Saturday, 27 March 2010

From Russia with love: part two

After our travails with the East Germans, the Russian border guards were required to check through our luggage for any subversive material that we might be trying to smuggle in.Let the train take the strain One guard began to go through my dozen or so strong collection of historical novels. After the first three, he grew bored and gave up. At the time I had a copy of Cosmopolitan with me and I later discovered that the adult male supervisors in the pioneer camp were keen to get their hands on it. I passed it on to them once I had removed all the salacious images of decadent western women posing in next to nothing. Whereupon their interest diminished rapidly and they promptly returned the magazine to me unread.

From the Moscow train station we went by coach to the Young Pioneer’s camp in the suburb of Krasnaya Presnya, the site of prominent revolutionary activity in 1905. As we neared our destination, I saw an imposing pre-revolutionary house in the wooded hills directly in front of us. Given my interest in architecture I was disappointed when the coach veered to the left instead of continuing straight ahead. It transpired that the mansion was in fact a children’s hospital. We finally stopped at the gates of our pioneer camp. There were rows of clapping young Russians and a brass band to greet us as we stepped off the coach, weary from our long journey. I have never received such an enthusiastic reception either before or since.

Once inside the grounds, we were shown to our quarters in a two storey red and white wooden building. We shared a dormitory together which was fine. We were aghast to discover that the loo cubicles did not have doors and seemed designed for far smaller children than ourselves. Even worse was the fact that the communal showers did not have separate cubicles. At the beginning of our holiday, two of us would shower at a time, each at different ends of the shower room. By the end of our stay in Russia, we were showering together without giving it a second thought. Our attitudes might well have been influenced in part by a day trip to a public swimming pool in Moscow, where we saw naked woman of all shapes and ages showering and changing together with no apparent hang-ups about either their nudity or their bodies.

Once we had changed, we went down to the dining room to eat. A huge banquet had been set out for us. I eagerly took some blackberry jam. To my dismay it turned out to be caviar. Faced with the two options nowadays, I would still choose the blackberry jam over caviar. When we were finally replete we discovered to our alarm that the meal was in the way of a snack before our dinner, which was scheduled for only a few hours later. The amount of food we were expected to eat was just too much for us to handle and we had to insist that one meal a day was cut out. When I subsequently fell ill and was kept in the sanatorium for a few days, I got my visitors to smuggle food out rather than in.

I always felt that the Russian pioneer camp was very similar to what I had heard about American camps of the era. Young children were packed off during the long summer holidays to camps in the countryside, where their days were packed with a range of activities to occupy mind and body. National flags were raised and daily oaths of allegiance to the state sworn. It was not a state of affairs that appealed to me. I had refused to join the Brownies as my 9 year old self deemed it to be too authoritarian an organisation. Nor did I want to wear the uniform. The young pioneers did have white shirts and red ties but they usually wore their own clothes most of the time.The first cultural clash came when we discovered we were expected to get up at 8 o’clock in the morning, trudge down to the courtyard and do 10 minutes of vigorous exercise to music before heading off to breakfast. We staged a mini revolution of our own at such indignities, until we negotiated a settlement whereby we would ensure a token presence each day but not the full complement of schoolgirls.

Given the heavy losses they had sustained, the memory of the Second World War was kept very much alive on the camp. They had a small museum devoted to the subject on site. I remember in a craft class in which some Russian children produced a collage on a militaristic theme, using strips of straw and bearing the dates: 1941-45. I felt like making a collage bearing the dates 1939-45 but diplomatically refrained from doing so. The Second World War was something I was very familiar with as a child. I first grew up in a household where the adults had been on active service. I know by heart many of the most popular war songs of the period. Concrete pill boxes were pointed out to me when we took trips into the countryside. My primary school even had air shelters still standing. To my astonishment there was another child in my junior school who knew nothing about the war. Apparently her parents had wanted to shield her from all such knowledge. Nowadays there are children in the UK who have absolutely no knowledge about the cataclysmic events of the 1940s either. One contestant on a television show, whose own grandparents or great grandparents would have lived through the war years, thought that Winston Churchill was America’s first black president. She came to this astounding conclusion having seen a statue of him in London and assumed that the dark metal reflected his actual skin colour.

 Within a day or so of my arrival, I decided to take a swim in one of the nearby freshwater pools. No-one else wanted to join me. It was perhaps not the wisest of decisions on my part. I soon noticed that there were dead fish floating on the surface. Whether it was because of the fish or because I was still not fully recovered from my recent illness, I had a relapse of the quinsy that had left me so debilitated only weeks before. From Russia with love:part oneConsequently, I spent several days in a sanatorium. The nursing staff were kind but it was impossible to get them to understand what I had been suffering from in England. They resorted to painting my tonsils with some kind of tincture. The women also helped themselves to the contents of my Mary Quant Blush baby compact, applying it all over their face. I tactfully refrained from telling them it was only meant for their cheeks. During my illness, the others went off to a football match. Apparently there were armed police and the unruly crowd would hoot and holler until the police turned around to glare at them. They would then fall silent again until the police had turned their backs before starting up once more. I did not mind missing the football. Although a number of my female friends have been keen football fans since girlhood, it never appealed to me. The only live match I have ever been to was at Chelsea and that was on sufferance at the urging of a male friend of mine.

On one of our day’s excursions we paid a visit to the famous GUM department store on Red Square, standing across the way from Lenin's  red and black granite mausoleum. GUM was never a single department store but rather, since the 19th century, a covered arcade of different shops. Much had been made of the shortage of consumer goods in Russia at the time but at least the situation for those at the bottom of the ladder did not appear as dire as seems to be the case today, where the operators of the free market have as little interest in the well-being of the masses as any despotic Tsar. Lenin must surely be spinning in his grave at the way key state assets were plundered at the break-up of the Soviet Union by a favoured few, with the connivance of corrupt officialdom.  We went to his tomb long before such woeful chicanery was allowed to flourish. When we queued up to see Lenin’s embalmed body in Red Square, I was struck by how delicate his profile looked.

Being VIPs or Very Important Proletariat we were usually always taken to the front of any queue as happened on our trip around the Kremlin itself. At the time I only had a box brownie to record my holiday and the quality of my pictures lack the clarity of modern digital cameras. Nevertheless, what strikes me most is the fact that despite the passage of over 3 decades, were it not for the inferior quality of the earlier photographs, you would be hard pressed to tell which era the respective photographs of the cathedrals of the Annunciation, the Assumption and the Ivan the Terrible Bell were taken in. One major difference is that all the cathedrals appear to have undergone major renovation since my time and indeed the scaffolding around the Cathedral of the Assumption in my photograph suggests it had begun whilst I was still there.

We went inside the cathedrals and other buildings within the Kremlin. But what most caught my attention were the intriguing monuments to the follies of the Tsars standing outside. The Tsar Cannon was commissioned in 1586 by Tsar Feodor. We were told it was the largest howitzer ever built. We were also told it had never been used on the battlefield. Nearby is the Tsar Bell. In the early 18th century the Russian Empress Anna Ioanovna commissioned the largest bell in the world, coming in at over 6 metres high and wide. The bell has never been rung as it broke before it could be removed from its casting pit. Percy Bysshe Shelley’s poem Ozymandias about Ancient Egyptian pharaohs could equally apply to the hubris of the Tsars:

`My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings:
Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!'
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away"

Even from the poor quality of my photographs, I can see that the Tsar Bell and the Cannon have been restored in recent years, allowing modern visitors to see the rich detail on both objects, which had become obscured by centuries of grime in my time. One thing undiminished by time is the marble and crystal chandelier splendour of the metro. The Russians were rightly proud of their splendid underground stations and they certainly put our own Tubes stations to shame.

Whilst we were in Russia we were told that the London Underground system had flooded, a fact we could scarcely believe credibly but we were so out of touch with the West, having no access to telephones or newspapers other than that stalwart of British communism the Morning Star, that after a while we were no longer quite sure what to believe. The Russians we met seemed to envisage London as something out of a Dickensian novel with pea-souper fogs shrouding the streets. I am sure our own views of Russia were as distorted as any the Russians had of England. I know I thought they were spies around every corner. I was alarmed when my friend Kim took photographs of submarines in the river Moskva, thinking she would be hauled away at any moment on espionage charges.  I was surprised to encounter a horse drawn funeral cortege one day on our way back to the camp. The coffin was open and the old woman wore a shroud of white lace and in her hands held an orthodox wooden cross, a symbol that had survived the vicissitudes of the Russian Revolution. Only her waxy yellowish complexion gave the lie to her simply being asleep.

Another event I remember vividly was travelling to a pre-revolutionary mansion which had been restored. We were obliged to remove our shoes and wear blue plastic slippers to walk on the parquet floors. The house had been constructed with concealed corridors, along which the servants or more likely serfs of past centuries could pass along to do there chores without coming into sight of the family. Unfortunately I cannot recall precisely where that mansion stood. I do remember going to see the Bolshoi Ballet. We were seated in the stalls and the rigid smiles of the ballerinas, which probably looked appealing from the gods, looked frankly terrifying at close proximity. That was probably the first time I had been to a ballet since performing in an amateur production as a child. I was dressed in a white sheet and wore a golden crown to represent a candle and other children were moths. Someone tried to sabotage my career as a future prima donna assoluta by stealing my costume before the performance. Somehow the adults must have summoned up a replacement because the performance went ahead with me in it. We were also taken to see the circus at its permanent arena in Moscow. Being school children I think we were most impressed by a tour of an ice-cream factory as we were given a box to take away with us. At that time Russian ice-cream was far superior to its non-dairy British counterpart.

I think I was most disappointed by the fact that the crew that took us down the Moskva River had not heard of the Russian folksong “The Song of the Volga boatmen.”  My most embarrassing memory was of a fancy dress party. I was dressed in a sari fashioned out of bed-sheets by one of our teachers. Another schoolgirl put on a leotard and made a pair of pointed ears to go as a cat.
“Mark my words, “ I told the others, “It’s clear who’s going to win the prize for best costume,” pointing knowingly in the feline impersonator’s direction. To our consternation we discovered that the Russian idea of a costume ball was just to wear elaborate face masks. It was with even more of a blush that I stepped up to receive my award for the best outfit and opened the ball with a dance with a young man, who had been designated Tsar to my Tsarina.

On our final night, one of our guides, Vladimir, got rather drunk on the endless toasts in vodka. We all made promises to keep in touch but even if we did, it was not for long and sadly international politics meant we could never return the compliment and invite the Russian children to stay with us in England. But I like to think that in a small way we helped to cut through the propaganda on both sides and made us realise that despite the political situation, at heart we were really not very different from one another.