Leaves from red to green from Russia with love

by Barbara Maria Rathbone

Below are extracts from a diary written by a very much younger me on a trip to Russia in November 1990 over the cusp of seismic change, which were the last days of Gorbachev’s  interregnum.   They are still fascinating and contained somewhere in my youthful rapture is the esprit of the dying days of the Soviet mantle.  It was a delightful and often very amusing excursion into a fading world with all its concomitant paradoxes, predicated on supposed progress.

There is much more than I have written here – episodic capturing of risible and fleeting encounters, such as with the waitress in the only real Russian restaurant or ‘Bystro’ we entered.   (It is said that Russian cossacks in Paris during the Napoleonic wars  used to shout ‘bystro’ in restaurants, which means ‘quickly,’ and thus restaurants became so named!)  We asked what was on the menu and she replied: “Meat – hot meat, cold meat.”  It was neither and looked somewhat green.  From which animal it was sourced, we couldn’t quite tell.   She was just one of the many warm, eccentric and sometimes woebegone characters we met and maybe for moments through them we glimpsed the anachronistically beautiful dark Russian soul, held somewhere between the red shutters of the Communist past and the transition to the refulgant, neon-lit promises of the future.  Change for better or worse?

Moscow Metro

Commuters on the Moscow Metro – ‘Palaces for the people.’


Day started early it seemed, after a late night.  Breakfast was a small affair, after which we organised tickets for the opera and changed money.

Our first sight of Moscow in daylight. Unfortunately, the weather is a bit dull and therefore the skyline is blurred and general impact dulled.  It is however, an amazing city – muscular and quite serene in an altogether Russian way. Seeing the city is like a reality turned on its head.  The abundance of the West hits you at the sight of food queues.  People here I think want to think as ‘westerners’ now but have had so many upheavals of late – ‘glasnost’ and ‘perestroika’ the buzzwords. They feel nothing can move fast enough and it will take so long to sift the wheat from the chaff in all this transformation.

Took lots of photographs in Red Square and of St Basil’s, the walls of the Kremlin and Spasky towers.  Kremlin means fortress – and looks like one.  Then a beautiful convent called Novordovichy I think or ‘new maidens’, glazed with brilliant gold cupolas.  Back to the Kockmock as we transliterate it! A very frugal lunch of a hard cheese sandwich!

Ira our guide, is a fascination!  Full of the absolute earnestness and profundity of most Russians we meet.  She gives us a running commentary on the bus, complete with her own cogitations! We laughed when Ira, spying a man jogging on a wide boulevard by the University, attired only in shorts and trainers on a very cold and dank November day, says –

“Oh, is this man not wearing a shirt!”

“No!” We all say.

“No, he is not!” (Laugh)  “I like that, that is so nice.”  All delivered in her sustained, composed commentator’s tone over a mic.  She is prone to draw attention to various dogs she spots outside.

“Look at that dog, he’s carrying an umbrella.”  (Perhaps this, you would only see on the streets of Moscow).   Or “That dog looks very happy!” Before moving onto the usual – “The building on the left is…”

She seems anxious to tell us how hard life is in Moscow with the food shortages and queues for everything, everywhere. The woman is clearly proud of her city though – a true Muscovite.

In the afternoon we went to a ‘popular’ art museum.  Popular with whom!?  It consisted of what they would consider ‘pop’ art, pottery and crafts and hundreds of those ubiquitous little lacquered boxes.  There was a group of young Muscovites outside trying to trade with us, proffering dolls, military hats and ‘Perestroika’ watches, whatever they were!  One was quite charming.  I didn’t buy anything – no black market dollars.

Evening spent at the Bolshoi (big) Theatre.  Wonderful wedding cake building.  Watched a performance of ‘The Queen of Spades’ (Tchaikovsky), from the story by Pushkin.  Did not know this opera at all and found it was a difficult story to translate to opera; however, the music is sublime -pure Tchaikovsky.  I had almost wished it was one of the symphonies as I didn’t enjoy the singing very much.  The soprano who sang Lisa was vocally and physically too heavy and a bad actress.  She seemed to only have one facial expression and moved mechanically.  The Countess looked like the elderly Queen Victoria in a bath chair.  Lovely divertimenti performed by the ballet company.  There was one young soprano with a lovely voice.   I wished I knew the Pushkin story better – I would have enjoyed it more as there was no translation, obviously!  We shared a box with a small, suited man who slept through the entire opera.   He also wore a hat which was not removed.  May have been KGB.

Monday November 5th

Had a walk in a small market near the hotel up toward the Exhibition of Soviet Economic Achievement!  A very foggy day again.  Aoife and I attempted the metro but didn’t get far. We started by trying to enter the station through the ‘Out’ door (vchod) to the chagrin of Muscovite commuters! Also failed to make any sense of the Cyrillic map, even though I can read it.

Money is baffling here – the hotel is ‘hard’ currency only, no Roubles, so this means going through U.S dollars, Sterling and Deutschmark.  If they run out of the appropriate currency you are apt to be handed various currencies and/or chewing gum!

Later we went on the official Metro tour with Ira’s cohort, Natasha.  The city is much more attractive when it is lively and peopled and the (empty) shops are open.  The queues curl around blocks.  All the central Metro stations are beautifully ornate in a Stalin Baroque way!  Highly embellished and efficaciously designed – welcome change from the London tube.  For a start on the basics – cleaner quicker trains and escalators that are steep and go at amazing speed! Stalin wanted ‘palaces for the people’ and that’s what they got.  The Moscow rush hour just as frantic as London and you are apt to be snapped between the double doors on the stations and trains!

A few of us did some shopping in an ‘official’ shop – a bit rushed and frightfully confusing! All the prices in the Intourist shops are in Roubles but they wouldn’t take them off us!  In conversion we were at a disadvantage when we were told the equation was 1 Rouble – £1!! I found some scarves at 1.20 roubles so that was acceptable.  You order your goods and collect a ticket, go to another counter to hand over said ticket and receive goods then off to another counter to hand over another ticket as invoice and then finally to pay!!  Metro back to hotel and everyone but me seems to have gone to the circus.  So I take time to scribble all this as follows:

Call-girls in the hotel seemingly acceptable but Communist Party members are not allowed to use many of the facilities; except apparently at a premium – there was a separate charge for them at the pool.  English spoken pretty well by many Russians.  Strange things keep happening in the hotel, such as the ‘floor ladies’ as they are known, (chambermaids to the rest of us) banging on our door frequently asking for American cigarettes.  Have spare boxes of Marlboro ‘reds’ to give them for which they are wholly grateful – “spaseeba, spaseeba!”  A couple of people in our group are getting phone calls in their rooms at all hours of the night asking where they can buy wine!  Black marketeers in their rooms previously one supposes.  The KGB are in evidence watching the calls-girls in the lobby making their deals.  They wear anoraks, even indoors.  Lobby throngs all hours of the day and night with Intourist groups, and North Korean and East German businessmen.  Plenty of opportunities for the hookers!

Western business coming in appears in the form of the newly opened McDonalds and a Pizza Hut.  Queues outside which are inevitably very long.  Natasha says the packaging interests Muscovites more than the food!

Kids outside the hotel trying to sell us badges for chewing gum – all things American of course.

One can’t seem to meet Russians our age anywhere apart from the occasional student vying for hard currency in the dusty streets.  Feel like we’re very much on the perimeter of life here – I suppose we can’t be anything else really.  We are just fodder for the Russians to sell to, victims of their greed for hard currency and the craving for things American/Western.  Met a young guy yesterday who said he could earn in a week racketeering what he’d earn in a month for the state as long as the KGB stay away from him.  He was peculiarly vague when asked what he did of an evening.

Muscovites are very pro-Yeltsin.  He speaks for them they say, Gorbachev is only good for international affairs, not domestic.  Nothing moves fast enough for them.  Food is allowed to rot in storage and one could queue for hours to find nothing at the end. With hard currency for us everything is (fairly) plentiful. Beer is $1 a can.  There are shops everywhere in Moscow stocking only a very small amount of poor quality anything.

BMR by the Moskva River Nov. 1990

By the Moskva River dressed for the Russian winter, imagining myself as ‘Anna Karenina’ sans troika or snow for that matter – oh youth!


Revolution Day

While I remember, we were talking about the Hotel Kosmos being a den of iniquity last night.  For last night in the bar we overhead a transaction between a call-girl and a Korean guy taking place. She asked for $100, he haggled and they eventually, after a lot of shouting, agreed on another sum (chewing gum and a pair of shoes perhaps!).  The entire hotel is apparently run off the profits of the black market and these very ‘transactions’.   The ones in power one never sees, only their minions.  The attractive ‘key lady’ we met, who held the keys to a cornucopia of Matroischka dolls and lacquered goods, was undoubtedly the girlfriend of one of them.   Natasha, as she was called,  disappeared very quickly after our business and wrote down everything she sold and what she was paid.  She was very fragrant.

When we boarded the bus outside the hotel, there were many of these guys selling their wares – rabbit hats, Perestroika watches (?) etc… Ira says that materialism will not make them happy – surely she is right.   She added that the “younger ones are the lowest of the low” and that it really depresses her.  One gets an impression however, that they are well educated and very bright.  We actually spotted a ‘bust’ when the police encountered one such group of racketeers and each had to pay a 25 rouble fine, which the leader of the gang collected from each of them and handed over.  However, this was we were told by Ira, just for show – for the tourists.  They have to pay the police to keep their patch anyway…

Hotel not as smart as Kosmos and the water comes out of the taps brown! Plumbing is extremely noisy and it sounds like a bath is being run constantly overhead amplified!  Have had though, a good breakfast in an elaborately muralled room with gaudy chandeliers.  Quite tasty and substantial for post-alcohol dehydration.  Comrades in the group are gone off to the revolution celebrations and demo.  There are two factions– the Communist Party Russian Federation celebrations and the Yeltsinite pro-capitalist counter-attack!

Waiters who served us breakfast did a neat line in caviar on the side!!  The business however, doesn’t seem as well organised as it was at the Cosmos!

Ira tells us later that she hates Gorbachev, and Russians despise Raisa in particular for being “materialistic, poorly educated and bossy.”   I must have a (brown) bath as there is a tour of the city at 2pm.  When the taps are on it’s a hell of a racket and the room shakes.  Toilet takes two hours to flush!  Bath like pig swill!

Rest gives time to observe that modern Russia/USSR is a mix of confusion, sadness, weirdness, beauty, history, many races across the plains, fantastic mineral wealth/resources but great material poverty.  This amounts to a nation in transition and chaos. There are immense shortages of food, civil war in the Republics, no hard cash and of course huge debt.  Yet there is so much here to offer the world – it was once brave new world, unlike any other in modern times.   There is a bravery – it accepts it is perpetually learning and adapting – unlike its sister in power, the U.S.  Glasnost and Perestroika are not just buzz words, small elements of the zeitgeist – they really mean something to these people.   They are shaping up to form the second revolution they have had this century and not the last, surely.  Federalisation is happening and is the next stage.

It is the 73rd anniversary of the storming of the Winter Palace.  We watch fireworks over the river Neva – quite spectacular, standing by a small jetty with a boatman called Mischa.