From Russia with a radioactive hangover

moscow airport.jpg

GLOOMY: Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport


In the good old days of so-called Soviet world dominance (still playing in the dreams of comrades Corbyn and McDonnell,) arriving at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport was the first sign that all was not well with Communism. 

My father would have been at home there because he was blind; not ideologically, far from it, he was registered blind and thus a dab hand at feeling his way in the dark. The airport terminal, you see, was almost pitch black because some enterprising would-be capitalist had pinched most of the light bulbs and striplighting. 

There was one plus, however: The only bar in the airport was a faux (but good) Irish pub straight out of a do-it-yourself kit from Guinness, proving yet again what enterprising lads the Paddies are.

Outside, cab drivers in plastic-leather jackets smoked their cabbage cigarettes leaning on ancient Ladas and the occasional Moskvitch, a slight cut above. The year was 1991. Welcome to Moskva Meester Frame. In particular, welcome to your dollars.


I had arrived to stay a day or two with the remarkable Peter Hitchens, pictured right, who had not long since set up, and was running, the Express Moscow bureau. By any yardstick, Peter was – and assuredly still very much is – brilliant. When told about his new assignment by Express Editor Nick Lloyd he refused to take four months off from his role as Industrial Editor to learn the Russian language, instead he carried on with his day job, studying at the Berlitz in the evening. 

By the time I got to Moscow his Russian was good enough to give a thorough bollocking to a ‘gaishnik’, a traffic cop in Red Square who offered not to ticket the company Volvo in exchange for hard currency…  

My bed for the night was in the old and unlamented Intourist Hotel, the only place foreigners could stay in those grim days, each floor watched over by gnarled babushka who would no doubt report to her KGB masters if they didn’t like the cut of a foreigner’s jib. 

We had to bring our own bath plugs as they were certainly not Intourist standard issue. Nor was the water the sort we are used to in the West; the Soviet variety was a brackish dirty brown of very dubious provenance which I have only since experienced up country in Sierra Leone.    

Peter and I were friendly with a chap called Gennady, as charming and sophisticated a KGB gent as could be and whose surname I am omitting to protect the guilty. But even a senior spook had to live the life of a Soviet drone. 

His apartment was at the top of a miserable tenement in the drab suburbs of Moscow, sharing a bathroom with a neighbouring family. Once inside though, it was a different story as we discovered when we went for dinner. Excellent wines, more caviar than we could eat, borscht, delicious lamb and French cheeses. Not a potato in sight. Rachmaninov’s stunning vespers playing in the background on an expensive hi fi. But still a shared bathroom…


Another trip to the old empire was to Chernobyl with Kim Willsher, pictured left, and Askold Krusheneinycky. Kim had first raised the alert about the after effects of the Chernobyl explosion after speaking to a doctor in Kiev while visiting Askold’s family; children born with terrible cancers, thyroid problems and physical deformities. 

It was Kim’s piece in the Express which prompted me to see for myself. We went via Moscow and inevitably repaired to the bar of the wretched Intourist with strict advice from Krusheneinycky: Do not make eye contact with women in the bar because they will all be hookers.

Well, in my defence I did try. And failed. Two came over and introduced themselves as a couple of lecturers from Dublin who taught English at Moscow University. Would we like to come to a party? So we did. 

Kim and Askold very sensibly left early and I have the vaguest recollection of arriving back at the hotel at dawn. Which wasn’t good because I had an appointment at 10am and my head was still at the party, jigging to Irish music. I was also consumed with guilt when I saw the evidence of vomit on my overcoat. Oh dear, this really isn’t a good start.

My guilt lifted, though not my hangover, when I met one of the party goers in the lobby later that day. She was full of apologies for puking over me in a cab the previous evening (well, not-too-early morning really). Strange how being chundered over should be such a relief. Little did I know, but the real ordeal was yet to come.

That evening we assembled at the airport for a flight to Kiev. As per usual we were finding our way in the dark and, after checking in my suitcase, was asked by Askold where was my luggage. ‘Surely you haven’t checked it in? You’ll never see it again.’ Thankfully I did. 

Then, in true Soviet style, foreigners were allowed to board first which meant I got a seat. The Russians were not so lucky, so we took off with 20 of them ‘strap hanging’. But most disturbing was the sight of all emergency exits blocked by piles of suitcases, brought on by locals clearly following Askold’s advice. 

There was a plus: The  stewardess was one of the most beautiful women in the world who spent much of the four-hour flight posing for (fully clothed) pictures from her admiring passengers. 

 I managed to get an hour’s sleep on a hard wooden bench before the cleaners woke me with vacuums with decibels straight from the Mercedes pit lane.   

Then, on descent to Kiev, came the news that thick fog prevented us from landing and that we would be diverted to Odessa, a further 270 miles up the road on the Black Sea. When we finally touched down at near midnight we were assured that we should wait as we should be back on board soon. Fake nooos!

The reality dawned on us when we saw Miss World and the rest of the crew in a mini-bus heading to the nearest hotel, no doubt armed with their own bath plugs. The only bar was closed, though that was soon rectified by the sight of a chap, obviously alerted by the jungle drums, cycling furiously back to the airport where he dispensed out-of-sell-by-date lager, vodka and black bread and salami (hacked by a rusty penknife) sandwiches. Bliss! I managed to get an hour’s sleep on a hard wooden bench before the cleaners woke me with vacuums with decibels straight from the Mercedes pit lane.   

So how to get to Kiev where, that evening, I was due to meet the Ukrainian Minister of Health to discuss Chernobyl, an issue dear to the heart of Express readers who had raised the best part of £1m to help under-equipped hospitals in the fall-out zone? 

Flights to the city were still grounded, the train took 14 hours (yes, really) so Askold, with his fluent Russian, went in search of a cab. We watched as our dollars changed hands several times until finally (after deduction for commission) ending up with our driver. He had the rustiest Lada still on the road and after filling up with petrol from a tap set into the wall of a house, we set off. 

The Lada was equipped with functioning windscreen wipers but the job of the washers was left to a Fairy Liquid bottle which he held out of the window and squeezed at regular intervals to clear the mud spewed up by passing trucks. Ingenuity of a sort. He smoked stinking gaspers and chewed warm and incredibly smelly salami most of the way. 

I chronicled the sheer horror of going through the exclusion zone where old Russian tanks lay in the forests, as lifeless as all around them. No sound of birdsong, no running animals. Nothing. 

By the time we got to our hotel in Kiev, we were all past caring. All we wanted was a bath (we had the plugs) and sleep. Oh, and maybe a drink. What we got was a Soviet-style banquet thrown by Lord Lucan… Sadly we had no world exclusive in our hands, this exact doppelganger was in fact the Minister of Health who turned out to have a very unhealthy thirst. To the extent that the 20 of us around the table had to toast each other twice with vodka. 

Even I can do the maths on that one. When the dinner finally ended at about 1am his lordship was still not sated. He went in search of cooking brandy from the kitchen and that was my cue to scarper to my room. He’s probably still looking for me.   

The following morning, together with the director general of The Association of British Healthcare Industries, we drove to Chernobyl and the remains of the stricken reactor. I chronicled the sheer horror of going through the exclusion zone where old Russian tanks lay in the forests, as lifeless as all around them. No sound of birdsong, no running animals. Nothing. Apparently the tanks had been abandoned long before the explosion in 1986; they had simply run out of fuel because the country had no money left. So much for the great enemy we all feared during the Cold War. It was stony broke.

I wrote a series of pieces in the Express and in one described driving down the Street of the Heroes of Stalingrad in Pripyat, the so-called paradise city built for the workers at the Chernobyl plant. It had a population of 56,000 and on the day of the explosion all of them, especially the excited children, were preparing for the May Day’s celebrations four days away.

Their fate was sealed by a combination of the radiation spewed into the Spring air and, more so, by the attempted cover-up by the criminal idiots in Moscow, desperate to keep the news from their own people and the rest of the world. 

Pripyat’s central feature was a large children’s playground, more the size of a funfair complete with ferris wheel, dodgems and large boat swings. It was quite the eeriest thing I have yet seen: everything deserted, the swings rocking gently in the wind and, instead of squeals from the kids, the sounds of that day’s proceedings from the Supreme Soviet deputies in Moscow, broadcast over loudspeakers. It was, our guide assured us, to spur on the remaining volunteers working their shifts at the plant. Straight out of Orwell.

The tour of the reactor site was, in hindsight, very foolish. It was still intensely radioactive and the ‘safety’ clothing we were given consisted of a donkey jacket, wellies and a sort of flat cap. At the end of the tour we were scanned by a Geiger counter and pronounced clear, not surprising really as it was almost certainly switched off. But we had seen what we were allowed to see and the message was that all was tickety-boo. It is a message I signally failed to pass on to our readers.

That evening, we were invited to dinner at a restaurant in the country surrounding Kiev (one of the most beautiful cities I have visited). We travelled through the slush and arrived at an unprepossessing building which looked as run down as the local economy. Inside we walked through a dimly-lit (no surprise there) room the size of a football pitch where a band was setting up and the only others were asleep at tables, presumably brought on by overdosing on the vodka. 

And so began one of the great evenings; exquisite food (caviar, naturally, shashlik, Champagne, vodka and excellent Georgian red wine) and the company of a husband and wife couple, both dancers with the Kirov recalling their friend Nureyev.

We were led to the chef’s table which was actually a sitting room, all burning log fire, armchairs and a dining table. One snag: Our hostess, the owner, couldn’t get into the room. What to do? She sent for Bluto the Terrible’s lookalike, the chef who brought his trusty meat cleaver with him and promptly hacked down the door. 

And so began one of the great evenings; exquisite food (caviar, naturally, shashlik, Champagne, vodka and excellent Georgian red wine) and the company of a husband and wife couple, both dancers with the Kirov recalling their friend Nureyev.

I have been to the old ‘evil empire’ and what is now the Russian Federation, both as hack and trustee of the charity Chernobyl Children’s Lifeline as well as a tourist. It is a place of endless surprises and fascination and most people there are a delight. 

Modern Moscow is outrageously expensive if you don’t know where to eat. A two-course dinner for two of us six years ago (and without ordering wine from the fanciest cellar) was £350. The following evening, thanks to the great Will Stewart who offered us two of his young journalist interns as guides, we had a supper for four at a great little Georgian restaurant off the main drag, for less than £80. Including far too much booze.

The once egalitarian society (alleged) is now full of gangsters and oligarchs in the cities while much of the countryside is mediaeval with oxen pulling carts with solid wooden wheels, a stark contrast to Moscow streets full of Bentleys and Lamborghinis. It’s come a long way from the home of the Lada and the Moskvitch and not necessarily for the better.  

But for now, that’s all folks. Das vedanya.

© 2005-2022 Alastair McIntyre