Snapshots of Russia: Kursk
Between 1989 and 2012, I worked in the international pharmaceutical industry (yes, the sometimes murky world in which my thrillers are set). During that time, I travelled all over the world, but gradually more and more of my time was spent in Russia and the Former Soviet Union countries. I met wonderful people, visited incredible places and built a fantastic collection of memories. This occasional series is designed to share some of those memories. Previously, we have visited Moscow and St Petersburg and last month we dropped in on Kostroma Oblast in the north western corner of Russia. That was one of the first two places I visited in Russia. Today we visit the second one, Kursk.
Kursk Oblast is around five hundred and twenty kilometres south west of Moscow, close to the Ukrainian border. It is best known as the site of the largest tank battle in history, fought in July and August 1943, as the German offensive, Operation Citadel, was countered by the Russian offensive, Operation Kutuzov. It proved to be a turning point in the Eastern Front.
Kursk was rebuilt after WWII and in some ways has the appearance of a typical Soviet city. Yet its written history stretches back to the eleventh century and archaeology suggests there has been a settlement on this site since the fifth or fourth century BCE. Today it has a population of more than 400,000 and is highly industrialised, with large chemical and food processing sectors. The Kursk Magnetic Anomaly is the site of the world largest known iron-ore reserve.
I first visited Kursk in 1993, to work on a project installing a liquids pharmaceutical plant in a company that is today one of the leaders in the Russian industry. Unlike Kostroma, which involved a five-hour road journey, my approach to Kursk was always on the overnight train from Moscow. My memories of that journey are varied and could probably make a whole new novel. They include my Anna Karenina moments, standing on icy platforms at dead of night, in long coat and fur hat (although never with the urge to throw myself under a train); frantically searching the compartment for the elusive off switch when the conductor forgot to turn the military music off at eleven o’clock (and after an experience like that, elevator music never sounds so bad again); and drinking scalding hot black tea from filigree-decorated glasses in the early morning light as we pulled into the station.
I often travelled alone and my clients usually remembered to book a whole compartment for me. But once, I found myself sharing. I spent an agonising evening trying to decide whether I was safer locking the door, as advised by the conductor, thus shutting myself in with a strange man; or leaving the door open, thus ensuring an escape route but exposing myself to the thieves who sometimes roamed the corridors.
But my lasting memory of the project comes from the day we were testing the pipework system, which required filling the 8000 litre tanks with water. Tests completed, we prepared to set off for dinner. I had forgotten something and had to slip down to the production floor to collect it. It was late in the evening, but there was a moon, so I didn’t bother switching on the lights. As I approached the glass partitions separating the corridor from the production area, I remember admiring the way the moonlight reflected on the highly-polished epoxy resin flooring. And that was the moment when the importance of non-return valves in drainage systems was brought home to us. Unable to cope with the flushing of eight tonnes of water in one go, the drains had deposited most of it all over our nice new packing hall!
Kursk is also the place where the security man at our hotel refused to let me enter, as he thought I was a prostitute picked up by one of the engineers. But that’s another story altogether; and definitely one for the new novel.
Russia is the location for my current work in progress, Corruption! which will be published in September 2018 and Kursk Oblast features in the closing scenes. But Russia is also the setting for my prize-winning novel Gorgito’s Ice Rink and the fictional town of Nikolevsky is based on Kostroma. A tale of love, loss and broken promises, it tells the story of one man through the eyes of the people whose lives he touched. You can download your copy now by clicking here.