Gashead's Blog Wonders


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

Comments (4) Trackbacks (1)
  1. fabulous – and well done on finding a Moscow kitty to stump up for your beers ;O)

  2. Thanks for sharing this great story. I look forward to read more about your trip.

    By the way: 6th paragraph starts with this sentence: “Around 10 hours after we had left we returned to Moscow all scotched and chickened up.” Shouldn’t it be “returned to London”?

  3. Hi, Alistair. Rex here. Just come across this. Remember that journey well. Was in ’79, though, not ’78. I was on the Aeroflot flight from Copenhagen to Moscow (which actually landed in Leningrad, where we spent the night. There’s a whole story about the Kommandant of Leningrad Airport and a near riot in the airport restaurant which maybe I should write about at some point). Hope all’s well.

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