Photo scanning

Burned four more CDs of photos. I’m using Mitsui Gold 650MB CD-Rs, which I ordered specially. Stores don’t seem to stock standards-compliant high-quality CD-Rs any more; everyone wants non-standard 700MB CD-Rs that are as cheap as possible. So anyway, I’ve finished with the major travel pictures—East Germany, Italy, Belgium, Luxembourg, and a few last shots of St Petersburg. Now to switch back to video for a while…

But first, I finally played Diablo II. I started at around 16:30, and finished just a few minutes ago because I really need to sleep, so I think it’s safe to say I’m going to get my $20 worth.

Day 10, Farewell

We see a few last bits of St Petersburg. In the evening, we visit Olga’s friend Anna. Anna has recently been to America; she seems to like New York more than I did.

Epilogue

A few weeks later, Boris Yeltsin sent tanks in to shell the Russian Parliament building. I watched on TV. Suddenly news from Russia seemed a lot more real, a lot more important. I saw the Pizza Hut where we had bought lunch, this time with an armored car outside it.

I realize now that the only reason the Cold War worked was the Soviet Union’s keeping the borders closed. You can only fear and mistrust the enemy that much if you are ignorant of who they really are.

Day 9, Москва

On the train in the morning, Olga tells us another Russian joke:

Q: What should we do if the Americans launch a massive nuclear attack?

A: Wrap yourself in a white sheet, and crawl very, very quietly to the graveyard.

Q: But why must we crawl quietly?

A: So as not to start a panic.

The train is actually more luxurious than the sleeper train we traveled on in Italy. However, there are no straps or railings to prevent you from rolling off the upper bunk beds, and I don’t get much sleep. The fourth passenger in our compartment is a quiet Russian girl.

The railway station in Moscow is an exact copy of the one in Leningrad, but labeled “Leningrad” instead of “Moscow”. Similarly, three other stations in the vicinity are built to look just like the ones their trains go to. In between the stations there’s a sea of people milling around, trying to sell things, and yelling at each other.

Metro tickets are made of translucent neon green plastic. They used to be metal, but the currency devalued so fast that people apparently began hoarding them, melting them down, and selling the scrap metal for more than the cost of the tokens.

The Metro map is circular with diagonal lines, quite the coolest I’ve seen in any city. We take the train to Red Square.

At this point I’m not feeling too good. Olga’s been feeding us plenty by Russian standards, but my overactive metabolism has been burning it off, and I feel weak, tired, and sometimes dizzy. At least my digestion is just about coping with the temporary return of meat to my diet, unlike XQ’s.

Red Square is neither red, nor square; the “Red” part is from the Russian for “beautiful”. “Kremlin” just means “fortress”, so one should really talk about “The Moscow Kremlin”. Lenin’s mausoleum is still there, big and red and low and boxy.

Most of the square is closed off; apparently there’s a meeting going on in the Parliament building. St Basil’s is closed, so I don’t get to see inside it. We walk across the bridge a bit to see the Kremlin from the river.

We go into ГУМ (GUM), formerly the state department store. Now it’s full of expensive Western boutique stores selling things people don’t need, for hard currency only—stuff like Бзнетон (Benneton) and Yves San Laurent. Millions of people are on the poverty line, but at least you can pay $100 for a sweater.

There are also small Russian shops scattered amongst the chain stores; they too stock a variety of Western goods. I see one store selling ЛЕГО (LEGO); at least that has some value.

We go inside the Kremlin and look around. There are the usual onion-domed church buildings, the parliament building, and a nasty looking Soviet government building. Lots of American tourists are are here, doing what they do best.

Next we head for the old Jewish quarter of Moscow. It used to be lively, full of people and market stalls, but now it seems to be fairly dead. Olga says it’s the same everywhere—there are no Russian tourists any more, just the Westerners who can afford to travel and are prepared to put up with the bureaucratic paperwork.

We cross over to the main entry road, which was demolished and rebuilt to look impressive as you drive into the city. There are large Soviet tower blocks and concrete department stores along its length. XQ says there used to be many bookstalls. Now, there are kiosks selling jeans, cassette tapes, food, drink, and anything belonging to the Soviet Union that wasn’t nailed down. The books that remain are trashy pulp novels and the Russian version of Penthouse, rather than poetry and literature.

We decide to buy Olga lunch. Somehow she never got to eat pizza while visiting us, so we take her to Пэцца Хат. I eat until I’m completely stuffed. When we leave, I feel bouncy and full of energy once more. The clouds have cleared, and the sun has come out.

We get the train to Zagorsk, which houses an ancient monastery. Walking from the station, we get to the observation point on the hilltop overlooking a valley. On the far side is a dazzling spread of onion-domed churches and other buildings. Some have gold roofs, some are deep blue with gold stars. We go there and look around inside.

An Orthodox service is going on in the church with the blue dome with gold stars. We look inside. The room is full of candles and incense; there are icons everywhere. It’s dark, and there’s a monotone chanting. It’s hard to believe this religion has anything in common with the Church of England.

We go to a small hard currency café and buy tea, then return to Moscow by train.

Back in Moscow, in the station, we see an old drunk lying in a pool of liquid. He has apparently just been beaten up by a policeman, and several women are berating the policeman. The old man tries to get up onto his feet, and the policeman kicks him viciously in the chest. He falls backwards, and his head hits the stone floor of the station with a sickening crack. We don’t stay around to see what happens next.

We visit the Moscow University district, and see the much-derided “wedding cake” building. The Soviet Union apparently built a number of them during the Stalinist era.

On the train back to St Petersburg that evening, I sleep better for some reason.

Day 8, the Russian Museum and shopping

The exchange rate is now 1,466 rubles to the UK pound, a gain of 50 in 6 days.

The Russian Museum has a lot of Russian art, naturally. The collection seems to go as far as the early 20th Century, but there’s very little sign of any kind of abstract art. It’s all pictures of Czars, men with beards, peasants, landscapes, that sort of thing. Upstairs are lots of icons.

Alexei has given me a wristwatch as a gift. It’s a special commemorative design celebrating the anniversary of St Petersburg being opened as a port. XQ has a watch too, as a gift for her brother. The luxury watches don’t come with straps, so we track down some watch straps that match. 1,200 rubles for two. We also look for the traditional big furry hats, or army satchels, but we don’t see any apart from on very dodgy looking market stalls.

Art books are as expensive here as in Britain; one book on Soviet art in the museum is $90. Most are priced 20,000–30,000 rubles.

I get my mother a small laquered box. She already has Russian plates and matryoshki, and I can’t stick a balalaika in my suitcase. XQ is adamant that we shouldn’t export any native foodstuffs from the country, and she has a point.

That night, at around 23:30, we get the overnight train to Moscow. Olga knows someone who works at the station, and has managed to get us three tickets in the “first class” area—that is, the one which only has four bunk beds to a compartment.

XQ and I are not officially supposed to travel outside St Petersburg, as we don’t have internal visas. In the Soviet days, we would be deported if caught, and given how uncertain things are it’s quite possible the same would happen now. I’m under orders to avoid speaking, as even if I knew more than a dozen words of Russian, my accent would be a dead giveaway.

Day 7, The Dacha

We head out into the countryside. The family owns half of a dacha (country summer house) near a lakeside village, set in woodlands. It’s very beautiful.

We have a barbecue. Some of Alexei’s friends from Murmansk are there. Murmansk is Russia’s most northern port, where many of the nuclear submarines were based during the Cold War. The ocean regularly freezes over there, and during mid-winter there are only minutes of daylight each day.

It’s around 23-25 celsius where we are, comfortable room temperature; in Murmansk that day it’s a blazing 3 celsius, a typical midsummer day. Alexei’s friends are sweating profusely in the heat, and they keep a careful distance from the barbecue.

I notice that when Russians buy sunglasses, they leave the stickers stuck to the lenses saying things like “UV protection” and “scratch resistant”. I laugh and ask why they don’t peel off the labels. It turns out that leaving on the stickers is the fashionable thing to do, at least in St. Petersburg right now, as it shows that you have Western sunglasses. English words on a sticker are as good as a designer label.

There’s another minor misunderstanding when we talk about food shortages. I explain that England did have food shortages, back in the 1940s. I mention “ration book”, and they hear “Russian book” and get offended for a moment, thinking that it’s a slang term like “French letter” or “Dutch courage”. XQ explains.

We wander through the woods a little. At one point I hear some Russian voices and the sound of dogs barking, and suddenly the memory of every Cold War spy movie I’ve ever seen is telling me to run and hide. I start to realize the true extent to which I’ve been brainwashed in spite of my skepticism.