In 2006, I was in Moscow for the very first annual conference of the World Editors’ Forum to be held in the former Soviet Union. My Microsoft colleague Mike Cooper and I had been invited to speak.
I really liked Moscow. But get ready for “culture shock”, if it’s your first visit.
It began at Domodedovo, one of Moscow’s two airports. After an overnight flight from Seattle to London, a four-hour layover in the Business Class lounge and a second flight to Moscow, I stumbled off the plane and through immigration.
Stepping out of the arrivals gate into the main terminal, my main thoughts were: “Get some Russian money”. “Get a taxi.” “Get to the hotel”. “Get some sleep”. Before I’d even left arrivals, I was mobbed by a bunch of guys who all looked like extras from a Hollywood movie about the Russian Mafiya (shaved head, three-day stubble, everyone dressed in black leather jackets…) and all shouting “Taxi?” “Taxi?”.
Hmmm – better not get a taxi until I can pay for it. Ah, there’s a sign I recognize – ATM. Brushing my way through the faux Mafiya, I plunk my case down in front of the machine, take out my Visa card, swipe it. “Enter Amount”. 350. “Dollars or roubles?” I’m sure I asked for $350 worth of roubles. What I got was a stack of roubles that would choke a horse. I later calculated it was worth about $1200 – way beyond my normal ATM limit for withdrawals. Quick – hide it from the taxi Mafiya!
OK. Now I can get a cab (Actually, now I can probably buy a cab…). Where’s the rank? I don’t want to use one of these casual airport guys if I can help it; I’d like an “official” taxi. If it was yellow, that would be reassuring.
There is no taxi rank at Domodedovo, as far as I can see – at least, there wasn’t when I was there. You follow the signs for Ground Transportation – thanking God for icons instead of text – and arrive outside the terminal. And you end up in an alley, made up of two high wooden walls, and – oh no! – lined from end to end with more Mafiya…
Speaking of icons, they’re a lifesaver when you’re in Russia. I can speak English, and studied French for five years. I can usually manage to work out what a sign means in any of the Latin-based languages, and find my way around. But it doesn’t work with Russian.
The fact I couldn’t understand the language, though, didn’t stop me from building two Russian screen fonts while I worked at Aldus, so we could have self-running products demos in the language. In gratitude, the Eastern European sales director brought me back a beautiful present from the Moscow Book Fair: The Life of Aldus Manutius – in Russian. It’s still one of my treasures…
Speaking of icons, they don’t always work. Imagine you’re a kilt-wearing Scotsman. Which restroom door do you pick?
Back at the airport, I give up and accept reality. There are no yellow cabs to be seen. So I brush past a couple of the heavier-looking guys and try to find one who’s smiling. “Taxi?” he says. “President’s Hotel”, say I. “OK, we go”.
Now this guy’s about nine feet tall and four feet wide at the shoulders. Grabs my wheeled carry-on bag and sets off at a fair clip. Better keep up. We race across one car park. Second car park. Third – ahhh! He throws my bag into the back of – you’ve guessed it – a Lada, and we’re off.
Turns out almost everyone in Moscow with a car moonlights as a cab driver. We drive for about 20 miles, first of all through birch forests, then past interminable rows of tired-looking apartment blocks. Every hundred yards or so, there’s a group of (mostly) men, gathered together. I see the bottles of beer and vodka. Ah – Glasgow on a Friday night, but without the pubs…
Moscow’s a city of contrasts; sitting in traffic with an ancient truck belching diesel fumes on one side, and a brand-new $350,000 Bentley limousine on the other…
Turns out the World Association of Newspapers has been very kind in its choice of hotel for speakers. The “President’s Hotel” is exactly that; it’s where Presidents stay when they visit Moscow…
Security’s so tight, the taxi driver can’t drop me at the lobby. There’s a barrier across the gate, with two armed policemen on duty. You show your passport and are admitted through a security turnstile. (That was to lead to another fun incident later).
I check in, and go up to my room. Except it’s not a room, it’s a suite, on one of the top floors, with the most staggering view of Moscow and the Moskva River. Right opposite my window – at about the same height – is the huge memorial to Peter The Great. Wow! Gilded onion-shaped domes glitter in the distance. We’re not in Kansas any more, Dorothy! Took me two days to discover that the door I thought led to a closet was in fact a second, guest lavatory…
Next afternoon I have to go to the Kremlin for the opening ceremony of the conference. Then-President Vladimir Putin is giving the keynote speech. (During that same visit I get to meet Mikail Gorbachev. It’s been a long and interesting journey from the East end of Glasgow…).
I call up the cab company recommended in the conference notes. A cab will be at my hotel at 5pm.
As usual, I’m waiting outside the lobby ten minutes early. Takes me a few minutes to realize there’s absolutely no motor traffic going past, none of the normal to-ing and fro-ing you’d expect at a big hotel.
Oh, oh! Cabs aren’t allowed past the security barrier… So I walk out into the street. Sure enough, there’s a cab waiting. It’s even from the company I’d called. But it’s not my ride. In (very) broken English, the driver agrees to call the company; my car will be along in five minutes.
So I wait on the sidewalk, growing more and more anxious by the minute. I should mention, at this point, that I’m wearing a Scottish kilt – my standard business suit – and might as well have a sign around my neck saying: “Please Mug or Kidnap Me – I’m from Out of Town”.
About fifteen minutes later, one of the armed cops walks over and says – in great English – “What are you waiting for?” I explain I have to get to the Kremlin in under an hour. “I will get you a car,” he says.
He steps out into the street, holds up his hand and stops the first car he sees, opens the door and tells the driver: “Take this man to the Kremlin!”. To me, the cop says, “You give him 200 roubles.”
The driver, of course, looks like yet another Mafiya extra. Speaks not a word of English. And he clearly doesn’t know his way around the Moscow traffic system. We get lost. Three times he stops and asks policemen for directions.
He must have been panicked. I mean, you’re driving peacefully along the road, when you’re flagged down by an armed policeman, and told to to take a strangely-dressed man to the Kremlin – he was probably terrified by the thought that if he failed this mission, it was the Gulag, for sure…
Eventually we get to the huge line of security turnstiles guarding the entrance to the Kremlin. I find my way to the hall where the opening ceremony’s to take place. There are hundreds of people milling around.
I can’t see anyone I know (no real surprise). There’s an Indian couple – he in business suit, she in sari. I’ll talk to them, I thought. They’ll speak English for sure, and I always get along really well with Indian people.
Turns out there are hundreds of press photographers milling around, too…
A guy in a Scottish kilt, talking to an Indian lady in a sari? Talk about “The picture that says International Conference”. Suddenly, we’re the center of attention. Flashes start to go off all around.
Next morning, in the hall between conference sessions, I’m hailed by a booming Russian voice. “It’s you! You’re famous! You’re in all the Russian papers and on TV today!” “You’re like a porn star!”. “Can I get your business card?”
I think it was the knees. In my whole time in Moscow, mine were the only male knees I ever saw. I’m a Scot. I was born with a license to bare my knees whenever and wherever I want – that’s why God gave Scotsmen hairy legs.
The guy turned out to be the editor of a Russian news bureau. I waited months for the call to star in a Russian porn movie. But it never happened…
Mike Cooper and I managed to walk around Moscow a little. The Kremlin. Red Square. St. Basil’s Cathedral. The Moskva River. Amazing! And that’s when I met Boris.
Walking along by the Moskva River, I realized I was being followed – either by a stray dog, or a KGB agent with a great disguise. He must have followed me for about three miles, stopping every time I did. Turns out there are quite a number of dogs living on the streets in Moscow – sleeping under cars, that sort of thing.
I’ve never been attracted to Communism. However, as a Brit you have to be forever grateful for the huge sacrifices the Russian people made in World War II. Without them, it’s pretty likely Hitler would not have been stopped, and Britain would not have survived until the USA entered the war.
My father did his part to help Russia in wartime. He was a seaman, manning a “Hedgehog” depth-charge mortar on one of the Royal Navy’s anti-submarine destroyers, escorting convoys carrying fuel and ammunition to Murmansk – the dreaded Russian Convoy duty, so well captured in Alistair MacLean’s novel, “HMS Ulysses”, one of my Recommended Books on this blog.