In St Petersburg with Dostoevsky

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“On an exceptionally hot evening early in July a young man came out of the garret in which he lodged in S. Place and walked slowly, as if in hesitation, towards K. Bridge.” Fyodor Dostoevsky, Crime and Punishment

The restless Dostoevsky moved about St Petersburg, coming and going, moving apartment, never staying anywhere more than three years, after he was sent there, against his will, at 16, to the military engineering school in the Mikhailovsky Palace (the Engineer’s Castle), now an art gallery and minor stop on the tourist trail.

He managed an unhappy year as a military engineer with one of the few steady incomes of his life, then gave it up to write and, along the way, got involved in radical politics, which in turn got him thrown into the political prison in the St Peter and Paul Fortress which dominates the right bank of the Neva. It was a sort of Oxford and Cambridge of Tsarist Russia; alumni included Leon Trotsky, Josip Tito, Maxim Gorky, Mikhail Bakunin and Peter Kropotkin. The old prison is open to the public, now, a dank and oppressive curiosity among the gilded spires and domes and crenelated walls of the fortress.

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From there, Dostoevsky was marched to what is now Pionerskeya Place and put in front of a firing squad, but it was an early example of what we would now call a mock execution; his real sentence was eight years – commuted to four – in Siberia.

He drifted back to St Petersburg, moving from apartment to apartment, pursued by angry creditors. Mostly he lived in the claustrophobic streets around Sennaya Ploshchad (Hay Square), where he set Crime and Punishment. It was the cheapest and grimmest corner of St Petersburg, then: half a dozen blocks west but a world away from the splendour of Nevsky Prospekt:

“The heat in the street was terrible: and the airlessness, the bustle and the plaster, scaffolding, bricks…. The insufferable stench from the pot-houses, which are particularly numerous in that part of the town….

Owing to the proximity of the Hay Market, the number of establishments of bad character, the preponderance of the trading and working class population crowded in these streets and alleys in the heart of Petersburg, types so various were to be seen in the streets that no figure, however queer, would have caused surprise.”

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The Hay Market is long gone and the neighbourhood has been regenerated several times; but many of the old buildings remain, and the old atmosphere clings to them like soot from steam locomotives. It is still a lot shabbier than the avenues and squares of the main tourist trail with its murky courtyards, flaking paint, rusted railings and crumpled Ladas.

You emerge from the Metro on Sennaya Ploshchad among grimy kiosks where daytime drinkers sprawl on benches worked into the shape of carriage wheels in allusion to the vanished market. Across the road is the porticoed guardhouse in which Dostoevsky was locked up for two days in 1874 for breaching censorship laws.

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There are still dive bars on Brinko Lane, where Raskolnikov – the main protagonist of Crime and Punishment – met the drunken civil servant, Marmeladov, and each of them looks like the sort of place in which a Marmeladov or a Raskolnikov might drink.

Brinko Lane tips out on Sadovaya Street and the first right takes you over the Kukushkin Bridge and onto Stoliarny Lane, reversing Raskolnikov’s route in the novel’s opening lines:

“…a young mancame out of the garret in which he lodged in S[toliarny] Place and walked slowly, as if in hesitation, towards K[ukushikin] Bridge.”

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There is a bronze relief of Dostoevsky – looking his usual cheerful self – on the corner of No 5, where Raskolnikov rented his:

“tiny cupboard of a room about six paces in length…with its dusty yellow paper peeling off the walls, and… so low-pitched that a man of more than average height was ill at ease in it and felt every moment that he would knock his head against the ceiling.”

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Carry on down Stoliarny Lane to the next cross street, ul. Kaznachieskaja, turn left and at number 7 is the building in which Dostoevsky was living when he wrote Crime and Punishment; he had lived before at numbers 1 and 9.

Raskolnikov “walked along quietly and sedately, without hurry, to avoid awakening suspicion” on a roundabout way to the home of the old pawnbroker he planned to murder and rob. You can follow him to the end of Stoliarny Street, over the Kukushkin Bridge, onto Sadovaya Street, past the Yusopov Gardens and along Rimskogo-Korsakova until you get to Griboyedov Canal. “And by now he was near; here was the house, here was the gate.” The pawnbroker lived at Griboyedov Embankment, 104:

“a huge house which on one side looked on to the canal, and on the other into the street…let out in tiny tenements and…inhabited by working people of all kinds- tailors, locksmiths, cooks, Germans of sorts, girls picking up a living as best they could, petty clerks, &c.”

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On your way, you pass another of Dostoevsky’s twenty addresses in St Petersburg, Rimskogo-Korsakova, 3 – between the Ambassador Hotel and Azaliya restaurant, a few doors from a whimsical monument to The Nose from Gogol’s short story.

It is quicker and pleasanter to walk back along Griboyedov Canal. Near the top of Voznesensky Avenue, the last street before Stoliarny Lane, is another of the apartment blocks – at No 29 – in which Dostoevsky lived. Over the bridge, at the next corner is Griboyedov Embankment, 73, then an “old green house of three storeys,” now a yellow house of four storeys, where Marmeladov’s daughter, Sonia, had her apartment:

“…a large but exceedingly low-pitched room… a very irregular quadrangle and this gave it a grotesque appearance. A wall with three windows looking out on to the canal ran aslant so that one corner formed a very acute angle, and it was difficult to see in it without very strong light. The other corner was disproportionately obtuse….”

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Over to the west, the powder blue, star-dotted dome of the Trinity Cathedral rises above the rooftops. Dostoevsky – then a 45-year-old widower – was married there in 1867 to his 19-year-old stenographer, Anna Grigoryevna.

His clumsy proposal started with an ‘idea for a novel’ in which a painter married his much younger assistant and moved on to the hypothetical  question,“Imagine I am the painter, I confessed to you and asked you to be my wife. What would you answer?” Her answer – also couched as hypothetical – was “I love you and I will love you forever”.

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It is a good job she did. It is usually drink with writers, but with Dostoevsky it was gambling. Despite the royalties from Crime and Punishment, which was published the year before, Anna had to sell some of her things to help pay his gambling debts, and the couple eventually had to leave Russia in a hurry and spend the next four years travelling around Western Europe, where Dostoevsky continued to lose much of what he earned, often more.

They went back to St Petersburg in 1871, at first to the same neighbourhood near the Hay Market, then a series of apartments south of the Fontanka River, and finally further east to Kuznechny Lane, 5, where Dostoevsky wrote The Brothers Karamazov.

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He died in 1881, at the age of 59, and was buried with Mussorgsky, Borodin, Tchaikovsky and Rimsky-Korsakov in the Tikhvinskoe Cemetery two stops on the Metro to the east. Anna, though still only 35, never remarried.

The house in which he spent his last three years is now the Dostoevsky Museum; his apartment has been carefully recreated. The first cross street to the east and the nearby Metro station have been named in his honour. And, just a few blocks to the west is the square in which, as a young man tentatively starting to make his name as a writer, he stood before a firing squad.

© Richard Senior 2016

VDNKh: Stalin’s Theme Park

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The All-Union Agricultural Exhibition was intended to showcase the success of the collective farms.

There was an immediate problem in that the collective farms were a disaster: output collapsed, there was a terrible famine and millions died. But they were Stalin’s idea and Stalin – Orwell’s model for Comrade Napoleon – was always right and his policies never failed, they were just sabotaged by “kulaks,” “Trotsky-fascists,” “imperialist lackeys” or whatever label he decided to pin on the scapegoats.

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Construction of the All-Union Exhibition went ahead, originally on 330 acres of wasteland in the northern suburbs of Moscow. It opened in August 1939, a few months after the New York World’s Fair with which it was sometimes compared.

There were pavilions to represent each of the Soviet Republics, territories and regions, all built to impress on a scale to match the General Secretary’s ego. Statues, stained-glass, mosaics and bas-reliefs spoke of plentiful harvests, well-fattened animals and happy peasants, interleaved with the corporate logos of Soviet communism, the hammers and sickles, the stars and the CCCP’s. Inside were exhibits of agricultural techniques and machinery.

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While the New York World’s Fair was quickly dismantled and slowly forgotten, the All-Union Exhibition expanded in scope and area to become the Exhibition of National Economic Achievements, abbreviated in Russian to VDNKh. It gained more pavilions, magnificent fountains and a stop of its own on the Metro.

Cosmonauts Alley leads up from the station. It is more allée than alley: a broad, straight avenue cut through parkland, lined with trees.

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There are statues along its margins of iconic figures from the Soviet space programme: the likes of Yuri Gagarin and Valentina Terashkova (first man and first woman in space), Alexey Leonov (first spacewalk), and less happily Vladimir Komarov (first man to die on a space mission).

At intervals up the centre line, there are granite plinths cut into the shape of the Soviet star, planed to an angle and topped with bronze plates, also star-shaped, detailing events from the earlier years of the Space Race (before NASA caught up and went into the lead). They are interspersed with vibrant flower beds.

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An oversize statue of Konstantin Tsiolkovsky – the original rocket scientist – stands at the end of the avenue and, beyond it, the grandly-named Monument to the Conquerors of Space, a 400-foot-high swoosh of titanium representing a rocket aloft with its exhaust plume beneath it.

The park and exhibition centre at the other side of the monument now sprawl over 2.3 sq km, roughly equivalent to Monaco and the Vatican City combined.

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In the Yeltsin years, VDNKh was parcelled up and leased out to private companies, which gutted the pavilions, threw away the exhibits and turned the empty spaces into warehouses and retail outlets.

The historic pavilions, soon half-hidden behind illegal extensions and advertising hoardings, fell into disrepair. Hundreds of jerry-built temporary structures were thrown up between them. The complex seemed unlikely to survive. There were proposals to demolish the lot to make room for a shopping centre.

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When I went in the summer of 2015, I expected to find the decaying remains of what had once been described as “the Soviet Versailles”. But, unknown to me, the authorities had recently demolished a few hundred illegal buildings and extensions, torn down the ugly hoardings, cleared out 10,000 tons of garbage, remade the roads and paths, added benches and bins, replanted the flowerbeds and restored the eighty-year-old pavilions.

It was surreal to walk among buildings evocative of the international expos that captured so many imaginations between the Thirties and the Sixties and which are still studded with Soviet iconography. They have been cleaned up and repainted, but the stonework, the stained-glass, the mosaics are original, so there is none of the sense that there often is after major restorations that you are effectively looking at a modern replica.

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The parkland around them is pleasant to walk in and full of surprises with gushing fountains and monumental gardens, a boating lake, a photo exhibition in a rose garden, a tiny Orthodox church, a Vostok rocket and Buran spacecraft, a theatre, an aquarium, an SU-27 fighter jet and YAK-42 airliner.

The BBC journalist, Martin Sixsmith, called it “Russia’s answer to Disney World, but without the rides,” but the comparison is unfair, both to VDNKh and to Disney World.

© Richard Senior 2016

Subterranean Sightseeing: the Moscow Metro

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On the surface, the tourists troop round the Kremlin; they snap selfies in front of St Basil’s, explore GUM and the State History Museum, stroll through Alexander Gardens and stop to watch the changing of the guard; they tick off the Bolshoi and Maly theatres, the Tretyakov and New Tretyakov Galleries, Gorky Park and the Seven Sisters.

And two hundred feet below ground, there is a parallel Moscow with its own set of tourists, making their way between subterranean sights. Little groups of them huddle around guides, then disperse to kneel with SLR’s or stand smiling with smartphones at the end of poles, and bustle onto trains to get to the next big sight. Solo travellers make their own way round with Metro maps stuffed into guidebooks to mark the page.

The older stations, built under Stalin from the mid-thirties, were designed to impress with an extravagant blend of brass and bronze, marble and mosaics, stucco and chandeliers, as if the architects interpreted a little too literally the old Soviet promise to build ‘palaces for the people’. There are artistic flourishes in the smallest details, like a ventilation duct shaped around a bronze wheatsheaf with the openings seeming to be part of the sculpture, instead of the rectangular aperture topped with a grille you would see more or less anywhere else.

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When Stalin died, Khrushchev ordered a stop to his vanity projects and, by the late fifties, the Soviets started to build functional Metro stations to a standard design, like everybody else in the world. But most of the stations which a visitor is likely to pass through, and all of them on the Circle Line, could qualify as Must See sights.

Komsomolskaya has an opulent Baroque look with rows of limestone pillars, chandeliers and a stuccoed ceiling with mosaics of Russian heroes. It looks like it might have been designed for the Romanovs but was actually meant to celebrate the Komsomol, communist youth league.

There is an Art Nouveau look to Novoslobodskaya, which was built around a series of 32 stained-glass panels, rimmed with brass, slotted into Ural marble and illuminated from behind.

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Belorusskaya has floral motifs worked into the stucco of the ceiling, interspersed with mosaics of peasants and artisans in Belarussian costume. The walls are faced with pink and black marble with niches lit by bronze uplighters.

Chandeliers hang from the ceiling at Kievskaya. The arches cutting through to the platforms are edged with gold-coloured braiding. Between them are large mosaics of scenes from Ukrainian history.  

At Park Pobedy, by contrast, the side walls and ceiling are free of ornamentation. The visual impact comes from pleasing curves and highly-polished grey and red marble, reflecting in the chequerboard floor and directing attention to the paintings on the end walls of the defeat of Napoleon.

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Life-size bronze statues crouch either side of the arches which lead to the platforms at Ploshchad Revolyutsii. They represent soldiers, workers, peasants, sportsmen, hunters, parents and a border guard with an Alsatian dog who is supposed to bring luck if you stroke his nose (the dog’s, not the guard’s).

Elektrozavodskaya is named, as only a communist regime would think to do, after a lightbulb factory. Its ceiling is clustered with 318 inset lamps which – designedly – look like oversize household bulbs; its walls have gilded grilles and bas-reliefs.

Mayakovskaya is gloriously Art Deco. It won the Grand Prize at the 1939 World’s Fair in New York. The long central hall is lined with arches faced with stainless steel and pink rhodonite. Niches are scooped out of the vaulted ceiling, ringed with filament lights and filled with mosaics themed around ‘24-hours in the Soviet sky’.

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But the Moscow Metro is only incidentally a tourist attraction. It carries 9 million people across town every day, more than the New York Subway and London Underground together; more than any system outside Asia.

The trains average 25 mph, against 17 in New York, and come at around one minute intervals. Regular minutes, that is, not the infamous ‘Northern Line minutes’ with 240 seconds each.

It is free, it seems, of all of the Northern Line’s legendary inefficiencies*: the trains which somehow end up further away the closer they get, or which are announced but never arrive, or have one destination on the front but go to another, or just disappear into a tunnel and break down.

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What is more, a single journey costs the equivalent of 45p, or 63¢, instead of $3.00 (£2.10) in New York or the hilarious £4.90 ($6.95) in London, yet the system still turns a profit.

© Richard Senior 2016

*The Northern Line is a standing joke in London. I lived on it for years. I was usually standing but rarely joking.

On Nevsky Prospekt

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“There is nothing finer than Nevsky Prospekt, at least not in Petersburg; for there it is everything. And, indeed, is there anything more gay, more brilliant, more resplendent than this beautiful street of our capital?” Nikolai Gogol, Nevsky Prospekt

There were once wooden blocks set into the cobbles to muffle the sound of carriages. Nevsky Prospekt, they reckoned, was the quietest high street in Europe. Not now. Ducatis howl, Porsches snarl, and a pair of rally cars crackle and pop as they tailchase towards the Neva. Smoky old Ladas keep up as well as they can.

The crowds spill out of the five Metro stations along its length and stroll across the series of bridges which span the canals while skaters and bladers weave between them and leafleters step out, proffering flyers for bars and restaurants and ‘gentlemen’s clubs’.

There are hot dog carts and ice cream carts every few hundred yards along the pavement. Tour reps stand ready with maps and tickets and credit card readers, and sightseeing boats chug along the canals which bisect the street; the commentary echoes under bridges.

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It is a four-and-a-half kilometre slice out of Russian history. Mussorgsky lived at No 13. He met at Balakirev’s apartment at No 84 with Tchaikovsky, Borodin and Rimsky-Korsakov. Shostakovich gave his first public performance at No 52; Anton Rubinstein gave his at No 30. Tolstoy lived at 147. Pushkin dropped into the cafe at No 18 on his way to the last duel of his life. Dostoevsky edited The Citizen magazine at No 77. Nadya Krupskaya lived at 97; her fiancé, the barrister’s assistant, Vladimir Ulyanov lived at 83. He got involved in radical politics in his spare time and, like Dostoevsky, was arrested for it and sent to Siberia. He returned, under the assumed name of Lenin.

Neither the Soviets, who renamed the city Leningrad, nor the Nazis, who laid siege to it for over two years, changed much about Nevsky Prospekt. Some buildings were wrecked in the War, but rebuilt – if not as they were, then at least sympathetically with the rest of the street. ‘School No 210’ was built in 1939 and is as austere as its name suggests, but it is the only Soviet building on the main strip. There remains a painted sign on the wall from the days of the siege, which reads:

“Citizens! This side of the street is more dangerous during artillery bombardment.”

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The facades of Nevsky Prospekt are still, by and large, what they were when Lenin returned in triumph to Finlyandsky Station. Some date from the time of Catherine the Great, most from before Nicholas II.

The morning air is no longer “filled with the smell of hot, freshly baked bread” as it was in Gogol’s time. Chronic shortages at the bread shops on Nevsky Prospekt sparked the riots which set off the revolution which swept away the Tsar. The bread shops would disappear, as well; and the silversmiths, the perfumiers, the French confectioners and English merchants and the civil servants who parade through the pages of Dostoevsky and Gogol.

But, when communism fell, the banks, the insurers, the luxury shops and the five-star hotels came back to this Russian Champs-Élysées. Макдоналдс, Бургер Кинг and Старбакc кофе came with them: two burger joints and a coffee shop, whose world-famous logos help decipher the Cyrillic script. Sberbank remains; so does Intourist, once the state travel agency, staffed by KGB agents, now in joint venture with Thomas Cook.

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The Art Nouveau landmark, Dom Knigi, offices of the Singer Company in Tsarist times, is still the city’s largest bookstore, as it has been since Lenin’s first years of power. Tourists flock in and go upstairs to sit in Café Singer. They cross the road to see Kazan Cathedral, modelled on St Peter’s Basilica; and stroll round the corner, along the canal, to the onion-domed exuberance of the Church on the Spilled Blood – built on the spot where a Tsar was shot dead.

Back on Nevsky, they walk a block to the west to the pink-painted excess of the Stroganoff Palace, where beef stroganoff was supposedly invented, and on, then, to the top of the street with the gleaming spire of the Admiralty building directly ahead and, to the right, the most opulent of St Petersburg’s opulent buildings, the Tsar’s Winter Palace.

They might cross the Neva to Vasilyevsky Island or head north to Mars Field and the Summer Gardens or south to St Isaac’s Cathedral, but they will, without doubt, end up back on Nevsky Prospekt.

© Richard Senior 2015

The Dictator who Came in from the Cold

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Stalin lookalikes work Red Square, puffing on pipes and pretending to talk into mobile phones. There are Lenins, as well, and a much less convincing Putin; but it is Stalin the tourists want to be photographed with, as if with a favourite uncle.

There was nothing avuncular about Stalin, although sycophants gave him cuddly names like “Father of the Peoples” and “Best Friend of All Children”.  Even a Marxist historian described him as “an autocrat of exceptional, some might say unique, ferocity, ruthlessness and lack of scruple*”.

Death solves all problems,” reckoned Stalin, “No man, no problem”. It took little to get yourself shot under his regime, much less to get 25 years in a labour camp. An incautious word, a malicious rumour, a family connection, a suspect nationality, a friendship with an unperson, a target not met (obviously sabotage), surviving a Nazi camp (obviously a spy), or just because someone with power took against you.

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The number killed in the purges, starved in the famines and worked to death in the labour camps has been estimated at anything between 4 and 60 million, most often between 10 and 20. But at such orders of magnitude the exact figure hardly matters. Stalin knew that well enough. “One death is a tragedy,” he said, “a million deaths is a statistic”.

In his lifetime, he was lauded as “the Greatest Genius of All Times and Peoples,” but Khrushchev denounced him in 1956 and he remained an unperson – Khrushchev became one as well – until the end of the communist era. But there was always a current of affection for the old dictator. The idea of being ruled by a silnaya ruka – iron hand – is deeply embedded in Russian history; and the industrialisation, under Stalin, of what had been a hopelessly backward agrarian economy was truly impressive, although achieved at appalling human cost.

Stalin’s legacy is everywhere in Moscow, from the ruby glass Soviet stars on the Kremlin’s towers, through the famously extravagant Metro stations, the yet more extravagant All-Russia Exhibition Centre in the suburbs, to the skyscrapers known as the Seven Sisters, blending Modernism, Baroque and Gothic in the Stalin Empire Style, and the Four Seasons Hotel with its asymmetrical front, because the Greatest Genius of All Times and Peoples approved both of the designs he was asked to choose from and the architect dared not tell him he had goofed.

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The vanity projects siphoned funds away from public housing, and as the ‘Palaces for the People’ were going up, the people themselves were crammed into communal flats.

“The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again; and already it is was impossible to say which was which.” **

Stalin’s reputation, paradoxically, began to improve when the Soviet Union collapsed. Less than half of Russians surveyed in 2001 had a negative impression of him. By 2006, it was only 29%; some 47% had a positive impression, and 35% said they would vote for Stalin if he were alive and standing for election today. In 2008, he came third in a poll to find the Greatest Russian in History.

This all might seem incredible, looking from the outside, but patriotic nostalgia, anywhere in the world, often does.

Statues and billboards of Stalin have begun to reappear in the past decade, for the first time since the Khrushchev years. Government-approved schoolbooks put a positive spin on his actions. President Putin has responded to questions about him with classic whataboutery. Yes the Great Terror was bad, he acknowledged, but not as bad as Hiroshima or Vietnam. “What’s the real difference between Cromwell and Stalin?” he asked rhetorically, and answered himself, “None whatsoever”. 

It might seem  counter-intuitive for a leader from the authoritarian-nationalist right to defend one of the revolutionary left. But Stalin, in turn, admired Tsar Ivan the Terrible. A silnaya ruka transcends ideology.

© Richard Senior 2015

*Eric Hobsbawm, Age of Extremes

**George Orwell, 1984

When the ‘Hotel’ Was…Something Else

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There was no sign for the hotel on the frontage, just a flashing neon sign which read “24 Hr Spa”. In case that was too subtle, a smaller sign read “men only” and – lest anyone still not get it – pulsating red lights traced the outline of the silhouette of a woman on the door.

I looked again at the email from the booking site, thinking that I had made a mistake, but the street number was right. I looked again at the frontage and this time spotted the word ‘hotel’ – отель – on one of the top-storey windows.

I was stopped at the door by a thick-set, close-cropped man who growled something in threatening Russian.

“Err…hotel?”

“Ugh. Hotel on fourth floor.”

It was an old, tall St Petersburg town house with a stone staircase which spiralled up the middle of the building and originally led off to apartments. On the landing of the second floor, there was a life-size cardboard cut-out of a smiling girl holding a sign which offered massages to men on the fourth floor. The fourth? On the third, there was more flashing neon, an arrow and the words “erotic massages for men” in English then Russian then English again. On the fourth, the signs pointed right to a spa and left to a hotel.

I turned left with misgivings, because the name was different from the one I booked and because I have never seen a hotel with a row of girls sitting in a corridor instead of a reception desk. But it was the wrong place anyway. They sent me across the landing to the spa, where there was a girl behind a bit of a desk in a bit of a dress and heels so high she probably had to have lessons in them.

Reach-ad?” she said.

Richard, yeah.”

A girl slinked down the stairs and loitered there until the ‘receptionist’ sent her away.

This is the hotel?”

“Da,” she said, as if it had not been a stupid question. “This is hotel. I show you room. ”

I followed as she clattered down the corridor past empty rooms with open doors and little inside except king-sized beds. There was one of those in my room, and a table, a kettle, an en suite and air con which, all in all, is a lot more than I am used to these days. Did it really matter, I reflected, if it was a knocking shop on the side, or perhaps more to the point a knocking shop which was a hotel on the side? In any case there was not a lot I could do about it now, except waste money on another hotel and waste time looking for it. So long as the extras were not compulsory.

The location was good, the room was comfortable; and the doorbell chimed throughout the night and the girls walked on the wooden floors in their heels and doors opened and shut and there was noisy braggadocio, hiding nerves, from the clients in reception, but earplugs shut all that out.

Then, on the last night, I was woken at five by hammering at my door and opened it to a burly drunk in late middle age and a vest. I guessed he had got the wrong room, but I slammed the door in his face and locked it again before he could state his business.

And people imagine travel to be glamorous.

© Richard Senior 2015

Image: Massimo Catarinella (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons