One of the most surprising aspects of my Russian adventure was my complete freedom to roam. This was absolutely counter to the prevailing wisdom of 1967, and that which I’d expected to encounter from news articles, spy novels and anecdotes of those who’d visited the place.
They’d cite close surveillance on the part of the KGB, an assertion that continued for years following 1967 … even towards the end of the 80’s when I heard from a returning “Olympia to Moscow” delegation about KGB agents keeping tabs on them for the duration of their stay.
They spoke of agents leaning on lamp posts or lurking in doorways. One even bragged about ditching a KGB agent and spending a couple of carefree hours strolling around Moscow free as a bird.
It must be that I just wasn’t as important as they, but I wandered un-tailed in both Leningrad and Moscow … to my complete surprise and delight. This also went for the hospitality and courtesy the Russian people showed me, something that really hit home my first night in Moscow when I drove to the renowned Moscow Circus, one of the wonders of the entertainment world!
I’d purchased my tickets at my hotel (near Red Square in Moscow) and did my very best to get directions to the Circus. However after every linguistic contortion the clerk and I could think of short of jumping up on the counter like chimpanzees, she gave me written instructions … except that her directions led from the circus back to the hotel (a map would have really helped, had they had any)!
Within minutes I found myself hopelessly lost.
I drove through miles and miles of an unchanging cityscape … block after block of identical, ugly massive concrete apartment towers sitting on flat, barren surfaces separated by sidewalks and gray asphalt streets in a repeating, unbelievably bleak and boring grid.
Except for solitary drunks wobbling their way through vodka oblivion, the streets were deserted. It was like watching a production of Waiting for Godot!
From time to time I’d pound on my steering wheel and shout, “Damn, damn, DAMN! You’re not only going to miss the Circus, you’ll never find your way back to your hotel! DAMN!”
After quite some time, and to my astonishment, I saw a fellow walking completely upright! I pulled over to the curb and rolled down my window, “Hey! Could you help me mister?”
Startled, he turned and said something totally incomprehensible. As I’d found, German came in much more useful than English in Moscow 1967.
“Hilfe bitte,” I blurted.
“Ja, sicher! Was brauchen Sie?” he replied.
“Great!” I thought, “A Comrade!”
Unfortunately my Comrade couldn’t figure out how to direct me to the circus, handicapped as we were by a language with which both of us proved wanting (a map sure would have helped!).
But as they say it’s always darkest before the dawn … and we saw another man, mostly upright, strolling aimlessly about a block away from us!
Comrade #1 called out to Comrade #2 who came running with no worries about traffic … my VW was about the only car on the road.
Comrades #1 and #2 started conferring. They talked louder and louder, wildly gesticulating and arguing like mad men (it seemed to be a Russian debate style) … then, all of a sudden, Comrade #2 yanked open the passenger door and hopped in!
I had no idea what to think! The various options ranged from helpful to diabolical! I sat frozen at the wheel until Comrade #1 gave me a reassuring, not-to-worry nod.
Meanwhile Comrade #2 was busily turning with every knob, handle and dial he could touch. His curiosity hardly surprised me. The car drew flocks of admirers whenever and wherever I parked it. At times I found myself having to squeeze through a crowd as they bobbed up and down like chickens in a barnyard checking-out the car’s design and “advanced” features.
A few times I actually had to shove my way through the proletariat … luckily I’d learned the art of the elbow in Koblenz! I guess more than anything else, that illustrated for me just how taut the “Iron Curtain” had been drawn to black-out the West.
After he’d twisted every knob in sight Comrade #2 pointed down the road and grunted, “Da!” so I drove while he pointed and grunted da’s and nyet’s. Then, at long last, we came to an oasis of lights and buses and a few cars! We were there! We’d arrived at the world famous Moscow Circus!
As fate would have it, I found myself sitting next to a couple of recently retired American ladies on a round-the-world excursion! After the absolutely unforgettable show, I naturally I offered them a ride back to their hotel.
We chatted on our way there, and upon hearing that I’d not yet had any Beluga Caviar, they insisted that I join them for an apres circus drink in their hotel’s bar … which turned out to be the city’s swankiest bar, bar none!
As a non-foodie the prospect of fish eggs, even if they were the world’s most expensive foodstuff, sounded grossly un-appetizing. But as the old gals insisted, how could I refuse?
When the waiter brought us the tall pyramid of the small, black eggs, along with crackers and a bottle of the vodka, from which I threw-back a shot preparatory to my plunge into the roe (that’s the proper name for those eggs of the Beluga sturgeon), I found that vodka incredible! Silky smooth, almost creamy … delicious! Like none I’d had before, or since!
Emboldened by the booze, I hit the fish eggs with gusto! I spread them over a cracker thick as butter, and with my first bite I had the gastronomical surprise of my life!
I’d never tasted anything like it! Nor anything close to it. Nor has any other comestible I’ve eaten since come close to it. I must have had about ten thousand dollars of the stuff (at current market rates) to the absolute delight of my benefactors.
We had a great time sitting in that rooftop bar with all of Moscow at our feet, feasting and drinking into the wee hours like intimates of the Czar … a thought I found filled with irony considering the professed ideology of the city and its communist masters!
The next morning I had absolutely no recollection of driving back to my hotel, but reflected that the absence of even a trace of a hangover meant the vodka must have been quite good indeed. But it’s that mountain of Beluga caviar I’ll never forget … just as I’ll always remember the evening I lost, and then found, the spectacular Moscow Circus and a couple of old gals living and fully enjoying the good life!
Coming next! Driving Around Europe Without A Map, Part 9 … RUSSIA AND RIGOLETTO
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