance of it and take 4 to 5 hours so it was a pathetic can of Coke. The food was a strange plate of uncooked fish the likes of which my provincial experience had never encountered. The decor in the plane was extremely relaxing, not like the in your face BA style. All went to plan and we arrived in Moscow 2 days late, oh well, Tokyo can wait.

Being The Soviet Union clearing customs would never be straightforward. The luggage had arrived two days previously but nobody seemed to know where it was. Meanwhile, a more cultured person than I spotted Dame Margot Fonteyn. I had a lovely conversation with her telling our tale and asked her to sign my boarding card for my mother. I had never seen a woman with such beautiful bone structure before, I was totally enchanted. Eventually a few enormous trollies were located that had been sat in the arrivals lounge ripe for removal of desirable blue jeans for the last two days. All that remained was to get through customs and get on the bus, but we had a black man and a Jewish woman in the party. The black man was strip searched as he was assumed to be an international drug dealer and the Jewish woman was questioned intensely over her supposed links to dissidents. There may also have been a suspicion the haemophiliac was of the Romanov bloodline as he took far longer than at Heathrow to clear his pharmaceutical collection. A couple of hours after we arrived we were all through customs but the coach driver had been to the airport twice in the last two days so hadn't bothered turning up a third time. So we hung around for another 90 minutes waiting for him, hungry and tired.

Eventually we were picked up and arrived at the hotel after midnight, the restaurant was closed as was every other restaurant in Moscow as 11pm was the compulsory closure time across the city. Lectures started at 9am the following morning so we had to dig our sorry arses out of bed for an unappetising breakfast far too early but we had only had raw fish for the last 24 hours so there was a good turnout. As for my month making a film at MosFilm and Soviet TV studios, exciting encounters with black marketeers, going beyond the city limits for foreigners and being asked for a light by a policeman on a non-smoking train that will have to wait for another post...

Red Square 1978