UK: 0845 521 2910 expert@trans-siberian.co.uk
AUS: 1300 654 861 Download our brochure

Calling Moscow (Part 4)

by Bernard H. Wood on March 26, 2010

If you're new here, you may want to subscribe to my RSS feed. Thanks for visiting!

[Read Calling Moscow (Part 3).]

The normality of madness, and the madness of normality. Greasing the wheels as the machinery slow-dives into the dirt… Strange cargoes, stray tankers and: history is closed, you didn’t pay the electricity bill…

Soviet red flying pigsAs East-West relations thawed and the Soviet system headed into the final stages of a slow-dive started in the 1950s, Neil found himself organising tours against a background of fuel shortages, train and plane cancellations, and even drivers abandoning their jobs to find work abroad. The 11th hour question, “where’s the driver?” could be met with the simple answer, “they’ve gone!” At which point Neil would put down the phone, turn to face a group of expectant tourists with a plane to catch and come up with… well… something. Measures may be considered extreme by our relatively comfortable standards. On one occasion he flagged down a local city bus and bribed the driver to eject his passengers and take the tour group to the airport in time to connect with their flight!

Over to Neil: “That kind of thing was going on all the time. It wasn’t abnormal. That was the norm. We were employed to make it happen when it fell to pieces.”

At this point it’s worth pointing out the difference between ‘a bribe’ as we know it and ‘a bribe’ in Russia during the Soviet era (and even now, we’ll get to that…) Whereas we may consider bribery to be distasteful at best (?) and highly illegal at worst, in the pre-collapse CCCP bribery part-fuelled the machine, partly-glued the whole assembly together and was the grease that helped the wheels turn. It was, in short, ‘normal’, and in fact… expected.

Likewise, the madness was normal and even expected too… and was getting worse as the walls fell in. Neil could feel it all coming unstuck. Travel itineraries changed completely, even basic mistakes were made: hotels were overbooked, four nights in Moscow were abruptly cut to one and Neil would suddenly have a group of unhappy tourists to contend with. It was easier for Neil if his clientèle ‘got it’ and knew what was ‘going on’ with the system, but some inevitably didn’t. As Neil puts it: “People want to hear about the Soviet Union falling to pieces, but not when it affects them and their holiday!” And so he pressed on, pulling solutions out of the hat and on-the-fly.

Once, an American tour group landed in Helsinki 6 hours late and with no hope of connecting with the scheduled Aeroflot flight to the Soviet Union. Finn Air had agreed to transfer the passengers to their aircraft so that they may complete the journey. Hurrah! However, it quickly became apparent that even with this boon, the American flight would still be too late, even to make the Finn Air connection… so what to do? Short of actually ‘imprisoning’ the aircraft and physically preventing it from taking off, was there any way? Well, no. So that’s what happened. A cunning bribe placed in the right hands at ground-crew level ensured that the Finn Air plane was blocked in by a strategically placed fuel tanker. The passengers arrived late from their Trans-Atlantic flight to the sound of frantic PA requests appealing for the tanker-culprit to come forward whilst they made their connection none the wiser, and no-doubt thinking just how damn accommodating these European-types were…

A late arrival could be the least concern, however. In the Soviet Union, internal air-services were laid on for the populace and covered the country, even flights to remote, unprofitable locations. Someone somewhere had decided that it should be so, and so it was. As such, outlying farmers looking to get their livestock to market would find that it was cheaper to buy air-tickets for pigs and chickens than to ship them overland. And so they did. It wasn’t unusual to find livestock travelling by jet alongside bemused passengers. Not exactly an ‘upgrade’ then.

Even the more open-minded tourist could be caught off-guard by the random madness. Some arrived with a week’s worth of food prepared, expecting bread queues… only to find plenty all around. Then they would discover that the promised museum trip was cancelled because the museum hadn’t paid the electricity bill and was closed! It was a case of never knowing what was going to happen next, but always being sure that something would… Neil stayed. He needed the money.

Next time: Neil wakes to find himself in a travel company… how did that happen? The art of knocking on doors in difficult times. And: friends in need, and in debt.

[Photo by GypsyFae]

Leave a Comment

Previous post:

Next post: