Russia may not offer that insane Soviet existence for the visitor, but it is still tourism through a glass darkly

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The Independent Travel

I'm just back from Moscow, where the citizens of Russia were wrapping themselves up last weekend against one more blast of winter. What? Snow and arctic winds with 18-hour daylight and the trees already in full leaf? Luckily I remembered that the haunting of foreigners was always a speciality of this city.

I'm just back from Moscow, where the citizens of Russia were wrapping themselves up last weekend against one more blast of winter. What? Snow and arctic winds with 18-hour daylight and the trees already in full leaf? Luckily I remembered that the haunting of foreigners was always a speciality of this city.

Sombre music, the threat of mutual annihilation, blonde chess geniuses and the frozen face of Leonid Brezhnev: the Soviet Union struck me as an excellent place for tourism, even when I was a child.

Tourism has always been possible in Russia, even at the height of the Cold War, but a holiday in Moscow as long ago as the 1970s was never too likely where my own family was concerned. They were insufficiently left- wing, they did not have beards, they were not chess boffins; they preferred the Dordogne to the Don and bordeaux to borshch.

But what a drag not to have been allowed to see (for example) the Lubyanka, the massive granite home of the KGB, while it still inspired fear! Had I made it to Moscow back then, I would gladly have trodden through snow in search of spy-issue shoe-prints, and made secret assignations beneath the statue of Felix Dzerzhinsky. Later I might have stalked Kim Philby and Donald Maclean. I would surely have hidden in palatial underground train stations, squatting in niches while booted men in long coats walked past carrying pistols. I would possibly even have dropped secret notes at the feet of blonde women with furry collars and cuffs, impersonated the soldiers guarding Lenin's mausoleum, obtained entry to the Kremlin using false papers, formed a liaison with a ballerina, attended a performance at the Bolshoi Theatre and spotted a dead man, through my eye-glasses, sitting upright in a polo-neck sweater with a plutonium pellet in his leg.

Had we known that the Soviet Union would cease to exist in 1991, would we not have made more effort to get there while it still existed in all its insane magnificence? I managed to sneak in a couple of visits - as a grown-up - shortly before the end, but by then Gorbachev had already started his thaw and the sinister monolith was no more.

As for today's Moscow, it is of course located in a different country altogether. There are posh shopping malls next to the Kremlin. Dzerzhinsky's statue has gone; the KGB has changed its name and now offers group visits to tourists to raise money. Only at night, on the wet cobbles of an empty Red Square, with a Siberian wind whipping your face, and an old man trying to sell you his stamp collection, do you get a half-glimpse of the ghost of a country that died long ago.

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