THE INDEPENDENT TRAVELLER: Ten Years After

MOSCOW ON NEW YEAR'S EVE 1989

THERE ARE some smells you remember all your life. One of them is that of the stairwell in a Soviet block of flats. It recalls rotten bones and meat boiled up for dog food, with a dash of disinfectant.

Within minutes of experiencing this smell, I was admiring the exquisite icons in an alcove of my Russian friends' flat. "Are they very old?" I asked. "Certainly," said Mikhail. Some were simple painted wood; others had elaborate silver frames.

On New Year's Eve 1989, Mikhail and Anna had much to do. Anna, her son and her mother waved me out of the kitchen. So I accompanied Mikhail on his errands, driving through the sepia-and-white landscape of the suburbs in a battered Zhiguli. First, we delivered a car battery to a friend. Money changed hands, along with complicated instructions. Next we went to the cemetery to put flowers on the grave of Mikhail's first wife. Each tomb had a little iron fence around it, and photographs of the dead, mounted in glass, stared sombrely from the headstones. Next to the grave of Mikhail's wife was a tomb featuring a formidable man in uniform. "Her father. A big cheese in the KGB," explained Mikhail.

It's difficult to describe the frisson that this gave me. All my childhood, the hammer and sickle had been imbued with dread. Seeing them gaily displayed as symbols of patriotic pride was another shock; and when I saw a vast, many-storied building - a ministry - with windows selectively lit to display the huge figures "1990" I saw this, too, as typical of a rigid, authoritarian regime.

On our way home, we passed Red Square. I caught a glimpse of St Basil's Cathedral, and huge, bright-red glass stars on the Kremlin. "Oh! Please, can we have a look?" I begged. The square was deep in snow, and the people walking across it came in sets. There were families from the Far East, in Mongol robes; high-cheekboned Tatars; Scandinavian-looking folk in knitted ski-caps; plump, pretty Renoir women in fur hats; men with terrifyingly heavy eyebrows. Cheap travel, I realised, had enabled them all to travel thousands of miles to the capital.

Our next stop was to deliver a video - Mikhail works in TV. The family welcomed us in, gave us snacks and showed off their freely flying budgerigar - it squawked "Hello, comrades!" every few seconds.

When we got home, we found a door had been taken off its hinges and on it hors-d'oeuvres were laid out: tinned sprats, smoked salmon, sausage, Russian salad, grated carrot, olives, salmon caviare... I later found out that this feast was the product of many weeks of ingenuity, phone calls to friends and relatives, tedious journeys across the city.

In fact, later that week the search for even ordinary items of food began to dominate my holiday. After one fruitless trip, Anna and I met a neighbour in the street. This woman was wearing the most beautiful fur coat I've ever seen. But what caught Anna's eye was her string bag full of potatoes. After a short question-and-answer session we raced to the greengrocer's for a furious argument; then Anna vaulted over the counter and triumphantly collected potatoes from the back of the shop.

But on New Year's Eve, all was plenty. We drank vodka and Russian champagne, and later ate meat loaf in aspic, roast veal and peas. At 11.40pm we toasted all the best of the old year; at 10 to midnight, the worst of the old year. At five to, President Gorbachev appeared on TV. He told us of exciting and challenging times ahead, and asked us to remember our friends in Czechoslovakia, Bulgaria, Hungary, East Germany and Romania. The clock on the Kremlin, with snow drifting across its face, struck the hour. Everyone rose to their feet, raised glasses and shouted - such was the emotion of the moment - "Happy New Year, comrades!"

At 3.30am we rolled back the carpets and danced to a record of Bill Haley and the Comets. At 5.30am pudding was served, with cakes, tea and hot water from a samovar.

My Russian friends seemed to me already then to have endured a decade of dizzying change. The Nineties were to bring even more. On my next visit the icons had gone from the alcove, and a computer stood in their place. But the stairwell smelt just the same.

Arts and Entertainment
Banksy's 'The Girl with the Pierced Eardrum' in Bristol
art'Girl with the Pierced Eardrum' followed hoax reports artist had been arrested and unveiled
News
peopleJust weeks after he created dress for Alamuddin-Clooney wedding
Life and Style
tech

Sales of the tablet are set to fall again, say analysts

Life and Style
A street vendor in Mexico City sells Dorilocos, which are topped with carrot, jimaca, cucumber, peanuts, pork rinds, spices and hot sauce
food + drink

Trend which requires crisps, a fork and a strong stomach is sweeping Mexico's streets

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebooksA superb mix of recipes serving up the freshest of local produce in a delicious range of styles
Life and Style
ebooksFrom the lifespan of a slug to the distance to the Sun: answers to 500 questions from readers
Arts and Entertainment
George Lucas poses with a group of Star Wars-inspired Disney characters at Disney's Hollywood Studios in 2010
films

George Lucas criticises the major Hollywood film studios

Sport
football West Brom vs Man Utd match report: Blind grabs point, but away form a problem for Van Gaal
Arts and Entertainment
Bloom Time: Mira Sorvino
tvMira Sorvino on leaving movie roles for 'The Intruders'
Arts and Entertainment
Gotham is coming to UK shores this autumn
tvGotham, episode 2, review
News
i100
Sport
Adel Taraabt in action for QPR against West Ham earlier this month
footballQPR boss says midfielder is 'not fit to play football'
News
First woman: Valentina Tereshkova
peopleNASA guinea pig Kate Greene thinks it might fly
Voices
Chris Grayling, Justice Secretary: 'There are pressures which we are facing but there is not a crisis'
voices

Does Chris Grayling realise what a vague concept he is dealing with?

Life and Style
The charity Sands reports that 11 babies are stillborn everyday in the UK
lifeEleven babies are stillborn every day in the UK, yet no one speaks about this silent tragedy
News
Blackpool is expected to become one of the first places to introduce the Government’s controversial new Public Space Protection Orders (PSPOs)
news

Parties threaten resort's image as a family destination

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Year 2 Primary Teacher in Bradford

    £90 - £150 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: A full time Year 2 Primary Teach...

    Early Years Higher Level Teaching Assistant in Bradford

    £65 - £75 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: A full time Higher Level Teaching...

    Reception Teacher in Bradford

    £90 - £150 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Reception Primary Teacher in Bra...

    English Secondary Teacher

    £110 - £140 per day: Randstad Education Cambridge: English Teacher needed for ...

    Day In a Page

    Two super-sized ships have cruised into British waters, but how big can these behemoths get?

    Super-sized ships: How big can they get?

    Two of the largest vessels in the world cruised into UK waters last week
    British doctors on brink of 'cure' for paralysis with spinal cord treatment

    British doctors on brink of cure for paralysis

    Sufferers can now be offered the possibility of cure thanks to a revolutionary implant of regenerative cells
    Ranked seventh in world’s best tourist cities - not London, or Edinburgh, but Salisbury

    Salisbury ranked seventh in world’s best tourist cities

    The city is home to one of the four surviving copies of the Magna Carta, along with the world’s oldest mechanical clock
    Let's talk about loss

    We need to talk about loss

    Secrecy and silence surround stillbirth
    Will there be an all-female mission to Mars?

    Will there be an all-female mission to Mars?

    Women may be better suited to space travel than men are
    Oscar Pistorius sentencing: The athlete's wealth and notoriety have provoked a long overdue debate on South African prisons

    'They poured water on, then electrified me...'

    If Oscar Pistorius is sent to jail, his experience will not be that of other inmates
    James Wharton: The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

    The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

    Life after the Army has brought new battles for the LGBT activist James Wharton
    Ebola in the US: Panic over the virus threatens to infect President Obama's midterms

    Panic over Ebola threatens to infect the midterms

    Just one person has died, yet November's elections may be affected by what Republicans call 'Obama's Katrina', says Rupert Cornwell
    Premier League coaches join the RSC to swap the tricks of their trades

    Darling, you were fabulous! But offside...

    Premier League coaches are joining the RSC to learn acting skills, and in turn they will teach its actors to play football. Nick Clark finds out why
    How to dress with authority: Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear

    How to dress with authority

    Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear
    New book on Joy Division's Ian Curtis sheds new light on the life of the late singer

    New book on Ian Curtis sheds fresh light on the life of the late singer

    'Joy Division were making art... Ian was for real' says author Jon Savage
    Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

    Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

    The Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Barbra Streisand is his true inspiration
    Tim Minchin, interview: The musician, comedian and world's favourite ginger is on scorching form

    Tim Minchin interview

    For a no-holds-barred comedian who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, he is surprisingly gentle in person
    Boris Johnson's boozing won't win the puritan vote

    Boris's boozing won't win the puritan vote

    Many of us Brits still disapprove of conspicuous consumption – it's the way we were raised, says DJ Taylor
    Ash frontman Tim Wheeler reveals how he came to terms with his father's dementia

    Tim Wheeler: Alzheimer's, memories and my dad

    Wheeler's dad suffered from Alzheimer's for three years. When he died, there was only one way the Ash frontman knew how to respond: with a heartfelt solo album