In the late 1970s I spent two weeks representing my company at a trade show in Moscow. The cold war was in full swing and I was a little apprehensive of travelling into the ‘Lair of the Antichrist’. I flew out with Aeroflot, and despite some anxiety regarding the safety of Soviet era jetliners, the three hour plus journey on a Tupolev 154 ‘Tridentski’ (three rear-mounted engines) was uneventful. The only real memory I have of that flight was the cabin service; the female flight attendant had the appearance and behaviour suggestive of a previous occupation as a camp guard in one of the gulags.
My arrival was not propitious. After an extremely long time getting through immigration, I learned that Intourist – the Soviet travel agency for foreigners – had allocated me a room in the Hotel Ukraina, a huge Stalin-Gothic pile around two miles from Red Square. Unfortunately though, owing to an extreme shortage of hotel rooms in Moscow – rumoured to be because of a local KGB jamboree – I was obliged to share the room with a complete stranger.
Luckily my enforced companion was an amiable chap, the employee of a well-known British company. He was in Moscow for the same trade show that I was attending, and he invited me to dine with him and his two colleagues the following evening. We had a very good dinner but I was entirely unused to vodka, champagne and cigars – the last of which one of them insisted that I try – let alone the combined effects of all three. The consequence was inevitable and occurred in the room. My room-mate was very decent about it considering, and room service dealt with the problem without a murmur. The ‘floor-dragon’ – the formidable lady attendant standing guard on each hotel floor to safeguard the morals of the guests – seemed more amused than anything else; no doubt she had seen it all before.
My companion told me that the Russian interpreter on his stand was a very attractive lady, and that he was having dinner with her on the following evening. He introduced me to her and she was indeed very pleasant; she taught me how to pronounce the name of the Soviet Union in Russian – Сою́з Сове́тских Социалисти́ческих Респу́блик – which went something like ‘Soyuz, Sovietski, Sozialisticheski, Respublic!’
The following evening came and went, and the morning after I found myself alone in the room… This was the obvious solution to the problem of sharing, and I’d like to think that it was the lady’s attractions and not my previous behaviour that precipitated this event. I had the room to myself for the rest of my time there.
Two days before we were due to fly back to London, my new friend approached me at the exhibition and invited me to a party on the following evening at the lady’s apartment. He added, almost as an afterthought and rather sheepishly I thought, that it was to be an engagement party … He gave me the address written in Russian on a piece of paper, and on the appointed evening the taxi driver dropped me near an enormous apartment block somewhere in the suburbs. I had to use the written address at least twice more with various of the locals to locate the actual apartment.
It was an excellent party. The received wisdom at that time was that the Russians were sinister Bolsheviks for whom anyone from the West was fair game to intimidate, rob or worse. In fact they were very friendly and most hospitable and not at all hostile or intimidating – with the exception of some of the officials. I have no idea how I got back to the hotel that night, but I did wake up there the next day after no more than three hours sleep. Not the best state in which to pack and then endure Russian customs control and a three hour flight – this time in an Ilyushin 62, a ‘VC10ski’ (four rear-mounted engines). I was very glad to get home, and ostentatiously declared my bottle of Russian champagne to the UK customs official; he dismissed me with a wave of his hand.
Sometime later I did hear from one of his colleagues that my erstwhile room-mate had managed to get the lady out of the Soviet Union, and they were now married. But the last news he had heard, he said, was that she was unhappy living in England and was missing Russia…
Welcome to the Mirli Books blog written by Peter Maggs