Under the Ruble or An Idiot Abroad

It was eight o'clock Moscow time when the overcrowded British Airways Jet landed at Sheremetevo Airport. Liberated from our Iron Maiden seats—BA seems to have squeezed in an additional seat per row—we made our way into the arrival hall, happily anticipating if not a good Russian dinner, then at least something to eat.

The barely illuminated hall was already filled with passengers from other flights, and the Russians had not bothered to put more immigration officers on duty. We waited, my friends from the Lord Byron Foundation and I, and we waited. I had time to study the strange ceiling, fabricated from metal pipes. Srdja Trifkovich, the Byron Foundation's director, said they were shell casings. Swords into ploughshares, bullets into building materials, I suppose. As we got to the front, we could see that it was taking ten minutes for the Russians to check each passport and visa, examining every page, and writing in the numbers by hand. Hundreds of unhappy visitors made no difference to them. Why should they? Welcome to Perestroika. Welcome to Russia.

The first thing I learned about Russia was that nobody stands in line, nobody makes way for you when you have to squeeze by, nobody knows the difference between entrance and exit, even when they are plainly marked. On my last day, at an open-air market, I have only 20 minutes to spend on bribes for the family, and as I am standing patiently in...

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