My Fabulous Broke Trip To Russia

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It has taken me way too long to write this – hate it when life gets in the way! Warning: this is long.

Russia is a cruel country. I don’t mean that in the sense that you’ll get mugged the moment you step outside (although, like all big cities, it’s possible depending on where you live and if you look like a dumb tourist) but that it’s very sink or swim; nobody is going to hold your hand and tell you everything is going to be ok. I like that; I like the fact that being brought up in that environment teaches you to fend for yourself and to network like a motherfucker (nepotism is alive and kicking). At the same time I’ve lived in the UK for so long that having to constantly manoeuvre my way round complicated social scenarios – because nothing is done by the book – is exhausting.

I had mixed feelings going back to Moscow for the first time in two years. I’d missed the Soviet architecture and everyone smoking and roasted sunflower seeds and pickled herring. But recent news reports made me think it was going to be North Korea with a familiar alphabet. Plus there was my babushka (grandmother), who seemed to have gone senile in the last couple of years.

I flew with Easyjet for a ridiculously low price – I can’t remember the exact amount but it was under £100 not including baggage fees – from Gatwick to Moscow Domodedovo. I prefer Heathrow but would’ve been looking at prices of £250+ if I went with BA or Aeroflot (who fly from there). Easyjet are my homies now.

Did you know: UK and Russia have an agreement where only 2 Russian airlines (Aeroflot and Transaero) and 2 British airlines (British Airways and Easyjet) are allowed to fly between London and Moscow. Until recently the British airlines were BA and BMI but then BA bought out BMI and a ‘slot’ opened up on the British side. Virgin were the main other bidder for the route.

There’s a Domodedovo Express station 30 seconds away from the airport. Tickets are 400 roubles if you buy them on the day (slightly cheaper if you do it online in advance), which is about £7. The journey time to Paveletsky Rail Terminal is about 45 minutes and there’s a Metro station on that end.

Paveletsky Rail Terminal

Paveletsky Rail Terminal

Tip: If you don’t fancy lugging suitcases around public transport, make sure you pre-book a taxi in advance. Do not under any circumstances get a taxi from one of the drivers who approach you at the airport, they will rip you off ESPECIALLY if you’re a foreigner.

Polina met me at Paveletsky. She’s my main Russian bitch; our grandparents own dachas next to each other so we’ve been friends since we were about three years old. We went from fucking around in a sandpit to fucking around in Moscow bars. She and her husband Andrei had a baby six months ago and I was dying to see them.

Love her!

Love her!

We drove to Zelenograd, which I’m sure I’ve written about before but here’s a short summary: ‘technically Moscow’, built to imitate Silicon Valley, a closed city at one point and now a sort of commuter suburb. The ‘technically Moscow’ part is important and here’s why:

Russians have two passports; an internal one and one that they use for travelling. The internal one contains details like their marital status (if you get married, it gets stamped), any children and residential propiska, or registration. I’m not sure what the status of registration is now but it used to be compulsory to be registered at your place of residence, and people who were living in Moscow got better social and health benefits (qualified for more free medication etc) than those with non-Moscow registration. So when Zelenograd was being built, it was given Moscow status to attract new residents even though it’s actually 23 miles away from Moscow proper. In contrast, a city called Khimki which is directly adjacent to the city of Moscow only has ‘Moscow region’ status. Which isn’t the same thing at all; it’s like City of London vs somewhere like Bromley.

The view out of our apartment in Zelenograd

The view out of our apartment in Zelenograd

There isn’t much to do in Zelenograd but there is a great shopping centre called Iridium (Street View link) that not only has a Body shop and a Burger King which serves beer, but also a cafe called Shokoladnitsa which has FREE WIFI! Russia isn’t in the EU so Vodafone’s Eurotraveller sadly isn’t available and roaming costs a bomb. Luckily many places out there have free wifi that’s either an open network, or the password is written in the menu, or you can ask the staff, or check out the venue’s Foursquare reviews.

Shortly before the end of my visit I offered our next door neighbours 200 roubles (about £3) to use their wifi. They gave me the password and refused to take the money which was nice of them.

A school and a residential building across a pocket park in front of our building

A school and a residential building across a pocket park in front of our building

My babushka was determined that I go to the dacha. Coming back in October was strange; I always used to visit in the summer when the whole place was full of greenery and flowers but with the yellow leaves and wilting plants it looked like Chernobyl. The older generation uses these plots to grow their own vegetables, often on the scale of a small farm, and scorns the nouveau dachniki for converting their inherited dachas into log cabins with saunas for parties and weekend breaks. I was handed wellies and a raincoat to plant a bed of garlic in the rain but on the bright side I did see a few other babushki that I knew from when our parents shipped us off to summer with our grandparents as kids.

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The next day I ran off to Moscow proper to hang out with Polina. I saw her adorable Yorkie, Yasha, and her adorable daughter Varya, we drank wine in the evening and I slept on the biggest and most comfortable sofa on the planet.

Yasha and his bitch

Yasha and his bitch

My de facto goddaughter

My de facto goddaughter

The next day we went to Gorky Park. It used to be an amusement park but, according to Wikipedia,

In 2011 the Gorky Park underwent a major reconstruction. All amusement rides have been removed in order to transform the place into an eco-friendly recreational zone. In March, the city appointed Sergei Kapkov director of the 120-hectare, or 300-acre, Gorky Park. He canceled the entrance fee and cleared the park of outdated carnival rides and junk food stalls, while bringing back the traditional sport activities: aerobics, yoga and salsa dancing taught by educated instructors, along with creating new spaces, such as a pétanque cafe, beach volleyball courts and an open-air cinema theatre. With free Wi-fi, contemporary public art projects, design fairs and a new cafe policy, Gorky Park soon became one of the most popular places in Moscow.

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Nautilus in Gorky Park

The free wifi is fucking awesome, by the way. There are little numbered posts with solar panels, each post corresponds to a wifi name so you just connect to whichever network your phone picks up. There was also a tea pop-up which served hot kvas with ginger that tasted like a savoury mulled wine. Also: amazing.

The park itself wasn’t that brilliant. In the summer it’s full of cyclists, skaters, rollerbladers, people playing football, tennis, BMXing etc but this time it was quiet and there was a giant ice rink being built so we left pretty quickly, stopping to buy a handmade chopping board with a cat drawn on it in the subway that takes people from Gorky Park to Muzeon (otherwise known as the Fallen Monument Park).

Tea hut in Gorky Park

Tea hut in Gorky Park

We saw a tram on the way there!

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In the evening we met up with a girl called Ksenia and her boyfriend Kirill and went to a viewing deck in Moscow City, which is a commercial district (basically loads of skyscrapers) in the centre of Moscow. It cost 800 roubles (just under £20) to get in but our guide went through a short history of the complex itself and pointed out notable buildings that could be seen from the deck. The view was breathtaking.

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We drove round for a while looking for some bar/restaurant type places that were open late but it was a weeknight so we were out of luck. We ended up in a 24-hour Japanese restaurant called Yakitoriya. Later that night Kirill drove Polina and me back to hers and as we bombed down a four-lane road past the Kremlin, with the radio blaring cheesy 90’s pop, laughing at memories of drunk times in the past, I realised that I couldn’t remember the last time I had that much fun sober.

After a few more days with babushka I was back at Polina’s. The temperature dropped rapidly below zero and it was snowing by the time we went for a walk down Arbat. It’s a pedestrian street in the centre of Moscow and looks majestic as fuck with the snow coming down.

Arbat

Arbat

We ate at an Italian restaurant called Rucola which brought out huge bellinis in wine glasses and put chorizo in bruschettas, then wandered down to Hard Rock Cafe. I don’t know it’s supposed to be a legendary venue but I found it uninteresting. The wifi took ages to connect (these things are important!) and the people seemed kinda pretentious. On the bright side, the potato skins were tasty as fuck and the salad Polina ordered was gigantic.

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Arbat

Snow on Arbat

Snow on Arbat

The next day it was time to leave. Polina drove me back to Paveletsky (we decided that was easier than driving all the way to Domodedovo; last time her parents went to pick someone up, they got stuck in traffic for four hours). At the airport I saved a child whose shoelace got stuck in the escalator and helped an old woman who had never been abroad find her way to her flight, and then it was back to Gatwick, back to Kent and back to my old life.

Moscow ring road

Moscow ring road

But I felt different coming back. When I was leaving, my head was a mess for a whole amount of reasons. I felt sad and tired and confused. My comrades helped me recharge my batteries with their advice of the ‘get your shit together’ rather than ‘u ok hun’ variety. I remembered that despite all the shit that the government was doing to their people, the people were still fun and interesting and determined to swim rather than sink. I remembered that I was one of them – you don’t get this shit for nothing:

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Growing Up In The Russian Wild West

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There’s a name for people like me – I’m a ‘child of the Perestroika’, a series of economic and political reforms instated after the fall of Communism and the Soviet Union. 90’s Russia is widely known to be a time of lawlessness, widespread corruption and rapid change, but the reality for most people was probably not what you would’ve expected it to be.

For the first eight years of my life, I lived in a satellite suburb of Moscow called Zelenograd. Check the Wikipedia link if you want the full history lesson but the short version is that it was built to be a Russian version of Silicon Valley, was a closed city at one point (meaning no pesky secret-stealing foreigners were allowed in) and now loads of people move there because it’s not as insanely polluted or expensive as Moscow but has great rail links for commuting there for work.

A typical train (source)

A typical train (source)

The train station, Kryukovo, was a busy part of town. Kiosks and small shops called pavilions lined the street outside, open late for commuters (out-of-town shopping centres weren’t a thing back then) and there was a market that sold everything from clothes to fruit and vegetables. There were also babushki sitting on fold-up chairs in a row selling bunches of seasonal flowers from their dachas. There was a stall selling draught kvas, a traditional Russian savoury version of Coca Cola, a big vat of it with a tap on the side and a bored overweight woman sitting under a cafe umbrella. I was more interested in the stall with the huge cooler box full of ice cream for just five roubles.

We lived in a five-storey panel apartment block called a Khrushyovka, ten minutes away from the station and yes, we had carpets on the walls. The neighbours were more or less friends until someone started taking a shit in the hallway every night and the atmosphere became that of chlorine and suspicion.

There was one time when my mum was walking home from the station late at night and got followed by a man all the way to our front door but we never experienced any actual crime.

My mum was a single mother (which was unusual for that time but it wasn’t unusual to have a boyfriend who was an asshole and ran off) but that didn’t mean we were isolated. There was a strong family-oriented culture at the time and my babushka (grandmother) and dedushki (grandfathers) were around constantly, especially as my mum was working in Moscow full-time as an accountant for a US company. She later told me she effectively blagged the job and had no idea what she was doing most of the time but she seemed to do well for herself regardless.

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A corner of the Khrushyovka and babushka taking me sledging

Dedushka Sasha (Alexander), me and some Soviet-era swings

Dedushka Sasha, me and some Soviet-era swings.

We were never a rich family – we never had a car or a fancy TV. Even when my mum bought our first Sony to replace the Rubin, the programming was so shit that I preferred to pull a random book off a shelf. That was how I majorly got into crime fiction such as Rex Stout and Earl S Gardner as well as discovering Joanna Chmielewska, but also The Art of Erotic Massage and Story of O. The latter two later mysteriously disappeared until I found them hidden at the back of the tallest shelf a few years ago.

I started kindergarten fairly early; when some of the other children asked where my dad was, I told them he was dead. I never miss him – you can’t miss someone you’ve never met. The worst thing about kindergarten was the afternoon naps – we had to lug out these fold-out beds and sleep for something like 3 whole hours. I would get so bored I would take out my hairclips and play ‘dolls’ with them.

I started school at 7 because my family wanted me to go to a gymnasium, which was basically a selective primary school and took kids on a year later than standard Russian primary schools. To help prepare for exams, I was tutored by a nice woman called Anna Viktorovna at her flat. She had really curly hair and a Siamese cat. She worked for the gymnasium where I was enrolling and we had to pretend we didn’t know each other when we met in the hallways.

I had English lessons once a week after school (most memorable lesson: (female) teacher wore a crochet top with nothing underneath. NIPPLES) and violin lessons once a week during school but that wasn’t helicopter parenting by any means, it was just what people did to give their children a good education. After a while I ‘accidentally’ smashed my violin against a wall on the way home from school.

The Rubin TV set I mentioned earlier went straight to the dacha, a wooden house in the country surrounded by what I could only describe as a chaotic small-scale farm. This was the grandparents’ domain – dedushka Misha and babushka grew tomatoes, cucumbers and peppers in big greenhouses and there was also everything from gooseberries to potatoes. I’m not talking about cute grandparents-pottering-about-the-garden style gardening, it was a ‘why the fuck would you need to go to a supermarket to buy any vegetables when we have more than enough here’ type of operation. Anything that wasn’t eaten fresh was pickled and stored in the cellar.

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I spent summers and school holidays at the dacha. Most families had both parents working and there was no such thing as private childcare. Besides, the family support system was so strong that it was unthinkable for someone other than the grandparents to babysit. As a result there were about fifteen of us around every summer. My grandparents were busy during the day; babushka spent most of her time tending to the vegetation and dedushka Misha was either fixing things (he was a carpenter by trade) or, as I found out later, having a sneaky drink in the summer house at the bottom of the garden. Even though the whole concept of a house in the country and a summer house sounds posh, it was anything but; the water came from a well we shared with our neighbours, the shower was a wooden hut with a rainwater barrel on top and the toilet was another hut with a pit dug out underneath and a city of spiders living in the roof.

The other dacha residents were a tabby called Malyavka with plenty of battle scars and half of one ear missing, and a black mongrel guardswoman called Aza, same as many of our neighbours. Dacha cats had very different lives to city cats; they ate scraps and whatever rodent they caught. The dogs lived outside in kennels apart from in the winter, and there was a Mexican wave of barking at night when a tipsy dedushka shuffled past on his way home from an evening at a friend’s dacha.

The lack of home comforts and adults to wrap the kids in the proverbial cotton wool meant I had a pretty fun childhood. We all learned to ride bikes at an early age and spent our days bombing down forest paths, stealing dedushkas‘ valuable planks and nails to build structurally horrific treehouses and baking potatoes in coals. Sometimes a cool older sibling was dispatched to keep us in check. Then we would ride out of the village and down the road to the dam, where we would jump into the water off a rope tied to an overhanging tree branch and miraculously not get sepsis from broken glass at the bottom.

I ended up staying in contact with one of the girls from the dacha era after I moved. She was a bridesmaid at my wedding and wants me to be godmother to her daughter.

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Sometimes someone’s parents would come down from the city and have a shashlik – a Russian version of a barbeque and similar to a shish kebab – skewers of marinated pork placed on top of a mangal, which is basically a deep metal box with holes in the bottom, filled with charcoal. Side dishes were usually potatoes and salad (homegrown of course – the dedushki and babushki would be mortally offended if their children preferred shop-bought. All the neighbours joined in and someone would bring a guitar over. The kids would be offered a glass of wine while the veterans of drinking stuck to ice-cold shots of vodka. I would fall asleep listening to the sounds of a crackling bonfire and uneven drunken singing.

My sister, when younger, with one of the post-Malyavka cats.

My sister, when younger, with one of the post-Malyavka cats. She’ll kill me if she ever sees this photo.

It’s easy to see everything through rose-tinted glasses when you look back at your life, but I still believe I had a much better childhood than my sister, who spent hers stuck to a TV screen and a computer. We were poor as hell but I was happy, healthy, didn’t place much value on material goods and learned how to make my own entertainment.

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Marquise the city cat with some flowers from the dacha. We found him cowering on the landing one day, he purred his way into the flat and never left.

Of course there’s always going to be some nostalgia when you look back at a time you didn’t have to hold down a job, worry about your credit rating or whether 0% yoghurt is a fad. The photos might be outdated and your brain might helpfully remember all the moments that make you cringe but the moment you stop feeling ashamed of where you came from is the moment you become a proper adult. Your past shaped you into who you are today and you should be proud that your family, friends and environment did such a good job to turn you into the awesome motherfucker you are today. That’s the philosophy I’m sticking with, anyway.