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Calling Moscow (Part 3)

by Bernard H. Wood on March 19, 2010

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[Read Calling Moscow (Part 2).]

This time: Siberia as the real Russia, and the gates slowly open as long-time enemies become friends.. tentatively.

St Petersburg at duskWe are discussing how Moscow isn’t a Russian city but in fact a Soviet city. Whilst we are on the subject of false perceptions, Neil explains incidentally that St Petersburg isn’t Russian either, having been built by foreign architects brought over by the Tsars to “make their city look respectable in foreign terms”. Again this desire to be seen in the best light… to present the best front to outsiders.

“So,” he continues, “On the Trans-Siberian route, you first see St Petersburg, then Moscow, but you still haven’t seen Russia. It’s only when you go out into Siberia that you see what the real Russia is like.” (We’ll be going into our Trans-Siberian trips in depth later.)

For now he compares a trip to Moscow or St Petersburg to to visiting London and not actually seeing England. Fair point, but, we digress.

I’m curious to discover how and when Neil walked in to the picture he paints of a declining Soviet system heading for collapse.

He explains that his first trip to (a Soviet) Russia was appropriately enough on a tour group. He set off to meet his brother in Leningrad on a …cold beautiful February night in 1981, into a system that was falling down but still functioning in its own erratic way.”

He would start travel-couriering in 1984 as a summer job to fit in with his career as a stage director.

“As well as the people who stage the new productions, there are those who have to run and maintain the old shows and generally look after them.” This was Neil’s role. He would maintain shows that would stay in repertoire for years, long after the luminaries had gone and the opening nights were just a memory. He had to work new cast members into the show whilst keeping the production values on track, “… which I still do a bit… never really stopped.” In fact he still acts, sings, dances and writes too, some or all of which may be invaluable in the day to day running of a successful travel company. He continues: “The theatre tends to close down in the summer months, especially opera and ballet, which is what I do. The summer months were always a good time to go off and do something else, and earn some proper money for a change.”

Thespians, he tells me find the summer a little slack, usually referred to politely as a time of resting. Unfortunately bills don’t rest… so something had to be done.

“I had various resting jobs,” he tells me. “One of which was working as a travel courier,” a position he gained after answering a job ad in the back of The Stage. “Officially my first foreign language is German, and I was taking Saga holidays groups round Austria and Switzerland on “Sound-and-Music-Land” holidays.” Everybody has to start somewhere.

The theatrical background still proved valuable however with Neil’s ability to talk the talk and tell the stories behind the names, places and events that would surface en route: “Theatre is exactly that: telling the stories of peoples lives and making it interesting if you possibly can. Trying to bring it alive for people. That’s the side of it that still interests me most: Taking it off the pages of the history books and making the people into real people who you can understand, who had very similar problems to your own”. Unfortunately, the down side is time spent: “Mostly negotiating with hotels and haggling over prices.” Swings and roundabouts…

A USA based travel company contacted him and asked if he would like run trips for American tour groups to the Soviet Union, because (he was informed) the language is “very similar to German” (…!) . “This was just at the time when Gorbachev had come to power. Soviets had been our terrible enemy and Americans had decided that we could be friends with them after all. There was a boom in trips to the Soviet Union. Some were general tourism groups, some were old people, some were special interest groups, quite a number were evangelical groups who wanted to go and “convert the damn Ruskies!” I never knew who were they were going to be until I met them. I spent about 5 years doing that and still doing theatre when I could get it. It suited me quite well.”

In Part 4: Falling down but still functioning. Bribery and connections; as needs must when the world falls apart. Pigs in flight.

[Photo by Nick Bogdanov]

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