For Ikea without the riots, go to Moscow

Russians are dab hands at building palaces but they're not great at putting together tables and chairs
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The Independent Online

'Gosh how exciting," said my friend Barbara enviously. "So what did you do in Moscow?" I went to Ikea, I said. I'm afraid it's true. To be fair this was never intended to be a cultural visit. My hosts, who have just moved there from Azerbaijan, wanted me to see their wonderful new flat, which turned out to be totally unfurnished, and while they waited for their domestic chattels to be dispatched from Baku, they had to buy a few basics, bed, frying pan, coat hangers etc, to tide them over.

Baku to Moscow is around 1,200 miles, roughly the same distance as Aylesbury to Athens but whereas your Pickfords removal truck can breeze down the A41 and eventually after a lot of terrible trans-continental motorway meals wind up on the Epidoris bypass, driving through the Caucasus is slightly more dangerous. Dodgy motorway meals is not at the top of your list of worries when you're going through Chechnya.

I arrived in Moscow just as President Putin was leaving for a dressing down on democracy from President Bush in Bratislava. I had a mild dressing down myself for failing to remove my boots the minute I stepped through the front door of the Moscow flat. Russians, like old-fashioned boarding school pupils, always change from outdoor to indoor shoes. The shock of swapping the minus-20 centigrade temperature of the street to plus-35 centigrade of the flat must have befuddled my brain. You can criticise a lot of things in Russia but the efficiency of their central heating isn't one of them.

I'm not used to hot house living. There are so many draughts in our ancient rented flat in London that when the wind is coming directly from the east as it has been all this month, I have to keep my scarf and overcoat on when I'm cooking. If I could plug the gaps between the rattling window frames and the wall that allows an icy current to whistle through the space between the top of the washing machine and the bottom of the work surface, then I would but I can't. It would mean detaching the work top from the wall and the brickwork of the wall is so ancient and crumbling the roof of the whole block would probably come tumbling round our ears.

The flat in Moscow was also old but it's so well insulated that I had to fling open the windows in the middle of the night to get some air. Sadly, many of these old pre-revolutionary buildings are being demolished in favour of cheap hideous new blocks compared to which the neo-brutalism of Stalinist architecture seems gracious.

After breakfast I told my hostess that I would like to buy her a present for her new flat. Maybe we'd go to the Moscow equivalent of the Portobello Road and browse round a few junk shops. There weren't any, she said. Well, antique shops then. There weren't any of those either. Russians are dab hands at building incredibly ornate palaces and cathedrals and writing novels and composing symphonies but they're not great at putting together tables and chairs like Messrs Chippendale and Hepplewhite. All the furniture in grand aristocratic houses before the revolution would have come from France and when the owners of those houses fled, the Bolsheviks would have used the contents as firewood.

So we took the Metro to the last stop and then a taxi and spent a thoroughly satisfying morning at the Moscow Ikea.

If I seem overly excited about this humdrum shopping trip, it's because I'm not allowed to go to Ikea at home. It's one of the two places my husband has vowed he will never set foot in again, the other being Stansted Airport. But Ikea and Ryanair are the linchpins of our lives, I wailed. My life maybe, he corrected, but not his. He would rather pay full fare to British Airways and 10 times as much for a bookshelf locally, than fight his way through the crowds in Ikea or Stansted ever again.

The Moscow Ikea was deserted. That was the only difference apart from more bins stacked with slippers than you'd find in Brent Cross. If they'd had fancy ones with Rasputin on the toes, I might have bought some.

The pollution in Moscow is legendary but covered with snow it's magical. In the afternoons, we walked in Patriarshiye Prudy, the park where Bulgakov's Master and Margarita strolled. The pond was full of children skating, as sure-footed as the old babushkas bundled up like parcels carrying their shopping home along treacherously icy pavements.

Back in London, the radio was advising commuters to brave the snow only if their journeys were really necessary. What wimps we are.