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It’s my first visit to Russia and frankly I am a little bit nervous about it. Over the past few months I have had several business trips in Eastern Europe. I have partied in Prague, boogied in Budapest and wowed the crowd in Warsaw. But still, something about my trip to Moscow has me a little anxious.
They keep teasing me in the office about the women I will meet. Where I live, Russian women are stereotyped as peroxide prostitutes. Like all stereotypes this is grossly unfair and more than a little cruel and yet I have been warned by several reliable and serious friends that I will be approached as soon as I check in. “It doesn’t matter how nice the hotel is,” I’m told, “As soon as you get into your room someone will call and offer you a companion.”
One of my colleagues asks me again and again whether I’ll get a blonde or a brunette. I laugh and tell him that I’m not settling for less than twins. But still, I am an incy bit concerned.
The night of my flight I have to go first to a karaoke bar for my sister in law’s 30th. I don’t live in the UK but the majority of people at the party are Anglos. Unfortunately nobody rang ahead to check and the majority of songs on offer are not in English. I muddle my way through a local radio hit desperately trying to match the foreign subtitles to what I thought were the words. My younger sibling and I duet on Daniel. I am his brother. I am older than he. I am traveling tonight on a plane. It’s spooky. Then his brother-in-law offers a final piece of advice before my trip. “Keep your money in your socks and don’t get raped.”
My ride to the airport is a breeze. By sheer coincidence, someone I know is also on my flight and we hook up and cab it together. He’s been to Moscow several times before and he tells me some of his stories. Before we get on the plane we are met at the airport and given three big boxes to bring with us. I ask him what’s in the boxes and he tells me vaguely about his connections to the community in Moscow and how he helps them out whenever he can.
I sleep most of the way, mercifully missing the meal, and waking halfway through a Meg Ryan movie which I watch without putting on my headphones. Then we land. My travel agent has arranged my visa and I hurriedly fill in the customs forms. My friend tells me it can take up to an hour to get past immigration, but somehow we are done in minutes. Our luggage arrives almost immediately and we are briskly waved through the green channel.
On the other side we head for the official Taxi rank. The woman shows us a laminated price list for trips into Moscow. The price is $85 plus another 10 because we are going to different hotels. My friend looks appalled. “No, no, no,” he says emphatically and two minutes later we settle on a total charge of $50.
I am staying at the Sheraton Palace Hotel on Tverskaya Yamskaya. When you travel a lot for business, one hotel seems very much like another, but I’m grateful
for the big bed and BBC Prime.
I have a colleague who will be joining me for the trade show and he is bringing the marketing collateral with him, but he isn’t arriving until late tonight so I am at a bit of a loose end. There is no wireless network in the hotel which is now a greater defect than no hot water. Unable to connect to work, I decide to get out and see a bit of the town. I put everything in the room safe except my passport which has my visa in it and a thousand rouble note and go consult the concierge.
Despite the online prediction of rain I emerge map in hand into glorious sunlight and kick off for the Kremlin. Tverskaya heading south towards Red Square is four lanes wide in each direction and it takes me ten minutes just to cross the road. The traffic is unreasonably heavy and made up of an unusual combination of Lada and Lexus. It’s the first of many disconcerting dialectics that will characterize the trip.
Above ground, the street is lined with familiar names. I spot Hugo, Donna and Calvin and they wave cheerily from between the largest selection of banks I have ever seen. The shops are selling the best of what the world has to offer at prices that appear very normal for Western Europe, but that must seem extraordinary to the average working Muscovite. I’m told that the wage for a graduate in a suit and tie job may be $500 per month or thereabouts.
Underground, people are serving all manner of goods, from hosiery to patisserie, through letterbox style hatches. The words of the prophets are not written on these subway walls unless the prophets were overly concerned with fake watches and Prada knock offs.
Upstairs again, there is a stall offering Mel’s Passion on dodgy DVD for 150 roubles. Even factoring in the fluctuating exchange rate and a decent following wind this is still about 175 roubles more than I am willing to cough.
I trudge back to the hotel with nothing to show for my travels except a Mars bar and some bottled water. Later that night I meet up with my friend. He has something he wants to show me and we can have dinner when we get there. I meet him in the lobby and we set off on foot heading away from the centre this time. The streets are more residential and the roads less wide as we walk for about twenty-five minutes. He tells me about the people he has met trying to find investors for his business. “It’s all about the right contacts,” he says. “I had to get the approval of this guy at the bank just to meet some of the big players. I’m telling you, this city is buzzing. I’d move here tomorrow but my wife would divorce me before I made it to Departures.”
We arrive at our destination and it is genuinely impressive. Several of Moscow’s newly minted billionaires have donated generously to re-establish the enormous building in front of us. Seven floors housing the Choral Synagogue, and a fully fitted gym and basketball court. Years ago, Jews were forced out of Russia because of the Cossack penchant for pillaging. Later, Jews were refused exit visas to leave Russia and persecuted for practicing their religion. Today the entrance to the Jewish Community centre is guarded by several burly blond security types. I wonder if their Cossack ancestors appreciate the gorgeous irony. Inside, we are just in time for the evening prayers. The synagogue is huge but sparsely populated on this weekday evening. The majority of those present are young and prodigiously bearded having been co-opted from their own communities in Israel and the US to make up the numbers and provide a solid foundation to Moscow’s reluctant returnees to religious life. As a teenager I marched through London demanding justice for Russian Refuseniks (“… 5, 6, 7, 8. Let our people emigrate”). Since then, I have walked the streets of Germany and ridden a train in Poland, but being part of the quorum for the memorial prayer for the dead in Moscow is a new kind of life-affirming experience.
One floor below the synagogue there are two restaurants – one meat and one dairy. If you find another religion with closer links to food then you can baptize me in gravy and sign me up. Given that dairy’s for fairies, we opt for a subsidized slap up of lamb chops and chips with lashings of full-fat cola. Life, as Mike Leigh once pointed out, is sweet.
Back at the hotel VH1 are running a Bands Reunited New Wave special. Nick Beggs in a skirt is preternaturally preserved while Limahl looks ravaged by years of pop insignificance. Then they play the video for ‘Ooh To Be Ah’ which inexplicably features Kenny Everett and Christopher Timothy. Moscow is turning out to be stranger than I could have imagined.
During the night my colleague arrives and we meet for breakfast the following morning. The hotel generously provides a car service to take us to the show. A snip at 20 dollars. Later we find that if we had asked for a taxi instead it would have cost us less than half for the same journey. I feel greener than the fresh cut grass.
The show is at Gostiny Dvor on Ilyinka street right next to Red Square. The hall is a magnificent, glass-roofed, white-tiled extravagance and we are optimistic as we set up our booth that we will meet hundreds of clients and do great business. Ten minutes before the doors open we are still waiting for the interpreter to arrive. Without saying much, it’s pretty clear that we are both hoping for someone special, easy on the eye with a sparkling personality. Then, “Gentlemen, I am your interpreter.” The bad news is our interpreter has more facial hair than the two of us together. The less bad news is that Alexander is a charming chap in his early 40s with a healthy respect for idiom.
Then the show starts. Anyone who has ever manned a booth at a trade show can vouch that it is simultaneously exhausting and dull. This one is extra dull with chocolate sauce and crushed nuts. There are simply not
Pictures of General: Russia
St Basil's Cathedral
enough people coming in and certainly not enough from the sector we represent.
People drift by all day. A lot of the men look sort of like John Alderton. That’s Thomas and Sarah Alderton with a moustache, not the Please Sir! version. As for the women, I’m not sure whether the average height is greater than I’m used to, but there is definitely a preponderance of extremely tall fillies in startlingly short skirts. There are plenty of peroxide ’dos and spiky boots, but between the clichés I spot some elegant and sophisticated-looking locals.
The show closes at seven and the crowd spills out onto the street. We walk a little way and enter what seems like an American-style shopping mall. I buy a small set of matroishka dolls from a concession. Only 60 roubles. There are more brand names with a peculiar emphasis on lingerie. You can say what you like about modern Russia but they like their knickers posh. I wander past racks of lacy underthings imagining Vladimir Ilyich turning in his tomb. And then as I step out of the expensive underwear emporium I find myself in the middle of Red Square directly facing Lenin’s final home. The square is huge with white lines painted in to help the troops march straight. Lenin’s Tomb is on the West side directly facing La Perla and the host of other stores flanking the enormous GUM department store. Facing South I take in St. Basil’s Cathedral – a garishly coloured and freakishly turreted monstrosity that looks like it came brick by brick from the Magic Kingdom. The story goes that Ivan the Terrible had the architect blinded so that he could never again design something so… unique. I have a feeling that if I stare at it much longer I’m likely to claw my own eyes from their sockets.
Heading North out of the square I’m approached by a deaf man who wants to sell me an army cap covered with badges for 10 Euro. On the other side of the gate there is a crowd of people around some brass markings set in the ground. One young person stands in the middle and mumbles a prayer before throwing her loose change over her shoulder. The sight of elderly women scrabbling on the floor for a few coins turns my stomach and I head back to the hotel.
Later that night the hotel lobby is populated with great-looking hookers. They sit chatting to each other and smoking, or reading to themselves patiently. None of them look at me and nobody calls my room. I don’t know whether I have been slighted.
The rest of the week passes quickly. We make some decent contacts and I learn how to order a city cab.
On the way back to the airport, my taxi is beaten from the lights by a souped-up Lada with racing stripes and a foot high spoiler. It is a final reminder of what I have discovered during my stay. Despite warnings and preconceptions, Russia is firmly neither one thing nor the other.
My ticket to Russia was not from the UK but was remarkably cheap because it included a Saturday night stay. My hotel, on the other hand, cost an arm and a leg. The exchange rate is 50 roubles to the pound.
Very interesting opinion. As most people I am intrigued by Russia, its history, the KGB!,its people. I enjoyed reading this including the background of your trip and expectations. It saddening how poor the poor really are there and the result of various regimes. The comment on women, I've always thought they were most beautiful -but reading a comment Torr wrote its funny he may have a point -something does seem to happen to them after 50...?Some genes, indeed! Intriguing -Agent CH
marylou2u 20.03.2005 16:18
After re-reading this due to a possible impending visit eastwards I have upgraded to an E. A fantastic insight into the Russian way of life. An entertaining read and informative. Funnily enough on the underwear front, I wrote an op on Agent Provocateur and was amazed to find Moscow had a shop! Now I know why.
teacherofhooch 04.11.2004 21:57
I am glad my Russian friend is not reading your review! She would be most upset!
Would love to go to Russia maybe one day! Linda
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