By: 20 November 2017
Russian Slice

Patrick Walker mixes cake, capitalism, Moscow, and Barnsley

As a child of the Cold War age, I thought that indulging in a Russian Slice was close enough to the Soviet Union for anyone.

So how do I find myself at a Moscow table piled with pickles, vodka and an assortment of dishes all translated as “pie”, trying to speak Russian but prompting the response “sorris do not spik ingilish”?

There was no Damascus moment. It was not the crumbling of the Berlin Wall or Putin’s miraculous conversion to Christianity. No, as regular readers will have guessed, I couldn’t resist a bargain: free business class flights with soon-to-expire air miles.

“Actually,” begins the guide, “we are a very friendly peoples”. I ignore the propaganda spoon fed to me in the army and nod enthusiastically.

It is not enough. We stand in the centre of Red Square, the Kremlin towering above us. “As a matter of fact, we are absolutely peaceful peoples”. This time the tone is so aggressive that I fear anything short of agreement with a communal hug will cause her to snap her finger and have us immediately transported to Siberia.

I tell her we are very happy to be guests in her beautiful country and that seems to do the trick. She is enthusiastic and knowledgeable and a constant flow of information initially discourages questions. But gradually she opens up enough to reveal her contempt for the Chinese. They are all around us and account for perhaps 90% of the tourists but they contribute 146% of the noise level – the same percentage, incidentally, that State television broadcast as Putin’s share of the vote at the last election.

The churches, palaces and works of art are truly amazing, as are the giant so called elite tower blocks of the Stalin era; and the guide’s knowledge of Peter the Great and Ivan the Terrible bring much that we see to life. She is less forthcoming about the Soviet era even though she clearly pines for those times.

We visit a monastery closed for many years before glasnost. She does admit that the monks were all killed or imprisoned in Siberia. “That was bad,” she observes, “but in those times things were better – we did not have to worry about rent or fuel bills.”

The trade-off seems somewhat harsh to me, but I understand a little of her dismay when she tells me that hospital operations are now chargeable and a third Bentley roars up a street apparently forbidden to more modest drivers.

The divide between rich and poor is stark and uncomfortable. Streets of designer shops with double-parked Range Rovers lie close to endless decrepit tower blocks. Hopefully they lack flammable cladding but the electrics strung between rooftops looks lethal. The roads are choked with imported cars of every marque and travellers try to sell strawberries and pine nuts.

The shock of such a divide stamps an impression as deep as that prompted by the treasures of the Hermitage or the gardens of the Peterhof. I worry that a similar divide in the UK affects me less because it grows steadily and silently like a frost fissure in a rock face. If the Soviet era provides some lessons from the past, Russia’s present shouts a loud warning about capitalism.

At least in a world of change I am confident that on my return, Barnsley will provide the thick moist slab which is the Russian slice that I am familiar with!

Patrick Walker is an independent mediator:

 This article first appeared in Issue 148 of Leeds & Yorkshire Lawyer