The Gagarin monument in Moscow
In 2001, we visited Russia. We spent 2 weeks exploring St Petersburg and Moscow. Vladimir Putin was a new leader then - he’d only been in charge for about a year.
We encountered him, or rather his motorcade, on a wide street somewhere in central Moscow. We were just strolling along when we noticed armed police officers, dozens of them, fanning out along the pavement.
There was no threat, all their guns were pointing downwards. But there was authority. The officers spoke to pedestrians and told them to stand aside. Cars were being moved off the road as well, forced by other police to turn down side streets. The whole street quickly went from bustling and busy, to empty and quiet.
Then the motorcade came by: police cars and black limosines, dozens of them, swooping past very fast. Seconds later, it was done, they were gone, and the police officers relaxed. Normal routine resumed.
Bemused, I pointed in the direction the motorcade had gone, and asked the nearest officer: “Putin?”
He smiled. “Da, Putin,” he said.
We didn’t have much money back then, so we did the whole trip on the cheap: starting with a flight Helsinki, then another to Tallinn, then an overnight train to St Petersburg. Later, another train to Moscow and a flight back home.
Rather than staying in hotels, we stayed with Russian families in their homes.
So we used a matchmaking service to find our Russian hosts. The internet was a thing, but not a big thing, so we made all the arrangements with letters and faxes. The matchmakers provided a way to pay Russian hosts with US dollars, while taking a small cut for themselves. It sounds incredibly old-fashioned to describe it now, but it worked. It was fine. No-one had a smartphone back then. Neither of us even had a mobile of any sort.
Only 10 years had passed since the end of the Soviet Union. Travelling to Russia still felt bold and adventurous. We were bolder and more adventurous people back then. The confidence of youth.
In both cities, we stayed with local people, who gave us a warm welcome.
First, in St Petersburg, with a woman in her 60s who lived alone in a flat. She spoke English, and taught it at a local college. She met us at a pre-agreed place and took us back to her apartment on the 2nd floor of a block of flats. The narrow stairwell of the block was dark, crumbling, and somewhat intimidating. Watching our host open the 4 or 5 locks on the front door didn’t fill us with much confidence either - but once inside, we stared in astonishment. The tiny flat was crammed full of ornaments and artworks. It was baking hot - the heating was on full blast, because she didn’t have to pay for it. We explored the city, visited Peterhof Palace and the galleries; we stayed up to see the midnight sun. It was great.
Later in Moscow, we stayed with a young family in another flat. Theirs was about the same size as the one in St Petersburg, but had mum, dad and two kids living in it. Again, the heating stayed on all the time. There were ornaments and nick-nacks everywhere.
The parents gave up their bedroom for us, and slept in the kitchen or the living room every night. I remember them being a very smiley family - ready to bend over backwards to help us, even though the language barrier caused a few problems. I seem to remember one of the parents spoke a little English, but not as much as our St Petersburg host. We explored the city metro system, visited the Kremlin, and tried a few restaurants.
Both households were so welcoming. The years of Soviet control were a very recent memory, the switch to a new fragile democracy very recent.
I think about Russia today, with Putin still in charge. I doubt he swoops around in motorcades very often now.
I find myself thinking about the people we stayed with. Our St Petersburg host would be very elderly now, if she’s still alive. Can she still manage the stairs to her flat, and all those locks on her doors?
The Moscow family’s kids will be all grown up now, in their late 20s or 30s. Do they have kids of their own now? What do they make of what’s happening? What do their parents think? Do they still gather in that tiny flat, with the heating on full blast?
I like to think they’re all still there, in their incredibly warm flats. I like to think they’re ok, despite everything.
Filed under: travel
(18 May 2022)