My final “study” trip to the USSR was more surreal than the other two put together.
It all started at Gatwick where we were to meet the other students and our group leader. I was approached by a very worried looking Indian lady in a sari who begged me “please please look after my daughter. She is only 17 and I am worried that she might be led astray by the older students. You look very sensible”. How wrong she was…
This led to another unbeatable partnership with Saima which was ideal from the outset for the following reasons:
- She was even more rebellious than I was
- She had NO intention of attending classes
- She was as obsessed with Les Miserables and a really bad mini series at the time about Peter the Great as I was
- Her mother had supplied her with a seemingly endless stash of Bombay Mix
- She was on the run from a lot of pain as I was, which fuelled our flights from reality
We were lodged in on the 19th Floor of the Hotel Sputnik, which dated from the 1980 Moscow Olympics and it became the base for our misadventures.
These were the Perestroika days and change was in the air. However the old culture, the Cold War paranoia, was very much still in evidence.
We would go to Red Square daily and laugh at the name-badged American tourists being herded towards the Lenin Mausoleum listening in on their conversations which were more often than not assumptions of what awaited them in the USSR acquired from Bond films and spy novels. We decided that it would be an act of sheer humanity to provide these tourists with the very thing they expected to happen but otherwise was highly unlikely to in their very controlled, chaperoned tour groups.
First we tried to get into the minds of these tourists by co-designing between the two of us, suitable spy outfits. We found a shop selling Gorbachev-style trilbies. We both had trench coats and dark glasses.
Next, timing was everything. We learned to time the arrival of our targets at the Mausoleum. One of us would start walking purposefully from one end of Red Square by St Basil’s, and the other from the Revolution Square end. Just as the group were gawping wide-eyed at the changing of the Kremlin guard. We would meet close to one of these groups and a brown envelope would be passed from one of us to the other and we would pause to hear the reaction then hurry off.
I recall a rotund Texan with a “Hi I’m Spike” name badge, shouting “did you SEE that, Marjory?” having witnessed our exchange. It concerns me deeply that these two are probably back in Buchanan Dam, Texas still dining out on this story so I apologise deeply. It was all a Scottish/Indian stitch up.
We expanded our creativity after that. One of us would sit on the benches outside the Bolshoi Theatre, dark glasses and trench coat on, reading a copy of Pravda upside down. The other would approach, collar up, trilby pulled down, and take a seat next to the other. Again our trusty brown envelope would be passed from one to the other again to the maximum horror/delight of visiting tourists. Russians probably thought we were extremely silly.
The other thing we did to pass time when supposed to be at Russian language classes, was set up a competition amongst our fellow students, who probably didn’t know who we were, to see which pair could get round the whole Moscow Metro system in one go. We planned our route to end up in a place that was symbolic at least to the mini series about Peter the Great. We went to the end of the each line and back again. We did do a full circle of the Circle Line which is where the alcoholics used to travel all day as, they used to say, the further they went, the closer they were to home. Little did I know I was to become a homeless, rootless alcoholic myself and I would have appreciated the chance to stay underground all day for 5 Kopeks, which is what the fare was in those days.
We won the competition by getting round the whole system in exactly nine hours. For sustenance we had only Saima’s Ribena and Bombay Mix. We did not require a comfort break. That is how hard British students were, or so we thought.
And the dedication paid off. We were featured in an article in Soviet Weekly on the same page as an offer for Lenin’s speeches on CD. We had arrived.
In a key development, we discovered the infamous Travellers’ Bar of the Hotel Intourist on Gorky Street right by Red Square. There was a long corridor of seating leading to the bar itself, so it was great for observing people coming and going. We learned that the winner of the World Dipsomania League (retired unbeaten) were the Finns. We knew how to identify the Kent Gas Board men easily, and we knew who the women were selling themselves for a passport to somewhere or something “better”.
And we discovered vodka. Actually it was a re-discovery after my misdemeanours on my previous trip and Saima’s clandestine parties at her posh private school. Either way, it opened doors to a world even more colourful than the one we were already creating around us.
One day a skinny young man approached us, flashed diplomatic ID and announced in a New York drawl “I’m from the US embassy. You two speak Russian?”
This was where our spy fantasies were about to become rather more real….
(To be continued in Part 2)