Snapshots of Russia: Yekaterinburg
For a while now, you have accompanied me on a monthly visit to some of the towns and cities I worked in during my time in Russia. We’ve been to Moscow, St Petersburg, Kostroma, Kursk, Vladivostok and Chelyabinsk. Today, we’re off to Yekaterinburg, but instead of giving you the usual tourist’s chat, I thought I would share with you something I wrote years ago. Rereading it, I think it sums up well the conflicted feelings I had throughout my years of working in this unique part of the world.
“I am back in Yekaterinburg and this is possibly my last trip to Russia as my visa runs out next month and I haven’t bothered to get it renewed. It’s such a hassle getting the invitation from the Russians (and expensive at nearly $200), then getting the HIV/Aids certificate — which may or may not be needed, depending on this month’s rules, then getting everything to the agent in London. Typing that, it sounds like an excuse. I really don’t want to travel any more, which is why I haven’t done anything about the visa yet.
Whenever I come to Russia I have a really good time in many ways. The people are incredibly generous; they buy me presents, take me to the ballet, concerts, fancy restaurants, and the sauna — even, on one occasion paying me a large bonus as they thought my work was worth more than I had charged them. On the other hand, even after so many years, the food is still unfamiliar to me and I panic when mealtimes approach. Will there be egg in the salad, tomatoes everywhere, mashed potato swimming in oil and dill on everything?
Today’s been such a strange day, starting with an absence of cold water this morning. I’ve stayed in many hotels in Russia where there was no hot water — and got used to washing my hair under an icy flow. Never have I been in the position where there was scalding hot water available from the shower and the sink but nothing else. Apparently, it was not just the hotel, it was the whole region and made the UK’s problems with over-running engineering works on the railways seem minor. Cold water came back at eight o’clock, just in time for a quick wash and brush-up before the eighty kilometre drive to the client’s site.
Once there, I discovered the factory I have travelled so far to audit is not yet open, nor are there any products registered and very little validation has been done. So how am I supposed to decide whether it complies to Good Manufacturing Practice or not? Apparently, the clients are OK with the idea that I send them a list of things to do in order to reach compliance. Presumably, at some point, I will get a note to say ‘done it all – are we now compliant?’
I was taken to a wonderful concert tonight in the Philharmonic Hall, the orchestra’s last performance of the season. The first part consisted of classic overtures and suites — Bach, Mozart, Rossini, Bizet and Tchaikovsky. We sat at small tables with wine, water and chocolates (three of the four Russian staples), very close to the stage, with the lights on, sharing the experience with the musicians. Every expression was visible. The first violinist smiled a lot, obviously enjoying her music. The conductor didn’t smile once until someone brought him some flowers, which he promptly handed to one of the women in the orchestra, but not the first violinist, who got nothing but her enjoyment.
The second half was billed as music from the movies — but not familiar names like John Williams. These were Soviet composers and Soviet films. Very like classical music, but more evocative, it was easy to pick out the chase in the silent movie; the cold war spy thriller; the circus story. An elderly couple in the audience danced through most of the pieces. At one point, there were more musicians’ eyes following them than watching the conductor. I left the building with a huge smile on my face and strolled in the warm night air down the flower-lined boulevard with my friends. Now I remember why I love coming to Russia. Those moments of serendipity make all the difficult bits worthwhile. Time to get the visa renewed, I think.”
I worked in Russia on and off from 1993 to 2008. There were very difficult moments, but also wonderful ones; and I made some great friends. My debut novel, Gorgito’s Ice Rink, was set in a fictional town based on Kostroma. This month I publish my fourth novel, Corruption!, and am returning to Russia as much of the action takes place in St Petersburg and around Kursk.