In Moscow, I failed to post small parcels to two friends; the Post Office would accept letters but not parcels. I visited St Basil’s Cathedral and The Kremlin, where I coveted the handful of Fabergé eggs on display. The museum also boasted a collection of carriages, including an ornate winter sledge that had belonged to the Imperial family. It must have been a joy to travel in. For the royals, anyway – they were enclosed in glass. The driver, however, had to brave the elements outside. Little wonder there was a revolution, really. Speaking of which, I was a bit miffed by the difference between the ‘foreigner price’ and ‘local price’ for attractions; the admission charge for The Kremlin, for example, was 150 roubles for locals but 650 roubles for people like me. I didn’t mind paying more than locals who were poorer than me, but what really rankled was the thought that Russian oligarchs could waltz into museums in Britain for free, while I had to pay 500 roubles more than them to get into a museum in Russia.
I also pondered how much more interesting Moscow must have been when my friends visited the Soviet Union in the mid-1980s. Then, a trip to Gum, the pre-eminent department store, was the retail equivalent of a sojourn in a Siberian Gulag, and Western jeans so desirable that a tourist could probably swap a pair for an entire apartment block. (And if the jeans were Levis, the vendor would probably hand over their blood relatives as well.) By late 2001, Gum was almost indistinguishable from any shopping mall anywhere in the United States or Europe, selling goods from the likes of Estée Lauder, Christian Dior, Lancôme – even Frederick’s of Hollywood.
Mind you, not everyone approved of the ‘new Russia’: en route to a chocolate shop I happened upon a ‘7 November’ parade, featuring several hundred (mainly older) people, some of whom carried placards of Stalin (yes, Stalin). A fellow spectator explained that these were: “People who think the Revolution was a good idea and want Russia to go back to those times”.
The following day I went to the Lenin mausoleum where, after the parade the previous day, I shouldn’t have been too surprised that, of all the memorials to former presidents, the one that had the most flowers was that for Stalin. After being herded at a rate of knots through the room where Lenin lay in state, I decided that the reason cameras were banned is because photographs would probably reveal that Lenin looks more like wax than preserved human.
I also visited the Memorial Museum of Cosmonautics. They were looking, so a leaflet I picked up read, for any help in expanding. The museum wasn’t a wreck or anything, but it was a little rough around the edges, and I couldn’t help but wonder whether that would have been the case if the Americans hadn’t stolen the Soviet thunder by beating the Cosmonauts to the Moon (even if the Soviets had got into space first).