“Please list every single foreign trip you have taken.”
This was just one of numerous ridiculous questions on the Russian Visa application form.
Russia is the most bureaucratic place I have ever been to. To visit, you first need to get an invitation from a hotel. My Russian distributor had suggested that I stay at the hotel Ukraina, which, in those days, was far from a luxury hotel. After receipt of said invitation I filled in this multi-page form with too many questions and sent it off with my passport to the Russian consulate.
On arrival in Sheremetyevo Airport I waited in line for about 90 minutes to get through immigration. After acquiring copious stamps on my passport and hotel invitation, my distributor met me and whisked me off through the deep snow to the hotel. Russians drink an enormous amount of alcohol, so instead of bringing one bottle of Scotch Malt Whisky, I brought two. My distributor was pleased, as apparently bringing two bottles is the Russian way.
I had come to attend a Hi-Fi show in Moscow. It was April and with winter still hovering, Moscow’s snow was falling constantly. It was covered with a dirty brown dust caused by the burning of coal fires, which ultimately melted into brown slush. The town looked miserable. The grey sky and cheap housing reminded me (depressingly) of the Glasgow of my youth. The check-in at the hotel was also extremely long and I finally got to my room, which was long, narrow and overheated. The bed was concave and the furniture tired, but it did have a fabulous view of Moscow’s White House, which was famous for President Boris Yeltsin’s political standoff with the Russian parliament in 1993.
The Hi-Fi show itself was large and I don’t think I have ever seen so many brands in one place. At that time, Russian distributors were acquiring brands like crazy. Everyone was trying to one-up the other guy. I wandered around and joined in a conversation among colleagues who were comparing how much they paid for a taxi from the airport to downtown Moscow. Unsurprisingly, the prices ranged from $25 to $150.
One evening I was invited to a jazz concert in the Tchaikovsky Concert Hall. This hall, which is oval in shape with every row of seats higher than the one in front, has the most unbelievable acoustics. At one point the drummer left his drums and started to play the floor, the walls, the sides of his fellow musician’s instruments and about anything hittable. The sound was crystal clear. I would have loved to hear a classical concert there but it wasn’t to be. After the concert, I asked my host how I was getting back to my hotel. Moscow has a really efficient and fast subway system but there was no stop near my hotel.
“Let’s walk,” she said.
It was minus 20 degrees Celsius and snowing, so we walked. After about ten minutes she spotted a private car with its engine running.
“Let me ask him?”
A few minutes later she returned saying that he would drive us to my hotel for the equivalent of $30.
“Is that OK?”
“Sure,” I said as my nose, already blue, was solidifying.
The next morning I had arranged to meet Mike Creek from Creek Products for breakfast. I had told him where I would be staying and he decided to stay at the same hotel. We met at breakfast, which was massive with an incredible array of smoked fish, eggs, pickles, meats and breads. At the table next to us sat a young man with three really beautiful women hanging on his every word. They were scantily dressed and very drunk.
“Does your room smell?” Mike asked me.
“Smell of what?”
“Sweat, B.O., feet, death?”
“No, mine’s fine.”
After breakfast I went up to my room, breathed in the air and gagged. It smelled like a slaughterhouse in summer. My nose must have automatically shut down on arrival and Mike’s question woke it up. I wanted to change hotels but in those days your exit visa had to be stamped by the hotel that invited you, so I was stuck.
That day I tried to get some small change for a vending machine and as there was a bank in the hotel I entered, and asked the teller for change.
The front desk also refused to change my bills. Disdain for tourists was flourishing in this place.
I did do some tourist stuff. I saw Red Square and the Tsar’s jewels. The onion-domed churches were impressive. I also went to the GUM department store, which during Soviet times was the exclusive haunt of apparatchiks (high communist officials). Now it was an upmarket mall in a magnificent structure featuring brands like Armani and Prada. (Lenin must be gyrating in his glass tomb.)
That evening as I was alone and due to the weather unable to leave the hotel, I decided to eat in the hotel restaurant. After about 45 minutes of trying to get a waiter’s attention, I decided to take matters in hand. As a waiter passed me by, I stood up, blocked his way and shoved the menu in his face while pointing to a dish. I said,
“I want this.”
The startled waiter actually looked frightened and murmured something in Russian. It apparently worked, as I soon was served a very delicious meal of borscht followed by lamb kebabs with potatoes and tomatoes.
Seated at the periphery of the dining room were three or four of the most beautiful women I have ever seen. Long-limbed and blond, they seemed to have emerged from Vogue magazine. Every so often, a diner would approach one and after a short discussion, leave with her. She would subsequently return and resume her post. Her client would follow later and go straight to his seat. It took me a few moments to figure out what was transpiring. Security guards ringed the restaurant so I guess they were involved in the transactions. I have encountered prostitutes in many countries but these Russian women were in a league of their own.
I invited my distributor to a nightclub, which had good foods but was really noisy. My guests started to drink vodka as if it was water. I am not a fan of vodka but it did come in many flavors. My favorite was seasoned with pine nuts. Drinking vodka in Moscow with natives definitely enhances the taste but I learned the hard way that it is useless to try to keep up with these guys. I got so drunk I forgot to pay for the meal and they wouldn’t take my money the next day.
The byzantine bureaucracy, the feeling of being powerless and dependent on others to get around generated a surprising unease in me and for the first time in my life as a fearless traveler, I felt helpless.
The next day I left for home. Assuming correctly that it would take a long time, I allowed myself three hours at the airport. At first I could not find any check-in desks but after searching for a while I saw the Delta desk almost lost behind a long security line. Security cleared, I checked in, then proceeded to immigration which involved a 60-minute wait. My exit forms finally stamped and approved, I walked to my gate with about 15 minutes to spare. On arrival at JFK, the immigration officer asked where I had come from and I, the intrepid traveler, told him,
“Moscow; you have no idea how glad I am to be back in the USA.”
He smiled and said, “I hear this all the time.”