“But I am greedy for life. I do too much of everything all the time. Perhaps they will put on my tombstone. ‘This Man Died from Living Too Much'”
“The incredible circumstance of waking up bored, was the only vice Bond utterly condemned.”
Ian Fleming wrote these lines in From Russia with Love. While the book wasn’t set in Russia, I love the sentiment because it captures my attitude to travelling and particularly my journey to Russia to meet my fiancé. This is a country that comes pre-loaded with images of clandestine political conflict, lives shrouded in secrecy, of spies living on the blurred edge of an adventurous dangerous universe who do morally conflicting things to protect human kind. But what makes this journey extraordinary is the places we were awed by and the memorable people we met along the way. It was May 2008 and though my husband had lived in Russia for a year, I really had no idea what to expect. My only notions of Russia were from spy novels and countless Hollywoodizations of cold war skirmishes.
Everything about St. Petersburg and Moscow smacked of mystery and intrigue. The cold grey subways, the grand opulent train stations, men huddled together smoking in the cold, leggy young women with painted red lips. It was summer so there were no fluffy Ushanka hats. All the stereotypes of the unflinching hardness of Russian officials and ruthless mystery of organisations like the FSB (Russian Secret Service, the old KGB) were glistening in all their steely gloominess before I even entered the country. I was still in the long immigration line when I saw a man ahead of me, I vaguely recognised, in another line. He was quietly approached by two uniformed guards, and led away by both his arms firmly in the grasp of the burly yet sharp looking guards. He was taken to one of those elevators that have no buttons, just a key. You don’t want to be getting in to one of those. I remembered that I had met him at Mumbai airport while checking in for the Aeroflot flight. He asked me why I was going to Russia and when i returned the question, he said, with great delight, to explore Siberia. He definitely didn’t look dressed for the part in his brown suit and open toed sandals. Little did he know, he probably was going to Siberia but not under the circumstances he expected.
Following this slightly disturbing episode and successfully meeting up with my fiancé, I began to discover just how friendly and uncomplicated the Russian people are. When in Russia one cannot escape from the startling contrast between gloomy greyness and glistening grandeur. Everywhere you go, you feel that you’re either being watched by imposing sculptures and gargoyles from door ways and rooftops and that someone is trying to tell you just how small you are or that you are trapped in a concrete grey jungle.
The metro stations are the epitome of rich opulence and pride in mother Russia with a very definite purpose of making you feel shocked, awed, and deeply dwarfed. The marble floors, the grandiose chandeliers, the sculptures were apparently commissioned by Stalin for this very purpose to make the people feel awed and inspired.
The metros in Moscow are museums in themselves. You could just ride the metro and not go outside or see any other sights.
The vast escalators that descend deep in to the belly of Moscow are famous because the stations are built below mushy layer to the hard limestone beneath. The longest being Park Pobedy reaching 97 meters at its lowest point and takes almost 3 minutes to ascend. This escalator below is at Red Square metro station.
Every time we ascended an escalator my husband would remind me not to look at the guards. If you look and make eye contact, you are bound to be pulled out of line and asked to show your papers. Despite being forewarned, I couldn’t help but look. Lucky for me, the guy ahead of me also looked and they pulled him out of line. I couldn’t watch what happened next…
A fitting, yet sardonic example of the feeling of restriction and being watched, is this hilarious poster at the Peter and Paul Fortress. The pictures are from left to right, top row: no making speeches, no selling, no dog walking, no jumping off the building, no playing music, no stripping, no skiing, no littering, no lighting fires, no drinking alcohol, no cycling, no cutting trees. Please strictly to our rules, and welcome to our museum.
I don’t know how people who cannot speak and read Russian navigate not only the metros but the entire country. Nothing is in English and no one speaks it. This is not a tourist friendly country. Thankfully my fiancé was impressively fluent with his Russian and we were able to get by. We made our way to the end of the metro line to Udelnaya market. A nondescript area of dull grey building and open racks of shabby looking clothes for sale could put you off.
But this is just a smokescreen. Like so many things in Russia, you have to go down the secret alleyways to find the hidden door. Negotiate your way through the fresh food stalls, then the clothes, then the steel and wrought iron works and then cross the railway tracks to a vast open field. All over the field people spread out blankets or tables and display their wares for sale. The place is stuffed to the rafters with random trinkets and memorabilia and could pose as a museum for erstwhile Soviet Union produce. There are some regular stalls selling vintage USSR treasures and you find yourself turning everything over looking for the “Made in USSR” stamp. But the most interesting stuff come from ordinary people, rather poor and simple who have a deep attachment to the things they are selling. One man was selling 3 tennis balls and 1 used slightly battered shuttle cock. In most flea markets you’d say that one man’s junk is another man’s treasure. But here, there is no junk. Some people even refuse to sell you things as they changed their mind unable to part with the things that mean so much to them.
We met an old lady who had odd bits and bobs and one item that caught my eye. A one egg cast iron frying pan with an enamel lining. I knew I had to have it. But the Indian in me was looking for a bargain and I didn’t want to let on how much I liked it. I gave it disapproving non-committal looks and in a final bid to sell it to me, she was quick to proudly say,”Neeat Tefal” or “Not Tefal”. From this we inferred that her modern daughter and grand daughter probably only want to use non-stick Tefal and have told the old lady to get all this cast iron junk out of the house. Tefal I bet is her biggest enemy. I think she meant to say that Tefal will not last but this cast iron pan will last forever. She was so happy when we made the sale, she enveloped me in to her ample bosom as I fell in to her soft smelly old woman bear hug. I had made myself and an old woman very happy. I carried that heavy cast iron pan all the way through our travels and back home.
As we returned back, our bags jingling and jangling will all our treasures, we caught the smell of barbecue. We rested our weary feet and admired our new possessions over cold beers and pork shashlik sizzling over a barbecue. We asked the master barbecuer, with a cigarette dangling dangerously from his lips, for his BBQ recipe, unsure of whether he would reveal his secret marinade. He held up a packet of pre-made “pripava” or spices that you can find in any Russian supermarket, guffawing…at us..
Another lady we met, clocked that we were Indians and didn’t want to sell us anything but desperately wanted to talk about Hindi movies like Sholay and Amar, Akbar Anthony. She was so happy saying “Indruski/ Ruskee druz ya (India-Russia friends). You might remember the book fairs in the 70’s and 80’s that were flooded with Russian published books. We go way back…
Then there was the Russian couple we saw bounding out of a church, she in a stunning white meringue like dress and he in a tuxedo with penguin tails and top hat. In true Russian tradition, he scooped her up in his arms to carry her over the 7 bridges in St.Petersburg. As we were due to get married in a few months, my fiancé and I looked at each other but given my size at the time, carrying me was not an option. We looked at each other and went, “Naah…!” Instead we bought ourselves a chess set from a man at the Griboydev Market opposite the church of spilled blood. He drove a hard bargain in his raspy Russian voice, Nine HAAnDHDHRED; SEEX HAAnDHDHRED, THOO Hunghhddredd, OK, DHEEL.
We took the train from Moscow to St. Petersburg, leaving the station around 10pm. The trains were straight out of a spy novel. The dining car is beautifully adorned with its rich red velvet upholstery, crisp white linen tablecloths and polished cutlery, and faded pale pink wallpaper with gilded lamp shades. It’s the perfect setting for some sort of act of espionage like slipping a microfilm to one’s handler over a vodka and caviar, sharing tepid conversation. We did actually have some of that smooth Russian vodka and tiny blinis with caviare – translucent orange pearls that tasted exactly like what they were – fish eggs. Still, that didn’t keep me away from imagining all the covert shenanigans this dining car must have seen way back in the USSR. The Russians really know how to travel in style. I slept on the comfiest berth, in a 4 sleeper cabin, ensconced in a large soft fluffy white duvet/quilt that smelled of warm bread baking.
It was May 9th, Victory Day which meant that everyone in Russia was celebrating victory over Germany in the Second World war, with copious amounts of Vodka. Around 23, 400,000 military and civilian deaths occurred in the USSR so everybody takes it upon themselves to remember the dead. The streets were deserted so we decided to stay in our hotel room and laze around. As I went to get our breakfast from the kitchen (small hotel, no room service), I saw a guy in a dishevelled suit looking pretty dishevelled himself, sitting at one of the tables in the dining room, bent over a hot cup of coffee while the manager was hovering over him. The manager must have been the only man in Russia who was not drunk. But he did give me a weak smile and a laboured shrug of the shoulders, so perhaps he too was struggling with a hangover.
There are many many more stories from our travels in Russia, a country that conjours up images of communism, struggle, vile dictators, restricted human rights, the cold, the gulags, and so many more less desirable images. But the ordinary everyday people we met were simple, uncomplicated and intensely friendly and warm. It’s an odd mish mash of old and new, cold and warm, grey and sunny, opulent and sparse, intimidating and comforting. An extraordinary adventure of discovering a place whose reputation precedes itself but whose true character lies in getting to know its people.
This is my entry for the Mahindra Incredible Stories blogging contest.