Here's to Red Square, Russia and the future

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The Independent Online
A GROUP of us was having breakfast on Sunday under the splendid green and yellow glass dome of the restaurant in the Metropol Hotel in Moscow (where Rasputin reputedly ate his last meal) and some, including me, were bemoaning our headaches - or, to abandon the euphemism, our thumping great hangovers.

We had arrived in Moscow the previous afternoon and celebrated the fact that evening at a restaurant called Slavyansky Bazar. Here we enjoyed vodka, white wine and champagne - all Russian, which was fine, but all tepid, which was not so fine. These accompanied a meal that promised three courses but delivered five or six. Ham in aspic, pirozhki, smoked fish, pickled fish, pickled cucumbers, crisp fresh cucumbers, shredded cabbage, strange but delicious yellow tomatoes, hard-boiled eggs and, of course, exotic pearls of caviar were accompanied by thick dark Russian bread and pale unsalted butter. And that was just the first course.

The second course was real chicken Kiev - honesty compels me to admit that it was not as good as the M & S version - and more wine, more champagne and more vodka. The third course . . . hang on, I know there was a third course . . . but memory blurs from there on.

Meanwhile, under the arched iron girders that soared above us and the garishly coloured Russian pictures that hung around us, on a dais at the end of this amazing circular room, a cabaret pounded relentlessly. A Russian singer in a scarlet dirndl with a backing group in different-coloured dirndls roared out their passionate and incomprehensible hopes, dreams and desires. The waitresses threaded their way between the closely packed tables bringing food and ever more food.

The noise was deafening, the enthusiasm irresistible. We all toasted one another again: the cabaret, the wedding party, the bride and groom (who had emerged from a curtained-off dining room to dance among their guests), the referendum, Boris Yeltsin, and above all, our presence here in Moscow. We were happy, we were noisy, we were there.

Next morning, moving with that strange underwater gait that befalls the afflicted, speaking softly and with heads held carefully level, we averted our eyes from a breakfast of rare splendour and whispered humble requests for coffee and glasses of iced water. And we swapped hangover cures.

The wise virgins among us, with fresh clear complexions and eyes free of bags, opined, as wise virgins do, that the only remedy was to drink at least a litre of water before retiring. Two litres, they advised sweetly, were even better. Those of us who had scarcely managed to swallow enough water to flood the toothpaste were not helped by this.

A sadist mentioned that, in his experience, nothing could beat an ice-cold bath. He had drunk moderately the night before, so was not obliged to follow his own prescription. The rest of us exchanged paracetemol gratefully, tearing the silver paper very gently, swallowing without a backwards toss of the head, and kept our voices down so as not to disturb the billiard balls ricocheting painfully inside our brains.

We left the Metropol's magnificent Art Deco dining room, the harpist, the fountains, the deferential waiters, and emerged through the revolving doors into a blazing spring morning. This created further problems, since on Friday it had been snowing in Moscow and few of us had packed spring wardrobes. Mercifully, I had brought my sunglasses. Clamping them to my throbbing temples, I followed our group into Red Square: the sight and space and splendour of which, I can now bear witness, is the infallible hangover cure.

In the afternoon we went to Izmailovsky market, a huge conglomeration of stalls set on a plateau overlooking Moscow. It is the main magnet for everything from Russian dolls to the forbidden icons. Take away the Russian dolls and 70 per cent of the stalls would disappear, leaving a selection of rugs (beautiful but costly), a few antiques, plenty of Soviet army relics in the form of watches, binoculars and officers' hats, and an eclectic array of paintings, most of them no worse than those that hang along park railings in any Western capital. A few are serious, weighty, baffling. There are heart- breakingly delicate embroidered tablecloths betokening weeks of work, on sale for a few dozen dollars. In the end, spoilt for choice and baffled by the exchange rate, I came away empty-handed.

There are beggars everywhere in Moscow - as in London. There is rubbish bowling along the streets and fouling the underpasses - as in London. There are goods galore for the rich, priced way above hope for the poor. There are pickpockets, queues for buses, traffic jams. Welcome, Moscow, to the West]

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