Soviet Union
"Bugged in Moscow"

(Easter 1975)

Bugged in Moscow

By J. G. Hawley

"There's nothing real in here; only the guides." (Guide in Moscow Cosmos Space Pavilion.)

"Maxim Gorky? Oh, yes! He's got a street up Moscow." (Chris Thorne in Peter and Paul Fortress, Leningrad.)

Eric's coach purred down the Bayswater Road, the radio churning out, as if to order, "Back in the U.S.S.S.R.; how lucky you are''. With the prospect of three day's rail travel ahead I didn't feel particularly lucky, but I did feel happy in the knowledge that I might survive the Russian ordeal. I had no such reassurance in April; quite the reverse. I had chanced upon a "Telegraph" Supplement article entitled "In a Red Despair" a few days before we departed which suggested all sorts of trials ahead, the least of which might be starvation! Certainly, the Hotel Bucharest food, served by plump, apathetic waitresses, left much to be desired though the Simpleton's plaintive song "Weep, O Starving Russian People," in the opera "Boris Godunov", which some of us saw at the Leningrad 'Kirov', made us feel, gastronomically, quite fortunate. There were arguments over the non-return of the 15 kopeks deposit on bottles and sharp demands by hotel staff for roubles for broken, wafer-thin, tooth glasses; but it was all good fun, and we secretly enjoyed taking on the Russians. In any event our view of Red Square made us forgive everything and it was a comfort having the British Embassy, a stone's throw along the Moskva embankment, with Union Jacks stiffly flapping in seeming defiance of the Kremlin's shimmering silk hammers and sickles.

Red Square, floodlit at night, is eerie in its vastness, with the red flags standing sentinel high over the Lenin Mausoleum. On a warm April evening as the Spaskaya bell tolled midnight and the goose-stepping guards changed once again, I had stood, virtually alone, in the centre of the Square hardly able to believe that I was standing in the heart of the Russian "Holy of Holies'', yet only three hours away from London by air.

During the day the Square has a warm, bustling, market-place atmosphere, but in August we found ourselves chilled by efficiently refrigerated air as we entered the Mausoleum (no cameras or bags, hands by sides, jackets done up). As we climbed the exit stairs I had to suppress a laugh as a Red Guard kept uttering "Schhh'': no real need to advertise; we could not fail to "know who'' with so many more life-like effigies in shops and public places!

The cultural aspects of life are magnificent and if some museums were more attractive than others one had still to admire the variety. Though we had Lenin for breakfast, lunch and tea, the museum named after him in Revolution Square gave us a rare insight into his life; we saw his Rolls Royce and the assassin's curaretipped bullets which hastened his end. Of the musical events, the Don Cossacks thrilled me most, particularly in their singing of "The Steppes are All Around Us'', which haunted and hushed the packed Nevsky Theatre in Leningrad. It is sad that the Soviets have to compete on unequal terms with tourists for such entertainment.

The Moscow and Leningrad transport systems are strong rivals for the 'Blue Riband' of transport. The fully computerised metro, with a two-minute service, and with fares unaltered at 3p since the 1930's, for unlimited travel, made the amount of road-borne traffic surprising. There would be serious congestion in places were it not for the very wide roads. In contrast, we found the many apartment blocks depressing, though this is less surprising when one considers that in 1917 the country was over 80% rural-dwelling and is now over 60% urban-dwelling. With the exception of Japan, no capitalist country has experienced such rapid urbanisation. So, if you want to see a genuine wooden house in Moscow – go now. I had expected the Soviets to stare at my shoes and feel my clothes, and I was somewhat disappointed that this was not the case. Clothes are colourful but imported clothes and jeans are in short supply and fetch a good price on the black market. I declined offers made to me outside the Kosmos ice-cream parlour in Gorky Street, mainly on the grounds that I might look a little conspicuous making my way back across Red Square trouserless.

Between visits, we all secretly played "Spot your friendly KGB agent'': there were many false alarms, since it's easy to imagine you're being followed when there are only about three Russian facial stereotypes. The nearest I came to being "bugged" was in my Bucharest Hotel bed on my first morning in Moscow, when I awoke to find a tiny, strange creature careering in circles around the sheet!

Arrival in Leningrad meant the Sputnik Hotel for both Easter and Summer parties, and, for the latter, its excellent facilities complemented the superb Moscow cuisine. As I washed the grime of travel off in my private shower, the telephone rang and in a short while I was downstairs in the foyer to meet Larisa, who was breaking off her Estonian holiday to meet our party. She and her pupils, Victoria and Irene, had assisted our party at Easter, and Marina, Victoria and Kate were to do the same again this time. Leningrad is, in many ways, a city of sad memories; in the field of Mars lie buried the Revolutionaries of 1905 and 1917, but the memories of strife are crystallised in the Piskarev Cemetery where Larisa translated, grim-faced and to the sound the Shostakovich "Leningrad" Symphony, the inscription "We will never forget''. There lie the bodies of many of the 1 million inhabitants of the city who died during the three year siege of World War II - most of them from starvation. Few Leningrad families are untouched by war. It is not surprising that they refer to Leningrad as ''our city'.

Departure from the Sputnik heralded the inevitable service bureau scenes with demands for money for a variety of spurious reasons. Returning from the foyer with the battle at its height and with the Intourist guides sitting, bored, in a ''We've seen it all before" attitude, I chanced upon a booklet which was joyfully held aloft. "Peace is the Concern of One and All' it proclaimed; even the guides laughed, though, obviously less impressed, the manageress vigorously renewed her claims that two shilling pieces were no longer legal tender. We escaped, eventually, present-laden, and with huge Soviet realist posters, acquired at the Moscow "House of Books'', now a severe embarrassment.

Of the Russians one can only conclude that their attitude changes with the seasons. In summer we saw many smiling faces, waitresses tried "leg-pulls'', though speaking no English, and the ladies in charge of the comfortable sleeping cars made us feel at home with endless glasses of tea from the peat-fired samovars in each carriage. Volunteer schoolchildren aged 15-18 clearly enjoyed showing us around from breakfast to bedtime, thoroughly dedicated to their unpaid task. At the Moscow Tchaikovsky Concert Hall conference the latter were to show refreshing cynicism about the "'system' when questions on kindergarten schooling and Poland brought forth mutterings of, "No, I hated it," and "They won't answer that," from Alexei to my left.

Thank you, Mike ("Follow-the-Guide'') Ershove, Kate, Andrew, Victoria, Irene, Marina, Larisa and guides Lenny, Natasha and Violette for the marvellous multi-faceted experience; "cultural'' and "educational'' are inadequate epithets to apply and I refrain from their use.

As Eric's coach pulled up outside Victoria Station one could not have guessed how exciting the journey ahead would prove. The searches under the seats, the passport controls at all times of the day and night, the stern rebukes at Checkpoint Charlie" and the bristling East German railway guards, hands on holsters kept us from boredom.

"We're now entering the Soviet Onion'' a wit exclaimed as the great continental expressed rolled in to Brest-Litovsk, and we spotted our first Red Guards, rifle-bearing, guarding the engines!

J. G. Hawley

1976 School Magazine


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