Lenin was being re-waxed. Well, they will tell you that he wasn’t and that the body is real, but others say that his head fell off some time ago, and the great revolutionary is actually a Madame Tussauds rip-off.
Whatever the truth, his body had been whisked off from its place in Red Square and was either being injected with lots of embalming liquid or dipped in some industrial-sized vat of Communist wax. And to think I just wanted to thank the man for his contribution to my history course, which, to be honest, would be so much sparser without his happy trip to the Finland Station.
Russia has played a big part in my life, and it was time to pay the place a visit. Being born in Eastern Europe and studying in a school named after Pushkin, the giant of Russian poetry, meant that it was time to experience the gaudy mix of the great Russian soul, although no-one seems quite sure what that involves right now.
Well, at least at a first glance it involves mullets. And I don’t mean the fish. You possibly didn’t believe that mullets were still an acceptable hairstyle. Thanks to a certain pop star called Dima Bilan, they are in Russia. The streets of Moscow are full of mullets, in amongst all the dust, grand boulevards and cars.
There is a certain vanity amongst many young Muscovites who, unable to resist a shiny, polished shop window, just have to turn and check themselves out. A group of 15 teenage girls did just that outside the hostel I stayed at and nearly tumbled into the opening of an underpass. I think this may answer a few questions about the demographic crisis in the country.
That said, there is a special charm about the biggest city in Europe, something that you won’t find in St. Petersburg. Moscow is the mix of Europe and Asia; all the influences that define the country.
The onion-domed churches testify to the European influence that stretches through Byzantium and arguably back to Rome, prompting some Russians to see the city as the third Rome. The Kremlin’s battlements bear the influence of the East.
The Soviet architecture helps – many of the grand boulevards are lined with blocks of flats that have little to do with the drab tower blocks that ‘Soviet’ conjures up – classical columns, large facades, arches.
It’s all pretty exciting, especially if they have a supermarket underneath where you can stock up on Russian favourite suyroks – an outer layer of chocolate, something like cream cheese inside it and then a core of whatever flavour you have chosen: blueberry, vanilla or even potato.
But you can read about Moscow in any guide, really, so I won’t bore you. You’ve seen the pictures, you’ve heard the tales. What you won’t have heard is, for example, somewhere like Yaroslavl’. The town is situated on the Volga, about four hours to the north-east of Moscow by train.
Four hours in ‘obshtiy klass’, the collective carriages are, I shan’t lie, an uncomfortable experience. But in Yaroslavl’ I had the chance to experience a bit more of authentic Russian life – a babushka! A breathing, talking, cooking, smiling babushka!
It was a good day, not least because of the meals that she put on. Word of advice – when going to Russia, break into one of their apartments and make them give you home-made kompot. Well, maybe knock rather than break in.
Yaroslavl’ is different. Despite being the size of Liverpool, it has a more provincial feel (and yes, this does mean yet more mullets.) It also has more soldiers than Moscow – which is a surprise, given how many there were in the capital in the first place. Uniforms everywhere – there was a military band trying to tune up on a corner, though I didn’t wait around to hear them.
The place is also full of churches, everywhere you turn. The town was a capital of Russia for a while, and also the second biggest city before Peter the Great built his new capital in 1703. There is a small Kremlin, impressive cathedrals, and of course the Volga.
Europe’s biggest river is, well, big. And dirty. On closer inspection it seems a curious mix of brown and purple with interesting rainbow splatters floating past you. Pretty.
What is really beautiful though, is the price of beer. A quick trip to the supermarket reveals bottles of two and a half litre for about fifty five roubles. At an exchange rate of about forty two roubles to the pound, you can do the math. Basically it equals lots of Russians with lots of bottles in their hands.
Surprisingly, they seem to function fine. Not many places would tolerate the sight of a woman ambling along with her little child, all the while sipping from a bottle of Baltika 3 – but in Russia, it’s a matter of course.
The remnants of old times are also absolutely great. There are not only statues of Lenin and hostels named after him, but bars called USSR and Che. I recommend the latter – good milkshakes and those excellent radios you’d expect to see in Cuba circa Castro’s rise to power. It was all my dreams come true.
And then there was the weather! Sunny. Hot. Un-British. Bizarre. Russia is really not what you’d expect.
Of course there are horror stories. The visa application process can be a nightmare. The country is rising again and is starting to challenge the legacy of Yeltsin’s years, which is of course disconcerting to the West. The KGB simply changed its letters. But there are horror stories everywhere.
Russia also has charm, culture and history. A country that gave humanity Dostoevsky, Tchaikovsky, Tolstoy or Pushkin can be excused for giving us Dima Bilan (well, we will be subjected to him sometime in early May when Eurovision comes around).
Moscow may be dusty but it is also grand and breath-taking. The Volga may seem like a big oil-slick, but it is also serene. People do not carry wires. The police ignore you. A babushka may even feed you.
And for all that you should give it a go, even if Lenin is being re-waxed. Wearing shorts in Churchill’s ‘riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma’ is a good barometer of our new Cold War.