I was born in the middle of the 1950s and grew up during the Cold War as Washington and Moscow prepared enthusiastically for wiping each other of the face of the earth. We lived in fear of the day of nuclear Armageddon when all life on earth could be wiped out by the careless press of a big red button that said “do not press” and as a result of this permanently tense state of international relations the school atlas had a very different map of Europe to how it looks today.
This was because there weren’t nearly so many countries to show. Everything east of Poland was included in the USSR which subsumed everything within it and nearby so there was no Estonia, Latvia or Lithuania; The Czech Republicand Slovakia was one nation state and on the Adriatic there was a single country called Yugoslavia. Behind the ‘Iron Curtain’ in central Europe Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary and East Germany were all part of the Warsaw Pact and all of these countries were practically off limits to travellers from the west and in terms of holidays there people may just as well have made plans to visit the moon.
Well, since the Berlin Wall came down in 1989 all of this has changed of course and as the USSR has lost its unwelcome influence in eastern Europe, has been dismantled by reformists from within and occupied territories have been restored to independence then more and more holiday opportunities have presented themselves.
Since 2005 I have been fortunate to visit places I would never have imagined possible when I was a young boy – places that didn’t even exist then – Estonia, Latvia, Croatia, Slovenia, Montenegro and, the one with the name that always intrigued me the most, Bosnia-Herzegovina; places where travellers weren’t especially welcome, Hungary, Czech Republic, Slovakia and Poland; and now the place that seemed forever unlikely and impossible of all to visit – Russia itself.
I suppose this was always inevitable because Saint-Petersburg and Moscow were always high on my ‘must visit’ list and at last I have fulfilled an ambition to visit the country of Cossacks and Tsars, Vodka and Caviar, Tolstoy and Pushkin, Fabergé Eggs and Matryoshka dolls.
I flirted with the idea of travelling independently but all the advice was that this can be difficult because of the language and the bureaucracy, travel and hotel arrangements and paperwork and visas so eventually we decided to take a Travelsphere escorted tour which included three days and nights in Saint-Petersburg, an overnight train journey and three days and nights in Moscow.
Holiday booked, the next job was to apply for a visa to visit the country and this came with an unexpected cost – an eye-watering, knee buckling, throat gagging £137 each! Never mind, I thought once you’ve got it that’s it, but no, how wrong could I be because for £137 each the visa is only valid for this one single entry! Mind you for £137 the Russian Embassy does make you work quite hard and there is ten page on-line application form to complete with lots of questions about parents, education, work, travel, politics, convictions, military service, bomb making skills and movie preferences with a section on how many James Bond films we had seen! I managed to fill all of this in correctly and within a few days of application we had passports with the appropriate approvals to visit the country.
The next requirement was cash and I quickly learned that there are strict controls on money changing as well and it isn’t like getting a few Euros to go to Greece or Spain because there is a limit on how much anyone can buy in the UK and the exchange rate is awful! According to the most popular version, the word rouble is derived from the Russian verb руби́ть (rubit’), meaning to chop and historically a rouble was a piece of a certain weight chopped off a gold or silver ingot. Well, I ordered what I could (£100) but I didn’t get precious metal hacked off a gold bar but just a few disappointing scruffy banknotes when, and I don’t know why, I was expecting something more exciting.
With tickets, passports, visas and cash all taken care of we left for Saint-Petersburg on an early morning flight from London Heathrow looking forward to being in this previously forbidden place in less than four hours time.