Shaun Walker: Very much not ready for take-off

Notebook from Moscow

Shaun Walker
Tuesday 20 September 2011 00:00 BST

When the bus from the terminal at Domodedovo Airport winds its way across the tarmac, past various waiting planes, it's always a bit of a lottery. I hope it will come to a halt by a Western-made aircraft, and preferably not a knackered-looking specimen of 1970s vintage. I don't particularly want a Russian-made Tupolev 134 or 154, though on certain routes you know it's unavoidable. What I really don't want is a Yak.

Yaks are my least favourite Russian planes. Partly it's the incongruous farmyard name, partly it's the way you enter it using a rickety staircase through the bowels, and partly it's the fact that they just never feel very safe, because of their age and weary interiors. The regular crashes that occur in Russia might well be down to other factors – pilot error for example, as was found to be the case with a recent Tupolev crash. Nobody yet knows what caused a Yak-42 to crash near the city of Yaroslavl earlier this month, in a horrific incident that killed the entire Lokomotiv ice hockey team. Maybe the plane was fine. But given recent events, flying on a Yak was not something I fancied much.

Indeed, everyone was somewhat nervous about flying at all given the Yaroslavl incident, but this trip was different. New-money football club Anzhi Makhachkala, from the southern Russian republic of Dagestan, have signed the great Cameroonian footballer Samuel Eto'o from Inter Milan and reportedly made him the best-paid player in the world. The club, owned by local billionaire Suleiman Kerimov, wanted to take some journalists to Makhachkala to meet Eto'o, and had put on a charter flight. Kerimov would surely wheel out a fairly bling private jet to impress the world's press with his big-money signing?

We drove past several nice-looking planes, and several not-so-nice ones. And then the bus stopped. "The bastard's got eight billion dollars for God's sake," muttered one of the other journalists. "He could at least have stretched to a Boeing." We entered the Yak's bowels and took stock of the grimy, ageing cabin. Instead of a button to call the stewardess, above my head there was a metal box with "Escape Rope" written on it.

While Aeroflot and a few of the other bigger Russian airlines are pretty decent, especially on international routes, the same cannot be said for the dozens of tiny airlines plying the Russian skies. All the normal airline questions become irrelevant – the food will definitely be awful, the legroom will definitely be minimal, and the closest you'll get to in-flight entertainment is the antics of the drunk bloke who has downed half a litre of whisky in the first hour of the flight.

Three hours after boarding our chartered Yak, we finally took off, and after a miserable two-hour flight, on landing we discovered that the plane had been temporarily banned from taking off by Russian aviation authorities. The whole episode was a reflection of the farcical nature of Russian PR.

The correspondents who had flown in from Europe couldn't believe their eyes, and the poor Italian I sat next to spent the whole flight white as a sheet. Kerimov has invested more than £100m in Anzhi, but to fly the world's press in, perhaps to show that the club is not a nouveau-riche joke based in a dangerous region, he skimped on hiring a plane.

A rare chance to ask a politician a question

More agreeably, at the weekend I was in the Black Sea resort of Yalta at the annual conference run by Viktor Pinchuk, one of Ukraine's richest men, and held at the exquisite Livadia Palace, venue for the 1945 summit between Winston Churchill, Franklin D Roosevelt and Joseph Stalin. Pinchuk invites politicians, economists and a few journalists every year to discuss the future of Ukraine and Europe. It is a world away from similar events held in Russia, not least because of the open exchange of views and broad range of invitees. Most significantly for a Moscow-based journalist, there is a level of openness that is refreshing, where you can approach and chat with anyone present, unlike similar events in Russia where the media are usually corralled into a separate room and forced to watch on a televised link-up, to avoid politicians actually having to answer any questions.

Now Blair is taking his chance to 'do God'

One of the biggest names speaking at Yalta this year was none other than Tony Blair, who was sharing a stage with historian Niall Ferguson and the Russian internet entrepreneur Yuri Milner, in a session devoted to a nebulous discussion about the future of the world. Milner, unsurprisingly, spoke about the growing importance of the internet, computers and social networks, and Ferguson drawled about the rise of China and how the West could come to terms with the ascendancy of "the Rest".

Blair devoted his entire speech to faith, berating those who said that conflicts such as Israel/Palestine were not about faith and religion. He said that religion was more, and not less important in today's world than it ever had been, and also called for the "restoring of religious faith to its true mission".

The speech had nothing to do with Ukraine and I suspect the former PM gives a similar one at his well-paid engagements across the globe these days, relieved that he is finally allowed to "do God" after all these years.

"For a country as secular as Britain, it's quite bizarre that your most famous living politician is touring the world giving these wild-eyed speeches imbued with religious fervour," said an American delegate sitting next to me. Quite.

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