You may remember that we spent some time in Moscow and St Petersburg earlier this year and this is the penultimate part of the story. Part 12a because I just can’t rid myself of silly supersticions and I am wholly triskaidekaphobic (that’s afraid of 13s before you look it up). Part 14 will follow hot on its heels and then my first Russian odyssey will be neatly parcelled off. The tardy nature of this last but one is not entirely due to inefficiency or laziness. I felt that my timing needed to be a teeny bit diplomatic since, as will be revealed, some might have felt it inflammatory had I posted it earlier. They may still but I can’t help that.
You might also remember that we were in Moscow for the May Day celebrations and that I noted these are not in any way a show of military force as they had been under the old guard but rather a celebration of the worker and an opportunity for demonstrators to demonstrate about whatever they feel they need to demonstrate in Red Square. However, May 9th (Victory Day) is another matter and we were priviliged to watch several rehearsals for the Military Parade as it processed past our hotel in readiness for what, as it transpired, eclipsed the parades of recent years.
That Mr Putin used the opportunity to demonstrate his country’s strength and to leave the world in no doubt of how strong she is was not a small surprise given the caning he and Russia were, at that moment, taking on the world stage. A stage full of those who will always throw a rock when facing a glass house. Those who will invade and interfere at the drop of their own hat but who flew into a frenzy of screeching disapproval when The Bear roared. It seemed to me that many had not even looked at the facts nor examined the history books. The invasion and annexing of Crimea was inevitable. It should have been included in Russia when the USSR was broken up but had been parcelled into Ukraine in 1954 because Mr Khrushchev was Ukrainian. That Ukraine has been a sorry and angry mess for 20 years is surely an unmissable fact. I try to be Apolitical on this blog but surely reason dictates that what Russia did was not more nor less than her Cold War foe the United States of America has done on a regular basis whilst The Bear slept. And why on earth does it have to naturally extrapolate that this means that Russia is set to take over the world? Really? Nonsense. I believe it is blather and nonsense.
So we watched the immense cavalcade of tanks and armoured vehicles rehearse the route that went past our hotel more than once. No one stopped us from taking pictures. The police were happy for us to stand and watch and many did – both citizens and visitors stopped to enjoy the free floor show.
On our last morning we went shopping for souvenirs. It was a challenging journey because Red Square and its surrounds were entirely closed off and Police guarded every attempt to exit the Metro within hundreds of yards. It was May 9th. After a convoluted agility test in Metro hopping we managed to find Old Arbat the street which Sergey (he of the Dukely perfect English) had recommended. It should be noted that the day before we had gone to Izmailovsky Market where you will find the best bargains but sadly May is too early in the year and the market was no-where to be seen … we strolled in a ghost park where the mothballed fairground was just being unwrapped and not even the kiosk was open for business … the birds and squirrels, eager for a treat were disappointed. Sergey had also recommended a particular shop so we walked past all other possibilities (and this is the Piccadilly Circus of Moscow in that it is tourist nick-nack central) and headed purposefully into the shop of the name he had carefully written on a piece of paper the night before at dinner. It quickly became apparent that Sergey has never in his life set foot inside a souvenir shop in his city, let alone this two floored monstrosity. In fairness that is hardly surprising – I don’t frequent the aforementioned purveyors of Beefeaters, Union Jacks and Royal Family memorabilia in London and wouldn’t know which were good, which bad and which horrid. As we stepped through the door we were cast back in time to the communist regime and confronted with a shop assistant (all on her own in this monolyth of a store) who had not caught up with Glasnost in any way or blinked at all in the sunlight of the new-born glossy Moscow that now surrounded her throwback-to-the-fifties-in-no-way-that-was-good shop. No matter how cheerily we smiled her face didn’t flicker, her unblinking ice-cool exterior never once waivered with even a passing nod to warmth. We beat a hasty retreat clutching a tiny bag of overpriced trinkets – naturally, being English, we were far to polite to just say good day and walk out. As we walked back up the street passing another and another and another shop we decided to brave the last one and, baiting our collective breath for another freezing were greeted with two funny charming smiling young girls who made far more money than Iron Icicle Babushka from our visit. Our purchases included a hat of fox-furred deliciousness which, I am shallow enough to admit, made my trip complete. We strolled back to the Metro in bright warm sunshine, me insistent on wearing the hat and doing a little light modelling for the camera en route.
Back at Pushkinskaya we hurried past the underground boutiques (there are scores of them – tiny little shops selling everything from dumplings to diva handbags) eager to grab brunch at our beloved Paul one last time. A freezing wind bit us as we ascended the stairs and as we alighted on Tverskaya we were blown back by a blizzard.
In 15 minutes Moscow had gone from summer to winter – it was like walking out of the wardrobe into Narnia except that there was no forest, no strange mythical creatures but rather tanks and armoured vehicles splendidly processing through the snow. It was a fitting end to a fabulous stay. Russia came in from the cold just over two decades ago. The world put her back there in the Spring. I say look in the mirror, Baby – you might not feel comfortable with the reflection.
PS: There is an old joke from The Second World War that Russian tanks have only one gear – forward and that they are fuelled by vodka – I have no idea if this is true but can state with authority that they work in all weathers ….