The trade show was at the Krasnaya Presnya exhibition centre in central Moscow. My stand was a co-operative affair used by several companies, owned and managed by a married couple based in Germany; he was German, she was Russian. Facilities at the centre were primitive, so the stand was self-contained with a working kitchen – staffed by the manger’s mother-in-law – and eating and rest areas. It was there that I first tasted blinis with sour cream for breakfast, which after the food in the hotel was completely wonderful. The kitchen was not able to operate all of the time as the mains power was subject to random interruption, sometimes for an hour or more. And the primitive facilities in the building extended to the lavatories, none of which had lavatory seats. I was told that as soon as they were installed in public buildings they were stolen, such things being in short supply to the general public.
On the third day of the show, I neglected to bring the key switch for my equipment's power supply, and the manager’s wife insisted that I take her German-registered Golf and drive back to the hotel to get it. As she handed me the keys, she mentioned that if it started to rain, the windscreen wipers could be found in the glove compartment. This was normal practice in Russia, she told me, windscreen wipers also being scarce and only too easy to remove.
The show hours were long and time dragged, but there was time off at the weekend and entertainment to be had in the evenings if you knew where to look. Taking the metro into the centre I wondered around Red Square. I queued up at a dingy café for tea and cake, the tea being supplied from an urn with milk and sugar already added.
I was told that the British Embassy was worth a visit, and on presenting myself there and providing a cheque for five pounds drawn on a British Bank (cash, credit cards and travellers cheques not accepted), I was able to take temporary membership of the British Embassy (Moscow) Club. That evening we watched a special screening of Robin and Marion provided by an old mechanical film projector. Getting to the embassy was hazardous. I had to negotiate a very wide road and there was no crossing point. I started across only to see one of those familiar (then) convoys of sleek Russian limousines racing down the middle of the road and heading in my direction. The lead car yelled abuse at me via the loudspeaker on the car roof as they sped past. It was a very disconcerting moment.
One night our host loaded all of us into his VW minibus and we went to a club out of town. There was eating and drinking and a very good live band playing western rock ‘n’ roll. We were stopped on the way by the police on some pretext. Our host reached into the glove compartment for his credentials and produced a bottle of Scotch, which having been passed to the officers for inspection appeared to satisfy regulations, and we were allowed to continue.
I had my own encounter with the police a few days later. I had heard that there was music in the basement of the Intourist Hotel close to the centre. Entry was strictly only with hard currency (dollars) and there was Cossack dancing and other live entertainment. It was after one in the morning when I left, and there being no taxis around and supposing that the busses had stopped running for the night, I decided to walk back to my hotel. It was a pleasant night and there were very few people about. A policeman spotted me and walked straight towards me. I started to panic, wondering what local bye-law I had broken, or whether foreigners were even allowed out on the streets at night. Universal sign language soon clarified the situation; he was asking me if I had a cigarette to give him … I was wrong about the busses too. Three passed me as I was walking back.
Being in Moscow I had to visit the Bolshoi. The ubiquitous Intourist agent at the hotel was able to provide tickets. I was standing behind an American who also wished to go to the opera. He asked what was available, and on being told said in a loud voice “Cosy van Tuesday?” I told him that I thought the opera was probably ‘Cosi fan Tutte’, adding that it was by Mozart. I settled for a double bill of ballet and a short opera, obviously staged for visitors. The ballet I don’t recall; the opera was Bluebeard’s Castle by Bartok. I am not a fan of Bartok and the piece reconfirmed that opinion in spades. Truly, the only thing I remember about the evening apart from the splendour of the theatre, was that during a fairly quiet part during the Bartok, I heard a telephone ring quite loudly somewhere (this was well before the era of mobile ‘phones). Intourist also provided tickets for an evening at the Moscow Conservatory for some Tchaikovsky piano music.
Much of Moscow was drab and dreary, but there was excitement in seeing Red Square, St Basil’s Cathedral, the Kremlin and Lenin’s tomb, which I saw from the outside only. And it was really stimulating to visit the Conservatory and the Bolshoi, notwithstanding the indifferent programme at the latter. There was real history here, I felt, and I would love to go back.
Welcome to the Mirli Books blog written by Peter Maggs