A memorable 48 hour slice of October 1991.


High times, Moscow 1991: ? Me, Matt King, Elena ?,?,?,?.
Eyes wide with panic, Elena yammers that Afghani bandits have boarded the train.
They will gas us through the vents and steal our gold fillings!
She locks the door, blocks the airways with a towel and opens the window to the freezing air of who knows where.

Six of us are now confined to a four bunk fridge: five British art students on a month long Russian exchange, along with Elena, our native student guide. We are in the midst of a 26 hour return journey from Lviv in the Ukraine to Moscow. The objective of the Lviv mission remains unclear. Three October days marooned in a snowbound barracks, served the same meal twice a day - a reheated mince puck on a parched crust of rice. Occasionally, we were let out to drink fart flavored well water, and rough beer at a penny a pop. A Stalin era mass grave had just been found nearby. Now, the endless jog of our cell back to Moscow. One inmate moans that we’d like to visit somewhere more interesting, “like St Petersburg” “Yeah”.
“Nyet” Eleana dismisses- visas, tickets, the whole Soviet State thing… more bandits.
There’s a knock at the door, I open my mouth wide to show I’m filling free.
False alarm, it’s Sacha checking in. He’s one of the two handlers that accompany us on trips- the non KGB spook.
Sasha’s has the impish look of a beatnik ghoul. In stabler times, he was an English professor, now, a translator for cash, and to avoid his tiny apartment and the mother-in -law therein.
We ask him about visiting St Petersburg- he’s well versed in dodging the Soviet system for his slither of freedom.
“Yes, yes, you could go. You won’t be missed in the next 2 days.

I’d have to buy the tickets, and you’d go straight away from Moscow"
“What about visas?” says I,
“You’d pretend to be Russian”.
“But we don’t spea-”
“Mute Russians... maybe deaf mute Russians- I’ll write you a sign”.
so, you buy 5 return tickets and we keep our mouths shut for 20 hours?”

“One way tickets only.” He shrugs. The Russian shrug is shorthand for “Yeah, no logic, just the way it is today, maybe different tomorrow?”
“We can work it out at the station.” He half reassures.
“What if we get caught?” I wonder.
“Don’t” he grins.
Elena is flapping again.
Three of our crew, rightly sensing more red flags than a communist flag factory, bow out.
This leaves just Claudia and I, living proof that the mind doesn’t fully develop its sense of consequence until age 25.
At Moscow central, Sacha darts off to fix the tickets.
He returns saying that he’s found a guy who has agreed to be under the statue of Lenin in St Petersburg station at 8pm tomorrow with the necessary.
Codename: Dmitri. He’ll be carrying ski poles.
This, amazingly, seems reasonable enough.
We follow Sacha as he scopes out the carriages, settling on one occupied by a 16 year old girl named Ania.
She speaks some English and is up for helping. We’ll pretend to be asleep whilst she hands over our tickets to the inspector.
Ania’s visiting her brother in St Petersburg, traveling light with just a violin and handbag. Her pretty face is betrayed by a mouthful of rot when she smiles.
Sacha asks for my sketchbook, and in Cyrillic script writes:
We are deaf mutes, help us buy tickets to Moscow this evening, we have nowhere to sleep.
Then it’s good luck and goodbye.


Claudia and I make unconvincing Russian deaf-mutes. I sat next to her on the plane from London: she read The Tatler and pointed out the people she knows, I read The Face to bone up on Kylie Minogue. Although we both go to Kingston, I rarely see Claudia in the college bar. She has a well-heeled London life in Fulham. Turns out, she’s engaged to “Fast” Eddie Davenport, notorious founder of the Gatecrasher’s Ball. The Sunday tabloids expose his events as “TEEN TOFF ORGIES” with accompanying photos of Claudia and co. for the tut-tut-titillation of an envious, poorer, nation. Trading up as “Lord Davenport” he’ll later swindle a £30 million Mayfair mansion off the Sierra Leone high commission for £70k and a used Mercedes. To add insult to injury, he hosts sex parties there. Eventually, a bogus loan scam will see him jailed in 2011.


Claudia and Eddie.
After some sleep, real and feigned, we arrive in St. Petersburg with no plans beyond visiting The Hermitage museum. Ania comes with us, and we coo and point at the spoils the Russians took from the plundering Nazis.
Culturally stuffed, we look for food. A cafe advertises goulash but delivers another ghost of a meal.
Onwards to check the slim souvenir opportunities at a department store. Picking up a painting in a cheap garish frame, I stare too long at its ghastliness and the brittle glass breaks. Bugger, now I have to own it. Ania relays that I must replace the glass before buying. More Russian shrugs.
After an epic queue, I pony up for the glass - double the price of the picture, and back on the shelf it goes.
Ania is in no hurry to leave us. I suggest she call her brother to tell him of her safe arrival. Something’s off. In a phone box, looking anxious and speaking hesitantly, Ania repeats her name several times. Finally she scribbles down some directions and hangs up.
She confesses that she’s runaway from home because her grandmother won’t let her play the violin. The “brother” is a stranger she met at a festival in the summer who said she should look him up in St. Petersburg sometime.
We decide it’s best that we go with her and make sure all is ok. There’s still a few hours until our ticket rendezvous.
5 long underground stops later, we are well out of our depth. What exactly will we do if all is not ok? To add to anxieties, the metro system operates like a horizontal lift. At each station, the train doors part, and beyond them, steel screens open in the tunnel walls to a fleetingly glimpsed platform. It feels like we are blindfolded. Sacha's comment that we won't be missed for a couple of days is looping loudly in my brain.
…stops 8, 9, 10… I’ve been raised on pop, watched from a series of soft suburban sofas…
…12,13…My newfound knowledge of Kylie isn’t going to help us, and neither is Claudia’s society gossip. We are twits on tour…
…15, 16… we must be nearly back in Moscow. It’s been well over an hour.
Finally we arrive at the end of the line. The worry sweat at my hairline freezes in the night air as we make our way to a rundown housing project. In a stairwell, some kids are stoking a fire.
16 floors up, under the glare of a buzzing strip light, a grimy door is opened by a crazed Charles Manson lookalike. He leads us down a dim corridor to a small kitchen. I ask for the toilet and lock the door. Fark! I tuck my dollars into my sock. Fark!
Back in the kitchen, my new Russian watch says it’s time to go, but Manson tells me to come with him next door. This is it- the stuff of nightmares. He’s talking about the majesty of St Petersburg, I’m talking with God making promises.
He pulls a book off the shelf, a souvenir of Leningrad. It’s a gift of friendship!
The relief courses through me.
“I have question.” Says my new friend.
“Sure, anything.” -I’m giddy to be alive.
“In Beatles, what is egg-man googoocachoob?”
“Erm, ah…it’s just…nonsense.” I reply disappointingly.
He looks crestfallen.
More questionIs Freddie Mercury the bloomer?
“The bloomer?”
“Yes, bloomer.” -he pantomimes camp.
“Ah yes, yes! he’s definitely the bloomer! No doubt.”
He’s aghast.
I hastily thank him for the book, get Claudia and skidaddle.
Ania comes with us to the station to say goodbye. I pull out my sock dollars and offer them to her. She refuses. It’s farcical. I’m foisting what minutes ago I was guarding with my life. That money could float her for months. Russia continually wrong foots me, leaving me feeling callow and selfish.
The relief is short lived. My watch, is telling the same time as in the kitchen! Bloody Soviet military watches! Hopeless.
If we miss our connection we are screwed.
The train crawls on.
1991’s most glorious site is Dmitri with ski poles as advertised.
He buys our tickets, procures a bottle of moonshine from the back of a taxi and bribes a babushka to open a shuttered cafe for our use.
Dmitri pours a generous first round and I toast the heck out of him. ‘To love!”
We bolt the shots and sniff the bread the babushka has provided, as is custom.
‘“I have question.” He intones earnestly.
“Sure, anything.”
“I build bicycle, bicycle to Poland. I get train to Italy…I find work?”
“Yes definitely -no doubt.”
His face softens to a broad grin and he pours another large round.
“To peace.”
Claudia and I are soon well pissed.
I can barely help her stagger to our train compartment. I call it a couchette which spurs Claudia into a spirited version of “Voulez vous coucher avec moi.” It’s a miraculous performance from a deaf mute. “Shhhhh!” I hiss quietly to no avail.
She’s still singing seductively as we lie in our bunks. I pray the two Russian soldiers we’re sharing with don’t speak French. The booze knocks me out and the next thing I know, the fates have delivered us safely back to Moscow. They’ve been with us all the way.
July 11, 2023 by Michael Gillette

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