David Pritchard had been my friend for years since school. In intellectual terms he dwarfed everyone I knew. Mathematical problems I just couldn't begin to solve were mental arithmetic to him. I never figured the Rubix cube, it took him around 45 seconds. Fourier transforms were a closed book to me (and still are) but a second language to him.
He was studying maths at Cambridge, having got 4 straight A's at A-level, when I was at Imperial College reading Materials Science. David won a maths prize to compete in the World mathematics competition in Moscow and had thoroughly enjoyed himself.
Thomson, the travel people had just pioneered holidays to Moscow. For some obscure reason I had always had a passion for things Russian (my present to me for finishing O-levels was to read War and Peace). So I just had to go.
I bullied David into going with me and we booked the first available trip out of Heathrow, which was in early December 1974. A weekend in Moscow was something to die for and in retrospect we probably came pretty close.
It goes without saying that Russia was communist and a world away. We were staying in a large modern hotel in the centre of Moscow. We decide upon a walk. I was wearing a suit and David a sports coat. It was minus 30. We both walked out of the revolving door and down the street. The looks on the faces of the people was something to behold. We didn't understand the problem. We were British and a little cold like minus 30 didn't bother us. Then the heat had gone from our clothes and within seconds the true, biting, bone chilling, cold hit us. The cool casual stroll became a frantic run back to the cloying heat of the hotel. Lesson one had been learned.
We managed to pack an awful lot in, in the days, doing the tourist thing with Intourist. They had an excursion to the Bolshoi ballet planned for us on the Saturday night but we were not ballet fans and we decided that we would make a night of it.
The evening started with the set meal. Like all other meals it seemed to consist of a piece of inedible meat and potatoes with gravy. However there was some bottled beer with the meal. David and I observed that many of the group did not drink the beer and we felt that it was OK to reduce the waste by collecting the bottles and taking them back to our room to start the night off. This apparently was a capitalist notion and did not fit in with communist ideals.
Or to put it another way we were pinching the perks of the waiters. We reached a compromise, we gave them some money and they allowed us to break the rules. We took our booty, past the gaze of the old ladies who sat at every corner of the hotel back to our room and settled back to drink and watch telly. Of course we didn't speak a word of the language but we were completely able to follow the prime time maths programmes being broadcast. Clearly the population were going to be educated whether they wanted to be or not!.
We decided to take a stroll round the bars and night clubs of the area. It turned out that bars did not exist. Restaurants yes, bars no. The only bars were those in the the three international hotels in the city. They were hard currency bars where drinks could only be purchased for hard currency. Hard currency meant the European Currencies or the Dollar.
Since it was illegal for the Russians to own hard currency this made it very difficult for them. At this time there were hard currency shops littered around the place which sold the very finest goods that Russia had to offer. The finest furs, the best Caviar and every conceivable type of Vodka. Plus of course electronic goods and fashion wear. The stores looked pretty much like western stores. Muscovites couldn't buy unless they had hard currency and they couldn't get it
The Rouble stores were like something out of the 1930's. The shelves were pretty empty and what goods there were were of shoddy quality. Although there was plenty of food it was of low quality and you had to queue. This situation was not created out of sheer perversity by the Communists but because they were in desperate need of hard currency since the Rouble was a completely controlled currency and could not be traded in the money markets of the world. However the effect on the populace must have been devastating.
Since there were only 3 bars, our pub crawl was somewhat limited. However we were just finishing our beers around 11.00pm with the intention of going to bed when we were approached by three guys who wanted to talk about international friendship. They spoke a little English and we were their long lost friends. No they didn't smoke but Benson and Hedges was a different matter. A pack of Benson's cost us around £2 and was worth at least £20 in local currency.
We had a beer to celebrate international solidarity and then another one to celebrate pan european solidarity and one to celebrate Russian motherhood and one to celebrate Russian manhood. The celebrations were going real well.
"Did we want to see their apartment?" Of course we did. So we went out hailed a Taxi and set off for some indeterminate part of town. Moscow, December at night, Minus 30, in some indeterminate flat.
It was imperative that we continued to celebrate all kinds of solidarity and they had just the spirit to do it. We drank to every conceivable kind of solidarity and some, in fact lots, we didn't understand. Could they buy our clothes, in the name of solidarity of course? Would we like a woman or two? or maybe boys were more our thing? May be an Icon from a Russian church would be good. Did we have any jeans?.
Our Russian Friends
Our Russian Friends
I began to feel that it might be better if we got ourselves out of this before we became history. I said that we had 200 Benson's which purely in the interests of solidarity they could have as a gift but back at our hotel. It appeared this was a better idea than disposing of our bodies and so we went back to celebrate some more solidarity back at our hotel. Once there with the spies and the little ladies at every corner we were safe from everything but alcoholic poisoning.
In the name of friendship I propose that I take a photo of our friends, which didn't meet with their approval but I did anyway and here it is. They were not for leaving, but it was about 2.00am and we started to get noisy, which for them was not a good thing. They left taking their cigarettes with them.
And we went downstairs to the bar. David bought two beers since I was incapable of speech. It also transpired I was incapable of standing for more than a few seconds. I remember by an enormous effort of will getting back to our room.
Then nothing. The next morning I came to. I had thrown up everywhere. I was dehydrated. I felt awful. David by contrast was normalish. I sat drinking hard currency coffees at 60p a shot (beer in the UK was around 25p a pint). Then we had to go. I went to get my passport back. But there was a problem, it appeared that some one had been ill in our room. A fine was required. In local currency. I had no money, my head hurt and I wanted to fly home. David saved the day and we went to the airport.
The plane was delayed because the Russians would not unload the effluent tanks or supply water. Eventually we took of carrying the sewage back with us. A hour or so into the flight the tanks started to overflow into the plane. The stewardesses ran around with paper towels trying to dam the tide. Eventually we landed back in the UK and a spontaneous cheer ran round the plane. London in December felt good