The Great Panagia of Yaroslavl, pictured above, reminds me of an Intourist trip to the Soviet Union in 1987. On the way from Moscow to Zagorsk, now Sergeyev Posad, we passed a road sign that said something like Zagorsk 25 Km, Yaroslavl 220 Km, Arkangelsk 1120 Km – not the kind of distance you’d see on road signs round here. As Sugar Kane says in Some Like it Hot, ‘it makes a girl think.’ Distance, limitless, a sort of freedom.
My father had died, and the solicitor had sent us a cheque. How shall we use it? Nothing ‘safe’, that’s for sure. I know: we’ll take the five of us to Russia. What more natural place for a family holiday with children aged 7, 9 and 11 than Moscow and Leningrad? Landed at Sheremetyovo, bus to the Hotel Cosmos—in Russian, KOCMOC, which raised a titter with the boys. Next day the Intourist Guide said ‘you will come on city tour.’ No, says I, we’ll explore on our own. ‘You will come on city tour, please’. No, explore on our own. This went on for some while. We ended up exploring on our own. Metro stations, giant wheel, GUM, VDNK. We did Red Square and Lenin with the guide, of course, and jolly interesting it was too. But the trip to Zagorsk was memorable for the beautiful churches, the road sign and the lunch – for the wrong reason: a kind of chicken Kiev without the chicken. Edward, no longer 7 years old, remembers the Soviet toy store with something approaching alarm. I will see if I can get him to put those memories into print.
Then to Leningrad by train through miles and miles of forest. The children behaved impeccably. Big round orange ‘caviar’ served on the train. Samovar. Leningrad (as was) is stunning, but no matter how hard I try I can not switch it to St Petersburg in my head. A visit to the bookshop on Nevsky Prospect in the former Singer (sewing machine) building included an exchange with the shop ‘assistant’ that went something like this:Me, pointing at 9 year old Hugh: Gdye twallette, pazhalusta? (where are the toilets please?) Assistant: Nyet. Me: as above, but louder and more insistent. Assistant: Nyet. Me, to Hugh: the lady says no, so just go into the corner and pee on the floor. Assistant: come with me.
There must be some theology in that somewhere. The picture book for this holiday brings back so many memories: the palaces, the wonderful colours, the scale of the place, the Hermitage, the Russian Orthodox liturgy in the monastery opposite the Leningrad hotel. The adventure. And I was thin then.