Notes on a Five-Day Visa
By J. W. NI. THOMPSON
IT is not possible, unhappily, to promise every visitor to Moscow that his journey will be re- warded on touchdown with the sight of a large, red-faced Conservative Member of Parliament parading a white fox-terrier up and down the airport in the bright sunshine of half-past five in the morning. This experience came my way the other day, however, and I am grateful to Commander Courtney (Harrow East, and a fairly comfortable Tory seat as they go nowa- days) for this immediate introduction to the small incongruities which spice Moscow life for the stranger.
Phrases like `Iron Curtain' and `Cold War' evoke a completely misleading picture: we tourists, on our fleeting, footsore progress from Lenin's tomb to that other mausoleum, the Ukraine Hotel, tend to become absorbed in smaller matters. Moscow fills the mind with minor mysteries and questions: Why in a city manifestly short of transport does one never see a bicycle? What makes the. Soviet system build such lavishly decorative underground stations and such shatteringly stark dwellings for its people? Will there be any hot water for a bath today, or will the tap gurgle hollowly again? How is it that a country can master space travel and' fail to move a couple of dozen people from hotel lobby to hotel bedrooms without loud confusion? And however did they dispose of those millions of pictures of Stalin?
It took five hours to fly from London to Moscow in the cocooned luxury of the new Pakistan service, and then four hours to cover the nineteen miles lying between the airport and a room on the twenty-fourth floor of the Ukraine. All the business of passports and customs formalities was hypnotically slow : not oppressive, but timeless and suggesting improb- ably that the procedure was being improvised as we went along.
The bus from the airport presented unstinting views of the shacks in which people live on the outskirts of the Soviet capital, and then of the bleak battery-blocks of flats now taking their place; and guilt nagged faintly at the affluence of a large hotel room, with its own bathroom, for one privileged foreign visitor. This did not last: it was dispelled as one quickly realised that, nowadays, tourists are much wanted by the Russians. They do nicely out of the foreign currency (at an implausible exchange rate which fixes the rouble at a slightly higher value than the dollar); and a senior Intourist man explained with satisfaction that this would be the first year in which they would be able to accom- modate all the tourists who wished to visit the Soviet Union.
Near the Kremlin a colossal new hotel is under construction. It will accommodate, they told me, several thousand people, will be called the Hotel Russia, and will, or so one hopes on behalf of the droves of visitors destined to pass through it, be more in touch with the possibilities of twentieth-century convenience than the ten- year-old Ukraine, with its shuddering, reluctant lifts, its Early Cinema Period attempt at grandeur, and its inability to provide, in its public rooms, more than one chair for every half-dozen people anxious to sit down. One does not go to Moscow for a rest, of course; one goes full of cariosity to see what it is like on the other side of the hill, and to acquire visual images to give substance to the names which have for so long been part of one's mental landscape (`Kremlin,' Red Square,' Bolshoi,' and so on); still, it is pleasant at the end of a day to sit down with a drink.
The other side of the hill : this otherness enables the visitor to find a fascination in scenes that would in themselves seem tedious. Moscow has little animation to Western eyes, the streets seem sparsely populated, the wide thoroughfares are startlingly free of traffic congestion, the shops are few and unexcitingly stocked. Bars and cafés are scarce. The people, cheerful and amiable enough, nevertheless seem shabby and quiet. Above all, the grey• architectural deposit of the Stalin era lies heavy on the scene. Build- ings the colour of wet muck lumpy in outline and lifeless in detail, depress the eye at every turn: and there are the six or seven skyscrapers, proudly identified on the street maps as `tall buildings,' which lift massively ornamented, ponderous outlines above the city. This was how the Stalinists conceived the prestige building of their city, their taste ossified perhaps half a century ago and all the potentialities of modern building approached with nervous conservatism. Looking at one of these monuments, one thinks how the hearts of Mr. Selwyn Lloyd et al. would fill with envy: is there not, in this heavy and humourless notion of architectural decorum, a close accord with those Gothic-fixated planners of the new Westminster?
Thus, marvelling at the resilience of the Gothic International, one comes upon the Kremlin, and there suddenly is a shining lesson: a re- splendent new building, standing tranquilly at ease amid the golden onion-domes and the classical severities which characterise that uniquely beautiful fragment of Moscow. This building, the Palace of Congresses, where Mr. Khrushchev speaks to the party faithful and where I had the pleasure of seeing Plisetskaya dance in Swan Lake, is an achievement and a portent: a coolly successful modern building, all glass and strong verticals, in an environment infinitely more daunting to the planner than Victorian Westminster; and a symbol of a new Soviet self-confidence which, in the post-Stalinist thaw, could yet give Moscow a new shape and a new style. The style, today, makes the foreigner .feet very foreign : the style of life, that is, as much as the physical properties of the city. Why, for example, do the Russians so strangely persist in banning all English-language newspapers from Moscow hotels except the Daily Worker? They cannot really fear that a few civics sold to foreign tourists would start a counter-re olution : one must conclude it is. because th of control has Co be respected in its own sake, as with all the passport-lingering and document-filling, most of it quite pointless.
Russians met individually are full of fun, lively, distinctly sympathique more often than not; yet they have an ancient tradition of corpor- ate suspiciousness and worse. Someone lent me a 1914 Baedeker in which I read, in addition to such traveller's lore as `woollen underwear is recommended,' and the note that the quickest route to Moscow was by Nord Express from Charing Cross (taking two and a half days and costing £14 Gs. 3d., remembering, of course, to change at Warsaw), much information of this sort: On leaving Russia the traveller has to report his intentions to the police authorities . . . handing in his passport and a certificate from the police officials of the district in which he has been living to the effect that nothing stands in the way of his departure'; and, in a passage on baggage, 'unprinted paper only should be used for packing to avoid any cause for sus- picion.' And all that was written years before the Revolution.
I have a fond memory of the currency- exchange girl who, as I was leaving Russia, wildly encouraged me to carry off a one-rouble note in defiance of all the stringent regulations: not because I particularly wanted it, but because she could not be bothered to sort out the English equivalent. It seemed, in context, an admirably civilised point of view.