Your Holiday Disaster: Elizabeth Smith tried to avoid the gangsters in her Moscow hotel

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The Independent Travel
DON'T GET me wrong, Russia is a country not to be missed - full of fabulous treasures, fascinating culture and interesting people. But the service can be appalling, with limited hot showers and surly waitresses, food can be stodgy and fresh vegetables scarce. And, more perturbing than these minor difficulties, the country has an uncomfortably dark undertone.

I was waiting for the hotel lift down to breakfast with two or three strangers. The lift doors opened, my companions stepped back. I glanced in the lift - plenty of room - perhaps they were waiting for friends. Too late I realised that the lift contained two previously unseen men wearing khaki camouflage and black balaclavas, one speaking into a mobile phone. I attempted a pleasant expression and breathed carefully till we reached the ground floor. "Their" headquarters seemed to be on the fourth floor.

After breakfast, I checked the lift carefully before I got in. Definitely no camouflage. On the fourth floor a man got in: tall, thin, dark-haired, pale-skinned, with a narrow moustache and a long, very elegant, grey trench coat. In his grip was a stocky, swarthy man whom he held between the shoulder blades by his leather jacket before propelling him - thunk! - face first into the back wall of the lift. Mr Elegance looked round at the rest of us as we all tried to look non-committal and uninvolved. "I am sorry," he said in barely accented English.

Later, safely back in the foyer, I met my friends for our next excursion. Near the main entrance, about 30 men, mostly wearing brightly coloured, shiny polyester tracksuits, were lined up with both hands against the wall. There were also several in balaclavas. Our guide informed us these were "gangsters".

Watching them were my polite friend in the trench coat, a couple of men in suits and a woman with blonde hair, a short skirt and high heels. A week or so later the English-language Moscow News ran an article about mass arrests of "gangsters" in the south. As we wandered nervously to our tour bus, we saw the handcuffed prisoners being put into cars. ("Are you taking photos?" I asked my friends. "No, I'm not taking photos, are you?")

You can tell we weren't journalists. We cared more about not breaching the rules - rules that everyone else knew but we didn't. What's more, we couldn't find out, because we couldn't read the alphabet, let alone speak the language.