In Vino Veritas 20

Moscow was drab. The Italian sparkle of Rastrelli’s Leningrad architecture had not caught this bus. Worse, historical degradation of some earlier wonderful buildings was wholesale, with post industrial projects or raze and rebuild carrying all before it.
But, one thought, the pride and joy of contemporary Russian space achievement (aka VDNKh… the All Russian Exhibition Centre) would be a jewel in the crown. God it was tired. Should I have been a space explorer and this kind of technical skill was the best on offer I would get the hell out of it. If one had a sneezing fit, the whole theme park would have flattened, domino like, before your eyes. A Tupelov rocket seemed to lean against a wall, totally unloved. Even Yuri Gagarin, in effigy, was covered up, as he could not bear to look.


A kind of wide -eyed ‘wow/hate’ spectacle replaced all this. No peeing about here, this took the form of good old fashioned social realist sculpture. Muscles the size of barracudas, breasts you could throw a hen party in, these heroic defenders were a mile high and the set of their jaws would discourage any kind of opposition. Their muscled legs and arms would get you to Vladivostok in one bound. Should spurs be needed to hasten the journey, loads of hammers and sickles were to hand to help things along.
They induced a morbid fascination, imagining that some starving Stalinist peasant would see this and, so deluded, die a happy man.

Worker and Kolkhoz woman – wikipedia


I once gazed at a Brancusi sculpture which you could hold in the palm of your hand, it would dwarf all of this.

The Pushkin museum was wonderful.

One abiding memory. In many hotels, at the end of the corridor, a little babushka sat (for eternity it would seem) in order to monitor the comings and goings of the guests.
Were we under surveillance? I doubt it. I once whispered to Ronda (Sotto
voce) that Esmeralda was stuffed full of Western codes and detailed drawings of prototype Exocet rockets.
Rosa Klebb wasn’t listening, or if she was, she was still thinking about the time she saw me on the dance floor in Leningrad.

The next stop was the city of Minsk, the capital of today’s Belarus. Until 1991 Belarus was part of the Soviet Union but now has become an independent state. It suffered terribly in WW2, a huge local museum testifies to this. It also has a rich tradition of Russian Orthodoxy and this was demonstrated to me by our charming guide. At one point we gazed at some stunning early ceiling frescoes which had additional sparkle provided but the cluster of icicles which refracted the light. How had they survived? All of this splendour sat cheek by jowl with hectares of Stalinist architecture.

This image from archdaily.com shows the contrasting architecture of modern Minsk

However, Poland beckoned. The temperature dropped alarmingly, but the wind speed increased in the same ratio. On a dead straight road the snow cascaded across the road . Dead ahead an intrepid babushka was sweeping off the roadside blizzard. WHY?
I will never know. I could not understand.

Much later than this, I read Colin Thubron’s splendid book ‘In Siberia’, a masterpiece of travel writing. I wish I had this to hand as we traversed this country. His account of the gulags in Eastern Siberia has no equal.

‘At Oimyakon the temperature has been recorded at -97.8 F. In far lesser cold, steel splits, tyres explode and larch trees shower sparks at the touch of an axe. As the thermometer drops, your breath freezes into crystals, and tinkles to the ground with a noise they call ‘the whispering of the stars.’ ‘This country of Kolyma was fed every year by sea with tens of thousands of prisoners, mostly innocent. Where they landed, they built a port, then the city of Magadan,then the road inland to the mines where thy perished. At first the convicts were peasant kulaks and criminals, then as Stalin’s paranoia heightened – imagined saboteurs, and counter revolutionaries from every class: Party officials, soldiers, scientists, doctors, teachers, artists. They died in miners tunnels from falling rocks and snapped lift cables, from ammonal fumes and silicosis, scurvy and high blood pressure, spitting up blood and lung tissue.
A prisoner had no name, no self. He could be addressed only by his number.’

From In Siberia by  Colin Thubron

We approached the Polish border. Premonitions were not unknown to me, I think they were pretending to hide, although not very well, in the frozen air.


Previous Episode In Vino Veritas 19

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In Vino Veritas 19

The crowd surrounding Esmeralda was impressive. The main attraction was the car with an engine in the boot. Not a lot of those around. The interest in the mechanic was rather more desultory, perhaps fueled by a sense that he was pretty clueless. Unfair. The VW engine was and is a very clever bit of Teutonic engineering. A flat four boxer engine, air cooled, it neither freezes nor boils.


So far so good. As a kid, this mechanic had a bit of experience with car engines, at least enough to know the basics. The culprit was usually fuel or electrics. Petrol no problem, now, where was the distributor? Take that to bits and where the hell would I get a set of points, let alone install them? What I could try, following the advice of the previous owner, was to see if the plugs were oiling up. The only item in the ‘tool kit’ was a socket spanner for exactly that purpose. A search began for the plugs. My exploration was not helped by a load of interested heads peering into he engine bay and following every move.
My air of quiet confidence did not fool anybody.
Heavy snow was falling, the air temperature well below zero. Freezing.

EUREKA! I found the plugs and a couple of skinned knuckles later I got them out. They looked as though they had been dipped in oil. As I had no emery paper or feeler gauges, all they got was a basic drying off.
She started at first crank. The audience was most impressed, more importantly, my sense of relief was palpable. What if this had happened on a lonely road, in the dark, about 100 kilometres from anywhere, with heavy snow drifts and the wind chill temperature around minus 20C. No heating whatsoever. Hmmmm…

Off to Moscow. This is a journey of about 710 km, driving time about 9 hours. By Russian standards this is rather like popping down to see Aunt Anastasia, a mere scratch on the map. Progress was good, and in due course, we decided to stop for lunch. Before that, I nipped off the roadside for a slash, and stepped softly into space. Well, snow space. It was rather like going down in a faulty lift, there was no resistance whatsoever. Eventually I got to the ground floor, with the top of my head just showing above the snow line. Panic receded, climbing commenced.


Ah, lunch. Our cooker was a little Gaz burner with a single flame and bottle. Pretty basic. The unit was placed in the footwell and coaxed into life, hoping all the while that a waft of petrol fumes had not insinuated themselves into the car. That would have livened things up no end. To have attempted this exercise outside would involve heating the whole of Russian air space. The food was edible, pre-packed anodyne anything. A food writer would have placed it somewhere between early and middle nothing. However, it was better than the alternative. Veg and Vegan hadn’t been invented. [This blog editor would surely have perished]


Our route to Moscow took us quite close to the town of Zagorsk, north of the city. Some years later, I revisited this town as part of a Russian package holiday. Our guide was an epitome of Komsomol, a Soviet youth whose brief was to show a load of capitalist tourists the neutered dinosaur of Russian Orthodoxy. His indifference to this task matched that of his tailor… couldn’t care less. He showed us to a splendid church where a service was in progress. He stayed put and relaxed into the arms of an evil cigar.

Another Matisse moment. As the door closed behind us, the darkened scene slowly materialised. Bathed in the heady aroma of incense the glorious iconostasis glowed, the little babushkas sang like angels and the service proceeded. Glory again. How far back in time would this have been played out? Deep involvement was immediate in this other sublime magical world. One did not have to be a born again anything, or even not born at all to be transported to this kitsch free place of deep devotion. Like Bach’s B minor mass, an indelible memory.

Another ‘cordon zero’ meal was prepared and soon after that Moscow hoved into view. I hoped there were more people here than greeted Napoleon and there might be the odd PECTOPAH making an appearance. Esmeralda purred. Deo gratias…

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In Vino Veritas 18

Suitably attired, we wnt off to the restaurant. And what a restaurant! Loads of chandeliers, plenty of rich brocade… the whole was redolent of a glorious imperial past.

Episode 18

As part of the ‘post Matisse’ calming down, the prospect of a good dinner was a fine distraction. Esmeralda WAS sulking, she needed the help of some very willing and good natured Russians to give her a push start. We eventually got our petrol but the notion of sauntering down to Moscow the following day was cause for anxiety.

Anyway, suitably attired, (including my old friend, the linen suit) we went off to the restaurant. AND what a restaurant!

Here was our ageing dowager incarnate. Loads of chandeliers, plenty of rich brocade, furniture not quite right, but pretty ornate as were the table settings. The whole was redolent of a glorious imperial past. As we sat down, we would not be surprised if Prince Bolkonsky and Natasha Rostova stepped out of the pages of War and Peace and wondered if they could join us for a couple of aperitifs. Our company was more mundane but agreeable enough and slightly bemused by their antipodean table sharers. A combination of fractured words and descriptive gestures sort of communicated. Somewhere between the main course and the sturdy Russian pudding the world changed.

Sadly I don’t have my own photograph, but this shows the Palkin, one of the oldest restaurants in St Petersburg.

Some ten years earlier, at the dreaded secondary school, we were lucky enough to have dancing lessons. One would keep this fact Sub Rosa, in that, if you bumped into a bunch of your well built rustic contemporaries, you would not announce how well your Scottish Country Dancing was coming along. Added to that, for some reason, I was quite stoked on the big band American music of the twenties and thirties. That fascination is no longer with me but it did crop up with our dancing teacher.
One day she happened to be playing this stuff at full tilt and I said how much I loved it. ‘Why don’t we dance to this stuff?’ I asked. ‘People do,’ came the reply, ‘let me show you the Charleston.’  Five minutes later, I was hooked. Her comment was ‘whether you like it or not, you are a natural with this dance. Be a devil, you clearly love it’. I did and I was good. Amazing turn of events.

Back to our restaurant…

Out of nowhere, a splendid big band roared into life. They had it all, classy trumpet, tenor and alto sax and clarinet soloists, a rhythm section that drove things along at a pace which would have given any American band a run for their money.
I got on the dance floor and re- entered this magic world, oblivious of time or space.


This was my own Russian Sputnik, a self-contained satellite that had its bum on fire and put on such a show. Poor Ronda was a bit upstaged by all this, the dining audience couldn’t get enough of it. Eat your hearts out, Fred and Ginger. I was in the grip of something else, transposed and transported. Talk about dancing all night…but after the third set, the band took a breather, and so did I. Magic, will live forever. My linen suit creaked at the seams but held together.

Later, normal life abruptly returned with my new best Russian friends. This took the form of a little chat between a Ukrainian and Georgian, conducted along pugilistic lines. It seems one of our heavily henna’d darlings had been playing both ends against the middle and the boys would settle the matter as to who would prevail. The bouncers determined the resolution would be decided somewhere along the Nevsky Prospect.

Next day, the drain of ballroom euphoria was accelerated by Esmeralda and her mega-sulk. No amount of cajoling or push starting or even the threat of Siberian exile had the slightest effect. Suddenly Moscow seemed a hell of a long way away. There would be more chance in Leningrad of finding a capitalist advice centre than there would be of coming across a VW garage.
We needed the services of a highly skilled mechanic, or there was me.

Dropped in mid-story? Read the beginning of our road trip here, or start from the beginning of my memoirs, way back in Tasmania…