By gerard oosterman
At the arrival at Moscow airport we were met by our Russian guide and went through customs with some strange requests. We had to declare all our money and jewellery, including our watch and were given a receipt of both money and jewellery. We had to be able to show receipts of any money spent during our stay and also show the jewellery again before departure. We were told that one could get good money for any western type of clothes, especially western jeans etc. We were at the middle of Russia’s perestroika period and the freeing up was already having its effect whereby I did not get asked for any items of clothing and in fact so many young people wearing the same sort of fashion as in the west. Shops were almost nonexistent though. We were taken to a market place where women were queuing up and selling clothing or perhaps trading them for other items. I bought some apples that cost about five times as much as in Australia. We had a couple of Australian girls loaded up with enormous bags that everyone took turns with hauling to and from buses and trains. They told me they wanted mainly to go ‘shopping’. Shopping in Russia!
I loved everything about those two weeks. I know Stalin was not the most benevolent leader but has anyone experienced the Moscow subways? The hotel we stayed in had been used for foreign journalists during the Moscow Olympics in 1980 and we all had a room each with television that would show a screen that flickered somewhat. It was an enormous hotel with lifts and many floors. Underneath was a post office that sold stamps if they bothered opening up which they did most times after 1pm, but was usually delayed till 2.30pm. Each floor employed a lady at the end of the corridor who would just sit on a chair and watch televisions that would miraculously work. They watched comedy and much laughter would well across the corridor which gave the hotel a certain ambience and an air of easy going bonhomie. It seemed that Russia in transit with perestroika in full flight did still have ‘full employment’, especially of ladies that would just sit on a chair and watch television. Of course, that did not stay once western style capitalism became established. Watching from my window at the Moscow street scene below, I noticed men busy stirring things in a drum which was burning something. This they did all day, just standing around a smouldering drum.
My bathroom had of course all the necessities including a toilet that was erratic in its flushing habits. I suspect that water was in short supply and flushing could not be achieved when the cistern did not fill with water. From the sound of rushing water into the cistern I worked out the times when water was ‘on’ and saved this water for only the essential part of ablutions. Another architectural oddity was that the toilet’s waste pipe did not have an S bend; it just had a terracotta pipe going straight down but at an angle so absurd that one had to sit sideways, so that you could close the bathroom door and not be with knees pushing against the door. All in all, it gave me a good example how things can be different and this is what I mainly look for when elsewhere, a total difference.
My fellow travellers apart from the Moscow Library union man were doing the typical tourist thing of forever comparing how things were in Australia, and that by and large, Australia was far freer and superior and better in this and better in that. It started to grate me severely and I rebuked a couple when it came to having dinner at a restaurant connected to this Hotel. There were the usual complaints about how in Australia we cooked this and that, and had bigger steaks and what not else. There was a wedding going on and our food was the same as the wedding party which I thought was not only delicious but also genuinely Russian fare. There was borscht and piroshky and the wedding table was having such a good time that the moaning of my fellow travellers again about the food just made the bucket run over and I made the remark about the awfulness of dribbling meat pies and those brown streaked vegemite pieces of toast to our Russian guide. The horror of Australian food fortunately does not get a run in overseas restaurants except perhaps in some below pavement and well hidden dives in London’s Kangaroo court.
We went to see, of all composers, the folk opera/ballet of Porgy and Bess by George Gershwin at The Bolshoi Theatre. It was an unforgettable experience and the encores and applause went on forever. Nothing casual of the theatre goers though, everyone dressed up and obviously out for a good night. Our travel guide had dressed up for the occasion in a splendidly looking dress with golden little applications to hems and collar. Her name of Natasha was all in style as well.
There were sometimes fellow Russian students amongst us who were interested in Australian literature and to my surprise were much better informed than my Aussie travellers were in Russian writers. Of course they were also students; even so, I felt that the average Russian student had a keen interest in things away from materialism. Of course that long suffering society steeped for centuries in so much tragedy and misfortune with leaders imposing their murderous campaigns over and over again, could hardly be expected to contemplate the dribble of average weekly earnings or the state of cricket. While the Russian students knew Patrick White and even the recent P.Carey, they had not heard of Boris Pasternak and even Alexander Solzhenitsyn