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.

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