Don’t Listen to Dead Fish
Text by Anth Ginn
Photos by Alina Ganenko and John Harrison
My wife and I first visited Moscow in 2006. We had taken the overnight train from Warsaw at the start of a trip around the world. We didn’t enjoy ourselves. We returned home, a year later, and when friends asked which were the best and which were the worst places we’d seen, Moscow always came up as one of the worst. I now know better, but looking back on that first visit, it’s not surprising we didn’t enjoy ourselves. Unlike most big European cities, Moscow isn’t interested in its tourists. And as I discovered later, if you want to get beyond Red Square, Lenin’s mausoleum and terrible soup you really need a Muscovite to show you around.
On that first morning, we stumbled out onto the street outside Belorussky Station, tired, nervous and confused. We couldn’t speak Russian, we couldn’t read Cyrillic script, we had no rubles, and we didn’t know where we were or how to get to our hotel. Our guide book told us it would be difficult to find a place to change money. And everybody in the UK knew that Moscow had become the most expensive city in the world.
We stood on the street, like lost children, wondering how we would ever find a bank to change money. Then after about half an hour my wife noticed we were surrounded by little glass booths containing old women, displaying exchange rates in bright red lights on the tops of the booths. The guide book had lied. We began to see old women in glass boxes everywhere; outside every toilet, at the bottom of each escalator, there was even one outside St. Basil’s Cathedral in Red Square.
We changed our money, found our hotel then set out to explore the city. We took the metro to Red Square. Lenin’s tomb was closed. The corpse had been sent to China for repairs and renovation. Maybe one day science will advance enough to bring him back to life. Then we can show him what happened to the revolution. My wife paid 200 rubles to a woman in a glass box, and wandered around St. Basils Cathedral. I waited outside. Red Square was empty. We were the only tourists in town. It was the middle of October. The first snow of winter began to fall. I was cold and hungry. I should have swallowed my pride and paid to go into the cathedral.
We found a place displaying a sign with a knife and fork, and an English menu on the wall. We foolishly entered. The interior was like a cheap, unsuccessful nightclub from the 1960s. We walked down a long, dark corridor into an empty, gaudy, orange room, with ‘atmospheric lighting’. The waitress didn’t speak English and wore a football shirt. We ordered tea by sign language, and I bravely pointed to octopus on the menu. By pointing to the clock and writing numbers on a scrap of paper, the waitress informed me it would take a long, long time. Better order something faster. Mushroom soup for example. Point to clock. Write down ten. Ten minutes. We order the soup. It arrives in three minutes. This was because they hadn’t bothered to heat it. It was as thick as porridge, muddy brown and almost cold. Three waitresses and a cook stood at the back of the restaurant watching us. I think they were betting whether we would send it back, throw it on the floor or eat it. Being English, we politely paid the extortionate bill and left quietly, leaving the soup for the next customers.
We found a small shop near the hotel and bought a couple of boxes of mysterious salad, a tin of fish, bread and beer. Back in our room I discovered that the tin was actually a clear plastic container. It was filled with grey water. Small fish floated around inside. It was like a small, neglected aquarium where the fish had all died. One of the fish moved forwards, looked at me through the murky water and said, “Moscow isn’t for you. Nobody is interested in tourists. Why do you think the hotels are so expensive? It’s to keep you all away. Get out of here Englishman. Piss off. Go to China where they’ll make a fuss of you.”
When I returned to London and told friends how terrible it was in Moscow, where even the tinned fish insult you, I felt guilty, as if I was bad-mouthing somebody behind their back. I knew somewhere there must be another, more friendly Moscow. But we hadn’t found it. I wanted to go back and try again. Then an old friend who had been working in Beijing returned to Moscow. He invited me for a holiday, and promised to show me another side of the city. This was my chance to give it a second try.
Anth with Natalia and Tyetya Katya
in Efanova village
Almost everyone in Moscow lives in an apartment block. People who come and visit stay with friends or relatives. Hotels are for tourists. When I stepped into the apartment for the first time, I felt I’d truly arrived. I’d finally discovered the place, where 15 million Muscovites lived.
The apartment was small. The walls were covered in original pictures, the shelves were overflowing with books and the fridge was full of good food and drink. The apartment was full of good, friendly hospitable people, all blowing the dust from their schoolbook English and seeing if it still worked.
The apartment I stayed at is on Akademicheskaya Ulitsa. The next morning I took a walk. The street, like so many around Moscow, is a broad, tree-lined avenue. Shops and kiosks form an orderly line along the pavement. They are filled with books, food, tobacco, drink, CDs and DVDs, newspapers, bread, dairy, clothes, flowers, chocolate, fruit and everything you’d expect to find in a big city. The pretty young girl in the bakers had a degree in English, and was happy to chat while I bought some bread. In the places where no English was spoken, sign language was a good substitute. I was always shown the price on a calculator and nobody tried to cheat me. And everything was cheaper than in London. I was baffled. Why does everyone say Moscow is the most expensive city in the world? It simply isn’t true. The bright spark who came up with this gem, did nothing more that compare hotel prices. His conclusion was, because Moscow hotels are the most expensive in the world, everything else must be more expensive too. How wrong he was.
We visited places that weren’t mentioned in the guide books. My friend took me to the university and we enjoyed the beautiful view of the city from up high. The balustrade overlooking the river cradled a row of souvenir stalls. The stalls had been invaded by an army of Russian dolls. They waited patiently, in rows, like children in an orphanage, for someone to provide a home for them. The sales people were friendly and not at all pushy. I’ll go back there for my souvenir presents.
Behind the balustrade, down towards the river, stood a tree, covered in bright ribbons. A large rock stood in the shade beneath it. My friend explained that the rock had been there since pre-Christian times and had sacred significance. We have sacred prehistoric stones all over Britain, so this was a familiar concept. The ribbons had been tied to the tree by people who come to visit the rock. They recognize the significance of the stone and continuing the tradition of paying respect. It was exciting to discover this link with the city’s pagan inhabitants. How could I have possibly found it without my friend?
The following evening, knowing I enjoy, and sometimes play the blues, he took me to a popular jazz club, The Bluebird, on Malaya Dmitrovka Ulitsa. Wednesday night is jam night and there’s no admission charge. Many of the country’s best blues musicians show up to play for free. The drinks are not expensive, at least half the audience are musicians and there’s a great atmosphere. The standard of music is excellent. I soon found myself on stage, blowing my heart out on the harmonica, and even though I was the worst harp player that night, I received a good reception and was invited back the next week. Muscovites are warm, friendly people.
Anth buying mushrooms at Akademichesky
I’d been in town about four days, and was finally relaxing when my friend showed me the most beautiful Moscow district of all, the dacha. It seems everybody has a dacha, or has a relative or friend with a dacha. Although the dachas are deep in the countryside, they are an extension of Moscow, where the residents escape the city and pressures of work. Russian forests are magnificent, unspoiled since the Ice Age. Such beautiful, wild countryside is a rarity in Western Europe. We don’t have anything like it in England. The place is far too crowded.
As we drove back into the city I realized that the grey fish was right. Nobody is interested in tourists in Moscow. If you spend your life savings on a few nights in a hotel, and rely on a guide book you’ll probably have a miserable time and end your holiday talking to dead fish. But if you know a Muscovite, you have the key to the kingdom, and you’ll discover what a great place it is and what wonderful people live here. Otherwise the highlight of your trip could be a visit to an empty tomb in a windswept, desolate square.