I never knew just how much vitriol I had stored up in me until I started to write this article. Towards Russia in general, towards Moscow in particular, and towards everyone I met one long July evening in 2008.
That summer I flew from Shanghai to Madrid via Moscow on Russia’s national airline, Aeroflot. A regional Spanish tourism board was flying journalists from China to Spain to write about Asturias and Galicia. Not only that, but they flew me business class.
A good start to a holiday, right? Nyet.
The Only Way to Fly
It started out so promisingly. Business class on Aeroflot was like a brilliant 1970s flashback. Caviar and vodka were offered as aperitifs. The entertainment console had five music videos from the early 1990s and the seats were enormous lazyboy armchairs. Encased in a pleather-plastic cocoon I fancied my chances of survival had the plane gone down.
Soon enough, I was half-wishing it had.
We were late getting into Moscow Airport and missed our connecting flight. None of the Moscow Airport staff seemed to speak English. Now, my Russian is limited to quoting Dolph Lundgren from Rocky 4, so I can’t really criticise anyone else’s linguistic limitations. But it doesn’t really help with communications in your capital’s largest airport.
Finally, however, the other passengers and I were put on a bus to our accommodation. We left the airport and pulled into a generic business hotel. Russian passport holders from the flight were taken off the bus and led into the hotel. The Chinese passengers and I were kept on the bus, and eventually trundled back off into the gathering gloom of a Moscow evening.
We wound our way through what looked like Soviet-era industrial estates until we arrived at a shabby-looking hostel-type establishment.
Tired, jet-lagged and irritated, I played the only card left to me and went all in.
“Excuse me, you do realise that I am flying business class?”
The slab-faced customer service rep looked through, rather than at, me.
“In the air, you are business class,” she said flatly. “Down here… meh.” The last word was accompanied by a fatalistic shrug.
I was surrounded by huge, shaven-headed men, wearing clothes and haircuts ten years out of date, who had seemingly evolved without necks.
A Hostile Hostel
We checked into the hotel — and I’m going to use the word ‘hotel’ for convenience sake, but please imagine something that was already frayed and peeling at the edges in the 1980s, and add a further 20 years of neglect to the equation. The plastic fruit on the reception desk had gone mouldy is what I’m trying to say.
We had been issued dinner vouchers at the airport, but when we tried to redeem them, we were ushered brusquely to the staff canteen. “Restaurant for paying guest,” a staff member intoned at me.
Some sad-looking fried meat and rice was then plonked down. “Water?” I enquired of the waiter. He shrugged at a dozen bottles on the counter.
There were about 30 passengers in the room.
“Is there any more?”
That bottle of water, and the couple of bottles you got in your room, was all that had been allocated to us. You couldn’t even buy more, because the hotel only accepted rubles and you could not change money there. This meant that I couldn’t even anaesthetise myself with alcohol.
Everything to Play for
That evening, Russia was playing Holland in the latter phases of the European Championships. Throughout the tournament, I had been a big fan of Russia’s technically gifted players and fast, attacking football. But that evening I had never wanted a team to lose more. I was surrounded by huge, shaven-headed men, wearing clothes and haircuts ten years out of date, who had seemingly evolved without necks — as their big, fat bald heads seemed to pop straight out of their fake designer T-shirts and replica football jerseys.
I sat in that hotel lobby and every fibre of my being prayed silently that the Russian national football team would lose. And not just lose, but be humiliated, beaten, be broken on the wheel of life as some small measure of impotent recompense for what was unquestionably the worst day of my life.
Russia won 3-0.
That night as the air conditioning dripped in my room and I portioned droplets of water down my parched and dehydrated throat, dozens of neck-less men sang and celebrated below my room into the early morning. Sleep was a long time coming.