21 JUNE 1975, Page 8

Visit to Moscow

From Russia with worry the tourist's week

Kate Wharton

There was a moment when I sensed the whole of Russia — its million upon million of square miles—and was not frightened but awed, drawn into an empathic state with past and present, conscious of the immense eastern land mass on my right, and the western sea stretching into infinity on my left.

In years of travelling I have never experienced anything like it before but it enveloped me standing on one of the bridges of Leningrad that penultimate evening. The enormous city lay in its state of guarded, static, iced beauty; a quietish wind stirred itself into a sudden gust of energy turning the temperature several degrees colder and I withdrew back to the modern Finnish-designed hotel full of British and American tourists on their 'inexpensive all-in trips' and rich Russians with more foreign currency in their pockets than we had.

Five — or was it six? — days earlier (time had ceased to mean much) I and a party of West of England architects, friends and associates had formed our slow queue past the immigration officials at Moscow airport. A young man with a stare too long and hard for one of his soft years was comparing the visa photograph with its owner standing in front of him. The visa photograph (one of those 20p do-it-yourselfin-a-curtained-booth jobs) made me look as if I'd spent some time already in the Lubyanka; from the scrutiny now going on I expected immediate arrest and the real thing. But no — suddenly, without smile, he nodded and I was through to join the group to join the bus to take us to our Thomson-arranged hotel, the Intourist. Roughly three days in Moscow, four in Leningrad and then we'd be back in Merrie England clutching our Russian dolls, records, books and all the other goodies the brochure said we could buy so cheaply at the special tourist shops. Only the brightly lit M for Metro gave any sign of evening life as we travelled past low-rise buildings, then high-rise and then finally there we were in the vast interior of the lntourist fussing over our luggage like hens over their chicks.

The allocation of rooms proceeded with typical Thomson efficiency: two people per double room, either married couples or two men in this, two women in that. The rooms were comfortable, completely without character, but each had a bathroom and lavatory that worked. Downstairs, Moscow's equivalent of Annabel's danced on platform soles in clothes that might have come from a second class English provincial store and drank either champagne or Georgian wine at prices that made our hair rise. No bloody need for roubles here as we were to discover almost everywhere; keep your kopeks for souvenirs and pay with travellers' cheques — fast.

Already, such is the energy of this architectural group, some were out looking at the sights while I was still testing the hot water (real Russian hot water) and trying, without success, to make the TV work. k little later, having drinks with friends in their room, I noticed a pipe lying in an ashtray with all its English connotations; and marvelled that just over there, if I could see through walls, were the lights of the Kremlin.

Next morning on the first guided tour our cheerful and pleasant Thomson girl in her uniform of blue suit with wide red lapels abruptly deserted the coach, making us feel temporarily bereft; and in stepped the first of the official Intourist Russian guides and we were off on a flying tour of Moscow and our first bout of indoctrination. The weather was in the 50s and everywhere, as thick as the fallen leaves of autumn, were soldiers and lorries. A lovely gateway with a tower crowned in creamy filigreed stone was noticed as one's head jerked and failed to see the "special building for writers". Bugger Lenin and his bloody museum — who the hell wants to have anything to do with that monster? Such was the overt reverence in the guide's voice as she spoke of him one could not fail to react in this violent fashion. So too to St Basil's which must be made of seaside rock and deserves to melt in the mid-day sun. I wonder if the name Moscow runs right through the middle of it. More important was the fact that I counted twenty army lorries parked in front of it — twenty of hundreds seen that day.

Accounting for the different alphabet, even so the street signs were puzzling. What does the tourist make of an arrow with the same number appearing at both ends of its such as in YN PAZNHA 1-1? Already, there is an awareness of the smell of Moscow one was to identify' increasingly: dust, the aroma of old churches and inviolate power. That last word,is the most important; it is a smell most of us in our present blind island bliss have never smelt before. Go beyond the Iron Curtain and it hangs heavily, palpably in the air. The Moscovites walk through it rarely singly, I noticed, rarely in doubles, but seemingly mostly in groups as if they need that communal touch for assurance. One would say security if that weren't a dirty word here, They were not a good-looking lot this Sunday morning: no pretty girls as far as I could see, the young appeared curiously diminished and the middle-aged older than they should. Despite the grouping each carried his own built-in look, strangers to each other if necessary. Funnily enough, it was not something I'd noticed or felt on a previous visit to Czechoslovakia.

Off Red Square we were allowed what was to become increasingly familiar: a stop to take photographs. Click, click, click went the cameras dutifully. Camera-less, I roamed off, got lost, returned to find the coach gone and was consequently now happily on foot, freed from the microphoned voice and the restricted window view. I found GUM — Gor blimey — and I found too what I had come to find: the smell of Moscow symbolised in one building that none of the guides ever refers to: the Lubyanka Prison. Opposite it, sardonically, sickeningly, a shop devoted to children's toys and clothes. I was looking at its back (as I was to discover later): a grey eight-storey stone block with small windows, a high wall jutting off one side and a heavy doorway through which the head of the KGB enters when he arrives for work. Emanating from the whole was the most dreadful silence. Subjective, oh highly subjective I grant you; but what person with the most superficial knowledge of recent Russian history would not look and feel the same? Nearby is the really beautiful exterior of the Bolshoi Theatre; yet cancelling it, nullifying it is this monstrosity. I thought of what I'd read in Solzhenitsyn, I thought of what I'd been told by better educated friends in England, I even remembered my own childhood surprise at the volte face of politics when Mrs Churchill's 'Aid to Russia' was first , announced: and Moscow stank. Significantly or not, nobody I talked to ever bothered to go and see the Ludyanka during our stay here; some had never heard of it. Yet there were beautiful pictures at the Pushkin Museum — particularly the Impres-, sionists; there was the cool dark interior of the Novodyerichi Monastery with people praying and an actual priest; there was an evening at a concert hall which we thought would be an organ recital but which turned out to be a gutsy, folksy frolic of balalaika music and dance; there was the dark brown tranquillity of a visit to Tolstoy's house with its tiny rooms and old peasant attendants who do not look one in the face; there was another little weatherboarded house near the Pushkin Museum where if I had to live in Moscow I would try to rent a room; but overwhelmingly all was Lubyanka — Number Two Dzerzhinsky Street as it is officially — and that smell of pure untrammelled power.

According to a recent English edition of the Moscow News there are more than "670 restaurants, cafes, canteens and snackbars" in the city. All I can say is that I and abler-eyed companions never saw them. If it is true that you cannot see the wood for the trees, in Moscow you cannot see the cafés and the life for the soldiers. Not when I was there, anyway. Walking back to the hotel one day down side streets from somewhere I cannot now remember, I do recall square after square with bits of green in their centre suggesting idiosyncratically, perhaps, parts of Rome and Dublin yet lacking their life: no crying or laughing children, no gossiping women, no potted plants on window sills, no washing hanging out, just that set solid grey silence. In one a group of old men did sit together but they were a lumpen lot, merely reiterating in a' human key what the buildings proclaimed.

We left on the Tuesday for Leningrad by train departing at 13.47, time of arrival 21.30. It was hot, smelly, even foetid in some carriages with a restaurant car and kitchen filthy and inadequate enough to delight the meanestminded railway man over here; and the 500 miles of country between the two great cities so dreary as to be best expressed by that line of Gertrude Stein's, "There is no there there."

Leningrad for all its change of name is still St Petersburg, is still an elitist city sneering at Moscow as at some poor cousin suddenly made nouveau riche by a win on the political football pools. The food was better (old goat every day in Moscow) though the wine was worse and cost a fortune: £2.40 for a bottle of vin very ordinaire. One day what we ordered turned out to be as bad as 'altar wine' and that as Catholics will khow is saying something. There was a concierge on each floor but at least I and the girl sharing with me were on the first floor and not the thirteenth. Try as I did with all my might until my face nearly cracked I never got our concierge to smile whenever I fetched or left the key to our room. Unlike Moscow there were little boys everywhere whining for chewing gum (forbidden) in exchange for badges of Lenin and, heavens above, bribery worked on two occasions: once when I couldn't face a communal 8.30 breakfast of eggs and salami downstairs and got coffee in my room instead for the magnificent sum of five roubles (later I was to work out that those two cups had cost me something like £1.30 each) and another time when a taxi driver actually smiled at a three-rouble note and allowed five of us instead of the statutory four to share a taxi.

Again, despite statistics, there were no obvious cafés or remarkably few and by this time we had become seasoned Russian tourists and were forsaking the expensive organised tours in favour of tramming, mini-busing and walking. By god, did we walk. Leningrad is immense; having brought the wrong shoes, the wrong socks, I walked one day till the little toe of my right foot actually bled. Somehow this. made me feel Christ-like for a second and deserved another 60p vodka lemon, preferably at the late-night discotheque bar — hopelessly undermanned but at least the bloke didn't short-measure as the one upstairs did. And real beauty even if it is on the gargantuan slightly monotonous scale of Leningrad brings a solace that makes one temporarily forget all that contemporary Russia stands for.

It was worth walking to the Winter Palace; it was worth the sometimes interminable rooms and con-idors of the Hermitage where collection rather than selection seems to have been Catherine's motto (what a pity Duveen was not about at the time); there was life and even laughter along the never-ending shopping street of Nevsky Prospekt; there were, we were told and believed it, twenty-two churches that actually functioned as churches; there was a woman in new red boots so proud as to walk with her head down constantly looking at them, not caring who she bumped into; there were names mentioned one knew and loved or admired such as Glinka, Tchaikovsky, Rimsky-Korsa-kov, Dostoievsky; there was a superb though admittedly providential moment when on an organised tour, just as our Intourist guide was in full flood about the glorious Revolution, an old nian in the street alongside opened his mouth and spat; there was even beer on sale, as well as the sickly soft drinks Russians are so fond of, outside Rastrelli's blue-and-white architectural crescendo — the Summer Palace; there was the same architect's, to me, much more beautiful Smolny Cathedral; there was the intimate delicacy of one of Cameron's palaces outside the city; there were incredible film-set vistas everywhere; and there was the joke about the fresh flowers always to be seen at the feet of any statue of Lenin. Obviously the job of some poor wretch, suggesting a member of the party, in the Russian DOE and God help the man if any of them withered before schedule.

There was, too, genuine respect for what this • city had suffered and surmounted arid somehow sailors don't seem as frightening as soldiers.

But right opposite our hotel was the cruiser, Aurora; there was the guide whose smile rarely reached her face, let alone her eyes; there was the same money-grabbing attitude in the hotel (not in fairness restricted to Russia alone); there was the appalling rudeness of the young Russian elite who, positively stacked with money, ate food and drank wine we could not possibly afford and showed it in bar manners so bad that one longed to shove a sharp elbow in their cocky sides; there were always queues in the shops; and one night there was a forlorn obviously home-sick drunk Algerian studying mechanical engineering on a Russian scholarship who told us not to believe, not to believe — "there is far more oppression here than you realise."

One mystery was never solved: searching for postcards 1 came across a set that combined both Leningrad and Hamburg. Why? Are the two cities twinned? Surely not, with the Russian hatred of what they carefully call 'Nazis' and Hamburg, after all, was a 'Nazi' city in their eyes. Nobody here or there I've talked to has an explanation. Twenty-five thousand British tourists alone now visit Moscow and Leningrad yearly. The winter `cheapies' have ended and the summer visitors are flocking in. How many come back consciously or unconsciously brain-washed? A good per cent. I overheard two middle-aged well-rinsed matrons chatting comfortably together as we drove away from the Summer Palace. "Makes you understand the Revolution, doesn't it?" said one. "Oh, indeed, dear, indeed," replied the other. They were not the only ones to voice similar sentiments. Terrifying. Russia is doing marvellously with its walk-about propaganda. Back home I read of a fresh demand for further cuts in defence expenditure and, recalling what I had seen, shivered. This year, next year, how many more with the friendly help of Thomsons and other travel firms will go and return like-wise? "I see the whole design/I, who saw power, see now love perfect too." Browning spoke for them only too well and that is what we who have been to Russia with other eyes worry about.