My Life 5.5

Moscow Frights




In early 1993 I and two companions, a Norwegian and a Swede, were walking back from the hotel where we had heard the Minister announce the short list of bidders, which, thankfully, included the consortium that had hired me as bid director.  I did not have a top coat but it wasn't all that cold that afternoon. I was dressed in business suit that made me quite conspicuous as we walked away from the hotel and across Red Square past St. Basil's, which never failed to fill me with wonder. The cobbles of the square were rutted, presumably by the parades of tanks that had passed over them.

I was in a good mood, and the day was fine, as we three came to the red stone building at the entrance to the square and turned right towards the Metropole Hotel. It wasn't far up the street, which was thronged with people – old women selling stuff, army officers, overcoated Muscovites hurrying along. The three of us were walking abreast, and Tom and Nils were engaged in conversation.

 A boy walked across my path, causing me to slow a little, and Tom and Nils were slightly ahead of me. Another child walked in front of me, and I had to swerve to avoid her. Without realising it, I found myself some steps behind my companions, and the crowd seemed thicker, somehow. I managed to hurry after them but again, a boy walked diagonally across my path - from the other side, this time. It took me a moment, then I saw it was the same boy. I began to realise what was happening as my path was blocked by a woman holding a baby, apparently begging. Some children came from the side and surrounded me. They were polite, smiling.

 My companions were walking away, up the street. I felt the touch of hands at my sides, and the back of my trousers. I held a hand to my wallet, inside my jacket, and the other to my money in my back trouser pocket, I began to turn round rapidly, so they didn't have a chance. They started to tug at my sleeves, trying to hold my arms, pulling down on my jacket.

 I started to call out to my companions, way up the street now. Then I thought, no! I'm not having this! There is streak of obstinacy in me which one day might get me killed, but that's just the way I am – not brave, maybe just stupid! I decided these thieves wouldn't get anything from me. It wouldn't have been much, and inconvenience at most for me – I had a hundred dollars or so in my pocket, not a fortune. I turned the shout, and my rage, on the people surrounding me. When I shout, I shout loud! People around stopped to stare. The kids took a step back. The scene seemed to freeze, but no-one was touching me now. What to do? I decided ...  I advanced on the woman with the baby, raising my fist to her, shouting in her face as loud as I could, I began to move quickly towards her. One step forward, and they were gone – racing off down the street, disappearing in the crowds, the women, a whole bunch of kids of all ages. My companions had only just started to turn back toward me to look; it was as if it were in slow-motion.

 I suppose it was my fault, I was fair game, exposed as I was. I was lucky there weren't any knives. I felt dirty. I went back to the hotel and soaked in a hot bath, changed my clothes. That night it snowed. I had to go out with the others, in my suit. But the Bolshoi was only just round the corner, and I still remember my first sight of it and the glittering chandeliers in the tall windows as the snowflakes swirled. 


 I have said before that for years I did not realise that the 'Finland Station' in St. Petersburg (Russian revolution) was exactly, literally, that. The station you went to for a train to Finland. The other stations are likewise named.

 But the Russian word for station is Voxal , for instance the Kievsky Voxal in Moscow, which serves the Ukraine. The story behind this word is intriguing. The word is actually the Russian version of Vauxhall. When Russian railway engineers visited England in Victorian times, they were shown the latest railway station, a new design, with covering roof, facilities and an organised space for the platforms, passengers, loading etc ... Yes, at Vauxhall in London. So when they returned, all Russian stations became known as Voxals, and are to this day!


 It was September, 1993. I was working for a big US company. I had toured parts of Russia, drawing up recommendations for their business in certain areas. I had just completed my final report, a massive tome with technical, market and financial analysis of a dozen different areas, from the Volga basin, across Siberia to the Russian Far East and Kamchatka.

 We had been hearing on the news for some time that some kind of problem was happening at the back of the White House, the Russian parliament. A crowd of deputies had gathered.

 At the time, we were staying in the Aerostar, which was on the north-west outskirts of the inner city. We were in the bar, having a drink. Peter, an Australian I had brought in to do some market analysis, was staring at the TV. "John, this is important!" He said. I knew he couldn't speak Russian, but I glanced at the TV. Boris Yeltsin was rambling on, looking serious. "I know it's important!" Insisted Pete. "Ask the bartender."

 It turned out tanks were being moved into the city. "They will pass us, just here." The barman said, waving an arm at the tree-lined streets beyond the windows.

 That night I slept fitfully, woken up by the metallic rattle of what I believed to be a machine gun, but which I realised must have been just a loose tram-track.

 Nothing much happened.


Peter and the others went home – I stayed to finish the report and tidy up our operations, which had taken over part of the offices of my client during our project.

 The office was in a giant glass-fronted building, just along the Moscow River from the White House, the Russian Parliament building. The office was in a complex of International Conference centre, hotel and offices. Behind were apartments, where several of the Moscow-based US guys lived in company-rented accommodation.

 As we sat eating lunch cooked by the office's personal cook - fried chicken legs with lovely herb-salad - we would look down the north bank of the bend in the river to the White House. The office was glass from floor to ceiling on the outer face of the building.  As we entered in the morning, we were screened by men in suits. My Russian colleague told me it was to prevent prostitutes entering. One of my team, an attractive New Yorker, was mortified when she was questioned closely as she tried to enter on her own. It was strange, because there was a coffee shop in the hotel, where it was well known, and obvious, that 'biznessmen' and plenty of hookers, hung out. They didn't bother you, but you couldn't fail to notice them. I suspect that the security guards were keeping out 'unauthorised' girls only.


 So, one morning I get in a cab. "Mezhdunarodnya" I say, and the guy drives merrily off. He takes a short cut. It is a small road. There is a puddle, stretching all the way across – burst pipe? blocked drain? This guy does not take chances. As he cannot see what is in the puddle, he takes to the pavement, driving carefully between the street lamps and the buildings, halting for pedestrians, until he regains the dry road a bit further on. Turning onto the main street, which I now recognise, there is a big lay-by, in which a petrol tanker is parked. Cars are queuing up as a man wields a hosepipe and nozzle connected to the back of the tanker, and pockets the cash as each car is filled. Just another Friday morning in Moscow!

 My cab has stopped. My driver is confused. Someone has closed the road. I know where we are, just a short walk along the Moscow River to the office. I shall walk!

I pay him off and step out. Only then do I register the orange-painted tankers blocking the steps down to the river walk, the razor wire and the soldier with the gun. Shit! I eye up the river. I could walk up the other bank, and cross back near the office, walking back past the dollar supermarket where the smart blondes teeter on their high heels with their trolleys loaded with western goods, and men in chauffeur's uniforms with dark glasses wait outside while boys wash their BMW's and Mercs with buckets of water from the river. Yes! Good plan! Just walk back past the Casino boat and I'd be there! I set off across the bridge.

 On the far bank is the Ukraine hotel, a monstrous towering palace – one of Stalin's creations, much like the 'Palace of Culture' in Warsaw – a gift to the Polish people (who were not at all grateful). There are seven 'Stalin' towers in Moscow, you can look out and see them dotted about the skyline. When I get there, I realise that, in the gardens between the hotel and the river, are three tanks - real live tanks, with blokes in and around them with guns, and guns, big guns! I also register cars driving up and down with TV cameras hanging out the windows. Ahah! 

 I look at the daunting stretch of unknown territory between me and the bridge that led back over to the 'tart's supermarket' and decide to take a cab.


 An hour later, I got to the office, ten minutes walk from the place I had been dropped.  

 I finished the report. I'd booked the afternoon flight back to London, so I decided my client would stand me lunch, on expenses. I went to the Boyarsky Zal, a fabulous painted room in the Metropole Hotel. The head waiter had a moustache which was curled around and around and waxed. He served me. I had caviar, with all the trimmings, and a glass of iced vodka, just that, nothing fancy or substantial, just quality. The head waiter nodded in approval and his cheeks swelled as he smiled. Cost sixty dollars! Lovely.

 I went home, safe and sound, job done.

 Three days later, the tanks shelled the White House. My pals in the office had to hide in the company apartments for a day or two, as, because soldiers suspected there were snipers on top of the office building, a few pot shots had come through the floor-to-ceiling glass.

 What I really missed about Moscow was Number Four, Mirsky Prospekt. This was an anonymous building, with only a brass plate outside on the door. You knocked and a man let you in. Inside was three floors of beautiful wooden beams and floors, full of Japanese people eating and authentic, fresh Japanese food flown in daily – Sashimi, tempura, hot sake – my favourites! Best thing in Moscow! Apart from the caviar, maybe……

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