I was lucky enough to visit Russia about a year after the collapse of the Soviet Union, in the summer of 1993. My girlfriend at the time had lived and studied in Leningrad, and had made friends with a family there. We decided to go visit them.
We arrive at Leningrad airport. It has “ST PETERSBURG” on the top in obviously brand new letters.
I see row after row of identical Aeroflot planes. Our British Airways plane taxis for about half a kilometer around the outside of the old ‘external’ airport, to the main airport building. Apparently now that people can travel, they don’t feel a need to physically separate international and domestic flights.
The plane stops and sits for a while. Eventually, someone comes back, having found some steps. Some soldiers stand and watch us as we disembark.
We fill out some customs forms to declare what we’re bringing into the country. The form is an old USSR one, and it’s fairly obvious that nobody is taking customs very seriously any more; they just make us complete the official Soviet paperwork because, well, it’s their job, and they haven’t been told to do anything else. Their asses having been covered, we clear customs and immigration quite quickly.
We meet up with Olga, her husband Alexei, and their daughter Natasha. We learn that Alexei’s car has broken down, and the garage has refused to even try to repair it, saying it needs a new body. Hence, we find ourselves squeezing onto a yellow bendy bus full of Russians.
The electric bus rattles along the streets, which could apparently use some maintenance. They look brown and dusty. The ballast of the bus’s electrical system is apparently completely shot, and the back of the bus is filled with an eerie electronic whining noise that rises and falls in pitch depending on what the bus is doing. This turns out to be a common feature of Russian buses; I name it “The Song Of The Lonely Bus” and find myself wishing I had a tape recorder…
We switch to the Metro. When the train arrives there are doors in the walls which open up, followed by the doors of the train a few moments later. I find myself wondering if the two sets of doors ever fail to line up.
Ascending from the Metro by escalator is rather like the stairway to heaven scene in the classic movie “A Matter Of Life And Death”. Unlike the Underground in London, there are no posters here to give a sense of scale; when you look to the side, the lights continue as far as the eye can see.
The apartment block where Olga and family live looks a lot like the ones in East Berlin—but even more so. The outside is run down, crumbling, faded and shabby. The stairwells are unlit—the lights have been ripped out. The lift isn’t working. We walk up to the fourth floor. I notice a faint smell of urine in the stairwell, like Watford car park. We climb nine flights of stairs in all.
I’m a bit nervous as to what we’ll find, but the apartment turns out to be nice inside, though very obviously Eastern Europe.
Olga and Alexei have moved into the main room, and given me and XQ the bedroom. Olga’s mother and Natasha are sleeping in the remaining room. The “bathroom” is a shower that has been bolted onto the side of the kitchen by Alexei.
This is, by Russian standards, a luxury apartment. Three whole rooms, plus a kitchen! Originally this was three separate communal apartnments with a shared kitchen. Olga’s family got the other two when their neighbors moved out; fortunately for them they had connections, and grandma survived the Siege of Leningrad, so the second time they applied for more space they managed to get preferential treatment because of her war hero status and the fact that they had a child.
It’s time to eat, and we are given special treats: fresh fish to start with; sprats, to be precise. Unfortunately the main course turns out to be some kind of meat dish in jelly.
I had already decided that I would give up being vegetarian for the duration of the trip. It’s hard enough for Russian families to get food at all, without putting crazy demands on them. So I try to eat the jellied meat, really I do. I just can’t manage it, though. I’ve always had a problem with anything that has a texture like fat, and the jelly sets off my gag reflex. I realize that if I try to force it down, I’ll end up vomiting. I opt to survive on bread and vegetables.
We go out at 1a.m. and find that it’s still light. We walk down to the riverfront and watch the bridges to the island being raised. Wispy clouds drift in front of the moon, moonlight sparkles on the water, and the gilded dome of St Isaac’s Cathedral glitters against the blue-orange sky. A ship passes through the bridge.
Alexei has a Russian clone of a Sinclair ZX Spectrum, as well as a radiation meter and a four band (shortwave) radio. Natasha tries to teach me the alphabet for a while, then we all go to bed.