'Once the cheap and nasty skis were on, things got better'

Intourist is an interesting organisation. Today, it does what it can to entice people to Russia, though with limited support from the government and the industry. But for much of the life of the Soviet Union, it was one of the most important components of state socialism. The organisation's role was to import millions of tourists.

By using the state airline - Aeroflot - and state-controlled ground arrangements, a holiday whose cost was negligible in near-worthless roubles could earn several hundred pounds of hard currency and help keep the whole ludicrous Marxist-Leninist show on track.

The standard holiday was a two-centre visit encompassing Moscow and Leningrad (now St Petersburg). But the 1986 Intourist winter brochure included cross-country skiing, based at the gorgeous town of Suzdal, north-east of Moscow. For barely more than the price of the city combo, Intourist would throw in a bus to the Golden Ring area, accommodation adjacent to a glittering monastery, all meals and ski hire.

At check-in at Gatwick for the Aeroflot flight aboard a terrible old Tupelov, it became clear that the total number of people who had signed up for the trip was four. And, what's more, we were all pals: when I saw the trip in the brochure, I called all my friends and implored them to go. My three fellow-travellers were the trio who had agreed.

Like Communist ideology, Intourist's arrangements were dogmatic and inflexible. Even though we could comfortably have fitted in a Volga saloon, a 50-seater coach - complete with two drivers and two official guides - was waiting. We reached Suzdal in darkness, and were ushered into a chalet that was evidently based on some distorted notion of Alpine bliss. But next morning, just outside the "compleks", the dazzle of immaculate architecture shone through. Suzdal is part of the "Golden Ring" of historic towns, which communism had not quite got around to recycling. With a fresh carpet of snow, the effect was eeriely spiritual - in a land where religion, like opium, was frowned upon.

Once the cheap-and-nasty skis were on, things got even better. I knew that Siberia lay many hundreds of miles away on the far side of the Ural mountains, but this wide open landscape would do for now (see pages 4-7 of the main section for the real thing). As I slid silently through a land of oppression, I felt wonderfully liberated by the sense of space.

The evenings, too, were great fun. Gorbachev's crusade against the grape had not yet kicked in, so a tolerable "Champagne" was freely available. And unlike the malevolent meals served up in Moscow and Leningrad, the dishes in Suzdal gave the distinct impression that they had been prepared by a chef who took pride in creating the tastiest dishes that supplies would allow.

So seductive was the snow that on our final day, we carried out an insurrection. The schedule insisted that we drive to a nearby town and a "historic tour"; after the excursion to Moscow, we realised that meant five parts propaganda to one part interest. The guides were aghast at our rebellion, but gave in. In the end the drivers spent the afternoon with a bunch of Czechs who had moved into the next door chalet.

The pleasure and depth of sleep after cross-country skiing are pronounced. But at four in the morning, our slumbers were interrupted by alarms, shouting and sirens. In their reverie, somehow the Czechs had set fire to their chalet. Everyone got out alive, and within three years most people would get out of communism alive, too.