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.