Russia, the first time
It was 1987 when we picked up a copy of the British Airways Sovereign Holidays brochure with the intention of booking a long weekend in Vienna, maybe, or perhaps Prague. Turning the pages was a dangerous thing, though, because there followed Budapest, Moscow and Leningrad.
I’d always wanted to go to Moscow, to see St Basils Cathedral and that was really very tempting. But there on the edge of the page was an even more exciting opportunity: Georgia, Leningrad and Moscow!
I don’t mind admitting that right at that moment, I probably didn’t have a clue where Georgia was. All I knew was that I wanted to see as much of the world as I could and, if we were making the effort to go so far, well, we might as well make on and see a bit more.
So, in June 1987, we left our two year old boy in the safe company of his grandparents and headed to Russia. How exciting was that!
Our recent days in St Petersburg gave us cause to reminisce and on our return, to get out a couple of old albums because even in those pre-blog (pre-computer!) days, we recorded everything and I saved all the ephemera, just as I do today. During the last couple of days, we’ve enjoyed reading about our travels with a delightful group of 16 companions and remembering some of the events which still make us smile when we think about them.
Because one of the topics of conversation has been about how Russia has changed in the intervening 30 years – or not?
To begin with, it’s clear how during those ten days, we were never in control of our destiny, but were at the beck and call of our Russian hosts; in particular, our guide Svetlana. So, having flown on an early morning flight from London, we found ourselves being taken immediately on a city tour and then on our promised visit to the Hermitage. At the time, we felt frustrated but went with the flow. Now, I look at the faces of other group members who were mostly recently retired people and quite understand why they became so tetchy! It had been an early start for us all and the added anxiety of being in an unfamiliar country where we had no choice but to do as we were told took its toll on that first day.
I recall feeling relieved at the modern, functional hotel and of stepping out at 11pm to see the (almost) midnight sun over the Gulf of Finland, which intstantly put all minor concerns about the day into perspective. Yes, Russia had – and still has – the power to work magic like that.
A day’s sightseeing in Leningrad followed, including the continuing frustrations of life in the city. I recorded our efforts to find a small toy to take home for Edward and the mysterious closure of the only shop in which we were allowed to do business: the Beriozka shop in the hotel. Would it be open tomorrow? The answer was a shrug and “I don’t know”.
In particular, I found it interesting to see how uncannily similar our programme then was to our programme recently!
Especially since on our last morning in St Petersburg, we went to Petrodvorets and watched those same fountains. And yes, my hero did remember correctly, there were dancers!
Our subsequent travels in Georgia, including driving through the Caucasus to Baku, on the Caspian Sea are all described in detail, including several breakdowns.
We remember the events so clearly and wondered if, over the years, we’ve elaborated on them but reading through the journals again, I think not!
The focus of our journal is frequently on the food we were offered, which was “interesting” and probably the best available. With little or no choice, we simply went with the flow, but I’ll bet that we’d notice a huge change in that respect these days. With a Starbucks on Nevsky Prospekt? Supermarkets on every street? Oh yes.
My guess is that we wouldn’t even recognise Baku today. In the intervening years, Baku has become quite the metropolis, described by Lonely Planet as the “architectural love child of Paris and Dubai”. I’m happy to remember our evening in the caravanserai in preference to the heat and constant fumes from the nearby oil wells. At any rate, I doubt that Baku airport still charts the departure information with a chinagraph pencil on a whiteboard now!
By the time we arrived in Moscow, our final stop, we were feeling weary. Svetlana handed over control of our group to Igor, a well-travelled young man proudly wearing a Five Nations rugby shirt and we’d given up trying to influence decisions. No use asking to go to the ballet then, because Igor had arranged circus tickets instead. A gala dinner in a speciality restaurant? Might we choose one with Russian specialities like beef stroganoff? We ended up in a Georgian restaurant instead! But we were having fun – not sure about Svetlana, wearing blue, though!
When I scanned the hotel card from Moscow, I noted the term “floor-attendant” there; another aspect of “the old country” which doesn’t seem to have changed. Bearing in mind the elderly lady attendants sitting in the museums, churches and other public places would have been little more than young women themselves back in 1987, they’ve grown into the role superbly and assumed the mantle from their forebears remarkably well. For no matter where we stood, waited, looked, there she was. Babushka. Sitting in her chair watching the goings on, ready to spring to her feet and defend her territory by correcting the behaviour of anyone who transgressed. Though she might have a mobile phone in her hand now, that same old word was never far from her lips: “niet”.
Though statues may come and go, the mindset of a generation is altogether more resistant to change.